Memories, Morals, and ReLIFE

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.

8 thoughts on “Memories, Morals, and ReLIFE

  1. I loved Re:Life a lot – to the point where I found and read the manga (through a scan site, as I don’t read or speak Japanese) and I can tell you that things move on a long way from the point where season 2 ends. There’s more explanation of the memory removal (it’s a virus, it doesn’t affect your memory but someone else’s virus will affect your – so our protagonists WILL end up forgetting each other – it removes a sense of the self of the person, not the fact they existed, so relationships have a sort of blur in the middle – of “that one guy/girl”) and there are discussions in the technical department about if the effects can be moderated or removed for our protagonists, who have clearly found a bug in the system, where they will forget one of the most important, formative, dare I say redemptive relationships of their whole Re:Life.

    All of which is to say that the show is not unaware and – just possibly – there’s no room to explore how conflicted the issue of memory is for the show’s characters in the two seasons they produced. The manga (which has just finished) deals with it nicely – and the final 4 OVAs also deal with it in a kind of rushed way, though it lacks impact due to the time allowed. You have seen them, haven’t you?

    Without wanting to spoil anything, it becomes apparent that the memory erasure process is not utterly thorough, certainly not enough to erase a deeply important relationship, given any kind of aides memoire. And the final point from that may be that our memories of anything are actually the only part of it we retain in most circumstances, so that they form the very core of who we are. Yes, I’m aware there are amnesiacs who retain little or no day-to-day memory apart from procedural memory (things they learned to do) – there’s a whole lot of fiction speculating about that as well (and Golden Time does ponder that area quite well). Discussing that goes beyond the scope of a web comment 🙂

    Is Re:Life as a process exploiting a morally grey (or black) area? Yes, clearly it is: it deceives, requires lies, uses intrusive espionage, arguably it’s manipulative and there are moral questions about putting adults side-by-side with relatively inexperienced young adults which no amount of careful vetting could eliminate as a concern. But they do it for the good of people who might not have another way to move forward. Does the end justify the means? Or does the means (and the process) justify the end by the resolution it brings.

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    1. Yes, I’ve watched every episode, including the OVA.

      Thank you for the insights into the manga’s fuller treatment of the issue!

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  2. I had similar feelings towards the whole memory erasure. I know that in the anime it was brushed off as “they won’t forget the overall feelings they experienced” or whatever, but there really is something wrong about the whole procedure. They encourage people to go and make friends in their ReLife, but they have no regard for the friends themselves.

    Like Ooga is a good example, his closest and only male friend (at least from what I remember) is Kaizaki. So what’s going to happen with him? His entire 3rd year of highschool just becomes a blur? Plus he was looking forward to attending university with Kaizaki wasn’t he? I can’t help but feel like his mind would be at least a little messed up after forgetting Kaizaki but somehow retaining all of these feelings.

    Enjoyed the post, and glad I wasn’t the only one who thought that this was really glossed over in the anime.

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  3. I felt more than a little uneasy about Relifes unwillingness to question the shaky moral ground of it’s tools of executing it’s premise. Your post and the comments have touched on the concerns I had. I’m not gonna rehash them. However I felt a bit of outrage at Kaizaki working for the company which seemed to create heartache in his life by their willingness to put him into relationships made under false pretenses that he would lose or dissolve artificially because they were forgotten or abruptly cut off from. Anyways. The ending where Kaizaki ends up with Hishiro is the only thing that kept me from throwing a cup at the screen.

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  4. While I’m certainly not going to approve deliberately messing with people’s memories, I think the claim that removing memories also removes relationships is untenable. For example, when someone gets Alzheimer’s and forgets her loved ones, she is still their wife, mother, loved one, etc. If her husband loses his memories of her, too, again they are still married. So memory is not essential to relationships, though it is of course better to have those memories (which is why intentional memory wiping is still wrong).

    ~Dr Steve

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  5. So I’m making a comment on a comment here, which is rare for me, but it’s an important one so I’ll do it anyway:

    “While I’m certainly not going to approve deliberately messing with people’s memories, I think the claim that removing memories also removes relationships is untenable. For example, when someone gets Alzheimer’s and forgets her loved ones, she is still their wife, mother, loved one, etc. If her husband loses his memories of her, too, again they are still married.”

    Spoken like someone who’s never actually had that happen to them. My mother died of early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease, which slowly destroyed her mind and memory over ten years. I got an awesome stepmom later on, but she’s not a replacement for a whole person- She’s instead an entirely new mother and relationship with said mother. Here’s the thing: Alzheimer’s Disease is not a killer of just memory. That would imply that the results are just somebody who doesn’t know anything. It’s a killer of the brain. The person who exists at the end is not in any way functionally the same as the person at the beginning of the disease course. Relationships break down massively and get peculiar in this situation, to say the least. It simply wasn’t possible for my Dad to have the same relationship with the dying woman that he had with the healthy one. The whole situation put my values to an insane and impossible test, and while I came out of it still believing fundamentally in the worth of all people, and that my Mom still had the right and ability to choose and make decisions where we could detect them….

    You should still be way careful when saying that removing “memories” *doesn’t* remove relationships. It’s not just my Mom, either: to remove fourteen years of memories between my best friend Meg Griner and I is to remove all that we’ve ever been and leave un uncrossable gap in both our psyches. Removing memory indeed can in fact have that effect, or at least it forces you to build a different relationship than the one you once had.

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  6. A very insightful post. I never thought about it this way until now.

    “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.”

    If I think about it, the issue of memory erasing is somewhat similar to the world’s practice of data mining and intelligence gathering. Yet aside from Facebook’s CA scandal, we do not hear much noise against organisations collecting our personal information and online activities. Some may even say it is necessary when the government does so for the benefit and wellbeing of its citizens.

    Memory erase removes memories and relationships. Data mining exploits them. Both tie to your saying “As long as someone doesn’t know you wronged them, it’s okay for you to wrong them.” What is wrong for the you (the recipient) may be right for them (the administrator).

    In An’s defence, her adopting Kaizaki’s stance would probably make little impact overall. If I recall correctly, the ReLife program is a secret government-funded program – if she were just to up and leave, she would likely have her own memory erased as well.

    I think at the end of the day, one will ultimately have to weigh the purpose and ends if they justify the means. Should Kaizaki and Hishiro be forever stuck in that rut without achieving anything worthwhile in life? The series did mention that although their memories may disappear, the experiences will still remain with them. Looking at Oga’s character and personality, I think such a person would still do pretty well in life. Also, I think it is important to note that all direct participants in the ReLife program are there under their own free will as well.

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