We each go through life burdened by our own experiences; carrying our guilt like a sack of chains behind us. It clouds our outlook of the future, and is a murky lens through which we perceive the past. How different our lives might have been if only we’d decided on another course of action, or said yes where we might have said no. Regret is something we all must suffer at some stage on this drawn-out journey through life, something that separates us from other species as much our ability to choose and to create. But regret can also stimulate the strength and impetus to instigate change – a common theme in the Summer 2016 season.
Orange, based on Ichigo Takano’s manga of the same name, ditches the science for whimsy in a magic-realism take on time travel. It’s the mark of Naho Takamiya’s character that she wants to rewrite her regrets, not for her own sake but for that of her 16-year-old self. So she writes herself a letter with all the intimacy of a diary entry, sending it ten years into the past. At first the entries are simply signed, either “Do” or “Do not”, as Naho holds the letter from her future self like an existential cheat sheet. But then she reads of her own heartbreak years ahead of schedule. The boy she’s just fallen in love with will pass away in less than a decade. In a vicarious act of nurturing, she hopes she can save her younger self from some of the same shock and grief. But the lesson for her 26-year-old present self is clear. She must learn that there’s no easy fix for her regrets and losses, and time-skipping notes or no, she can’t escape from the burdens of adulthood.
Part of the power of Orange is in presenting regret not as one choice that bears down on us, but as series of small decisions that steer us towards our present. The combination of these decisions manifests in any number of wasted opportunities or experiences that might only be gleaned years in the future. By rewriting these apparently inconsequential choices, the bigger picture is altered in meaningful ways. It’s also a heartbreaking concept, one which most viewers can easily identify with. How often have you ever wanted to send a letter to your younger self, urging them to take a different course of action?
ReLIFE, based on Yayoiso’s ongoing web manga, on the other hand, ups the ante of the mad science with a pill that can change your outward appearance to your teenage years. It’s part of a new scheme aimed at curbing the surmounting social problem of NEETs (Not in Education, Employment, or Training). The NEET is something of a fixture in anime narratives, either with the shut-in archetype, or sometimes in the whisked-away-to-a-fantasy-land narrative. Arata Kaizaki, however, is a departure from these stereotypes, and is altogether more realistic, nuanced and, what’s more, relatable. Arata might be dressed in a suit and tie, scrambling out the front door and taking the train, but far from the salary man he pretends to be, he’s actually putting on an act in front of his friends. He takes part in the after work rituals of beers and snacks, swapping stories and laughing at lame jokes, but there is something skewed in his disposition.
Reliving those years, it turns out, isn’t as easy as retracing the steps that brought you to your present self. For there to be a real change, there must be a starting over, forgetting the comfortable routine and pushing to accept a challenge as it arrives. Nothing can be anticipated, and whether moving backwards or forwards, it’s about facing the new with bravery.
The most extreme example of this concept is Re:ZERO -Starting Life in Another World-, adapted from a light novel series penned by Tappei Nagatsuki and illustrated by Shinichiro Otsuka. Starting a brand new life in a fantasy world, Natsuki Subaru realises that his life now functions like a video game. All mistakes can be undone and scrubbed from the memories of those around him, the catch being that he has to die for the privilege. This hard-won blessing is a wish made by many a gamer, imagining the myriad possibilities if real life could have a save function. But more as Natsuki’s quest continues, this checkpoint system becomes an escape rather than a fix, running away from the good with the bad and often alienating him from his friends.
When he screws up on a personal level, he faces two equally painful decisions – either striving under his own steam to make things right and risking failure, or facing another mentally draining death and undoing even more of the memories he’s made. Both he and the audience both know what the more heroic choice is, but the trials ahead are gruelling in a way he hasn’t encountered before. This challenge is no longer to prove to others that he’s worthy of their love and respect; he must now prove it to himself, a far more difficult task which doesn’t allow for pretence or bluffing.
Studio TMS partners ReLIFE and Orange, along with Re:ZERO, have a deep and recognisable regret as the drive of their characters’ respective story arcs and achievements. Viewing the familiar high school setting from the perspective of someone remembering those days in honesty, the missed opportunities and lost friends are still raw in the memory, and we resonate with the longing to reach back and change something for the better. That letter to your younger self exists, even if it’s never been written, and Orange harnesses the very act of writing out regrets as a conduit of change, in the past as much as in the present. ReLIFE, in turn, is wish-fulfilment with all of its cautioning small print; the pill, switch or click of the heels that gives you a second chance to begin your years of burgeoning independence anew. And Re:Zero reminds us that, no matter how painful the burden, we each must live with our regrets and find the strength to avoid making new ones.
Written by Dominic Cuthbert & Elisabeth O’Neill