Being a Hero in a Time Travel Story

Fujinuma Satoru: pizza man, time traveler, hero wannabe.

Fujinuma Satoru: pizza man, time traveler, hero wannabe.

Time travel. An ever so popular scientific theory of traveling back in time to undo something in the past to ensure something doesn’t happen in the present/future. It’s a theme used in storytelling since the 20s, and anime is no exception when it comes to hopping onto the time-traveling bandwagon. The latest instance to use this as the central is Erased (Boke Dake ga Inai Machi), an sci-fi drama anime about a man named Fujinuma Satoru with a gift of time travel that he uses to prevent accidents from happening and thereby saving people. But now, he faces his biggest challenge yet: undoing the murder of his mother by transporting as far back in time as 18 years ago.

DISCLAIMER: Major spoilers ahead. The following contents are written based on up to episode 11 of the series.

Before the tragedy took place, Satoru was a pretty good mishap preventer: spotting a man behind a wheel of a truck who suffered from a heart attack took a lot of observational skills and quick thinking. But preventing his mother from being killed by an unknown assailant? Now that’s a whole new ball game. Being just alert and vigilant aren’t enough to undo a event that is 18 years in the making. He now tries to identify all the important pieces of the puzzle by tracing back all the significant points in time that led up to his mother’s death.

A time travel story is indeed interesting but it is a tricky theme. There are many real-life theories out there that explains why trying to undo something in the past isn’t really that straightforward. For one there’s the butterfly effect, a chaos theory concept that explains how the slightest actions can result in the most drastic resultant changes. It can be summed up in the following question: if one tries to prevent something from happening in the past, will he really change the outcome in the future?

If event X → event Y, and event X didn't happened, then event Y wouldn't happened. Right?

If event X → event Y, and event X didn’t happened, then event Y wouldn’t happen. Right?

Back to the topic of Satoru. Erased is proving to be a riveting show, and it’s quite interesting to see how Satoru plans to change the past. However, at the same time, I always keep wondering about one thing: does Satoru know exactly what he’s doing? Sure, he thinks he has everything under control but does he really understand what’s happening around him? Honestly I don’t think so. Here’s why:

#1: Satoru doesn’t understand how Revival work

Satoru doesn’t really question or even test the extent of his powers. “Revival”, he calls it? Fancy name, but it seems that this ability works automatically, that is, it happens without his own volition. He didn’t ask to go back 18 years ago, and when he did, he could only derive to one conclusion: it has something to do with the serial murders of 3 kids. What else could it be, right? Sadly, it hasn’t even crossed Satoru’s mind to figure out the murders’ causal link with his mother’s death. That, and also the writers are at fault for making the situation convenient for the protagonist to conclude that that has to be the case.

#2: Satoru doesn’t understand how causality works

Satoru simply follows the above-mentioned rule: event X leads to event Y, so if he prevents event X from happening, then event Y shouldn’t happen à la Back to the Future. Fair enough; it’s a logical assessment. Even from the writer’s point of view, it’s a storytelling mechanic that works. But Satoru has never been made to understand the consequences of his actions, has he? Sure, he’s very determined to save the 3 girls from being kidnapped and murdered but he never really understood just how difficult it is to theoretically undo history. For contrast, I bring in a counter example believe many have made comparisons with:

Okabe Rintaro... he knows how cause-and-effect work all too well.

Okabe Rintaro… he knows how cause-and-effect work all too well.

It’s hard not compare Erased with Steins;Gate, another time travel story that deals with tampering with the past to change the present/future. But unlike Satoru, the protagonist Okabe Rintaro didn’t have it easy. Not at all. When he prevented one thing, something else happened. Even when he tried to do go with the past, it ended up screwing up the future big time. Through rigorous trial and error, he eventually identified which point in the timeline  he had to do something in order to change history. And that’s the point: he learned that he’s rewriting history the hard way. Satoru claims to know that he is changing history too, but without understanding how events affect each other, it’s like saying you understand mathematics without knowing how arithmetics work.

#3: Satoru doesn’t understand “the big picture”

In the NHRV forums, fellow reviewer Reckoner pointed something out while commenting for episode 7: he finds Satoru uninteresting as a hero. I reasoned it in the style of #2: he is never really being made to struggle to change history. But there’s also something else going on. Satoru is fully aware that there’s a kidnapper/murderer on the loose, and Kayo was the first victim. So what does Satoru do? Protect Kayo at all costs, of course. But while doing so, he completely fails to do one critical thing: find out who the culprit is. There’s a significant connotation to this: preventing the deaths of three girls without identifying the culprit is analogous to curing the symptoms of a disease without curing the disease itself. Even more ironically, Satoru claims to be playing detective, yet he never thought of doing the one thing all detectives should do: understand what the culprit is thinking.

"If I save Kayo for good, will the killer find out about me?" > "How do I introduce myself to a girl for the first time?"

“If I save Kayo, will the killer find out about me?” > “How do I talk to a girl for the first time?”

Speaking of the culprit, he revealed his identity in episode 10. Something beautiful happened here: not only did he come out of the shadows, he even explained to Satoru how he identified him to be the one messing up his plans. That very instance revealed the one thing Satoru fails at: proving his suspicions. The culprit thought that Satoru is the one undoing his plans, but for good measure, he went to prove his hypothesis and got his answer right. This is the the very essence of the important lesson imparted by the great Sherlock Holmes: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”. For making all these critical mistakes, Satoru has paid a hefty price, as seen in episode 11.

There have been a number of time travel anime series out there, and Erased is the latest addition. Satoru tries hard to undo the past, this being the main motive shared among just about all the protagonists in such stories. No matter how the topic of time travel is handled, how a hero earns the interest of viewers depends on his actions (and also how the writers define his circumstances). **We are only halfway through the series, and Erased at least still proves to be one of the most-talked this season. As one who enjoys watching this a lot, I hope Satoru becomes more prudent as the plot progresses.

**edit (Mar 28): I didn’t know that this series will only be 12 episodes long, of which it just ended a few days ago. While I thought the ending is surprisingly well-written, I still think Satoru’s character isn’t as charismatic, perhaps due to the overall writing.

3 Responses to “Being a Hero in a Time Travel Story”

  1. “We are only halfway through the series”

    If only that were true.

  2. Oh, so it’s not a 2-cour series. Oh… wait… what the hell??

  3. It’s basically why I been so critical of it for focusing too much attention on Kayo, when she is just part of a larger story and not the entire point.

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