Amnesia is one of the most commonly used tropes in countless media. It’s a trope that I’ve come to despise more and more over the years because of how often it is abused. More often than not, the inclusion of amnesia bogs down the plot and doesn’t add any character development, especially in anime, which is disappointing because on its own the amnesia trope isn’t inherently a bad thing.
When used effectively, the amnesia trope can be great. Amnesia can provide a glimpse into the character’s mind by making them completely vulnerable, it can help the audience sympathize with the protagonist’s newfound ignorance of the world around them, and it can help humanize the characters by making them a blank slate and take their development into a whole new direction. When done right, the amnesia trope can be a good thing that can contribute a lot to an anime.
For example, in Death Parade, the amnesia trope is a major part of the show’s narrative. People who have died are sent to the Quindecim bar to play the Death Games, and their memories of how they died are erased. This is done intentionally so that they will try as hard as they can to win the Death Game, and it ultimately tests their morals. Will they harm their opponent to become the victor, or will they play fairly? It’s this test of morals that determines whether or not these people are reincarnated or sent to the void. The Death Games exist to test the morals and the limits of these people, and because of that it creates a really fantastic look at their characters. The amnesia trope plays a pivotal role in Death Parade by developing these characters in a complex way that tests their base instincts versus what is morally right and wrong.
Another good case of amnesia being used effectively is in Death Note, after Light willingly gives up ownership of his Death Note and therefore loses his memories of it entirely. Part of the reason why the amnesia trope works here is because a change in Light’s behavior can be tracked immediately – as soon as he forgets about the Death Note and his desire to change the world, he becomes a genuinely good person. He maintains his attitude about justice, but doesn’t act in the corrupt way that he did before – his approach is much more humane and sympathetic. By doing this, the show works to characterize him in an entirely new light by presenting another path he could have chosen to live by. By showing this uncorrupted side of his personality, it adds another layer to his character and who he has, and will, become. I do think that this amnesia sequence of the show lasts longer than it should have, but it does such a good job of giving him new character development that I let it slide.
While there have been strong cases for the use of amnesia in an anime, more often than not the trope is abused to create a false sense of development or impact when in reality it contributes nothing and simply wastes the viewer’s time.
I tried to watch the second season of Code Geass, and there were a lot of factors that prevented me from doing so. The number one factor that forced me to not continue with it was the “convenient case of amnesia” (this is a direct quote from Lelouch in the English dub by the way, that’s how bad this is), because it didn’t add anything meaningful to the show. Instead, it left me confused for the entirety of the episode. It’s possible that the show was trying to kick off the second season with amnesia as a way to introduce new fans to the show, but at that point, resorting to amnesia in order to get new fans is hardly worth it because it only exists to be confusing.
Not only can the amnesia trope be used as a cheap means to capture new fans, it has also been used to provide a cheap sense of drama. For example, in Garo, there are several episodes that focus on Leon after he gets the classic case of amnesia, can’t remember who he is, and settles down with a nice farming family. Of course, disaster strikes and it’s not until the family is deceased that he remembers who he is, and grieves over them while moving forward. While this could have the potential to be good in other shows, Garo simply rushes through these interactions, and the relationships Leon develops ultimately don’t add anything to his character. Instead of saying something new about his character, it only serves to create shock value and tragedy without having a true purpose or goal.
It’s unfortunate that the amnesia trope has become such an abused, lazy means of adding character development or setting up the world-building and story, because the trope has potential to be really powerful and meaningful. But because of shows like Code Geass, Garo, and more that it’s nothing but a cheap trick. I’m sure that I’m going to continue coming across the trope with the more anime that I watch, but my hope is that maybe over time, it will become a trope that is used more sparingly and with purpose.