What would you do if you were nine again and were the only one who had a chance to prevent a murder?
Erased is the story of Satoru, a 29-year-old aspiring manga artist who spends most of his time working in pizza delivery. However, his life is not without a touch of the supernatural. Occasionally, Satoru finds himself a few minutes in the past, with just enough time to allow him to save some nearby person's life. And while he finds it more a hassle than a superpower, he nonetheless does his best after each time leap to save who he can.
Yet after one such "revival" sets in motion a string of events that leads to his mother's murder, he leaps not to a few minutes before but rather to 20 years before. As a 29-year-old in a nine-year-old's body, he comes to one conclusion: To save his mother's life, he must first save someone else: his classmate from her fated death at the hands of a serial killer.
Satoru begins the story as a broken character, though he doesn't understand why. As a manga artist, he is talented enough; yet he is unable to make an emotional connection with his work and his readers. This is not surprising given that he has always lacked such connections in his own life.
In childhood, he was a loner and had no friends. Eventually, a fellow loner taught him how to fake it and gain, at the very least, superficial friendships. However, as he grew up, he never moved past that point.
As much as anything else, Erased is the story of Satoru gaining real emotional connections both in the past and in the present. With this theme, the story expertly connects his future and his past.
On his first leap to the past, Satoru certainly makes such a connection with Hinazuki but elects to leave his other classmates out of it. It's not until his failure and subsequent return to the present that he makes his connection with Airi and takes up her philosophy of "wanting to believe in people". From his experiences with Airi, he becomes willing to let his classmate Kenya in on what he is trying to accomplish and then has a real chance at not only saving Hinazuki but his mother as well.
To put it another way, his heartbreaking repeated failures serve a purpose both narratively and thematically: to step-by-step turn him into the kind of person capable of saving not only Hinazuki and his mother but also other loners like his old self.
As a mystery, Erased is rather well built. There are real stakes and real danger to go along with it. This is largely due to the anime's excellent villain.
While Satoru may be a child for all rights and purposes, he does have knowledge of the future and how the serial killer will progress in his murders. With such a handicap, it's vital that the villain of the story be so cunning that he seems unbeatable in order to keep the stakes high and the story engaging. And Erased's villain certainly is cunning, always one step ahead even as Satoru changes the past again and again.
But it's not just his intricate planning and quick thinking that makes the villain so captivating; it's his mindset and motivation. He is not your stereotypical villain. While he does get off on committing the perfect murder — killing with impunity and making someone else take the fall to hide even the existence of a serial killer — that is not his true goal. What he wants is to be perfect in his planning and execution and yet still be foiled. It's less the thrill of killing he seeks and more the thrill of being bested.
Within him is a battle of pragmatism versus his ultimate goal. He doesn't plan to be caught at all, but he can't help but love and respect Satoru in his own way. Moreover, he believes he is being fair, acknowledging the tenacity Satoru has shown. When he tries to drown Satoru, he leaves the town, to keep himself safe from the law, yes, but also to reward Satoru for stopping him time and again.
In the end, this is what leads to the killer's downfall. When Satoru survives the drowning, the killer finds it unfair to kill the comatose Satoru who, by living, has bested him once again.
All that said, the villain is less than perfectly delivered in the story as a whole. Rather than discovering who the villain is through clues presented in the story, the killer's identity can be figured out based on narrative cues and the process of elimination, by comparing the number of supporting characters known to be innocent with those with motive, means and opportunity. This means you'll likely know who the villain is quite early on, which can, in turn, make Satoru's obliviousness seem more frustrating than it should be.
My favourite aspect of Erased is actually the Japanese title and how it reflects the story. In Japanese, the anime is called "Boku Dake Ga Inai Machi" or "The Town Where I Alone Am Not There". Early on, we learn that Hinazuki has written an essay with a similar named "Watashi Ga Inai Machi" (which is identical in translation but uses the more gender neutral version of the word "I" instead of the masculine one).
The essay is a cry for help from a plainly abused child. It speaks of Hinazuki's perfect world: one where she is alone and far away from the town, free and unable to be hurt by any of them.
The original timeline of the anime is, in fact, this world. After Hinazuki is killed, the town moves along without her, and there is certainly no way she can be hurt ever again. Yet it is a timeline where lives are ruined, Satoru's emotional growth is stunted and a killer is left to run free.
The entire anime is the story of Satoru bringing about the opposite timeline, the town where he alone is not there. By preventing Hinazuki's death and that of all the others, he alone pays the price by being left in a coma. But with this sacrifice, Hinazuki and his friends are left to grow up and have happy lives without the spectre of a serial killer hanging over their childhood. While Hinazuki's loss destroyed lives, his saved as many and more. And to Satoru, it is all worth it.
Without qualification, Erased is the best anime of this past season and likely to be one of the best of the year. Thematically deep with fantastic characters, it is the perfect melding of time travel and murder mystery and makes for a whole much greater than the sum of its parts.