Why Genre Matters for ERASED: ‘Playing Detective’

If you’ve been following discussions over the quality of Boku Dake ga Inai Machi, or ‘ERASED’ for Western viewers, you’ll have surely come across the issue of whether or not it deserves the ‘mystery’ genre tag MAL and a number of other anime sites give it.

The camp that says it must be a mystery tends to just note that it has ‘a mystery’ and therefore must be of that genre – that genre being, more specifically, the ‘whodunnit’ genre where we expect to follow a detective as he slowly unravels a crime. The camp that disagrees tends to argue that the killer was supposed to be obvious, that Satoru ignores his expected role as a detective ad goes on a different path, and that’s what contributes to it being a drama-slash-thriller. But neither of these positions fully grasp what ERASED was setting out to do with its story. That being said, it didn’t do that particularly well either.

One of the problems with discussing anime online is that, in large communities and forums, you tend to get the same thoughts recycled from person to person. In a lot of my time on r/anime asking people what reasoning they had for ERASED being a ‘whodunnit’ and for justifying their criticism of it failing as a whodunnit, most of the arguments kept coming down to just insulting me as being pretentious for thinking, after we had a murder and an unknown killer, that the show could be anything but a mystery. There was no thought that the genre could be played around with; if it had an unknown killer, we had to keep guessing until the big reveal. Nothing else could suffice.

I made the mistake, however, of reading this kind of thinking into GoatJesus’s video on the show. A pointless Twitter conversation full of my suppositions followed, but I never was humble enough to ask him for a full breakdown of his thoughts on why it had to be a mystery for him. Fastforward a few days and in spite of my unfair comments to him, he chose to make a video laying out his thoughts on the issue of ERASED’s genre fully, responding to one of the points I’d made and a number of other issues people have been raising to him. This video is great, and I recommend watching it before reading on:

The way GoatJesus decides genre is by quantification of elements: something can be ‘60% thriller’ or ‘30% horror’ based on processing it through a detailed and surely well-researched spreadsheet. I’m not on-board with this method, though, because while stories get categorized with genres, our experience with them involves a regular refreshing of what genre is being invoked when and how. ERASED may not have been good at telegraphing its genre shifts, but it was at least better than Plastic Memories, which began as speculative sci-fi but then forgot it had some interesting ideas and boiled them down to a vapid tear-jerker romance preceded by romantic wish-fulfillment. ERASED didn’t forget it had begun as a whodunnit; it let us solve the mystery so quickly in order to reveal Saturo’s greatest flaw as a character.

Irony is one of the greatest assets of the dramatic toolkit. Knowing ‘he’s behind you’ when the puppet is oblivious and yelling it to him, but having him fail to turn around at the right time, makes for engaging comedy. ERASED effectively tried to do this within a far more serious narrative; like Punch in the puppet show, Satoru is characterized by his failure to notice Yashiro’s true nature. He’s blinded by the smokescreen of Yashiro’s profession and deceived by the act Yashiro maintains. The show says he’s ‘playing detective’ to draw our attention to how, in his childish tunnel-vision of trust, he isn’t working as a detective at all. He’s too close to the victims and the suspects; if he wasn’t just ‘playing’ and this was professional, he’d have been taken off the case.

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The problem is not that we were asked to uncover the killer before Satoru. That’s a vital part of the plot. The problem is, simply, that the uncovering wasn’t fun. It didn’t fully feel like part of the story, leading many people to either take it as an ‘it must be someone else’ conclusion or just a criticism that distanced them from the action. I permitted it once I’d realized it, early on, because I was already beginning to see the show as being about how certain professions and positions in society cloud our understanding of people in them, but even I didn’t find the understanding of Yashiro as the killer enjoyable. It was merely a spoke in the wheel of enjoying Satoru. But the show failed to get many viewers to feel like they needed it in their ride, making that journey through Satoru’s struggle bumpier as a result.

That being said, the story still asked us to solve the mystery before Satoru did, and that required us to do at least a modicum of mental legwork. GoatJesus sets up a binary where the show should either keep us guessing for as long as the protagonist is, or just reveal the killer’s face outright to us. The problem with performing irony with the latter is that we would stop being detectives completely, and so we wouldn’t have any irony between our detective role and Satoru’s; we would become as passive as Satoru was in the car as Yashiro revealed himself.

The irony of ERASED is that Satoru is ‘playing detective’ when we’ve already finished. The design of the narrative aims to give us the feeling of ‘it’s obvious’ still through some level of ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’, so we ask ourselves why Satoru hasn’t figured it out himself. If only that obviousness had been a little more graceful, it would have probably been as functional for the majority as it was for me. But make it too subtle, like Kabaneri made Biba’s more developed motivations and points of ‘depth’ last season, and people would start to miss it, and the story would lose any chance of getting drama.

