[Warning: this review will contain vague spoilers]
I was originally not planning in writing anything in regards to this anime in specific, as I thought I had nothing interesting to say about the title. However, after reading the analysis by Zephsilver, I managed to put together some thoughts in regards to Boku Dake ga Inai Machi (or Erased, if you are not fond of tongue-twisters) that I’d like to offer in addition to the debate. I also would like to say: Zeph, I appreciate and respect your text, since it had a rational depiction of your perspective that I could reasonably grasp, but I’d like to politely disagree.
Before getting into the review, though, I want to give some context: before the beginning of the winter season I had read the synopsis of Erased and added to my Plan to Watch list, as it seemed mildly interesting. Later, after watching the first two episodes, I was hooked by the premise and highly invested in what could be the outcome of the story. Only then that I got to know about the hype surrounding the series and from that point I witnessed the internet go insane over its score.
Story and Characters
My reviewing method for this one will be somewhat different from the norm. By the time I’m writing this, the series itself is still surrounded by controversy with two sides with very questionable motivations either raising it as the best thing since Page 3 or clamming it’s an overrated abomination pandering to masses who want to think of themselves as smart (doesn’t that apply to 99% of humanity?). Here, besides commenting of the story and characters within the work, I’ll also discus some of the arguments brought up against Erased and offer my perspective if they are correct in any form or if they hold any water. The first thing I think it’s important to understand is that Erased is, at its core, a very simple story. Besides the time-traveling plot, it has a very streamlined narrative and it is focused almost exclusively on the actions of the main character, in accordance to the fact that he is the “strange element” in the child timeline (suddenly feels like I’m talking about Zelda!). What it avoids in complexity, it opts to use in character interaction, developing the drama and the motivations that move the story forward. Before I get to the meat of the argument, though, let’s talk about some of the characters.
Fujinuma Satoru is the main protagonist. “Gifted” with the ability he calls Revival, he can go back a few minutes in time, whenever something bad is about to happen. Detached and constantly feeling unfulfilled, he holds a strong regret due to events of his childhood, when two of his classmates were murdered and one of his friends was incriminated. These feelings lead him to distance himself from his past, but he is forced by a Revival to go back to the days of his childhood in order to prevent those crimes.
Hinazuki Kayo is the girl who Satoru wants to prevent from becoming the first victim. Frequently abused by her mother, she avoids interacting with her classmates and is usually seen alone. She initially tries to keep a distance from Satoru, not understanding his motives for trying to get close to her, but his friendly demeanor ends up softening her emotional barriers.
Yashiro Gaku is Satoru’s teacher and one of the main agents in the narrative, as he seems interested in solving Kayo’s family situation. Satoru later comments on how Yashiro was an influence to him due to a speech he gave at school, before the story had began, and a specific moment in which Yashiro looked like what Satoru expected his deceased father to be.
Shiratori Jun, mostly known as Courage, is an adult who was friends with Satoru in his childhood. Socially awkward and with a heavy stutter, he feels more comfortable interacting with children, which leads him to be framed for the child-murders Satoru tries to prevent. Besides feeding the motivations of the protagonist, the story also uses him to briefly comment in how his inability to be socially active and preferring the company of children led society to misjudge his intentions, especially when Satoru faces a similar situation in the future.
While the thriller aspect of the anime is in the center of the driving forces of the narrative, the bulk of the emotional investment Erased strives to build is on the bonding between Satoru and the people he is trying to save, and his motivations within the story. Great focus is given to his interactions with his friends, who with the exception of Ken’ya, who seems unusually mature for someone of his age, are all very believable child characters. By that I don’t mean being as obnoxious as an inch-deep testicle wound, by the way, these kids are actually designed to be likeable. This aspect of the story is built upon until the conclusion, where they play a part in finally getting the killer arrested. Having all of this in mind, let’s tackle some of the complaints about the series.
“The time travel element is underdeveloped”
The time travel element is kept simple. Firstly, Satoru’s ability to go back in time is nothing more than a plot device to put him on the track of the murders and since it seems to be simply a supernatural element instead of the usual sci-fi occurring, keeping it simply is a better idea. The story in Erased isn't about time travel, it just features such element as the one necessary for kicking the narrative into motion. Stories that are centered around time travel usually stumble and fall when they decide to flesh out this element without paying proper attention to consistency, which leads to gross plot-holes. Maintaining this element simple and undetailed allows Erased to avoid major inconsistences and focus on the main drive of the story. Also, I know some people were upset by the second instance where Satoru goes back to his child-self as it seemed he had gained control over his ability. To that, I hope you can forgive me stepping out of my polite demeanor for a while to say: For fuck’s sake, that only happened ONCE and it doesn’t even look like he had much control over it! Being it a supernatural ability, and one that seems to have a mind of its own, nonetheless, the event itself isn't so out of place as one might think.
