Tropes help form the vital architecture that enables a storyteller to weave a narrative, but in so doing they become part of a wider dialogue. Art, as they say, doesn’t exist in a vacuum, meaning that all creative endeavours are inevitably in conversation with what came before. And so it is with amnesia, one of anime’s staple tropes.
Yet when so many stories lean on memory loss as an easy crutch, it becomes cliché, as is evident from industry trends. Indeed, current viewing seasons usually boast amnesia in one form or another, either as a character trait or plot conceit. While examples are rife in western media – think Marvel Comics’ Wolverine and a slew of crime dramas – anime has a particular affinity for this most persistent of tropes.
The majority of television viewers, and certainly anime fans, will be familiar with the phenomenon of amnesia. But much like the conflation of dissociative personality disorder and schizophrenia, the representation of amnesia is far from reality. There is of course a grain of truth to this misconception, but the notion that a character will recover the entirety of their lost memories is fantasy. Whole plots revolve around this idea, suggesting a binary and tangible quality to memory. In truth, memory is fallible, and can rarely recollect real life, but rather half-remembered details, with the brain filling in the gaps. For this reason, testimonies hinged on memory alone aren’t compelling evidence in court, and research has found these remembrances can easily be manipulated through suggestion.
The attraction for storytellers is understandable, offering audiences an easy entry point into a narrative. Often, having an amnesiac narrator helps justify heavy-handed exposition by virtue of that character also being in the dark, or serves to hide an aspect of a character’s past or life from the viewer. Or, more common still, it is used as a device in a romantic context. This makes it particularly effective in a video game context, where the recovery of memories and the discovery of identity are used both as plot progression and a game mechanic. The entire plot of dating sim Amnesia, unsurprisingly, hinges on this idea. A more recent example includes Fire Emblem Awakening. Anime narratives, though, most often rely on what’s referred to as retrograde amnesia, which is the inability to recall memories from before head trauma. Rare as it is, amnesia more commonly manifests as anterograde, or the inability to create new memories after said trauma.
Waking from a coma and head trauma are the most common precursors of amnesia, though not the most romantic, meaning anime narratives often eschew this fact in favour for something more stirring. There are, however, series that explore this trauma, with Elfen Lied perhaps the most renowned example. As part of her escape from a testing facility-cum-prison, Lucy is shot in the head. Though the protective helmet she wears staunches the blow and prevents a fatality, the impact leaves her brain-damaged. In place of her own memories, her mind creates an infantilised personality as a means of coping with this trauma. There are moments of lucidity, like the glimmer of a loved one through the fugue of dementia, and the true Lucy surfaces for varying periods throughout the series. As the plot progresses, Lucy regains her lost memories, as if they were perfectly preserved and waiting for her. Although her memory loss stems from the tangible catalyst of head trauma, rather than magical intervention seen in other examples, her total recollection is little more than a means to a narrative end – exploitation cinema made anime.
The resolution of amnesia as a story arc, character journey or game quest is a pervasive one, and largely accounts for the majority of memory loss narratives in anime. Though most of these examples dovetail from reality, some titles take the idea and run with it, creating compelling and complex stories where amnesia is less about medical definition and more a tool for psychological dissection and subversive storytelling. Angel Beats! takes this idea in a more metaphysical direction, pairing together memory loss with the afterlife, a theme that would be later explored in 2015’s Death Parade.
Here amnesia is less a lazy trope and more a means of exploring death which, by its nature, is abstract to us, the living. Instead we have these storytelling tools to create a collective definition and shared sentiment, providing a common thematic language. Though Angel Beats! sees its protagonist Yuzuru Otonashi trying to regain his memories, it is an outlier series in that he wakes up to discover he is dead and exists now in what is referred to as the Afterlife. In this way, the loss of the living self creates a believable means through which memory loss has occurred. In attempting to regain his memories he picks apart the mysteries of the Afterlife, indicating that the two are related, and that memory exists outside of what we understand as life. Like Elfen Lied, the series presents memory and identity as one and the same, a sort of symbiotic relationship. It’s interesting to think that amnesia narratives are perhaps less to do with memory loss and more to do with the loss of the self.
