Mystery thrillers is a genre that anime does particularly well with, especially when it comes to drawing in more casual and newer fans; which actually makes a lot of sense. If you take into account that types of shows that are popular in western media, this type of storytelling innately works with new viewers. But when you stop to look at the major anime hits that tackle mystery elements well, they are usually coupled with action. A bombastic visual storytelling that anime particularly excels in, and can be for many the mediums main draw.
But Erased really isn’t that kind of show, there is little to no action and the story doesn’t solely rely on intense melodrama or over the top reveals and cliff hangers to keep drawing viewers back. Despite having its fair share of hard to overlook flaws it still excels, mostly due to how beautifully it captures mood and executers on keen directing and vivid storytelling in a very understandable way that resonates with a wide array of anime fans.
The story revolves around by all purposes the hero of this story Satoru, a 29 year old aspiring mangaka and part type pizza delivery driver with the peculiar ability of time travel. Now this isn’t your use at will super power nor you scientifically reasoned time paradox like in a show like Steins;Gate, but an ability that kicks in when he is around a bad situation that he would have the ability to change. Outside of the show’s initial episode, Erased pays little mind to the specifics of this ability. Is it supernatural; is it something that can be explained away with an elaborate backstory? We never really get to explore any of those options, and while that may sound like a dreaded plot hole to some it actually works incredibly in the show’s favor. See this isn’t a time travel story in the slightest; Satoru’s ability is nothing more than a plot device to get him to where they want him to be for the sake of the story. Any time the show could spend on nailing down the specifics of this phenomenon would just load the show down in unnecessary pseudo-science that they would never be able to write off to everyone’s satisfaction.
See the show is much more concerned with being a character drama, and rightfully so. The show has a knack for writing character relationships that grow meaningfully off small moments. For the majority of the show the pace is scripted very tightly with little to no wasted space. Whether it is small conversations or awkward admissions of feelings, each scene is crafted and directed in such a way that carries an immense amount of character progression. And this is no more apparent than in the relationship between Satoru and Hinazuki.
Hinazuki is a young girl who is a victim of abuse and just like in any story that approaches this subject it really needs to be handled with respect. And forgive me for not being immediately convinced in anime’s ability to use subtlety instead of being edgy as fuck for shock value. But thankfully they never show much of what happens, because they really don’t have much of a reason to. The results of the events are made very clear through both the physical and emotional strain it takes on her as a character. But better yet the show doesn’t make her someone who is solely defined by her trauma. They take the time and care to build her relationship with Satoru, and thus the audience in a subtle, sincere, and meaningful way that highlight her as someone more than just a sympathetic backstory.
Take for example a small scene from episode 3 of the series where Hinazuki and Satoru are taking out the trash after an intense exchange with another student. While the character in question gives one of the most vivid examples of straight up poor shaming and the raw unempathetic nature of most children, Hinazuki recalls an event where said girl invites her over for a Christmas party, obviously with the sole intention of showing off her extravagant tree. And while Hinazuki is keen enough to realize this she doesn’t act resentful about it and is even able to call out that is was in fact a pretty sweet tree. Even so she isn’t a one note super sweet angel either, she’s not above throwing out you shitty mechanical pencil if you cross her. The show goes out of its way to highlight Hinazuki’s earnest nature and give the audience a reason to cheer for both her and Satoru in escaping their situation.
And all of this is conveyed in a small scene where two characters are just chatting while doing a chore. The show is littered with these natural moments that are written with the purpose of getting something very specific across and setting up meaningful payoffs letter in the show. Whether that is insight into characters motivations, clues into the source behind the mysterious killings, it’s all done in a way that is scripted well enough to convey all the information needed but also directed so that it fits naturally with the viewer.
For the bulk of the shows run it isn’t even interested in being a ‘who done it’ type of mystery story. A lot of mystery anime miss the mark in terms of keeping a good balance of getting people invested and delivering satisfying payouts. The failing of several of these shows come from how the characters handle solving the mystery. A lot of the solutions or resource gathering comes from logical jumps that only the character in question would be capable of. These are normally characters that are billed as being innately brilliant and thus them explaining their complicated line of thinking is what is supposed to compel the audience, but in turn leaves little to be invested in especially if the mystery does not directly involve the character in question. Some mystery shows can get away off mood and atmosphere alone as long as the mystery serves a greater purpose in character building, but unlike Erased these types of shows do little to draw in a more mainstream audience.
In the case of Erased the mystery and story are laid out primarily through the perspective of Satoru. We are presented clues from his narrow view point; hence the letterboxing which does as much narratively as it does for a sleek visual appearance, and go at his pace with very little deviation. This allows the show to be much more focused and precise in how it conveys its story and puts the viewer on even footing with Satoru. Being presented with clues and going along with Satoru’s internal monologue and thought process has us coming to conclusions at a more controlled pace, and the way the show decides to end most of its episode not on info baiting cliffhangers but in favor of more natural narrative end points, allows us to speculate more open ended and creatively than if our attention was pointed in any particular direction. The show is much more about cheering on Satoru in his attempt to change history and save a single life than it ever is about making a compelling run of the mile murder mystery.
