Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Anime Review: Erased

Now it's time to really get going on the Winter 2016 anime season with noitaminA's third mystery show in as many seasons. For newcomers to the blog, I tried Ranpo Kitan (loosely based on the works of Edogawa Ranpo) but didn't like the first episode at all and watched The Perfect Insider (based on either a novel or a light novel from the 90s) until the end but got frustrated with both it's philosophy and it's "solution" to the murder mystery (I'm honestly surprised that more people weren't even harsher on that detail). Each of these shows has had greater credentials than the last and so we come to this show, based off of a manga with an excellent reputation and with a strong staff (I enjoyed the director's previous work on Silver Spoon quite a bit) and news that the anime would end concurrently with the manga and have the same ending. That's a promising start!

Erased (Boku Dake ga Inai Machi The Town Where Only I am Missing)

In the spring of 1988, two of Satoru's close classmates died, both only 11 years old. Satoru was an empathetic boy and this shock, plus having another close friend being arrested for their murders, seems to have permanently closed him off as he is now 29 with few prospects and no friends but overly cheerful coworkers. But the universe knows what Satoru needs, catharsis and ever seen that spring, he's had the unasked-for ability to save others. Calling it revival, he'll jump back briefly in time and try to save someone else, often taking a huge risk in the process. But this latest time something was different, no one died, and Satoru's visiting mother begins to think. She has always trusted her son and with her uncanny intuition thinks back to that snowy spring 18 years earlier. And it turns out the worst is yet to come as Satoru is thrown back 18 years where he finally has a chance to do what he couldn't do the first time: save his friends and break the cycles of sadness.

Everyone who has seen Erased will agree that the story is at it's strongest when it's showing Satoru's relationships with the other characters. It's a little shocking how quickly Satoru changes, he goes from being a quiet, almost sullen young adult back to an 11 year old boy with barely any trouble. He has a few snarky thoughts early on but as the series goes on they become less and less frequent and soon his "oops I said that" moments are all embarrassing (to him) revelations about his feelings, not the meanness you would expect from a 29 year old who has been throwing his life in danger for nearly two decades. It's oversimplifying it but in a nutshell, 29 year old Satoru didn't think he had anything left to live for (in a way realizing he was wrong starts the story) and by going back to being 11 suddenly none of his perceived faults matter anymore. He's awkward (that's everyone when he's young), hesitant to open up to his friends (since who would believe a story about time-travel and death?), and still too-ready to throw himself into danger but now it's personal and the people around him can see that bravery. As other people have put it, Satoru had to go back to being 11 in order to figure out again how to be the adult he wanted to be in 1988.

Not too long ago there was an interview with the director who said that he saw the story as "a human drama in the guise of a suspense thriller" and I want to unpack that statement since it's the start of my problems with the show. My problem is not that it's a human drama instead of a thriller/suspense drama at all. It should be obvious to the viewers that this is the show's main concern, Satoru never tries to solve the mystery of who the serial killer is per-say, he's much more concerned with making sure Kayo and the other kids aren't in the dangerous, isolated situations that would leave them vulnerable to the villain. His, and the show's, efforts at dealing with the situation as a whole occurs in the early episodes where Satoru takes steps to prevent Yuuki, and adult friend, from being framed for the murders but that's it.

However, the show was not billed to me as a thriller, I was told it was a mystery! Now I might actually been an outlier there, it's been fascinating to see how Crunchyroll vs Funimation vs Aniplex have all tried to sell the series to their viewers (Crunchyroll focuses a lot on that self-same human drama while Aniplex's trailer certainly plays up the more dramatic aspects) but for me the premise was: Satoru can go back in time to prevent accidents and crimes. In general, you prevent a crime by catching the criminal (especially in the case of a serial kidnapper who is still killing nearly 20 years later), therefore that's what Satoru has to do. It may just be that I have a fundamental disagreement with Satoru/the manga-ka about how to best fix this, while I did love Satoru's growing relationship with Kayo I was always thinking "but the killer could strike another way, they could get one of the other kids earlier, this doesn't mean they won't strike elsewhere [which the series had implied in the present], they could still commit the 20 year later crimes". I don't think these are illogical or unexpected thoughts for me to have! And the series "addressed" them by, well, deciding not to be a mystery after all and turning into a thriller.

The way I look at it, a mystery is the hows and whys a situation happened/is happening while a thriller is more of the emotional response to bad things happening, "what are the facts of the situation" vs "are they coming for me next? Am I safe?" These do often overlap but Erased begins with presenting clues to the situation (such as Satoru's hypothesis that the killer knew each of the children personally) but as the story goes on it fails to become more complex and I realized that no, that cast (and therefore list of suspects) really was this small .

And the villain's motivations turned out to be rather terrible, yes in a twisted way but also in a Psycho Pass 2 "they showed that the new villain was evil by having him kill two puppies with his bare hands" kind of way. I honestly couldn't believe it, that is hands down the weakest part of the show and considering it's rather integral to the story, what the heck! So this isn't just the case of the show being part human drama, part suspense thriller, the human drama is great and the thriller is somewhere between below-average to bad (depending on how critical you area) so those amazing, emotionally connecting moments in the show make the thriller parts look even worse! It's not a show with two moods, it's a show with a mood and a half, making it even more obvious just how out of place some of the dramatic moments are.

