You Can Keep the Furniture

Anyone who’s seen Saturday morning cartoons would be familiar with amnesia as a plot device. There’s a certain popular formula: a character suffers a bump on the head and forgets who he is, where he lives and who his friends are. Of course, this is quickly resolved before the end of an episode, and the character either recalls his memories one by one over time, or, in the slightly less believable cases, a subsequent bump on the head jolts things back into place. (This is beautifully lampshaded in The Simpsons in an episode where Homer fights Drederick Tatum. Bart tells Homer, in a surprisingly earnest father-son moment, “make sure he punches you an even number of times so you don’t get amnesia”.) (This post contains moderate spoilers for the tagged titles.)

Anime also has its fair share of amnesiacs. Key loves them. There hasn’t been a Key adaptation yet that doesn’t have at least a case of selective amnesia, if not full blown identity loss. Honestly, I did find it difficult to swallow the case of laser guided amnesia in Clannad, where Tomoya conveniently forgets that he knew Kotomi when they were younger (such that the entire arc would have had much less drama had he remembered, but then again, what’s a Key story without drama). Kanon, however, almost completely hinges on a case of selective amnesia, to the point where Yuuichi’s blurred memory of the town is built into the very premise, which I guess is why it was easier to accept further into the story (along with the fact childhood memory loss in Key stories didn’t feel so recycled back then). It’s fair enough… as we learn later on, Yuuichi’s amnesia develops as a consequence of the trauma he experienced seven years ago. Obviously, the entire story, particularly the drama, would likely feel much less contrived if Yuuichi’s memory remained in tact, but it’d be so much more boring as well. As is the case in so many anime, the amnesia was a necessary component of the mystery, and by locking so many important answers deep within Yuuichi’s subconscious, Kanon was able to create a strong sense of suspense, followed by surprise when those answers were revealed.

Key has continued its tradition of forgetful male leads with Angel Beats. As well as adding to the mystery, Otanashi’s amnesia allows us to approach his bizarre world with the same sense of confusion and ignorance that he has. By not knowing anything about himself, he essentially sees the world free of personal bias, and his judgments of what he sees, to a large degree, reflect our own. In the same way that Kokutou was in Kara no Kyoukai, Otanashi is a moral reference point in a setting filled with characters with skewed morality (is there any other anime where characters think nothing of killing each other, friends or not… Dokura-chan aside). I’ve seen arguments made that this makes him a Gary Stu. I’m not sure how to approach these arguments, except to suggest that maybe the strange nature of Angel Beat‘s setting necessitates the role. Nonetheless, there’s still time to develop his character, and the lingering question of his past is such a tantalizing one, that I’m sure they’re going to answer it.

I’ve just finished playing Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (my first experience with the Silent Hill franchise). Although the main character, Harry Mason, denies it at first, he also has a case of selective amnesia, which allows the player to see the creepy and twisted world with his eyes and share the same feelings of confusion and uncertainty that Harry has. There’s also an interesting quirk in this case: Harry, much like (arguably) Otanashi, is a blank slate, but being an interactive story, Shattered Memories allows the player to paint on this slate, and to deliberately project some semblance of their own personality onto Harry’s character… which the game quite cleverly uses against them. The input from the players means that the scares become much more pointed, and arguably more unsettling and disturbing, as the game plays on the specific fears and personality type dictated by the choices the player makes. It’s a great survival horror game… I just wish it wasn’t so damn short.

It’s at this point that I want to talk about Ever 17, but I have to keep things rather vague (in my opinion, spoiling Ever 17 is just about one of the most disrespectful things one could do in weeaboo fandom). In this case, only one of the two main characters has amnesia, but the way their two stories unexpectedly intertwine, and the fundamentals of the world that are kept from both Kid and the reader because of his forgotten past are, when they’re finally revealed, utterly mind-blowing. Since I’ve played it, I’ve always held Ever 17 in high regard as a mystery. It may have gone into a well-dug mine by using amnesia as a crux for the mystery, but its execution is so superb that I can’t see any other appropriate response than to applaud it for doing so.

I can’t write a post about amnesia without mentioning ef – a tale of memories, arguably one of the most creative uses of amnesia as a plot device in anime. Unlike most examples in fiction which involve cases of retrograde amnesia, ef‘s Chihiro suffers from anterograde amnesia. Her memories prior to a car accident are perfectly intact, as are those of her most recent thirteen hours, but everything else is lost, unless it is committed to a diary. Like most stories about amnesia, Chihiro and Renji’s subplot is filled with angst and uncertainty, firstly as Chihiro lives with the day to day difficulties of life without a working memory, and secondly as Renji endures the frustrating aspects of Chihiro’s disability on a longer timescale than she can even remember. What makes this story ultimately so powerful is the incredibly romantic way in which these two overcome Chihiro’s amnesia (“overcome” in the sense that they learn to deal with it, I mean). There’s a “love conquers all” aspect to the way their romance is resolved, but that’s because, especially for Chihiro, there’s something so irresistible and overwhelming about this love… it overpowers her amnesia and finds a way to survive and thrive, treating her disability as a trivial hurdle.