Unfortunately all of this isn’t the case throughout the entirety of the show. Erased obviously shines when it’s attention is focused on the more human elements of it’s narrative, but the second it steps out and broadens its perspective it losses much of what makes those smaller moments work.
There are two obvious points in the show where the focus of the story is suddenly changed, one in the middle and one near the end. While trying to avoid spoilers as much as possible both these parts of the show take a step back. Having Satoru shift his attention to solving the overall nature of the mystery and thus losses it attachment to much of the cast, setting, mood, and tone that it had previously been building on. Now drastic shift in narrative is not inherently bad, but everything I’ve said up to this point about character writing, visual cues, and story layout do not apply on nearly the same level in terms of its craftsmanship when applied to this side of the show. The characters at this point are much less compelling, not given enough time to come into their own or have emotional hooks that form a natural identity and connection with the audience.
The visual cues the were done with a subtle hand and brought so much life to the scenes earlier lose that touch and are instead so obvious they feel like the staff was scared that the audience might miss how smart and clever they were being. Specifically in instances as harsh as have a painting of The Last Super foreshadow an impending roadblock to having Satoru “Erased” from the opening at a very specific time.
Much like the time travel element, the haunt for the identity of the killer and the truth behind the murders are not what the show does best and considering how it all turns out, maybe should have been avoided in favor of something more low key to fit with the rest of the show’s tone. And it’s not like the show is bad at handling villains. Hinazuki’s mom is an ever present and dominating antagonizing force who is as cartoonishly evil as she is genuinely loathsome. Someone who dominates the entire presence of any scene she is in and is a constant fear in the back of the viewers head. They may avoid the actual abuse but in a scene where Hinazuki’s mom submerges her daughter in ice water, ice in this scene to heal wounds representing the healing and nurturement of motherhood brilliantly emphasizes the disconnect between her parental position and her deplorable actions. And they even give her a final reflective moment grasping at whatever hope of redemption she has left and having it ultimately fall on deaf ears.
This show obviously knows how to write good characters and when they are focused and the story is built in a way that their presence compliments what the show is trying to accomplish they can be a very important and needed aspect of a potentially great show. Continuing to speak in broader terms to avoid spoilers the elements they use to wrap up the story are not only underwhelming and telegraphed in such a way that is really disappointing as a viewer, it is done in such a way that almost single handedly ruins the main theme the show was trying to get across, or at least was in my eyes.
The need for community and trust between neighbors is something that was being established through the entirety of the story; even the middle part which I’m not a fan of hammered that theme in with the blunt force of a runaway tractor trailer at several points. But the way it builds to its conclusion undermines a lot of the shows overall goals and turns the show from an amazing character drama with an albeit simple but still potent message into little more than a 10 dollar murder mystery airport paper back designed to be consumed and thrown away at your final destination, leaving little to chew on.
With this being the case the final stretch of the show is a mixed bag of emotional payoffs and narrative turns. The ending of the show by design brings together most of the narrative through lines it had established throughout the series. And since these could run the gambit of great too bad according to the viewer, it was constantly switching between genuinely heartfelt and meaningful payoffs, some of which are my favorite single moments of the show, to me audibly booing at the screen.
So here we are at the big question, is Erased actually a good show? Well it’s definitely polarizing, at times feeling like two different ideas on how to handle a mystery story meshed into one with obvious seams. The fact that I can plot my reaction to the show and come to the conclusion that I really only like about 6 and two halves episodes of a 12 episode show isn’t really a huge stamp of approval. But the moments that Erased does do well make up some of the best examples of why I love anime, and the fact that the tonal shifts correspond almost too perfectly with the progression of the story, it is really easy to separate the two in retrospect.
The impact of a weak middle I believe could be lessened in the context of marathoning the show, when the momentum and sheer strength of the better parts of its story can carry you through two or so rough episodes. So how much the show ultimately succeeds or disappoints can come down solely on to whether or not you are satisfied with the final reveal of the main mystery. Something that if the writing staff gave more care to, I think they could of come up with a much stronger alternative.
While a sloppy finish can discredit many seemingly great shows, Erased still manages to tie up what it does best in a separate way with its own unique, low key, and self-contained conclusion that fits well with the tone of the better parts of its run. It won’t go down as a top 10 anime of all time for me, but an easy early contender for one of the better shows of 2016? Yeah, you betcha.
Using my scientific method of picking out whatever number sounds good, I will give Erased or Boku dake ga Inai Machi, which ever title you prefer a 7 out of 10 for being a show with enough great moments and a sleekly produced and memorable main arch that manages to outweigh its unfortunate shortcomings.