Where Is My Mind?

August 20, 2015 § Leave a comment

To cut right to the chase, without even an introduction, I don’t like amnesia as a plot device.

Beyond a general discomfort with any mental illness being leveraged to define a character’s interaction with their world, my experience is that it simply enables a very peculiar kind of laziness in the writers who employ it. As you probably know — and I’ll tell you right now, if you don’t — it’s common practice to have one of the characters in a story be an ingénue, to whom other characters can explain the various events, relationships, and truths of their fictional world, even diagetically obvious ones, for the benefit of the audience. With amnesia, that practice can be taken even further, almost to the point of parody! Thanks to the many different types of amnesia and the willingness of most writers to fit square pegs into round holes, an amnesiac character can forget and then remember anything… and then forget it again! “Beautiful woman, what is love? I have forgotten it.” “Why, it’s what I feel for you, because I am your wife. You have amnesia!”  You get the picture. Amnesia is most often just an excuse to hide basic details from the audience until the point at which they’re most dramatically effective, even if it’s patently absurd that one or more parties would not have been aware of them until now.

Tada Banri and Kaga Kouko in Golden Time

Tada Banri and Kaga Kouko in Golden Time

I wrote the above paragraph because I’m watching Golden Time. The thing is, Golden Time is really a good anime, at least by my standards! It’s based on the manga by Takemiya Yuyuko, who also wrote Toradora!, and produced by J.C.Staff, which also produced Toradora!, but overall it feels like a stronger if less stable version of the same story about accidentally falling in love. Maybe it’s the university setting, which has been noted to have freed the show from a lot of the bullshit stakes surrounding secondary education, or maybe it’s director Kon Chiaki, a rare example of a woman at the helm, but whatever it is, Golden Time has grabbed me in a soft but unyielding way, like I’m always hoping that a show will grab me. I want to watch more, but it doesn’t have to be right now.

And that’s what bugs me about the amnesia subplot in Golden Time, because it feels unnecessary. Tada Banri, the protagonist of the anime, is already an interesting character who’s confronted by complex situations in his day-to-day life. He is kind but assertive, he isn’t afraid of upsetting people, and he has a diverse collection of friends, including an extremely wacky girlfriend. He doesn’t need any more wrinkles, let alone a huge gimmick like retrograde amnesia, but hey — he’s got it anyway!

Banri's past contemplates his present in Golden Time

Banri’s past contemplates his present in Golden Time

I’m only ten episodes into the show and I’m already enormously sick of the specter that is high-school Banri haunting every decent moment of entertainment. Literally! The decision to spend the running time of several episodes (so far) flashing back to who Banri used to be borders on inexplicable, if only because he used to be a selfish, impulsive, and gutless potato of a character who bears no resemblance to his post-amnesia self. It almost feels like wasted effort, getting to know Banri’s past in such a direct way, because it only has relevance in his current relationships with people whom he used to know, the content of which could be conveyed in something besides flashbacks. I get that there’s some intriguing tension inherent in two different versions of the same character desiring to be with two different people for their own reasons, but it’s really hard for me to get invested when one of those versions is so acutely unlikable.

And that’s funny, because a much worse anime that I watched recently made much better use of amnesia as a plot device. It’s The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chanQuelle surprise!

Nagato Yuki totally doesn't get hit by a car in The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan

Nagato Yuki totally doesn’t get hit by a car in The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan

Yes, The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan has an arc involving memory loss. It’s probably the only truly interesting thing that happens in an anime that is nigh pointedly about nothing actually happening. Why is it interesting, exactly? Again, there are probably several factors. The first and most obvious is that The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan is a spinoff from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya that completely alters the character of Yuki to fit into its moe-fueled model of low-stakes romance, so juxtaposing the nominally emotionless but fully realized character of Yuki from the main series with her neutered counterpart from its derivative is a unique choice to take. The two versions of the same character are able to converse and thereby to contrast themselves with each other, which might not benefit the show itself but certainly benefits its audience by demonstrating the strengths of writing for Yuki.

Second, and slightly less obvious, is that The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan doesn’t have the same cast of strong characters that Golden Time does. When Banri’s past intrudes upon the action of the plot, at best it’s a diverting sideshow and at worst it’s a frustrating distraction from what really matters in the show. Maybe the disparity between the protagonist’s once and future selves will matter as Golden Time moves closer to a climax — and, in fact, that must be where we’re headed, if I know how anime works at all — but right now it’s just squandering good character work to build up an annoying nobody who’s tangential to everything about which the show’s been thus far. Conversely, there’s just not that much going on in The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan. The only structural element of the plot that’s sufficiently important to dictate the interactions of its characters is Yuki’s crush on Kyon, so Haruhi, Mikuru, Koizumi, Asakura, and Tsuruya only really have inner lives insofar as they reflect on that crush. The rest of their behavior is all just incidental quirks. By disrupting such a static scenario, amnesia adds complexity rather than flattening it.

Nagato Yuki sees her past and future selves in The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan

Nagato Yuki sees her past and future selves in The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan

And, finally, I just have to be crass and say that amnesia works better if the amnesiac didn’t used to be a boring jerk, like Banri was in high school. Sure, memory loss does serve to transform Yuki into an alien weirdo, but that’s cute and fun, whereas being something of a needy and entitled dick who turns into a generally upstanding guy is a lot less hard for me to get behind. I know I’m running roughshod over possible parables about the power to change the meaning of our respective pasts through our present actions, but I’m just not interested in having that in my entertainment, at least not right now. Sometimes, and especially in slice-of-life anime, the past should just stay the past.

Maybe I’ll allow flashbacks, given good behavior.

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