The time travel. The murder mystery. The unflinching domestic violence. The reference to the Tale of the Spider’s Thread. The determined mother. The humanized criminal. The nihilistic plot. The town superhero. There are a lot of things to talk about in this series, but there is one theme I want to focus on for this review: the will of the artist.
Why? Because somehow I feel like only the artist (which I will keep ambiguous) could possibly coast us along and weave together every last detail of this series and make sense of all of it, from the protagonist’s struggle to the words from the pizza girl. And also, it’s the main reason I consider this a great series, despite the fact that (here we go) I found this anime to be annoying.
That’s not to say that I didn’t like it. I just… as a critic… look, do I really have to spell out how overly idealistic this series about an unlikely superhero is?
Erased (Boku Dake ga Inai Machi, or “The Town Where only I am Missing”) gets into the mind of Satoru Fujinuma, a 29-year-old manga artist who has to make ends meet by delivering pizzas. For as long as he could remember, he’s had a supernatural ability that he calls “Revival.” This power allows him to travel back in time on the premise that something bad is going to happen to someone. With this power, Satoru has heightened his senses to look out for any kind of trouble so that he could prevent it, even if that means he ends up getting hurt instead!
But things go awry for Satoru when his own mother is murdered in his own apartment, and he’s the primary suspect!
In desperation, Satoru is on the run from the police, but he also searches for clues to find out who could have possibly done this. His Revival ability kicks in one more time, and he goes back… to 18 years ago, when Satoru was still in elementary school, just before three kids from his town were abducted and killed.
I’m actually not going to talk about the murder mystery or time travel aspect of this series in detail, as I am more interested in the phenomenology of this series. However, if you do need some background on that, Kotaku has written a detailed analysis on Erased.
What I did find interesting is the very deconstruction of Erased‘s superhero detective, Satoru Fujinuma. Now to even call Satoru a superhero or a detective is somewhat of a pejorative, seeing how he had to come up with it on the spot in order to cover up the fact that he’s a 29-year-old in an 11-year-old body when he travels back to his hometown. But in order to solve the big mystery in his present, Satoru felt it necessary to solve the mystery of his past. And seeing how he does keep all of his experiences from his present to his past, he uses that maturity to be more confident, even if he is just a child.
But I guess I can’t break down Satoru’s character without talking about Kayo Hinazuki.
Kayo was the first victim of the abductions that happened 18 years ago from Satoru’s timeline, and when he is taken back to that time, he finds that she could still be saved. But preventing her abduction on the night it allegedly happened in his time wouldn’t be enough to prevent it from happening. Satoru had to befriend Kayo, and learn everything he could about her, so that whatever did happen to her couldn’t be possible.
What he finds is that the mysterious girl who always seemed so lonely had been assaulted at home, only to be picked on even more when she goes to school for being poor. Not gonna lie, Erased does not hold back on visualizing Kayo’s torture, that I can’t even imagine how much worse it can be for those who are victims of domestic violence. And to top it all off, Kayo is still coerced into telling Satoru that everything is fine, that he should believe that nothing is wrong.
When it came time to share their diaries as part of a standard school lesson, Satoru had read an entry from Kayo’s: “Watashi Dake ga Inai Machi,” The Town Where only I am Missing. In this entry, Kayo envisions a place where she can go alone, without any more worries. But to Satoru, this was a cry for help.
So what does the superhero Satoru do to prevent anything from happening to Kayo? He must first fill the void in her heart.
Satoru races against the clock with every minute of this series. He knows that everything is over on the day Kayo gets abducted, but he soon discovers that simply preventing it on that one specific day won’t prevent it from ever happening. So to further ensure that nothing happens to Kayo or the other abductees, Satoru has to figure out the murderer’s motivations and act accordingly.
With each measure Satoru takes to prevent every victim from being kidnapped, Satoru does gradually change the future. And yet, in the limitations of his own experience, he still could not do anything to solve the mystery. But what Satoru does gain in his adventures of “playing detective,” he cannot realize on his own. Every effort he makes in filling the void in others hearts, he is filling the void in his own as well. He grows to love them. And those small bonds that he forges with others will be something he will cherish as well.
