WARNING: These notes contain major spoilers for the TV series ef–A Tale of Memories. If you haven’t already seen the series, these notes will not make sense to you and will tend to spoil your enjoyment if you watch the series later.
This show has a lot going for it. The artwork is wonderful and the writing is clever. Yet there are some things about it that really bother me, particularly the fact that we are given a rather smug happy ending which doesn’t seem to me to be very happy at all.
Let’s try a thought experiment. Suppose that we had seen a male character treat a female character as badly as Chihiro treats Renji in Episode 11, choosing an incredibly cruel and hurtful way to break up. Then suppose that he thought it over and decided that he wanted her back. And suppose that she joyfully went back to him without a word of recrimination.
Would we consider that a happy ending? Or would we want to warn her that someone who willfully hurts you once will probably do so again, and next time it will probably be worse?
Granted, Chihiro is cute and appealing and tugs at my heartstrings. Renji is a romantic young boy; it’s easy to see why he loves her. But Chihiro is totally wrapped up in her own feelings (mostly her own misery) and shows no empathy for anyone else. Renji is constantly trying to make her happy, and usually succeeding, but she never does anything on her own initiative to make Renji happy.
Chihiro’s problem is not her disability, severe though it is. Other people have suffered even worse and behaved a lot better. Her real problem is suicidal depression. She constantly talks about wanting to disappear, about feelings of worthlessness and being a burden to others. She ends her novel with the suicide of the protagonist.
For her, tearing out the pages of her diary is literally a form of suicide, a way to irrevocably destroy the person that she is now. The fact that she does it while standing at the edge of the school roof carries an implied threat to physically destroy herself if Renji tries to interfere.
Note that she makes long-term plans for suicide, planning to use Renji to achieve her dream of writing a novel and then abandon him.
Like all suicides she lacks the empathy to understand the suffering that her actions will cause for the people who love her.
It is important to understand that someone like this is not going to be cured by a flash of insight or some sort of demonstration of loyalty. Chihiro needs professional help, and she never gets it. Without it she is certain to fall back into the same pattern.
Chihiro’s Memory Loss
It is well known that extensive damage to the medial temporal lobe can totally destroy the ability to form long-term memories. This is not Chihiro’s problem; if it were she would not be able to hold a memory for more than a few minutes and would forget people as soon as they walked out of the room. Keeping a diary would be pointless because she would have to write everything down as soon as it happened, and would forget things as soon as she read them.
Actually she does form long-term memories, but she seems to lose the ability to retrieve them after 13 hours. (“Chihiro’s problem isn’t that she forgets what has happened, it’s that she can’t remember it in her brain.”)
She does seem to have the ability to learn new skills though. She doesn’t talk or write like a twelve-year-old, and her writing in particular shows and adult’s grasp of symbolism and abstraction.
This is the most interesting element of the story. What makes it resonate is that Chihiro’s disability amounts to an exaggerated form of the human condition.
Whatever happens to you today, if you don’t write it down or otherwise record it you will probably forget it–not in 13 hours but certainly in 13 years. The only memories we can retain without artificial aids are those that are so important to us that we repeatedly recall them and replay them. And these memories tend to become increasingly unreliable as time goes on. Whenever we recall them we distort them, filling in things that we think must have happened, or ought to have happened, or that we wish had happened.
Since the process is slower it is not a crippling as Chihiro’s condition, but it is basically the same.
Chihiro gives two reasons for being depressed. One is being trapped in the circle of time representing her memories of her first 12 years. She uses the metaphor of a sheep that has eaten the roots of the grass. She has worn out these memories by playing them over and over, and she has nothing to replace them with. She feels like she is disappearing.
The other problem is loneliness and isolation, which she makes the theme of her novel. She feels cut off from humanity. Renji offers relief from this, but in her depressed state she cannot accept it.
Chihiro’s Care Arrangements
Yuu Himura does not seem to be an appropriate person to act as Chihiro’s guardian. Let’s leave aside the issue of a particularly vulnerable teenage girl living with a much older man. Even assuming that his behavior has been perfectly correct, he makes no attempt to get her the things she really needs: therapy for her depression and companions her own age.
When Chihiro brings Renji home, Himura tries to warn him off. To be fair, everything he tells Renji is true. Nevertheless, his first duty should be to Chihiro. How can she survive if he drives off every potential friend?
But the worst thing about Himura is that he himself is suicidal. Look at the amount of time he spends on the roof of the church, looking over the edge and obviously daring himself to jump. In this context his words to Yuuko in the final scene, “I’ve made you wait for a very long time,” seem rather chilling. Now that Chihiro has Renji to take care of her, is he going to kill himself to join Yuuko?
And what on earth is Himura thinking when he gives Chihiro the key to the school roof? Sure, the roof can be used for other purposes, but he must be aware that the main reason they keep it locked is that stressed-out students might jump off.
And What’s With Kei?
Granted, a 16-year-old girl can hardly be expected to take care of her disabled twin sister while also attending high school. Obviously other arrangements for Chihiro are necessary.
Nevertheless it seems inexplicable that Kei and Chihiro communicate only by text messages. They live in the same town. Surely Kei ought to arrange to spend time with her every day, just as she does with Hiro. At the very least, Chihiro should be at Kei’s Christmas party. Don’t tell me that she has anything better to do!
Of course there’s a meta-reason for this. Kei and Chihiro were originally characters in two different visual novels. To bring the characters together would disrupt the dynamics of both stories. However since the writers of the anime have chosen to combine the stories, they are responsible for the consequences: Kei appears to be a heartless jerk who is responsible for much of her sister’s suffering.
Who is Yuuko Anyway?
This is deliberately left ambiguous, but I still find it rather annoying that there is obviously such an important backstory that is never explained.
Yuuko appears to be some sort of wise and benevolent kami. She has some sort of long-term relationship with Himura; perhaps she is the spirit of a dead lover.
On the other hand she is depicted in one of the stained-glass windows of the church, implying that she is a Christian saint.
Did Himura build the church himself, as some sort of shrine to her? He seems to be the only one who uses the church; there’s no evidence of any congregation, clergy or other staff.
It’s just one more element that’s weird and unsettling.