3 Reasons Why Flashbacks Aren’t Always The Best Narrative Device

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For anyone who has started Fairy Gone this season it should have immediately become apparent that in addition to the visual problems with the anime the narrative itself relies heavily on flashbacks and exposition to fill the audience in on information. While neither flashbacks nor exposition are actually inherently bad, in point of fact they can both be used incredibly effectively, the way they’ve been employed in Fairy Gone is fairly maddening.

At some point I’ll have to look at exposition and anime that use it well and anime that just beats its audience over the head with the exposition driving dialogue and literally nothing else happening, but for now I just want to look at flashbacks and how these have been used poorly so far in Fairy Gone.

The first real problem the audience will encounter with Fairy Gone is that each of the first few episodes begins with a sequence that is actually a flashback, usually to the war where the Fairy Soldiers were originally created to fight in. That’s fine and all as many a story begins with a flashback sequence to an important time prior to the events of the story proper and over time the significance of the scenes becomes clear. I’d liken Fairy Gone’s attempt with the style used for the Dark Angel TV series where most episodes begin with a flashback of Max back at Manticore, the institute where she was raised as a soldier.

Now I actually really like Dark Angel and how Max’s childhood permeates each episode through flashbacks, particularly when she’s having an episode and weak or when she encounters someone who is connected to her past. However there are are a couple of things Dark Angel does differently that actually makes those flashbacks enjoyable and relevant.

Mainly, the longer flashbacks are narrated by Max herself. We aren’t just seeing the kids running around doing stuff, but are given her thoughts about what had happened. This isn’t usually a long monologue worth of narration though. It is usually just a few lines leading into the sequence or a couple of lines at the end that link us back to the present and why she’s thinking about it at all. It’s amazing how some simple framing can make the flashbacks feel so much more purposeful and immediately relevant.

Fairy Gone doesn’t do this. We get some text telling us what year we’re in and usually the name of the city where the characters are. Also character names seem to appear sometimes but they aren’t always characters we know. The sequence of events plays out and while there are bits and pieces that by the fourth episode seem to be relevant, at the time you are mostly watching characters you don’t know participate in events long past and given little to no reason to care about it. The transition from flashback to present day is indistinct, again save some text, and there’s usually no immediate link between what we saw in the flashback and what follows after, other than the tenuous one of these characters previously knew each other in some cases.

Speaking of transitions, this is another case where Dark Angel did it better. In order to always know whether we are in the past or present, without having to wave text around the screen, the flashback scenes are leeched of colour and the sound is slightly muted or echoes as if hearing it from a distance. That means when we come out of the flashback the world resumes its normal tone and sound and there’s an instant awareness of when and where we are in the story.

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The second problem I’m really finding with the flashbacks is I’m not sure that they’ve added anything of note. I mean, we know Marlya and Veronica belonged to a village that got destroyed and the two of them escaped before getting separated, but did we need the whole flashback sequence to establish something that we could have learned a myriad of other ways? Now, this could have been a really interesting flashback providing insight into Marlya’s motives or feelings or it could have just been a really exhilarating or exciting set-piece but due to the lacklustre and pedestrian way it was delivered there’s little to no reason to really care about the sequence at all, and yet they’ve shown it more than once.

Fairy Gone Episode 3

Free’s backstory is equally frustrating as it has established a relationship between himself and Wolfran and their involvement in the war, but these are things we could have just as easily have picked up by staying in the present and through comments made between characters. Seeing it could have been interesting if the sequence had built any emotional investment or given us more insight into the relationship but it really didn’t.

Again, bringing it back to Dark Angel, the flashbacks there are at times repetitive but they do so to emphasise and reinforce particular points. Each one fills in a piece of Max’s past and provides understanding of her volatile nature and her complex relationships with Zac and Lydecker. While they possibly could have achieved the same effect with a few less repetitions, for the most part each flashback felt meaningful in terms of providing context for a very complex character.

But that does bring us to the third problem Fairy Gone is having with its flashbacks, which is how much time they eat out of episodes that already feel like they aren’t getting very far with the story. I’m actually kind of interested in the premise Fairy Gone has laid out and I’m slowly warming up to the characters, but I feel I’d be more attached to the whole story at this point if it spent less time wasting time in the past without seeming to really value add and more time actually developing the characters as they are and their current relationships with one another.

Now, there are plenty of anime that use flashbacks. Some at the beginning of a series to establish setting and some throughout the series to develop a particular character’s backstory or to establish a new setting or idea. There are many anime that manage to do it very well.

