Erased (Bokudake ga Inai Machi)
Erased is Kei Sanbe's manga masterpiece, and the live-action rendition now available on Netflix offers an absorbing and impressive iteration of this imaginative, thrilling story.
The story might be referred to as 'accidental sci-fi'; a fantastical premise is key to the story but remains ultimately incidental to the central drama. Opening in the year 2006, Satoru Fujinuma is a 28-year-old pizza delivery boy who yearns to be a manga artist (at some point there ought to be a head-count of how many manga open with this backstory). What's unusual about Satoru, however, is that he has a strange sort of 'superpower', albeit one that he's powerless to control. Periodically he will find himself thrust back in time for short, five- to ten-minute periods. He refers to this as 'revival', and when it occurs he knows that something bad is going to happen in that temporary time period that he has to figure out and prevent. Often it's simple things: preventing a child from getting hit by a truck, for instance.
After a series of suspicious incidents he returns home from work one day to find his visiting mother murdered in his apartment. Realizing that he is the prime suspect and on the run from the police, he is thrust back in time 18 years (to 1988) and into the body of his 11-year-old self. He finds himself reliving his childhood while at the same time trying to figure out how to prevent his mother's murder in the future; something he realizes is mysteriously linked to a series of child kidnappings and murders that took place in his hometown when he was a child.
The action alternates between the 1988 timeline, with Satoru struggling to prevent the child kidnappings and solve the crimes in that period, and the 2006 timeline, with Satoru on the run from the police and trying to solve (or prevent) his mother's murder. Eventually the timelines converge in a nerve-wracking denouement in the hills outside Tokyo.
The story offers both a challenging mystery (the author dangles various suspects before the reader before revealing the murderer) as well as a heartwarming story of family, friends and childhood. The burgeoning friendships between children in the 1988 timeline are the sort that may bring a tear to your eye -- here's a vague anti-bullying theme to the piece, and of friendship as the antidote to alienation and abuse -- and Satoru's mother Sachiko (presented in strongest detail in the 1988 timeline) offers a confident, positive portrayal of single motherhood. A key theme of the 1988 timeline is child abuse, and it is the children who must band together to support each other and call out what they see happening in the face of adults who are too busy or oblivious to recognize it.
The series cleaves closely to the original manga, facilitated by superbly expressive acting on the one hand and tight, professional scriptwriting on the other (hints and details that only later are revealed to be significant are packed in so the attentive viewer will benefit most).
The real stars of the series are the children. The child-actors portraying the characters' younger selves in the 1988 timeline all do a superb job, frequently outperforming their adult counterparts. The show develops the aura of a children's series at times, with kids hiding out in clubhouses and reaffirming the centrality of friendship. They're quirky, endearing, and pull off brilliantly the challenge of bringing a fantastical plot into reality.
Indeed, one might at times wonder what age group the series is designed for. The children's scenes, while endearing and absorbing for adults, share all the characteristics of a show suitable for grade school kids. But the grim backdrop of murder and kidnapping suggests an older audience, and some of the later episodes which deal with suicide and child sexual abuse are particularly intense and disturbing. 'Young adult' is perhaps the suitable compromise, but the show will easily satisfy fully adult audiences as well.
While the present-day scenes take place in Tokyo, the backdrop for the 1988 timeline is more unique: suburban Hokkaido. Japan's sprawling northern island offers a colder, grittier backdrop than the ubiquitous clash of ancient and modern all too often portrayed in super-urban Tokyo. Grimy, industrial towns, belching factory chimneys and pre-fab low-income housing units shift the setting away from stereotypical Japanese big screen backdrops. This everyday post-industrial suburbia works well: evocative of grade-school nostalgia for many viewers it also facilitates a greater focus on the storyline and character interaction. Of course, the show has lovely cinematographic moments as well: night-time urban panoramas; trees framed by starry winter skies; a picnic in the forests under Mount Fuji's gaze.
Importantly, Erased is one of those growing numbers of stories that highlight the subtle capacity of time travel to underscore the significance of living in the present. The whole point of 'revival' is to allow Satoru to relive the past while struggling to notice the things he missed first-time round; things that seemed insignificant at the time but which have serious consequences. This is no Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, with the protagonist using the superior insights of the future to reshape the past. Instead, it's deeply introspective, and reminds us that the haste with which we live our lives -- ignoring the people around us, or treating them with impatience and haste -- can come back to haunt us in unexpectedly serious ways.
Erased is a visually attractive, thrilling manga, and having already read it detracts nothing from enjoyment of the live-action series. The chemistry of friendship and family relationships is beautifully expressed and the children's acting renders it entertaining even if you already know who the murderer is. Filmed beautifully but without relying on special effects, and eschewing violent drama for a focus on friendship and interpersonal relationships, the series offers an excellent example of manga live-action adaptation superbly done, while the manga on which it is based remains an exemplary model of beautiful storytelling.