And yet, somehow the show pulls itself back from the brink in the final episode by confronting the villain and not outmaneuvering them but by boldly restating the themes of the show and honestly just unnerving them more than anything else*. I wouldn't have believed that it would work (to convince either the villain or myself) and yet the show looks at the viewer and says "yes, this is what we have been building too, this is what's important, tell me that this doesn't fit back in with all of the other parts so far" and you're forced to admit that well, yes I suppose this fits after all and was the neatest ending we were going to get by this point. 

I still think there was a better way to make this work however, by shifting some of the focus earlier on, letting Satoru figure out who the villain was earlier, and with more subdued or possibly more mysterious backstory for the villain. Enzo of Lost in Anime believes that the viewers were supposed to figure out the villain before Satoru, he worked it out in the manga around the same time all of the anime watchers did, and I do think there is a lot merit to this idea, especially given Satoru's admissions later on, but it still makes the pacing feel weird to me. Nick Creamer/Bobduh of ANN/Wrong Every Time even brings up the idea that perhaps the story would have worked better if there was no killer at all (both because the villain turned out to be really bad and because this could be more meaningful in the face of Satoru's inability to move on from events he always blamed himself for as I understand it). The one big impetus to that idea is that this series starts with a murder and there is absolutely no way that one could be a mistake. The story, or rather Satoru, also needs that death to trigger the revival. Not in a "this is how the power works" sort of way but prior to this, all of Satoru's revivals had involved total strangers, people he was compelled to save out of a Good Samaritan desire but not personally involved. With this death it's as if the universe says "okay, this has gone too far, four, almost five people have died already and you're at the center of it, you must go back and prevent these tragedies if you want to save your own future". But if we have this one death then we have all of these other deaths (since, serial killer) so, as intriguing as the idea is, I don't see it fitting in well without even more more drastic rewriting.

Up until the final episode I wasn't sure if I also wanted to try out the manga (to be frank, I find the art style a tad off-putting) but now yes, I want to see it. I know that the anime adapted a lot, changed a few things, and put in some anime original material to hold it together and I'm curious about those last two bits. I know that Airi was cut at least once from a significant scene (which I wouldn't have guessed if tumblr hadn't very nicely spoiled me way before I had a chance to watch), I feel like there might have been some plot holes involving Satoru's friend Kenya, and I wonder if the ending played out the exact same way or if the anime took the general spirit but a different execution. I felt like by the end I could see the director's brushstrokes on the show, like a talented restorer working on an old painting but you can still realize that this isn't the original coat of paint. 

I am a bit hesitant however, now that the show is over I'm hearing people complain about the manga (which is the exact same thing that happened with The Perfect Insider, folks I'm going to stop believing you if you don't grumble early on!) so I am worried that the thriller aspects will be even worse but, what if the fewer constraints on pacing in the manga actually makes it work better? I fully believe that this exact same story could work just a bit better and get rid of my complaints, sadly it sounds like 16 episodes would have been the perfect length to adapt the full story instead of tetris-ing it into 12. I'm not expecting those changes in the manga but like I said, with people talking about how the pacing was changed I want to know what could have been, plus I liked Airi a lot.

One unrelated thought before I wrap-up, I really liked the voice-acting in this series and having strong acting is key for character dramas. Lately I've been getting a little bored with the same rotation of actors so I was surprised that I didn't recognize Satoru's adult voice at all and delighted that both his adult and child voices were done by live action actors who haven't done much voice-over work. There are a few rough spots where his child's voice sounds a bit too high, even for an 11 year old boy, but overall the actors were fantastic and I loved the trick of having Satoru's inner and outer voices be different to convey the difference in his life experience. And I know it's cliched but guys I really loved both the opening and ending songs to the series. There were several strong opening songs this season and it took me a little while to warm up to this one but I think it has the best ending song of the season, I keep meaning to actually make the effort to track down the songs!

In the end, do I recommend this series? I think so, WITH the caveat to not expect too much from the thriller aspects. Heck, for anyone who has seen Erased and wants a similar story but with a better mystery, go read 20th Century Boys, lots of the same ideas (children and adults viewing the same events but with different fears), similar time periods, Kanna is great, and while I did work out the villain for 20th Century Boys slightly before the characters did it was still a gut punch of a reveal. Of course the director saw this as a human drama with thriller elements, that's exactly what he made! It is stronger than The Perfect Insider because of just that, PI for me went off the deep end where the characters stopped feeling like even the 2.5D people they were before but the characters in Erased continued to both follow and subvert expectations until the end, it was a joy to see that Satoru's "reward" for all of his troubles was friendships he never expected to have and that he's perfectly happy with that. 

As an aside, if I do end up reading all of the manga, would anyone be interested in a post on it? One part general review, a second part a spoilerly comparison between the anime the manga for interested parties?

*well, possibly by out-weirding him, I thought that might've been Satoru's intention but that could be reaching for it, *I* think that's a perfectly acceptable strategy to deal with a comic-book villain anyway