For example, Fruits Basket uses fairly continuous flashbacks of Kyoko, Honda Tohru’s mother, and the advice she gave Tohru as well as the love between mother and daughter and this is used really well. It often gives Tohru’s advice and ideas context as to why she feels the way she does or feels compelled to act and it establishes key themes that are being considered within the episode in question. These flashbacks are heartwarming and flesh Tohru out as a character who has pre-existing relationships that changed her, even if her mother is now dead.

On the other hand, we have something like Juni Taisen that essentially filled each episode with flashbacks of a single character, building them up, just to knock them off at the end of that episode. By the third time that happened the writing was on the wall for the series as a whole but I’ll give them credit for consistency at least even if it didn’t end up being all that entertaining.

Somewhere in the middle of those we have something like Attack on Titan where some flashbacks are used beautifully at just the right moment to fill in key details or character points and at other times just feel like filler to delay moving the plot forward.

The main point being that flashbacks aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Like all narrative devices it really depends on how they are executed and for what purpose as to whether or not that will work within their story. So far, Fairy Gone hasn’t demonstrated a great grip on how to actually use flashbacks effectively but Fairy Gone isn’t bad because of an excessive use of flashbacks. It is more that it hasn’t used these in an interesting manner or to drive either the story or characters forward.

But that’s enough from me. What do you think about flashbacks in anime? What are some of your favourite anime that use flashbacks well? And what are some anime where the flashbacks just make you wince and wish they would be done already?

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Karandi James
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11 thoughts on “3 Reasons Why Flashbacks Aren’t Always The Best Narrative Device

  1. Honestly I rarely care for flashbacks. It’s not a popular opinion but I almost prefer to just have the backstories referenced/stated in the present rather than going into detail. If necessary just keeping the full origin to a spinoff. This show definitely seems really excessive with the flashbacks which makes them even less effective.

    I think my biggest pet peeve is when a flashback occurs during an action scene. It really breaks the flow and I feel Naruto Shippuden used to be the most guilty ofthat. I just wanted to get back into the main story

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A comment from me in when FOREVER LOL haha I completely agree about fairy Gones use of flashback they don’t utilise it at all. This affecting the flow of the story and causing confusion lol no wonder fans are going WTF when it comes to the ploy lol

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    1. I just finished watching episode 5 and it starts with that long flashback sequence that tells us so little and then nothing that comes after is connected to it. It’s just kind of there and sure it gives us a few bits and pieces about two of the characters but it really isn’t enough to justify the time out of the episode or the jarring nature of the transition back to the present. Really wish it could use them more effectively.

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  3. The biggest problem I have with flashbacks is when it feels like they’re just being used as a budget-saving technique, and not as a proper narrative tool. For instance, one of the biggest criticisms I have about Noir is that it uses the exact same flashback to a memory from Mirielle’s childhood probably five or six times in the first eight episodes. The first time it was meaningful; by the fifth time I just wanted to roll my eyes. Flashbacks done well, on the other hand, like in a series like Anohana, can be a very impactful narrative tool.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I kind of felt the same about the flash back in Kakuriyo no Yadomeshi. The same sequence used so many times and it just added nothing. It really became intrusive and just something to roll your eyes at when it turned up.

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  4. Not watching Fairy Gone, but just wanted to chime in that I hate flashback sequences when the main plot / present timeline is more compelling. Especially if the main plot is really close to the climax, or during the climax. The flashbacks better offer some seriously valuable information, else I really fight the urge to skip over them because I just want to get on with the present timeline’s story. Not very many storytelling devices are as frustrating as a poorly timed flashback.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Agreed. I really don’t think mid-climax is the perfect time to suddenly learn more about either the main character or the villain’s back story or some super secret power they have. It feels cheap, breaks the flow, and mostly just makes me want to roll my eyes.

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  5. As soon as I saw the title of this post, I knew it was going to be about Fairy Gone. The flashback montages are increasingly frustrating not least because you have to try to piece together the timeline as it jumps about. Like you said none of it really does anything to develop a bond between the viewer and character. If anything it seems to turn me off.
    I’m a big fan of show, don’t tell in storytelling so these flashbacks feel more like a history lesson and less of a story. It’s as if they think this is showing but without the context or the development is is just a form of telling. They’ve told us that Marlya thinks she’s a curse because of a select few flashbacks but we need to see what that means to Marlya’s life and how those things changed her.
    I’m not entirely sure, I’m making sense, but the whole series is quite frustrating so far and mostly because everything feels so disjointed and fragmented, plus the lack of a hook, a threat, and an actual goal.

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    1. I think it is the disjointed nature of the flashbacks. There’s no clear connection to what is happening either before or after the flash back so it is just another bit of information but not overly insightful or helpful so mostly it just is.
      I think it is largely frustrating because underneath the poor execution there’s a potentially interesting story that is just getting buried through poor choices in how they are delivering it.

      Liked by 1 person

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