On a more tangible, and frighteningly real, note is Eden of the East, a high octane mystery which revolves around terror attacks and uses amnesia as an opening hook. It begins with an amnesiac, Akira Takizawa, waking up naked outside the White House with nothing to his name except a handgun and a mobile phone. Again, much of the plot hangs on his rediscovering his memories, but it’s tied directly into saving Japan from terrorist attacks. In this context an individual’s amnesia might instead be the avatar of an entire nation’s, with Japan’s history and relationship with terrorism and complex one.
Surprisingly, one of the most authentic portrayals of amnesia is found in Dragon Ball Z. Goku became an amnesiac as a child when he fell from his grandpa’s hands and down into a steep gorge. The realism comes into play because, unlike characters who end up retrieving their memories, Goku never does and lives his life with a blank in his mind before this time. Rather than attempting the impossible an trying to recover these lost memories, Goku goes on living, forging new memories.
The eidetic end of the spectrum
Memory loss is far from synonymous with amnesia, with dementia, PTSD, epilepsy and even concussion all having an effect on a person’s recollection and ability to form new memories. These don’t come with the same narrative romanticism as amnesia, and therefore aren’t nearly as popular as storytelling tropes, but anime has an all-encompassing fascination with memory. At the other end of the spectrum is amnesia’s polar opposite – eidetic memory, or photographic memory as it’s more commonly known. Despite having never been scientifically proven the ability captivated creatives and audiences alike after it was popularised in fiction with the world’s greatest detective. No, not Batman. Sherlock Holmes.
Holmes is one of the few truly universal characters. Cultures across the globe have repurposed and reimagined the character to suit their own needs, with the detective making myriad appearances in one form or another. In his native England, Holmes is still a television staple, proving the continued fascination with the character. In Holmes’ case, an eidetic memory is an extension of his vast intellect and offers another deductive tool in his arsenal. The same is true of anime, where characters with a high intellect boast this quality. Both Light and L from Death Note show signs of having a photographic memory. Elsewhere it’s observed as a boon to combat ability, with the Uchiha clan in Naruto able to perfectly recall and replicate their opponent’s moves via the Sharingan. Elfen Lied author Lynn Okamoto further reveals his fascination with memory in his follow-up manga, and its subsequent anime adaption, Brynhildr in the Darkness where protagonist Ryota possesses a photographic memory.
Anime’s greatest proponent of the uncanny ability is, without doubt, Detective Conan. The beloved character and cultural icon possesses a roster of specialist detective skills and superior intelligence rivalling even Holmes. Amongst this skillset is a photographic memory which was detailed in the eighth movie, Detective Conan: Magician of the Silver Sky. As well as possessing perfect recall, able to remember everything in pristine detail, the plucky sleuth can also rewind the last twenty minutes to revaluate clues and murder scenes. While this ability is obviously an invention, it does fictionalise eidetic memory in an interesting way.
So, does anime have an amnesia problem? While the annals of anime are flooded with lazy examples confirming this suspicion, there exist enough series which use the affliction not as a medical diagnosis, but as a means to explore conceptual and abstract ideas. On the other end of the spectrum is eidetic memory, forming a complete picture of the artform’s obsession with memory, one which shows no signs of abating in future viewing seasons.
This is only the start of the discussion, so let us know your thoughts in the comments below, and don’t forget to let us know if we missed any of your favourite amnesia stories.
The groundwork for this feature had already been set by researchers, writers and academics, without whom I would still be poking around in the dark. So a massive thanks to TV Tropes, which is a great resource I recommend for anyone writing about film or TV, for sparking my discourse and providing an excellent library of examples. Also, a shout out to Dani Cavallaro’s book Anime and Memory: Aesthetic, Cultural and Thematic Perspectives. And lastly, thanks to you, dear reader, for without you, this would all be for nought.