Some recent anime episodes led me to discuss flashbacks in a bit more length; I think this topic is interesting enough to devote more time to. The discussion and examples used will follow anime, western television, films and books. It is not an anime-only topic, but anime might get a bit more space and examples because I have examples on hand and it’s what made me revisit the topic conceptually.
Flashbacks obviously can come in the form of showing us content from earlier episodes, say, so we’ll remember what happened. An anime infamous for flashbacks in this way, which had episodes where up to a third of the content was recycled was Naruto – this was done because the anime was catching up to the source material and they wanted to use as little content per episode as they could. We’ve even had some examples of a flashback within an episode to something that happened the very same episode.
Note, however, that sometimes such “remembrance” sequences aren’t only required, but drive a point home – you can see it where someone is surprised by a new development and the flashback serves to have them narrate to us what actually happened, or show it again now that we’re armed with new knowledge and can put in the proper context – it’s very common in thrillers – think of the resolution of The Usual Suspects, The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, or recently in anime the case of Akatsuki in Log Horizon thinking of how Shiro and Nyanta had defeated Demiklas – we’ve seen the content we’ve just seen, in slow motion, accompanied with her trying to work out what happened which we’ve missed.
The above examples are examples where the flashback occurs “within” the fiction – a character within the media-piece is having the flashback, and we get to see what they are thinking of. On the other hand, there are also examples of flashback scenes which do not happen when a specific character remembers them – say, “recap” moments in the beginning of episodes. Again, Naruto and other shounen shows stand as prime examples of it done badly – we get 2-4 minutes (out of ~20 minutes of episode-time) to cover the previous episode, which was just last week. On the other hand we have shows like Stargate SG-1 or Chuck, where in 30-40 seconds they remind us of relevant characters and events, including from 3-6 seasons ago. This was an important tool, and a service to watchers, which didn’t feel like it wasted their time or attempted to fill up the episode’s time.
And that brings me to my main point, before I discuss it alongside a few more examples and media differences – flashbacks, especially in anime, often feel like they are wasting your time as a watcher, at best – something to just fill up the time. There are many shows though, where it feels even worse – this is especially relevant in RomComs or drama shows – we’re hammered with flashbacks so we’ll realize why a character is sad, how their dreams are demolished, or how they’re showing us character growth. Just before a character is turned down by someone they confess to, or as we see someone losing the item of a loved one who died last episode – we get to see the relevant moment again. Note, in most cases these things are from an episode or two ago, and I personally dislike these moments because they feel as heavy-handed direction to me – as if the show’s creators don’t trust our tear ducts to work without being hammered on, and more than that – us not being trusted to remember what happened – just last week!
Now, most people apparently don’t have my memory, but I still find it problematic. Obviously, it also depends on whether you marathon a show or watch it weekly as it airs. I’ve brought up in a discussion in the past how books usually don’t engage in such “flashback” moments to “remind” us, and someone brought up a very valid argument – if a character comes up in a book and you don’t remember how they are relevant, you can simply flip back, re-read the relevant sections and see for yourself! (Man, that’s why I re-read The Wheel of Time so many times – hard to remember dozens of characters when years pass between books being released. I’m also now in the same predicament with A Song of Ice and Fire :<). But that is not an option in series – so they remind you of the relevant scenes/characters. This was especially relevant when I’ve watched All My Children, which is a soap opera that aired for 41 years, and they had flashbacks to scenes from 20 years ago, literally, where some memory-jogging is probably in order.
Movies usually don’t do such scenes, the examples above it’s in order to make you realize what was going on, and are part of the revelation sequence.
The above screenshot (from Gingitsune / Silver Fox, an anime I quite enjoy, episode 5) is an example of what type of remembrance I like. You see him saying that line? That image that is just there in the background is of him and his now deceased wife holding their daughter (not a spoiler, this is basically how the show starts). We’ve had multiple times during the episodes where the issue had been brought up, or that people had looked at the image while talking of it – but in this scene, rather than hammer at us with some flashback scene, they just drop the message and trust us to figure out why his message is especially heart-felt, and the picture in the background is subtle. Likewise, in many parts of the show they just rely on us remembering why characters are the way they are, what they’ve gone through, and sometimes use subtle music cues to nudge us along, rather than hammer at us with a flashback to something we’ve seen so we by no chance will miss anything.
And here is one of the shows and scenes that actively made me think of it, the currently airing anime Kyoukai no Kanata (Beyond the Boundary in English), where they keep hammering us with flashbacks just so we won’t miss anything. But then we had a scene where as a character was talking in the present, we’ve seen flashbacks of various scenes from previous episodes which gave context to what she was saying. You could say something similar occurred in the final portion of Gatchaman Crowds. We don’t sit passively as we watch a flashback, but the visual content of past episodes is accompanied by current-time audio, fusing the two. This is something anime, western television and films can do, but books cannot. And it feels much better, because even if you remember the past episodes, you don’t have to sit through the past episodes and only then hear the lines, where you feel one of the two is superfluous.
Books and flashbacks is indeed quite different – not only can you flip back, but inserting a flashback is a terrible blow to whatever pacing a scene currently has, and while the same is also true for audio-visual media, it feels even worse in a book, as you completely leave the current story-line in a way and engage in a past one, you also can’t truly re-use the lines you’ve used before, but actually have to re-write them if a character is thinking of them, and if it’s you telling us the scene, it usually will just not fly if you’ve already told it to us before. Should a character actively think of that past scene, it will usually be something of the sort of “He couldn’t help but think of the day his father died,” and even if it goes at more length, it’s the character actively thinking thoughts now, rather than the author reminding us of things that the character is aware of.
And this brings me to my final point – “flashbacks” which don’t have us revisiting scenes already visited, but characters thinking of past content, or the author showing us past content, which we hadn’t seen before – the long desert segment in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or just moving between past and present. If done too often, it also runs the risk of disrupting the story’s pacing, unless it is the point (see Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, which follows this pattern, but what can you expect from a story that begins with “Listen: Billy Pilgrim had come unstuck in time.“). I don’t have much of an issue with that, as it’s merely shifting around the way the story is told, and it’s all new content, and we do know that controlling the way information is given to the readers/watchers can do much to affect the way they experience the story.
One note on “flashbacks which deliver new content” – it’s not character growth, but character development. If we meet a character who is cynical and sarcastic, and then see how he used to be before something terrible happened to them, then the character didn’t “grow” as a result of us finding this information, it’s characterization, and equivalent to us hearing “X is a bastard, but he used to be nice until Y happened” in the opening paragraph of the story. It can help us appreciate them as a character, or realize something that happens in the present is indeed an example of character growth, but there’s a difference. Character development is not character growth, one is our perception of the character changing, and the other is the character itself changing.
To summarize, I am not fond of flashbacks which seem to me as an overly heavy tool to make sure I don’t miss the emotional impact of a scene, and wish authors and directors trusted me more as a watcher, but now I don’t think referring to books as an example of how it can be done without is a good thing – you can flip back with books, and books also don’t have the same leeway for combining the past and present without breaking the pacing.