Paneling — separating out specific still panels like in a comic — appears frequently in anime. Part of this is simply because the source material for many anime comes from manga, and transferring those panels to isolate specific characters from others is an easy visual transition. At other times, it can be used to more clearly show characters’ relationships with each other in an easy-to-digest visual format. Paneling additionally conveys a deliberate thought process especially if panels are revealed in a certain order with precise timing — Masaaki Yuasa’s Ping Pong: The Animation immediately comes to mind.
In Sing “Yesterday” For Me, paneling is used to frame characters’ memories in specific ways that convey their perspective on others or how they subconsciously see other people without them ever saying these thoughts aloud. Panels appear in flashbacks and introductory episode titles, framing how characters think.
Rikuo Uozumi is the first character that the series introduces. He’s messy, generally listless, and only cares about two things: photography and his former university classmate, Shinako Morinome. His love of photography is highlighted in regular, present-day shots of his room. His feelings for Shinako are framed in paneled memories.
Through Rikuo’s first few flashbacks, Sing “Yesterday” For Me not only establishes his feelings towards Shinako but how the series itself is going to use panels to show characters’ internal motivation and thoughts. First an image of their college class appears at a river in the general panel. Then Shinako smiling — presumably at Rikuo, the first-person in these memories — in an isolated panel. That panel fades with a filter as another panel appears on the right — Shinako looking ahead. Filters and focus indicate the direction of thought or movement.
This shows Rikuo’s thought process. To him, Shinako is someone who is always looking forward. She knows what she wants to do and pursues that with a determination that he doesn’t have — making her attractive not only because of what she looks like but because of who he thinks she is.
Another paneled flashback shows Shinako looking back and smiling at him while Rikuo is not paying attention in class. His memories are filled with conversations with Shinako that involve her admonishing him for his lack of direction.
Shinako’s own memories tell a completely different story.
In Shinako’s flashback, an unknown boy features prominently. She remembers him as he walks in front of her. Shinako carries a bag of groceries while she looks at his back, smiling.
In the series’ second episode, it’s revealed that Shinako was in love with someone from her hometown of Kanazawa — Rou Hayakawa’s older brother — and this is the person that she thinks about in her paneled memories. A close-up on her bag of groceries in one of the panels carries a different weight by the end of the episode, as it’s revealed that he died of a heart condition and she used to cook for him frequently. Presumably, this is a walk home from their high school where she’ll be preparing another meal for him.
Rou’s memories tell another facet of the same story.
As he explains to Rikuo what happened between his older brother and Shinako, Rou’s memories are displayed in paneled flashbacks. They feature a set of shoes carelessly placed in the entryway and then a series that features specific comic-style paneling as well as environmental paneling, using a doorway to frame Shinako and his older brother as he peers in on them
First, Ruo thinks of Shinko taking care of his older brother. His older brother appears to be looking off into the distance, with Shinako looking down at the floor and the food she prepared. Yet, when the next panel appears, the doorframe isolates the two of them together as a couple while Ruo watches them out of the room — visually out of the frame that the doorway provides. Later he thinks of Shinako looking at the cherry blossom trees, saying that she always thinks of his brother at this time. Outside of Ruo’s paneled memories, Shinako mentions that she hates cherry blossom season. The series takes care to almost always frame her with cherry blossom trees, making them less pretty and more oppressive.
Lastly, there are the memories of Haru Nonaka. She looks at Rikuo the same way that he looks at Shinako (with similarly forgiving and misguided filters) and the series makes it a point to place both of their memory flashbacks in the first episode as a point of comparison. Haru remembers him as someone determined and in a hurry.
Later Haru says that she knows relationships are an illusion, but that she still spent a while pining after Rikuo. In her memories he appears much more put-together and less directionless.
Paneling is only one of the reasons to love Sing “Yesterday” For Me‘s visual direction — but it’s also the most prominent visual technique and the series uses it precisely and with purpose.