Amnesia is such a common part of so many mystery anime. The use of an amnesiac lead to explore either a strange world, or their own existence, in such a way that allows the audience to so closely share the uncertainty and feelings they experience, has been done so often in the past… in some cases, incredibly effectively, in other cases, not so. I do find it interesting, though, that one of the most memorable and creative examples of amnesia I’ve seen in anime comes not from a mystery, but from a romance story.

6 Responses to “You Can Keep the Furniture”

  1. Not much to say about this article because there’s no argument going on here. I will say that Otonashi’s amnesia isn’t exactly the biggest plot device yet, though it does fundamentally change how the world of the anime is framed.

    It’s too bad that I always think of 50 First Dates whenever I think of Chihiro. To be fair, Sandler’s movie did come first…

  2. One time I was talking to this cosplayer at an anime convention. She had a cool costume, but it wasn’t based off any particular character. She said she couldn’t think of a good way to respond when people guessed who she was, so I suggested that the pretend she’s a character with amnesia. I am such a player.

  3. I think that the association of amnesia to love dramas is getting stale. They’re not all bad though; Key simply knows how to use this to stir up the drama. It has worked so far but I wonder if they can actually go further and make something new.

    The one instance that really rocked my socks off with the ingenious use of amnesia (not in love-drama) is Monster. Some would classify it as an unusual case of dissociative personality disorder but whatever it is, one thing’s for sure: it’s one of the critical factors that made Monster awesome. This pertains particular for Nina Fortner/Anna Liebert, whose amnesia is actually the key to unlocking the mysterious identity of her twin brother. She realised that her memory wasn’t intact, and her curiosity to know the secret behind her own memory loss is what kept her pursuing the truth. And who can forget the storybook that shocked Anna and Johan, “The Monster Without a Name”? That children actually symbolized Johan and Anna, and it even hinted how

    Another instance I can think off the top of my head is Elfen Lied. I don’t know if amnesia really worked for the series (since people tend to remember that show mostly for the bloodbath), but it kinda questions the possibility of a person completely shutting off his memory after seeing a sibling being ripped into half in front. I may call it gratuitously morbid drama, though.

  4. @Akira
    Yeah, this wasn’t really a strongly argumentative post. Hopefully people find it informative. I just wanted to list a few examples of amnesia being used as a plot device (and use it as an excuse to talk about Silent Hill Shattered Memories, which was an awesome game).

    Only you’re awesome enough to extend a common anime plot device to real life. 😛

    The Elfen Lied example, in my opinion, is just about as contrived as some of the Key examples. I mean, yes, certainly, the trauma of seeing your little sister and (from memory) father brutally murdered would have a deep effect on any young boy, which may manifest itself in selective amnesia, but the whole thing smacked of convenience… a way for the writers to generate a dramatic dilemma about love and acceptance in that moment. It just wasn’t as elegant as something like ef – memories. Maybe they just didn’t do as good a job establishing the romance. My memory of the show is a bit vague, but I seem to remember that the Lucy persona didn’t really appear around Kouta all that much, so the romantic relationship between them wasn’t all that convincing.

  5. Amnesia wouldn’t be so painfully overdone if writers had the skill to weave it in better. It seems to get on people’s nerves when it’s used as a forced plot device for progression rather than a real tool for exploring the author’s themes. It’s a lot easier to us to be bothered less by the strangely convenient bits of forgetfulness if it’s embedded well into the presentation.

    I beg to differ that ef is an elegant use of amnesia; I think AC’s choice of Monster is right on the spot. It seems to me that if you like the way Shaft does things, then the solution to Chihiro’s problem didn’t seem so forced and obvious.

  6. The problem is that amnesia itself is a contrivance. By adding it in, you add the baggage that comes with it, and as a result, writers too often use that to handwave a lot of things. Monster stands out as being a good example because it’s not harped upon as being amnesia at all, and its characters search for the answers in a convincing manner. It’s more like a vague memory that disappeared into the back of your mind. Haibane Renmei also can also pull amnesia as plot point because of the vague underpinnings of the world. It is, after all, a different world from their previous one.

    This subtlety and acceptability falls apart when such a case is emphasized as amnesia in face of everyone else being unaffected. There’s no reason to keep Otonashi in the dark for the first 6 episodes and then reveal his past in the 7th unless it’s a plot point later. I also disagree with the idea that amnesia can be used as an effective tool for simulating the same disorientation the viewer feels because there are better ways to do it. To fall back on amnesia is a cop out. But that’s the writer in me complaining.

    ef, however, was effective precisely because it was amnesia. It plays directly into the romantic idea of love and memory, and thus follows an acceptable break from reality into the hyper-real and idealistic notions it was meant to be. It’s obvious, as Kylaran said, but that doesn’t make it bad.

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