The following is a review of the Netflix live-action drama series Erased, based on the fantasy thriller seinen manga illustrated by Kei Sanbe, and serialized and made into an anime in 2016. The Netflix series came out in 2017. Please be advised of major spoilers for the show below.
I didn't learn that 僕だけがいない街 translates to The Town Without Me until the last few episodes of the show. It was like stepping back from staring hard at one stroke of an impressionistic painting to behold the whole image. I like the evocativeness of the English title, too, which vibes of both horror and police procedural (think Without A Trace). As a whole I found Erased truly a thrill to watch. Simultaneously scary and joyous, creepy and wholesome, sappy and riveting, the show does everything in a beautiful way: I loved the lighting, cinematography, acting (especially from the kid actors!), and its deeply relatable themes. Having not watched the anime or read the manga, I watched the show with a recently acquired familiarity with narrative filmmaking, which only added to the viewing experience.
Surprisingly, I also appreciated how Erased captured the simplicity of good triumphing over evil, the will to seek justice and truth over retribution and destruction.
It turns out that the recurring shots of the lighthouse and coal-factory chimneys are deeply significant motifs thematically. Noticing them certainly made me feel smart as a viewer, like the filmmakers knew we would pick up on them. The lighthouse is benign and serves as a navigational tool for sailors but it is also a symbol of surveillance in the show. Knowing that the murderer also served as a statesman, watching over Satoru's every move recalls the scene when he (Satoru) is chased by police, falsely framed by the state for a crime he didn't commit. Meanwhile, the coal factory signals a broader sense of corruption associated with industrialized and larger-scaled cities, its harsh demands on the average citizen and family, and the isolation those demands breed.
There are two, contrasting portrayals of single mothers in Erased. One is intuitive, clever, kind, and dedicated to the bone. The other: abusive, negligent, and cruel. By demonstrating how Satoru's determination to save his mother fuels his empathy for Kayo, Erased insists on the ingenuity and compassion of youth while also emphasizing adults' capacity for the same. The play with time suggests that it is a wiser Satoru who is motivated to save his new-found friends, but it is nonetheless the growth of a youth with the opportunity to seek that friendship for the first time. Through this fantasy plot the show also emphasizes the deep responsibility that grown-ups have to protect youth, and the deep tragedy of their failure.
In the show, that responsibility is brutally abused, and ultimately it is children’s own support of one another that saves them. My biggest critique of this dynamic, the attempt to show youth ingenuity and grown-up responsibility at the same time, is how Yashiro's creepiness is made almost exaggeratingly monstrous while Satoru’s goodness is elevated to a kind of purity. At times, I found neither portrayals believable. Broadly speaking, this over-simplification builds up in a way that makes sense for the narrative and is easy to appreciate: evil is a kind of habit and will in response to one’s environment, and so is goodness. But it is still an over-implication and makes our protagonist and antagonist seem like mere archetypes.
At the same time, I wonder if it’s harder for me to accept this duality because of how prevalent moral ambiguity is in North American detective narratives/procedurals. I grew up with shows like Law & Order: SVU and Criminal Intent, where police officers who become jaded and angry while drudging through bureaucratic institutions full of barriers and corruption. Ego meeting with ego throughout restrictive chains of command, shows like The Wire and How to Get Away with Murder parallel legal institutions with crime organizations and brilliantly suggest that the system (in the U.S.) is set up to fail.
Erased is not explicitly about the bureaucracy of police or the legal world. It is about an artist unable to find his spark, and finally finding it when finding his own capacity to love. He experienced the brutal pain of loss, and is given multiple chances to reshape fate. Family and friendship are the basis for genuine community support that allows him to become a hero, showing that heroism is not an individualistic triumph over obstacles, but a collective effort based in earned trust and camaraderie. There is less cynicism in this portrayal; it leaves viewers with an alternative to violence often lacking in western procedurals and dramas. Within Erased's fantasy logic, there is the same generous spirit as Satoru's. The magic seems to emerge from his determined will.
Similar to Your Name, Erased plays with linear time and suggests alternative timelines for our future. Emphasizing the way that life and love can be reclaimed within the city, Erased is breaking out of the dichotomy of urban and rural, secular and spiritual. Redemption is not found outside the city necessarily. Instead, the summer camp is the site of 'nature' and within the show's narrative, it is an enclosure where the final battle of will and determination is fought. After all, the campsite is still a part of the broader structure of an urbanized living, sitting on land allotted for enjoyment but nonetheless still vulnerable to exploitation. As the bridge is set on fire and Yashiro appears to be just about engulfed in flames, beautiful fireworks erupt in the background. This juxtaposition emphasizes that vulnerability beneath the façade.
Erased ends with Satoru finding fulfilment within a shared manga studio, and serendipity underneath a bridge. It is a case for the artist within the city, showing the possibilities and dreams that can nonetheless be found within that life. For me, this final arch of Satoru's development makes the story particularly profound, even if itself at times a fantasy in the world we live in. While police, lawyers, teachers, politicians, and social workers are bound by the bureaucracy and rules of institution barriers, artists can also be detectives, and they can be free.
A worthwhile vision if there ever was one.