There are spoilers in this post for Erased, also known as Boku dake ga Inai Machi, The Town Without Me, and The Town Where Only I am Missing.
The Town Without Me by Kayo Hinazuki
When I get bigger, big enough to go somewhere by myself,
I want to go to a land that’s far away.
I want to go to a faraway land.
I want to go to an island that has no people.
I want to go to an island that has no pain or sadness.
There are no adults, children, classmates, teachers, or my mom on that island.
On that island, I can climb a tree when I want to climb a tree,
swim in the sea when I want to swim in the sea,
and sleep when I want to sleep.
On the island, I think about the town I left behind.
Kids go to school, as if nothing has changed.
Adults go to the office, as if nothing has changed.
Mom eats, as if nothing has changed.
When I think about the town without me, I feel a sense of relief.
I want to go far, far away.
Erased is about making connections. Connections with the self and with others. It weaves a vast web connecting characters, plot points, and timelines while heavy handedly pointing them out using flashbacks and internal monologue. After a brief plot reminder I’ll discuss some of these connections before moving into how the show calls attention to them.
Satoru Fujinuma is 29 year old deliveryman at a pizza place. He is friends with Airi Katagiri, also working at the pizza place. Occasionally an ability Satoru calls “revival” is activated and he is sent up to five minutes back in time to prevent a disaster from taking place. Satoru can’t control revival. One day he returns from work to find his mother murdered and Satoru is framed for the crime. His revival ability activates, but this time he is sent 18 years back in time, presumably to change the past to save his mom.
Satoru remembers that around this time, several kidnappings took place. He makes it his mission to save the children as well. One of the kidnapped children is Kayo Hinazuki, whom Satoru becomes very close with while his plans unfold.
After successfully saving the children whom he is now close friends with, his homeroom teacher, Gako Yashiro, reveals that he was the kidnapper. Yashiro tries to kill Satoru but ends up putting him into a coma. 15 years pass while his friends and family grow up without him. After waking up from the coma and getting his memories back, Satoru formulates a plan and catches Yashiro.
The first connection we’ll discuss is Satoru’s connection with himself. Two parallel scenes bookend the show where Satoru, an aspiring manga artist, is pitching a manga to a publisher. At the beginning, the publisher rejects his work as he doesn’t believe Satoru is digging deep into himself to find a story worth telling. At the end we are treated to a similar scene but the publisher loves Satoru’s manga. One reason Satoru couldn’t “dig deep” was that his mother tried to make him forget all about the kidnappings that occurred when he was a child. Satoru blamed himself for not being able to save them. Perhaps by successfully saving the children and stopping the kidnapper Satoru was able to finally connect with himself and create deeper manga, but I don’t think that’s the only reason.
Another important scene near the end is when Satoru is sitting under the bridge, reading a journal entry he wrote as a child. The entry is about Wonder Guy, a superhero and protagonist of his favourite anime. The following is said while scenes from the whole series are played in the background.
…In the first part of it, Wonder Guy had to fight the bad guys by himself. They’d knock him down again and again, but he had the courage to get back up. He’d say, “If I don’t try, nothing will change,” and he’d jump right back into the fight. Other people saw how courageous he was and slowly but surely, they joined him and became his friends. When it looked like the bad guy was going to finish him off for good, he didn’t worry. He never stopped believing that his friends would come to the rescue, but someone like me doesn’t have Wonder Guy’s courage, or real friends…
All this implies that while Satoru had to find piece with himself, another big part of Erased is about connecting with others and making friends. This idea is examined in several contexts.
Most notably we have Satoru becoming friends with Kayo. Mother’s Basement made an in-depth video analyzing the cinematography of a scene from the second episode. He notes the use of camera framing around a tree that symbolizes the barrier between Kayo and Satoru. Satoru soon crosses the barrier and the two touch hands, cementing their connection. Kayo notes several times how similar they are- they are both fake. Their hands being the same size extends this similarity.
Satoru’s plan for saving the children is to become friends with them and ensure they are never alone, thus the kidnapper never has a chance to strike. Satoru finds he’s having difficulty doing this, so when getting a ride from his teacher, Yashiro, Satoru asks him for advice on “how to approach a girl you don’t know”. Yashiro says, “I’d get her to drop her guard first, that way I won’t freak her out.” In retrospect this is quite sinister.
While not included in the anime, we see more of Yashiro’s backstory in the manga where he learned a lot about connecting with people specifically so he could kidnap them. Yashiro used these skills to become a great teacher. This draws attention to how something as innocent as making friends with people can be applied in vastly different ways.
Digibro criticized Erased for lacking subtlety in its symbolism and storytelling. I don’t think it violates “show, don’t tell”- Erased still “shows”, but it makes certain you understand what it’s “showing”. Earnest Hemmingway used the metaphor of an iceberg in his “Iceberg Theory”, stating that writing should not explicitly discuss the deeper meaning of a work. The “tip of the iceberg” narrative should be enough for the deeper “underwater” themes to convey themselves implicitly.
I don’t think Erased was necessarily too heavy handed. For instance I find that the scene discussed in the scene analysis mentioned above runs too fast to consciously pick up on every technique used. I still felt a sense of awe when figuring out little things, even if the show became rather explicit afterwards. For example, the frequent callbacks to characters or timelines. Some instances include:
- Kayo often says to Satoru, “You’re an idiot” (or “Are you stupid” depending on the translation). Satoru hears the same thing from Airi when he briefly returns to the present.
- Kayo and Airi on dreams and “the more I talk about it, the better the chance it’ll come true”.
- Satoru mentioning Yashiro’s speech on the “void we all have inside of us”.
- Jun and the Wonder Guy on the importance of courage.
- Satoru telling his mom she doesn’t need to change trains while he’s in the past.
I can’t remember all of them unless I were to watch the series again, but Erased does a lot to make sure you notice these callbacks. Flashbacks are implemented, letterboxed as a film strip while Satoru notes the similarities.
While I don’t think Erased is too heavy handed, I still think it’s important to be subtle and leave little secrets for viewers to find. In a talk titled “Everything I Learned About Level Design I Learned from Disneyland”, Scott Rogers mentions the use of secrets in Disneyland around the 29 minute mark. He notes how it’s important to add fun surprise moments, and adding secrets is a way to do that. I think that while they advance a reader’s understanding of the work as a whole, they also feel special and personal.
Mother’s Basement also spoke about the blatant use of the colour red for symbolizing danger.
Time travel both a current hot topic and interest of mine. I can think of several time travel works I’ve seen or played recently: Steins;Gate, Your Name, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Life is Strange, Chrono Trigger, Braid. Something that sets Erased apart from the others is that Satoru can’t control his time travel powers. I’d be interested in seeing a sort of prequel on the implications of this.
The opening is beautiful. At the beginning an old and young Satoru are sitting in a movie theatre, but at the end they are absent. I take this to mean Satoru is taking control and not simply watching everything play by. A brilliant variation is used for episode 11 where Satoru is absent and the characters’ eyes are no longer crossed out.
The Spider’s Thread is the Japanese short story that Yashiro mentions. Here is a translation of it. It’s just two pages and seems to be well known as it also inspired a terrifying sequence in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.