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MagnusHex

Erased: The Town Without Me

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When I first heard about the popular 2016 anime, Erased, my initial thought was, "Another time travel anime about fixing your past? Come on." It didn't impress me and I wasn't sure what all the hype was about. Madoka Magica did it, Mamoru Hosoda did it with The Girl Who Leapt Through Time; all of them taught you that traveling back in time to change your past is a very bad idea. There just doesn't seem like anything new you could say that hasn't already been said. By the time I've finished the series, however... I was left in tears.

Erased is probably one of the most sincere love letters to the often mocked values of friendship and optimism in children's anime. The series is a message of hope even when there is none, and it even reconstructs the idea of friendship in anime by saying that friendship is not given freely, and you need to dig deep and take that first step first if you're feeling lonely and disconnected from the world.

Such a message couldn't be more relevant for our protagonist, 29-year-old Satoru Fujinuma, a comic book artist who's struggling to create a compelling story. His editor tells him to "dig deep" to find that voice, but at the start of the series, he doesn't know what that means. He's someone whom I relate to on some level because it's revealed that he only puts up a polite and civilized front as a way to make friends as he doesn't know how else to socialize with people. In a society like Japan with an increasing number of hikikomori (or social recluse), this is probably a very relevant theme for them as well. Satoru also possesses an ability called "Revival," where he's able to experience events ahead of time (usually from 30 seconds to a minute) whenever something bad is gonna happen. However, even when he does use this ability in the beginning, it doesn't feel like he does it because he genuinely cares about others - it feels more like he does it because the power is a part of him, so he might as well help others with it. There's this detachment Satoru has from "normal people" where he doesn't understand their humor and doesn't try to communicate further than ordinary greetings and conversations. In that sense, you could almost say that it doesn't even matter if he's erased from his town. Nobody will miss him that much aside from his own mother.

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But everything changes when a tragic event involving his mother, Sachiko Fujinuma, leads to his Revival powers magically transporting him back to 1988 in his 10-year-old body. In order to prevent Sachiko from meeting the same fate, he tries to find the links to the incident that led his Revival to return him 18 years into the past. This leads him to encounter his classmate Kayo Hinazuki, a victim related to the tragic event in the future. She accurately discerns that Satoru is merely acting amiable towards others just to get along with people, and through his interactions with Kayo and his other classmates (whose help he seeks to protect Kayo), he gradually learn what it means to connect with people and the precious friendship one could gain from such effort.

Usually, I'm not one to care about anime dealing with themes of friendship and family, not because I think they're childish, but because because I don't have many friends and I'm not that close to my own family. Friendship is practically an alien concept to me and I'm in the shoes of Satoru as well, putting up a front just to get through life. But there's just something so sincere about Erased and its childlike way of dealing with an adult issue of disconnection, the way it brings you back to your childhood when you were playing heroes with your neighborhood pals, and the way it shows how such small efforts could result in greater relationships in adulthood that inspires one to try putting in effort the way Satoru does. Furthermore, the anime isn't simply about good guys fighting bad guys like many adventure anime such as One Piece, but instead, it's a mystery thriller that deals with the very realistic theme of child abuse and how hard it is for child protection services to find out the truth about these abuse.

In a report back in May, the National Police Agency of Japan says that a total number of 1,991 minors in Japan aged under 18 were victims of child abuse in 2019. Of the 1,991 child abuse victims, 1,654 were subjected to physical abuse, followed by 248 who were sexually abused, 53 who were verbally and psychologically abused and 36 who were neglected. Naturally, in the year that the anime is set in, 1988, such abuse was very much prevalent in Japan with unclear regulations as to what constitutes "abuse" (particularly unclear was the definition of physical abuse). In a survey during 1984, over 70% of parents supported the use of physical punishment on their children. Even the revised Civil Code of '97 approved the use of such punishment as a form of discipline 'in so far as it is necessary,' so it can be very challenging for the authorities to determine what is abuse and what isn't.

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Knowing what I know about child abuse, the anime feels very realistic in its portrayal of such crimes: the Child Protection Service would be unable to protect Kayo in spite of repeated reports of abuse; her mother, Akemi Hinazuki, would hide away bruises and coerce her daughter to lie about the abuse; and Kayo's behavior of reclusiveness, anxiety and self-loathing feel very much like the traits of such abuse victims. Oftentimes, it can prove difficult to watch the anime because of how authentic its portrayal can be. It all goes back to the anime's theme of disconnection between people, how it can be difficult to reach out and help someone facing such hidden abuse or even to reach out and seek help when you're under the coercion of your own parent, the person whom you trust and look to as a guiding beacon. Growing up with such physical and emotional scars of my own, I just can't imagine how someone could bring himself to hurt an innocent child. It's explained why Akemi acts like this in the anime - she was a victim of abuse herself - but I found it hard to sympathize with her in spite of understanding this perpetual cycle in abusive families.

While spending time finding clues to what he's supposed to do, Satoru comes across an essay written by Kayo that the anime title is based on: The Town Without Me:

When I get bigger, big enough to go somewhere by myself,
I want to to a land that's faraway,
I want to go a faraway island,
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,
Swim in the sea when I want to swim,
And sleep when I want to sleep,
On the island I think about the town that 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 sense of relief,
I want to go far far away.

The town without Kayo, where she becomes just another statistic that's forgotten in 18 years, another unsolved case in some record book. It's a depressing yet realistic view of cases like hers. Determined to change her fate and that of his mother's, Satoru begins to dig deep and welcome Kayo into his life. For the first time ever, he makes a great effort to do whatever he can to reach out to someone to prevent tragedy from repeating. It's an emotionally riveting tale that makes you root for him, even as he fails, stumbles and has to do it all over again with his 'Revival.'