“The identity of the killer is obvious and the reveal is underwhelming”
This complaint is one that fans and detractors of the series seem to agree, although in different levels of importance. I mean, the opening itself tells you who it is. The point of contention here is not whether or not the average viewer can easily guess the killer’s identity, but the purpose that such attribute plays in the story. To some, working under the mindset that Erased’s genre is Mystery; such flaw would represent a sign of incompetent use of red-herrings, as well as inability from the writer to effectively create other suspects. In other words, hack writing. Fans of the series, however, work under the mindset that Erased is, in reality, a Thriller. Such idea is supported by an interview with the director of the anime, where he states:
- “I see this story as a suspense thriller, or well, a human drama in the guise of a suspense thriller”
By that definition, the tension within the story would come not from the mystery over the killer’s identity, which is constantly flashed throughout the story, but from the knowledge the audience has in opposition to the cast, since knowing who is the killer would raise tension whenever he and the main characters were close, and that emotion would then culminate when the villain finally reveals itself for the protagonist. Some of his attitudes could be very ambiguous, like the ones at episode 09, but they ultimately filled the role of driving him closer to Satoru, which would then lead to their connection in the years to come, finally bringing his downfall, as Satoru himself had become the killer’s weakness. But seriously, folks, the opening just flat-out tells you who it is in the very episode the killer is introduced, how do you get to reach episode 10 still thinking it's supposed to be a secret in the first place?
“Erased becomes an unfocused mess in the latter half”
This is the one argument to which my response is a categorical NO. Before I get into a fair explanation in relation to that statement, though, let give a better example of how to define lack of focus. For that, I’ll actually give the other face and throw under the bus an anime that just so happens to be one of my favorites, Ergo Proxy, because self-awareness is important. The first 8 episodes of the anime are some of the most tightly written episodes in anime, with barely any line of dialogue wasted and plenty of subtle details in character reactions. Right before the first half, though, the main characters go into a journey looking for the truth behind the main mystery of the series, and from that point on Ergo Proxy adopts a highly experimental structure, focusing plenty of episodes in isolated conflicts tied only to the theme it wanted to address in that specific episode (I apologize for the repetition). Very little of those episodes has connection to the main goal, and when the characters reach their destination it turns out to be a dead end, forcing them to return in order to find the truth. For all of that, it’s not unreasonable to say that Ergo Proxy specifically lacks focus on its narrative. From the point Kayo leaves the center of the plot, Satoru’s objectives change, from saving the girl to protecting the other victims and uncovering the identity of the assassin. As a result, the series follows along with such change and turns its eyes to him, in the same fashion as does the danger of attracting the attention of the villain, just like we would see later on, when Satoru’s actions lead him to be the new target. In that sense, the anime simply shifts its focus, it didn’t lose it and that was the natural root to take. That also leads us to another topic;
“Erased lost its charm once Kayo left the picture”
I always found questionable the idea of attributing the entire appeal of a story in a side-character, but that aside, let’s understand this argument: The idea here is that, since the anime spent so much time revolving around Satoru’s efforts to save Kayo, much of the audience’s investment was crafted around the girl, as she would be the one the viewer would immediately want to see shielded from harm. The series does many efforts to frame her in sympathetic light and give her endearing qualities, so when she is moved away from the plot many felt it had wasted their investment. This is a comprehensible thought, indeed, but I believe it ignores another important aspect of fiction: by maintaining focus on a character that has already fulfilled its narrative purpose, the work runs the risk of saturating such character, diminishing the values that made them endearing in the first place and ultimately compromising the story to make room for them. Moving Kayo away from the narrative not only makes sense from a logical point of view, as it completely places her away from the killer, but also preserves her from becoming a hindrance to the story and leaves her character with the emotional baggage that comes at play during the last episodes. There is a merit in avoiding wish-fulfillment if it prevents characters from becoming a problem to the flow of the narrative.
"The ending is rushed and the villain's motivations are poorly explained"
This criticism specifically I can understand on the basis of how the anime progresses in his final episodes, but I’d like to explain the reason for my disagreement by discussing one of the references made by the villain, the spider thread tale. This element is first brought up at the beginning of episode 11, when the antagonist comments that after a specific event during his childhood, he begins to see spider threads hanging above the heads of his victims, in reference to a tale about a criminal who gets the chance to escape from hell using the thread sent by Shakyamuni Bhudda, but is condemned once again when the thread breaks, in punishment for his selfishness. In this tale, the thread was the last source of salvation given by a superior being to a soul in despair, so seeing it above the heads of those he wanted to kill can be interpreted as the antagonist’s desire to be someone above his victims, to be an “entity” with the power to condemn or give salvation. When he is finally defeated by Satoru, he sees a spider thread above his own head be torn apart. This is the point when he realizes that he was powerless and susceptible to being manipulated and judged just like his victims, he realizes he’s not an entity in control. By the same line of thought, he takes an interest in Satoru, after the kid survives his first attempt to kill him, because Satoru was the one able to escape his judgment.
