A Tale of Tension

A Tale of Tension (ef: A Tale of Memories Analysis)

Tension pulls us to the edge of our seats with a claw clamped around our hearts. Then, after a fist-clenching scene, the tension diffuses in a release. Tension without release becomes grating and tiresome, and an attempt to release tension that never existed just comes across as awkward. ef: A Tale of Memories builds tension in both traditional and experimental ways, and releases that tension with smart comedic or emotional timing. Let’s investigate two tense scenes from A Tale of Memories and figure out the different ways tension can work.

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Tension requires time to allow for build-up and at least two opposing forces to provide that build-up (although the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, as we’ll see). The time spent creating tension ought to be proportional to the intensity of the release that follows; the attributes/weight of the opposing forces ought to determine the type of release that follows. We’ll keep these ideals in mind throughout the essay and look at how stepping outside the lines might detract from a scene. Still, we won’t forget about cinematic form.

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At the start of Episode 6, Kyousuke and Hiro get into an argument about art as it relates to an audience, and what a creator should strive for. Though this seems to be a side debate not pertinent to the main story, we’ll later learn that Kyousuke’s accusations against Hiro during the debate reflect how Hiro “half-asses” everything—including his relationships. Given the importance of Hiro’s relationships in the plot, and the change Kyousuke later sparks in him, this initial debate is rightfully full of tension.

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So, how is the tension built in this scene? Right away, Kyousuke and Hiro are established as opposing forces by Hiro asking if Kyousuke can create art without a vision. Kyousuke doesn’t want “to be tied down by a vision.” Hiro’s way and Kyousuke’s way are clearly about to butt heads. The volume and emotion behind their voices increase immediately, as they won’t be giving up their position any time soon. Sound-wise the scene is as expected, with the background music building in intensity as the argument continues.

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If you’ve read any of my other essays, you know these crazy low angles on Kyousuke and Hiro are perfect for unsettling the viewer, thereby adding to the tension. Blocking out Hiro’s eyes also dehumanizes him, making him seem more aggressive and indicating that he isn’t trying to have a conversation with Kyousuke, but an argument.

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The pace of the cuts between Kyousuke, Hiro, and Kei increases, and eventually we reach eye-level angle with Kyousuke and Hiro. They lean towards the center of the frame from opposite sides, literally butting heads. Somewhat more interesting are the shots in between those of the two boys. The frame is quite misbalanced by the poster and pillow—even Kei’s hair and the soda in the glasses are fuller on the left. The misbalanced shot portrays the scene’s disharmony, and we begin to feel like Kei: a spectator sitting and watching the two boys argue.

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The tension is released when Kei butts in and declares she never agreed to participate in Kyousuke’s film in the first place. The music cuts out and both boys forget the argument to go “Huh?” in unison. The comedy diffuses the tension immediately by pulling the characters’ (and our) attention away from the debate—extinguishing the opposing forces. The release comes at the perfect time: right when the argument can’t progress any further due to the boys’ differences. Since the argument was short and little was at stake, a simple comedic release is exactly what the audience needs.

That was tension during the rising action of the story, but what about at the climax? How does A Tale of Memories add to the details we just covered, and how does the release change as a result?

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Arguably the tensest scene—and the second dramatic phone call—of the season comes in Episode 10. We’ve just witnessed the eventual result of Episode 6’s argument, plus a resolution between Hiro and Kei, and now Miyako calls Hiro for what she believes to be the last time. Although the original conflict of the scene appears to be Miyako pulling away from Hiro, the tension soon derives from the opposing forces of time and the characters’ love for each other.

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Time is such a strong force in this tension that red numbers fill the screen and count down Miyako’s dial time from 100 to 0. We watch every number from 100 to 0, each ‘second’ accompanied by a beep. As if that wasn’t enough, Miyako’s phone booth is drawn to look like an hourglass with most of the sand at the bottom. Time is most definitely one of the opposing forces, and it’s one that the audience wants to fight against.

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On the audio side, the scene sticks to the books with one exception. The music and voice acting pick up right as the clock gets low and the characters reach their most emotional, but that’s what we expect. To be fair, Hiro’s voice actor does let a few breaths escape to show Hiro’s pain upon hearing Miyako’s history, but I’m more interested in the beeps. Rather, a lack of beeps. When the music picks up, the beeps disappear. We see the clock ticking, but hear nothing. We know that time is running out, but without the beeps it seems like Hiro and Miyako won’t notice how low on time they are and won’t say what needs to be said before the call ends. We identify with Kei in the other scene, but now we get involved. We beg the characters to find each other before time is up. The clock taunts us with ominous silence.

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Then nothing. The booth spits out Miyako’s card and all we hear is beeping that says, ‘Time is up.’

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If you didn’t notice Miyako was in a graveyard before, you sure do now. This is a place for death, perhaps even the death of her relationship with Hiro. The color and sound begin to drain from the world—the very depiction of loneliness we just heard Miyako describe. This drags on and on. All the stimulation we just had—the colors of the sunset, the beeping, the music, Hiro and Miyako’s yelling—it’s all gone. We wonder if time won. We crave a release, something to break this quiet tension. As I said, we are no longer observing an argument, we’re experiencing emotions with the characters, and thus the scene is tenser.

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In an admittedly horrible edit, the greyscale shatters at the sound of Hiro’s voice. This is our grand release, an emotional, beautiful, colorful reunion of lovers as they triumph over time and potential loneliness. The release lingers as we get to listen to the music, see the lovers kiss, and hear them speak. This is a longer and more moving release than we got in Episode 6. Likewise, the tension lasted almost half the episode and bore the weight of an entire season’s storyline. The tension was long, so the release ought to be intense. The forces were major, so the release ought to be emotional.

What if we tried a quick, comedic release? What if Hiro suddenly says, ‘I’m behind you, dummy’ and then Miyako stops crying to laugh and smile—end scene? After all that the characters/we went through that scene, we want something more poignant and long-lasting! Similarly, if Kei had picked Kyousuke’s side in the argument and we had to sit through a drawn out resolution, we’d be rolling our eyes. Sure, we sensed that the characters were passionate, but we don’t have much stake in the argument. Certainly, the tension and release must match, and release need not equal resolution.

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In a way, that’s elementary and obvious. What’s more interesting is how A Tale of Memories matches technique to tension. I focused heavily on how Episode 6 puts us in Kei’s spectator shoes, whereas Episode 10 pulls us into the drama. The techniques in Episode 6 were simple—angles, standard music and acting, quick cuts, and unbalanced shots. Episode 10, however, establishes a sound motif via the dial card beeps, and then plays with that motif by silencing the beeps. Color and sound are connected to Miyako’s past (her past is shown in black-and-white, and she says there was “no sound” at her home), and are then utilized for dramatic tension. The setting of a graveyard and the constant reminder of a clock ticking down both act as harbingers of doom.

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These techniques are more powerful, but they also fit better thematically. Episode 6’s angles and cuts show Kyousuke and Hiro as snapping turtles taking shots at each other. They’re arguing over something Kei hasn’t even agreed to do, so she’s shown watching from the middle. Come Episode 10, Miyako is looking her loneliness in the face and eventually attempting to save herself through love. These more complex techniques play around with her loneliness, to the point that she’s the only character in an extreme long shot of a graveyard. We never cut to Hiro because the tension comes from Hiro not being with Miyako.

ef: A Tale of Memories loves playing with tension, and these were just two scenes out of many. Try watching through a few episodes of the show and seeing if you notice how the delivery of a scene matches the tension it portrays. Luckily, there won’t be any clocks ticking when you sit down to enjoy A Tale of Memories.

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