Spoilers for all of ERASED follow. It is worth noting that I have not read the manga as of the time of writing.
ERASED has been somewhat controversial as an anime, something I admit I didn’t really see coming, at least not in such an extreme way as to divide opinions into what seems like two extreme camps. Being the awful fence-sitter that I am (why am I a critic?), I fall somewhat in the middle. Unlike some (click) I don’t buy that ERASED was bad from the start and no one realised it. The characters may not have been instantly gripping (although I did find Satoru’s jaded 30-something schtick reasonably refreshing), but the plot certainly was enough to make me watch the whole series, and the neat visual tricks may not all have served a story-telling purpose, but they were still important to make a dialogue-heavy, action-lite show visually interesting. I couldn’t, however, consider myself a staunch defender of the show, as you’ll see. Failing to fit into the love or hate camp, I’m going to try and side-step the issue of judging this show as a whole, and instead focus on the problems ERASED has with genre.
Not fitting into conventional genre boundaries is not only not a bad thing, it often works to a show’s advantage. ERASED has elements of the thriller, and of the character drama, but like it or not, ERASED is primarily a murder-mystery. Or at least, that’s what I thought. You see, ERASED sets itself up like a traditional whodunit, then fails to ever follow through with it. Before I get onto this, I’d first like to clarify that this has nothing to do with the incorporation of other genres into ERASED. The mystery novel has often been a prime target for genre camouflage, where the author can work in elements of different genres into the mystery structure, while still managing both elements. As such, this post really has nothing to say about this show’s handling of characters (although I still find Satoru’s relationship with Kayo slightly creepy), instead, I’m more concerned with how ERASED handles expectations.
The big expectation, at least for me, was that ERASED would be a whodunit, and the reason I thought that was because ERASED tries hard in the first few episodes to slot nicely into that genre. We know (or strongly suspect) from episode one that the killer from the past, assuming them to be the same as the person who killed Satoru’s mum, is a man, but his face is deliberately hidden in the shadows. After this, Satoru goes back in time to solve this string of murders. Looking at my early notes, I wrote down how much I loved this idea as a function for a TV whodunit. As murder mystery shows almost always have their crimes taking place in the past, it is imperative to the viewer that the information is conveyed in an entertaining way – you don’t want a character going all Basil Exposition on you. Having our detective go back to the past, then, is a nice, neat tactic for getting round this issue while at the same time sneaking in some character development for both the detective and the victims (the latter of which is often rare in these types of shows).
Another nice tactic is more subtle and visual; we see the murderer has red eyes, and so whenever a potential suspect gets introduced, we see their eyes flash red – a small visual touch that could be used either to inform or trick the viewer. Another visual trick used is perhaps more traditional; the use of dummies to imagine how the crime might have happened in the detective’s head. It may be traditional but it works.
So now we come to the crux of it – all these techniques would be great in a traditional whodunit, but ERASED wastes them by making the murderer more and more obvious, and brushing over how the crime was done in a matter of minutes. Don’t get me wrong, I’m fine with a murder mystery where the murderer is revealed early on or is obvious, but that’s usually because the writer wants to focus on why or how they did it. But ERASED’s bait and switch has no real point to it; we never explore in any proper detail or heft how or why Yashiro did it, just some unintelligible spiel about hamsters and spiders.
In the end, then, the whole murder mystery element of ERASED could be easily removed from the show, and that’s not a good sign. ERASED sets itself up for a promising whodunit, that might take the back seat to a character drama, but would still carry some weight to it. Then, a few episodes in, ERASED gives away the big surprise, waits too long to officially reveal it, and forgets to give its villain any real motivation that makes sense to normal people. The final few episodes and scenes with Yashiro feel like a procedure, something that the writers knew they had to do, but didn’t have the heart to do properly, and that’s a real shame for the whole show.