This is quite different from the Satoru we’ve known from the beginning of the series, the struggling manga artist who only sought to help others because he would have only regretted doing nothing at times when he knew he could. His actions thus far had been self-motivated, but he thought of them as an inconvenience, seeing how he would still get hurt. But going back to his childhood made things different. With his adult-like confidence and his willful determination, his friends and mother thought he really was a hero.
So this series seems to be rather enjoyable, things eventually work out, and truth be told, Satoru does eventually discover who the killer is. WHY is it that I find this series annoying?
Everything about it is too convenient. Complex, sure, but everything works out for Satoru! I suppose the assumption I’m expected to believe is that Satoru just naturally comes across as someone who is trustworthy, and all of his friends will go along with his plans to make sure no kid in his town is alone, not even questioning the possibility that maybe his plans are stupid. Things seem to fall into place well for Kayo without repercussions, and Satoru still manages to be the kid everyone remembers, even when the town goes on without him after he becomes the victim! It’s almost as if Satoru was jury-rigged into being the center of this story on an external level, and that includes being the criminal’s obsession, now that he had prevented three, possibly four abductions, leaving little to no possibility that there could have been someone else pulling the strings! So what gives?
As a critic, I can’t imagine that a mystery series, even given supernatural powers and an elementary version of (internal) linear time travel, would simply work everything out in its favor. Toward the end, I was almost waiting for a punchline or an ambiguity, to suggest that maybe none of this actually happened, and that Satoru was actually trying to express a reality for something he couldn’t do. We know he was weak from the start. Why does he seem like a god when everything comes to an end?
That’s why I found it helpful to understand the will of the artist in this series, and why I still think that it is a good anime. So why do I still praise Erased, despite how much it annoys me?
Because as a writer, this is exactly the kind of story I would like to have seen.
I know absolutely nothing about Erased‘s original creator, Kei Sanbe, or its director, Tomohiko Ito, or anyone else who helped in its production. But what I can imagine is that at some point, one of them must have witnessed a terrible tragedy at some point in their life, and wished for even the possibility, that they could have done something about it. To imagine themselves as the detectives. To be the superheroes. As much as I love tearing down this series for being unrealistic, I can’t help but smile because that’s exactly why I crafted Professor Ginkgo Chronicles on my own blog.
The stories don’t have to be real! And since they’re not real, they can solve the problems that we as feeble human beings could not. What they can do, however, is convey powerful ideas that can help its recipients, the audience, to see reality in a different way. And through this gathering of ideas, we still have a chance to change our future.
In this fictional world, the impossible cannot weigh guys like Satoru down. He is the architect: the manga artist of this narrative, and the center of his story. The impossible will not weigh him down. Impossible is nothing.
To wrap up this review, I’d like to end on something that Satoru’s foil, Airi Katagiri (aka the pizza girl) had told him. As this mystery unfolds, Satoru finds that he could not trust anyone but himself when he is branded as a suspect in his adult present. But despite all the news, Airi chose not only to trust him, but help him out in a heartbeat, even at the cost of her own well-being.
My critical self would probably be boggled by her motivations to just trust him without even questioning why she would. Satoru thinks this is strange too, and asks her about it. But all Airi could say to him was “I want to believe in you. It’s the flip side to someone saying ‘please believe me.'”
The imperative “please believe me” is what you say to someone in order to coerce them into trusting you. But there is no guarantee that they will, and forcing them to do so tramples on their freedom to think for themselves. But the declaration “I want to believe in you” maintains both parties’ freedom to think for themselves, yet still form a bond that entails that one can trust the other. Belief in this case is not some question of knowledge, as if we somehow want to believe that a person exists. Rather, belief in this case is an indication of hope that you can believe in what they do.
I don’t think Erased is a great anime because it told a story that I could not believe. I think it’s great because it told a story I want to believe.
So if you are looking for a decent mystery anime that you would want to believe, check out Erased. For my next review, I will be diving into a series that also provides a response to some of the ideas conveyed by this one. See you then.