Another month, another guest post from JeskaiAngel! I think you’ll enjoy this piece our favorite (wait, there’s R86/Sensei), uh, second-favorite (wait, and what about Dr. Steve?), uh, well, one of our favorite anime fans with a PhD as he examines some troubling issues with ReLIFE.
Even if they gradually grow closer and closer, and even end up together eventually… They’ll go back to their old lives like it never happened one day. And having to watch that play out…is really sad. And really scary.
– Onoya An
I recently watched ReLIFE and I’m still struggling to decide how I feel about it. I actually started writing this to help me sort out my own jumbled thoughts. First, a short summary of the show’s premise is in order: dysfunctional adult Kaizaki Arata receives an experimental drug that makes him look like a teenager, then spends a year in high school, and at the end of the year everyone he met in that time will forget he existed. The show was full of funny and heartwarming moments mixed with thoughtful insights about life and relationships. I loved those parts of ReLIFE. The show also raises several issues, like the protagonist carrying on a double life where he has to lie to everyone he meets about his true identity. That isn’t what I found most disturbing, though.
This otherwise uplifting show has jarring overtones of a creepy sci-fi dystopia, in the form of memory alterations inflicted on dozens (perhaps even hundreds?) of people. In the story, ReLife Labs has developed some means to excise an individual from the memories of everyone they meet for an entire year (the show doesn’t explain the exact mechanics, but that’s unnecessary for this discussion). It shocked me that only one character, Onoya An, expresses misgivings about this memory erasure practice. (An earned quite a bit of respect from me for this, though I was disappointed that she ended up going along with it anyway.) From employees of the ReLife company to people participating in the ReLife program, no one else ever challenges the practice. Apparently all the other characters live in a world where having a third party erase someone’s memories is no big deal.
The Bible isn’t a dystopian science fiction novel, so we’ll need to approach the morality of memory alterations indirectly. In the Law of Moses, murder, rape, and kidnapping were all capital offenses. What seems to set these crimes apart from lesser crimes such as property theft or personal injury is that they are each profound personal violations. Each attacks a victim’s very self in a way that lesser crimes do not. (Each of these deeds is also condemned in the New Testament, but not in a legal context where God’s choice of penalty could imply how distinctively serious they are.) In light of these facts, altering a person’s memory by eliminating certain information strikes me as a disturbingly similar personal violation that attacks an individual’s very identity. Our experiences and relationships (and the memories thereof) are foundational to who we are.
The memories that ReLife suppresses are not esoteric trivia like whether Pluto is a planet – the victims are made to forget a person, which means forgetting their relationship and experiences with that person. From a Christian point of view, the significance of relationships appears in the fact that Jesus declared the two greatest commands – the ones which encapsulate all others – are “Love God” and “Love your neighbor.” Love is a relational value, not something to be practiced in isolation. The very nature of love requires that we have an “other” (e.g. God or another human) outside ourselves toward whom we direct that love. If the two greatest commands boil down to “Have relationships,” then relationships are important indeed. Erasing dozens of people’s memories of a specific individual amounts to destroying dozens of relationships. I don’t know about you, but I struggle to reconcile that with “Love your neighbor.”
These reflections lead me to ponder what sort of morally malnourished worldview ReLIFE’s characters must hold in order be okay with what they’re doing. One wonders what other behaviors these characters would be willing to tolerate and even commit. The excuse the show offers, the one pushed by ReLife Labs and accepted by the protagonist, is that in the long run no harm is done because the people whose memories are altered will never be aware of what was done to them. Suppose we rephrase this argument as a syllogism. Here’s my rough attempt: first, there’s an unstated but clearly implied major premise: “As long as someone doesn’t know you wronged them, it’s okay for you to wrong them.” The minor premise is “Someone whose memory is altered will never know what was done to them.” This nicely sets up the conclusion that it’s okay to erase people’s memories. The problem here is that implied major premise – it’s simply not true. I can say from experience that just because one doesn’t recognize that one is being mistreated, that doesn’t mean no harm is done. More importantly, this is a very utilitarian approach to right and wrong. In the Christian’s worldview, the morality of an action is not contingent on whether the victim knows he’s been harmed.
As noted above and as seen in the quote with which I opened this essay, only An displays any recognition at all of how horrible the whole memory alteration scheme is, but in the end she lacks the courage to resist the wrong being committed. This forms a sharp contrast with the Arata’s actions in his backstory. First, he could not bear to acquiesce to the unjust treatment of a coworker. After that situation ended tragically, he refused to tolerate the callous, exploitative way his other coworkers and boss behaved in the aftermath. He could not change them, but he could refuse to go along with their evil – and so he lost his job for having the courage of his convictions. I wish An had taken a similar stand. It could have made for a much more satisfying story.
ReLIFE is far from the first fictional work to deal with the concept of memory alterations (whether via magic or science), but where, say, a dystopian novel might portray it as a tool of tyranny and evil, ReLIFE’s use of this plot device is strikingly blasé. Indeed, I find it has poisoned my entire experience with the show. I hoped this would not be the case. I was initially doubtful that the memory erasure business was real, rather than just a lie told to the protagonist, perhaps as some sort of test. Later on, I held out hope that someone would stand up and oppose the memory erasure plan. I was disappointed on both counts, and the show’s failure (at least in my mind) to deal with this morally disturbing issue undercuts everything I appreciated about the show. I come away from ReLIFE with thought-provoking lessons about resisting evil (even when everyone around accepts it) and valuing relationships with our fellow man as God intends, but also with a lingering sense of unease that taints what could have been fond memories of the show.
JeskaiAngel is a stereotypical millennial: thirty-something, single, unemployed, and living with his parents. On the bright side, he graduated in December 2017 with a PHD in history, so maybe he’s not completely failing at life. Although he vaguely remembers catching glimpses of shows like Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon as a kid years ago, he really only discovered anime back in 2016.