Stepping outside the realm of Red Eyes Hamster Murderer a bit, I’m taking a look at the show’s framing of Kayo Hinazuki’s domestic issue (and ultimately, what the show means on a personal level to me).
(*spoilers ahead, and take note that this isn’t necessarily a plus-minus review for the whole show)
Putting little kids in peril isn’t exactly a novel thing in anime. You’ve got two kids navigating the post-earthquake landscape of Tokyo in Tokyo Magnitude 8.0. Bokurano’s premise is to have a group of doomed kids dying one by one. The notion of child soldiers itself is a recurring theme in a lot of war narratives, from Gundam to Now and Then Here and There. Speaking of war, there’s also Grave of The Fireflies, in which you watch two kids literally starve to death.
Should they, and work along the same lines, be considered as work of exploitation? It all depends on the construction, and how you choose to perceive it (and the intent thereof) as a viewer. Make no mistake, there’s always some degree of calculation that goes in the process of narrative presentation. Whether it’s the writer deciding on the sequence of events, the artist on how to draw the characters, the director on how to frame the scene, or the composer on what kind of track should be used, every element is calculated with the exact purpose to draw in (or, in more cynical term, manipulate) the audience’s emotional investment.
The deciding factor, then , is just how much respect and seriousness the creators treat their subject matter and the involved characters with. That manifests itself in a number of ways, and while they’re all still undeniably subjective in nature, I still find them useful in determining whether a show hews closer to a nuanced social commentary or cheap fetishization of a serious issue.
In regards of Erased, its exploration on child abuse hit close to home for me, and I suspect to a lot of viewers as well. It’s grounded in reality, and while it may be smaller in scale and less visible, it’s also more universal and frequent than something like war or natural disaster. It’s there, no matter where you live. It’s a subject matter that requires especially delicate treatment, and Erased mostly succeed in that regard, based on my personal set of parameters.
Camera behavior and scene composition
It’s always a tricky job, to be able to communicate the extent of a horrific situation without coming across as crass and exploitative. Camera work is an essential element of that, encompassing framing, angles, and duration. Repeat the same few grisly scenes over and over again, or have the camera lingering for far more than necessary, and you’re basically in the realm of torture/misery porn.
The first scene highlighting Kayo’s issue occurs in Episode 3, when Satoru finds her lying prone in the shed, fresh off the latest beating from her mother. We’re spared the grisly details of the action itself, but not the impact thereof, demonstrated through wide shots of her body and cut-ins on her bruises and her face; all in quick motion that communicates the vital information without giving the impression of a leer. Kayo’s line (“don’t look at me!”, and the camera soon obliges) and Satoru’s reaction are also important here.
There’s another difficult scene in the same episode, where Kayo’s mother dunks her daughter’s face on water in the attempt to heal her bruises before the next school day. The dim lighting, the rage on the mother’s voice, the detached boyfriend—the general mood suggested that this is a fairly routine occurrence, coming together in a deeply unpleasant but functionally important scene that tells us all we need to know about the Hinazuki household. For the rest of the show we don’t see more abusive scenes just for the sake of it, and instead the focus shifts into the attempt to resolve the situation.
The domestic abuse becomes a major element of the narrative instead of a mere backstory; not something to be gawked and be sad at, but something that needs to be changed. Apart from a few unnecessary flourish (the mom’s red eyes, for one), the overall visual execution does a great job conveying the gravitas of the situation, elevating it into something beyond the sob story of a fictional character.
Balance & extent of characterization
How proportionate is Kayo’s perspective as the party with the most stake in this situation, and how much characterization goes into her beyond ‘object that needs to be saved’?
It’s very easy for a depiction of something with clear perpetrator/victim dichotomy, whether in fiction or real life, to get carried away by the more sensational aspects. Most of the story is filtered through Satoru’s perspective as a wannabe hero after all, and in particular regards of Kayo’s plotline, there’s also a lot of initial focus in painting her mom as the Absolute Worst. That is not to say that you shouldn’t be inspired by Satoru’s attempt at heroism and/or enraged by the behavior of her mother, but it’s important that they don’t overshadow Kayo herself, what she’s been through and how much it would mean to her should her situation change for the better.
Thankfully, Kayo eventually come across as well-fleshed character. She’s sharp, cute in natural childlike sense instead of ‘artificial anime cute’ (my only complaint is perhaps the overused ‘baka nano’ catchphrase, but that’s very minor), and brought to life in outstanding manner through Aoi Yuuki’s voice work and Keigo Sasaki’s design adaptation from Kei Sanbe’s art. She’s characterized early on with understandable aloofness and cynicism, but instead of harping on the angst and tragedy, we get to see her as an increasingly normal, happy, and healthy kid as she’s slowly brought outside of the toxic environment. It’s a beautiful transformation (“kirei”, as remarked by Satoru as he noticed Kayo coming in to class with clean non-bruised face and a genuine smile) that culminates in Episode 8, which marks the real emotional climax of the show for me. An episode with extended shift into Kayo’s perspective for once, and as far as tearjerker goes, you don’t get much more authentic than that.
Resolution & significance to overall narrative
The domestic issue is resolved pretty cleanly, providing more context for Kayo’s mom without necessarily excusing her actions. And then, there’s the reunion scene with adult Kayo and her baby, a cathartic closure that underlines why the whole thing is worth fighting for.
The showrunners, writer/composer Taku Kishimoto and director Tomohiko Itou in particular, had to compress a lot of material and they understandably don’t do a perfect job of it. However, the decision to give Kayo’s plotline the focus and attention it got is one that I fully appreciate. Likewise with Kei Sanbe’s decision to not end the story with Kayo and Satoru pairing up as adults, which predictably disappoints a sizable amount of ship-hungry audience. It makes a lot of sense to me for many reasons, but the bottom line is this particular plotline is never about childhood romance (especially considering Satoru’s complicated circumstances…). It’s not a ‘troubled man achieves self-fulfillment by saving the doomed woman he loves’ narrative either; it’s simply about how a human being could help out others by providing safe space and sense of belonging.
It’s no coincidence that the show is at its strongest whenever it’s firmly highlighting these safe space: every time Satoru is with his mother, when the gang huddles up in their secret base, when Kenya reaches out for Satoru, and of course, when Kayo gradually soaks in all the things she never get to experience before—friends, a loving parent figure, warm bed and breakfast.
This kind of theme will always have personal significance for me. As a kid, I’ve seen and experienced the lack of safe space, and how it means the world when there’s somebody willing to take action and provide one for you. As an adult, I’m blessed to be part of a sustainable safe space in the form of a community school that reaches out for local kids. Run by a wonderful human being (very much alike Satoru’s mom in temperament and mannerism) through sheer grit and endless capacity to improvise, it’s a space where the kids can study with peace of mind, cook for each other, and play games and enjoy childhood the way they’re supposed to, a shelter from toxic environment where they’re constantly reminded that they won’t have much of a future.
Fiction always have the power to compel people to think, reflect, or even take action. That’s why I’ll always have respect for media that broach a social issue with the gravitas that it deserves, as difficult as it could be to watch. That’s also why, despite its flaws in other narrative aspects, Erased had also became more than yet another disposable piece of entertainment to me. No one has the time travel rewinding power of Satoru, but I believe we have the capacity to help provide a safe space for those we can reach.
Just so that there’s fewer kids out there who would flinch whenever somebody is about to touch and connect with them.