The complaint then is that him failing to solve the mystery makes him a bad character. In short, he’s stupid, and it’s not fun following stupid people around a narrative. We know that irrationality isn’t immediately a negative in a story, though. What we need to do is contextualize why Satoru is neglecting his duties as detective – not just because of Yashiro’s act, but because of Satoru’s character and his flaws. He has every detective’s wet dream – he can literally reconstruct the crime scene, which is what every detective aims to do after they ‘receive the call in the story beats of a whodunnit.

Instead of using Kayo for this purpose, however, he aims to protect her in every way possible at the expense of how useful she could be in baiting the killer into revealing himself. He puts his care for her at a higher priority to uncovering the killer’s identity, flouting our expectations, and he only gets further and further away from actively trying to catch the killer as we become more and more sure. The protagonist and the viewer are put on opposite trajectories. By episode ten Satoru is still trying to save people first and isn’t thinking about the killer’s identity – at one point he even neglects a whole list of suspects simply because it contains his family and friends – and he puts himself in danger because Yashiro is someone he considers absolutely on his side.

This is where ideas of genre become really important. Genre matters to ERASED because ERASED talks about genres ad what they contain and uses some of its expectations as windows into its characters. As a child, thrust into the past to save the future, Satoru is stuck needing to be a detective, a grown-up fighter of crime, but instead resolves himself into the idealized, childish role of a superhero, concerned more with saving people from the villain’s grasp than with who the villain actually is. These are similar but different archetypal roles of similar but different genres of crime-fighting, and they’re defined mostly by age. Superheroes are more marketed as figures for children (or the ‘child inside’), while gritty detectives tends to gather a more mature market.

Perhaps, because his mother knew the killer, he thought that if he saved her, she would do all the work and catch the killer herself; he transferred the detective role onto her and only sought to ‘save’ her like mommy’s superhero. This passivity could be said to be a further development of his flaws; but its not fun for a lot of people to sit through a character like that. Without being an active detective, Satoru doesn’t have too much else going for him. Most of the joy I got from him beyond Yashiro’s reveal was because of the characters around him and how he had benefited their lives. Saturo just became a springboard and soundboard for the significance of their survival.

Satoru’s biggest issue as a character, for me, is that while this struggle of ‘playing detective’ throughout a lot of the series was fun, he never actually grows up into a detective in an enjoyable way. The killer reveals himself rather than being revealed, and while it can be said that Satoru’s penetrating understanding of Yashiro at the very end won the day, it’s pretty unanimous that everything that happened on the roof was poor drama. His failure to perform as a detective gave a lot of dramatic irony to his efforts in his past, but these weren’t rewarded with inspiring growth into the present, and that makes all that past irony feel less meaningful too.

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ERASED’s story was a hard sell; start it as a whodunnit, allow the viewer to solve it by the end of the first act, but have Satoru never eventually ‘solve’ it himself. Satoru realizes how many things he had ignored and how biased he had been against thinking any friends or family could have been the killer, but where the story failed the most was in telegraphing to the viewer that his failure as a detective was being worked into his very performance as a character. The show also failed to offer an ending that made his past failures feel like part of the plot and his essential character flaw, rather than failures of the story itself to perform, as many people have dubbed them.

ERASED is not a weaker story because it’s a bad ‘whodunnit’ mystery. It’s not a ‘whodunnit’ story overall. What ERASED fails at is fully marrying the flouting of that genre with its main suspense thriller narrative. As GoatJesus noted, not all subversions are good; but we should at least acknowledge that the expectations we had of a ‘whodunnit’ detective were subverted and work from there in our criticism. What the story needed was something that firmly told us of the purpose of working away from that genre before it began to be flouted; Satoru’s mangaka issues certainly didn’t do the trick. I’m stuck for ideas myself, because setting one genre over a few episodes and then twisting it around feels like such a hard sell in the over-categorization of modern commerical media. Genre tags are like red-hot brands for most people.

The more skeptical of genre – those that don’t see it as fixed or quantifiable with a list – will likely have enjoyed ERASED more, but that just isn’t the market ERASED walked into (especially with anime pretty starved of good mysteries lately), and nor was it the majority of viewers it depended on for its success. I still enjoyed most of it, but it makes sense that a lot of people didn’t.

But let’s stop saying it should have had more culprits, or more mysteriousness. And let’s stop always taking issue with people arguing ‘ERASED isn’t a mystery’ by believing it’s inherently some kind of ‘defense’. Our priority as critics is to come to the clearest understanding of how a story works and how well it does what it tries to do. It should be obvious, on closer inspection, that ERASED aimed to flout the ‘whodunnit’ genre rather than fulfill it. All it needed to do was sell what it set out to do better; a story of ‘playing detective’ but never really being one. A story where ignorance is a boon to character depth, not an obstacle for so many viewers. The flaws of Re:Zero’s Subaru have me engrossed in his struggle. The flaws of Satoru just didn’t come to fruition in the end.

 

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