I believe many of you heard Erased’s visuals being called “cinematic” and that is actually a statement that holds water, as the anime utilizes some techniques of traditional cinema in much more noticeable fashion, a result of the experience the director had working with other professionals like Hosoda Mamoru or Araki Tetsuro, this last one an expert on making anime with mainstream appeal. Now, another term I believe can be applied to the show’s presentation, in general, is minimalistic. The characters are frequently framed in wide shots within the scenery, with the fixed camera giving full comprehension of the environment while the figures are kept small and with minimal action. The purpose of this directing style is to avoid the viewer getting lost in the imagery and lead them to focus only on the details that are relevant to the narrative. In the other hand, it also serves to emphasize emotional moments and heighten the impact of scenes that display a little bit more of flare, giving them a whimsical feel.
This trait also manifests in the characterization, as the shots stealthily introduce certain details and character motivations, like the hero’s Mask in Satoru’s bedroom, to show a figure that inspired him as a kid, or in the manner in which the killer is framed, from the point he’s fully introduced to the brief interactions that hint to his identity, like when the camera is focused upwards, mirroring Satoru’s perspective. These choices of framing serve to cut on the necessity of exposition, reducing the dialogue only to what is essential. This can also be noticed on the sound work: important scenes, like the moment Satoru makes the first impactful contact with Hinazuki, frequently opt for not having soundtrack, driving even more attention to the dialogue and giving full responsibility to the viewer to infer on what is going on between the characters. For an anime that has been accused of being heavy-handed, I’d say this directorial decision is pretty respectful towards the audience.
The points that feature soundtrack, though, don’t tend to be impressive. Most of the noticeable tracks play their purpose, but are fairly generic, serving only to highlight the specific mood the scene wants to convey. Exceptions would be, of course, the highly catch opening, the fitting and mellow ending, and tracks such as “Only I am missing”, “I have to save her”, which is brief but very effective at crafting tension despite the upbeat vibe, “Reasoning” and “She was there, alone”. Hum, I’m noticing a pattern here! When it comes to the acting, it’s very consistent with character portrayal and overall quite solid, but one aspect that might raise disagreements, more than usual at least, is Satoru’s voice actor. Despite a solid performance, even taking into consideration it’s his first anime role, Shinnosuke Mitsushima is one of those actors who has a voice that is too singular, which can drive attention away from the acting itself.
I think now we can address some of the external questions related to Erased.
Is Erased the best thing since dark beer? No, I can myself point out more than a handful of titles that are better, without taking away from the anime itself. Was it overhyped? Sure! I mean, it’s hard to refute that an anime getting into MAL’s top 10 before it is even finished is quite a ludicrous event. Is the negativity warranted? My stance, at least, is “not really”. I believe it’s fair to ask how much of the negativity towards the series is a direct result of its hype, as some people might think it pressures them into a position. I’ve seen even better shows get attacked with far less meaningful arguments, as a result of public opinion being highly favorable towards them, so the attitude itself doesn’t surprise me. The most interesting question, though, seems to be: how did Erased of all anime become so hyped? Think about the most notorious titles of recent years that can be considered overhyped: Attack on Titan was a shounen with focus in drama and a high body count, with an overall gritty setting and story; Kill la Kill was a self-aware ride of nonsensical action with very little restraint; One Punch Man was a parody of superhero tropes centered around fast-paced action and comedy. To think that a slow-paced thriller like Erased, with such an emphasis in children interacting and very little action, would become the hit of the season is a very surprising event.
I must admit that I somewhat enjoyed the polemic surrounding the anime, not so much for how it affected the show itself in the public eye, but because it rings specially close to one of my personal beliefs: fixation on scores is bullshit! People going crazy over one title’s score seemed ludicrous and drove the discussion away from the important elements by turning it into an exercise in group-think. Now you had to rate the show a certain way so that your opinion could be taken seriously by certain sections of the anime community. Now, however, the fires of the flame wars are on the rout to be tamed, so I thought it would be a good idea to offer my perspective on the anime, hoping that it can invoke some respect around.
Since this is the section of the review I leave (specially) dedicated to self-indulgence, I’d like to talk about specific details about Erased that I really like: I like Satoru’s interactions with his mom as a child, showcasing that he still cared for her, even with the distance between them in his adult self; I like his interactions with his friends, both as a child and as an adult, when we can see the contrast their relationship takes; I like the lack of control Satoru has when talking as a child, showing the disconnect between his body and his mind; I like the meaning the title takes at the end of the series; I like the whimsical moments between Satoru and Hinazuki, which really drove home the meaning of his actions even at short term; I like the childishly awesome lines Satoru’s friends said; I like when he reads the text he had written as child, about his favorite hero; I like it, simple as that.
With this review I don’t aim to change people’s opinions or scores about Erased (although if it leads more people to give the show a try it would be really cool!), I hope simply to showcase how this opinion in specific can be valid, because as minimalistic of a story as it was, it did something for me, and for that I appreciate it.