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Interestingly, the essay and the title's meaning would take on an opposite tone by the end of the anime, a more optimistic tone that reflects on how Satoru's earnest efforts have left behind impact on the people around him. Even when he's far away from people, his actions have made him memorable in the hearts of many. In a town without him, his friends and family patiently waited for him. Something has changed, but only because of his conscious effort. But that's the extent of spoiler I'm going to go into.

Remarkably, a lot of people hated this ending with a passion, most notably those who have read the original manga and loathed the changes the anime has made to the conclusion. There are two major changes that led to this outrage; one involves a more subtle change related to romantic commitments that I personally find nonsensical to complain about, while the other is a change that's more understandably hated because it lessens the depth of the antagonist and reduces him to a generic psychopath that does things "For the Evulz." I'll address the second change first.

Apparently, the final episode of the anime crams several chapters of the manga into a single episode, resulting in not only 1) the villain's motivation not explained, but also 2) a contrived plan put together by Satoru and his friends. I could understand why people were upset with this, but I'll explain more on why I'm not that bothered by the this change later on. Satoru's plan does seem annoyingly contrived and convenient, yes, but when you consider the larger theme of friendship and belief that the anime seems to be subverting, it just makes sense why this ending plays out like a typical children's anime where the hero conveniently saves the day.

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The other major change is the more subtle one. There's a very tiny detail where between the events of episode 10 and 11, the manga explains why Kayo gradually grows separated from Satoru and marries someone else instead of waiting for him. The anime left the detail out. Yeah. That's the complaint, that the anime fails to explain why a 10-year-old girl wouldn't wait for her savior and chooses to move on with life. Such an action is normally something one wouldn't need to ask about if he uses common sense, but apparently, this change is too drastic for many manga fans as everything needs to be explained.

And the thing that's so peculiar is that the anime didn't even really seem like a romance drama to me. It's supposed to be about a guy learning to open up to people around him through his childhood friends. It's an endearing exploration of the relationships you could build if you make an effort to dig deep and find that courage to reach out to people. I don't get why whether if Kayo moving on is explained or not should matter in such a story. Why does everything have to be about romance? It's not a romantic story! It's not about whom marries whom or which characters you ship!

And while I could understand that the exclusion of the villain's backstory is indeed problematic, the thing is, I wasn't that bothered by it because 1) I didn't read the manga so the difference wasn't noticeable for me, and 2) the villain doesn't really matter because this is a story about Satoru. The story still works fine even with a stock villain because it still manages to touch on its more heartfelt themes of connecting with people; the villain is secondary. And if not having experienced the source material still results in you enjoying a show (such as watching Watchmen without reading the comic book), is the adaptation really that bad? It must be made quality enough to still generate such emotions from the audience, and in the case of Erased, I was literally moved to tears by the time the anime ends in the final scene.

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As the end credits roll in the final moments of the last episode, we see Satoru, now a successful comic book writer who has found his voice, narrates an essay he has written in his younger 10-year-old voice. The essay, titled "My Hero", is written in a way that mirrors Kayo's essay, and it describes how he lacks the courage to dig deep and take the first step in gaining allies. The choice of word for "allies" used in the Japanese dub of the anime is a special one: nakama. It particularly carries a lot of weight in children's anime like One Piece and Fairy Tail, and while it can be used to say "friend," it's mostly a boyish term for "comrade" or "ally," a relationship that's closer than just a "friend." Satoru says that while he has "friends" (he uses tomodachi to denote 'friends' here), he doesn't have "allies" because he lacks the courage to reach out... unlike the superhero he worships on TV, "Wonder Guy", whose perseverance to fight on no matter how tough life gets earns him his allies. I can't tell you how much I love this final scene because not only does it show how much Satoru has grown as a person, having his own allies that he bonded with as a result of reaching out to Kayo and his classmates (as opposed to just "friends" he works with at his workplace), it's also clearly a tribute to those anime someone like me would normally dismiss as "kiddish" and "juvenile" because of their simplistic themes like courage and friendship. By the end of the anime, it shows how much significance such values we'd usually take for granted can mean in the adult world, having that courage to step out and bond with people. I think with how I feel towards such values and anime that explore them, such a message resonates deeply with me.

In the end, Erased isn't just another whodunit mystery or even another generic time travel sci-fi, and even though it portrays child abuse very realistically, it might not even be about that. Considering that it's a seinen anime targeting adult males, one might say that it's meant to appeal the aforementioned social recluse who has lost touch with the world and forgotten the bonds one could make with others if only you just dig deep with courage and make that first move. It might seem like a childish notion that relies on the belief in people, that they will reciprocate your gesture, but Satoru has said something else in the last episode that addresses such a belief: "'I believe' is such an odd turn of phrase, isn't it? I mean, if you truly believed from the bottom of your heart, you wouldn't need to spell it out. It's like saying 'I believe in air.' So people only say 'I believe' when they doubt something? I'm not trying to say that 'believing in something' is a barefaced lie, just that they are words of hope born from a desire to believe." Notably, Satoru only comes to this conclusion because, while he was accused of a crime the villain has committed in the anime, his co-worker, Airi Katagiri, was the only one who believed in his innocence. When asked why, she said she didn't necessarily believe in him, but rather, she wanted to believe in him, the same way an innocent man like her father (who was also accused of a crime) wants to be believed in.

Perhaps that childlike faith is what's required for us to connect with people. After all, what are stories but a medium to empower our beliefs?

Final Rating: 8.8/10

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