Erased review: Netflix’s gripping Japanese time-travel drama

A compelling time-travelling narrative is brought to life by a fantastic cast in a moving drama about the ties that bind...

This review contains spoilers for episode 1 of Erased.

Satoru Fujinuma (Yuki Furukawa) is a manga artist. He’s finding it difficult to get his art published and to find his feet in the big world of work and so supplements his income working at a pizza chain with his young and somewhat over-enthusiastic friend Airi Katagiri (Mio Yuki). It’s not long into his latest pizza delivery, however, that the mise-en-scene warps and pulls like PVA glue off skin and Satoru breaks through the other side. He appears to be re-living life as it was a couple of minutes ago; as though time has reset itself.

He explains in a voiceover that he calls these moments ‘revivals’. When something bad happens, he is sent back to a few minutes previous by an unknown force to set things right. Satoru frantically scans the scene from his pizza delivery moped for signs of danger and soon notices that a lorry driver is asleep at the wheel. His interference neutralises the potential danger and he goes back to the current time, although his actions to stop the lorry have landed him in hospital. You get the impression this happens a lot and, much to his annoyance, his mother Sachiko (Tomoka Kurotani) has decided to come and stay to help him back on his feet.

During a shopping trip with his mother Satoru’s entire life changes. He experiences another of his ‘revivals’ and, although he is unable to identify a danger, his mother spots a man trying to abduct a little girl. She types something into her phone at the time but makes light of what she witnessed when Satoru asks her about it later. Hours later while alone in Satoru’s flat, Sachiko is brutally stabbed in the back by an unknown male, who waits for Satoru to find his mother’s body and then coaxes him into a chase that leaves Satoru the blood-stained number one suspect in his mother’s murder. Trying to avoid the police to set the record straight, Satoru runs head-long into another ‘revival’… but he’s gone back much further than ever before.

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Satoru finds himself in 1988 at his former school, Mikoto Elementary. He knows he must have been sent back this far for a reason, and soon recalls a string of kidnaps and murders that took place in this year while he was in the fifth grade. Three children disappeared and were later found dead but the perpetrator was never discovered. Instead, the police have the wrong man on death row in the present day (2006), an old school friend of Satoru’s that he nicknamed Yuuki, meaning ‘courage’.

It becomes clear that in order to save his mother, Satoru must save the three children that were abducted in 1988 and uncover the murderer and his connection to the attempted kidnap that his mother saw. He needs to break the negative chain in the past to save people in the present and, in the process, comes to appreciate the precious moments with his mother and friends in his childhood.

It sound like a series that would be difficult to keep up with, doesn’t it? Erased chops and changes between time periods and indeed actors, with two different performers playing Satoru in the present day and in 1988. It is credit to director Ten Shimoyama, then, that the series is not nearly as difficult to understand as it sounds on paper. The narrative elements are gently introduced and the characters well established, making time transitions easy to get on board with. It can feel at first that the present day, established in the first episode, is miles apart and almost unnecessary to the unfolding story in 1988 that we see from the second episode onward, but as the series progresses it becomes clear that no time period is irrelevant or left behind. The first time we revisit 2006, nothing feels amiss and the action picks right up from where it left off. It’s wonderful directing; matching the past and present tonally and giving the audience details from one time period to inform the other. It’s an intricately weaved narrative marvel.

Originally a manga by Kei Sanbe, Erased became an anime series and a live-action film in 2016 before being given the Netflix treatment. It’s a popular and well known story with a lot riding on it for the fans, so director Shimoyama plays with his captive audience, cranking up the tension as the narrative in one time period comes to a dramatic head… only for Satoru to then be thrust back (or forward) again to deal with matters on the other side. It’s excruciating and very deliberate; Shimoyama has his audience in the palm of his hand and we’re loving the high-stakes ride.

The series is truly made by its spectacular cast. For a story with so much emphasis on love and trust, it is crucial that the affection between characters rings true – and it really does. The mother-son relationship is very touching and actress Tomoka Kurotani does a wonderful job with both actors that play Satoru, her warmth and resolve helping to connect the two time periods and add urgency to Satoru’s quest. Shigeyuki Totsugi, meanwhile, is great as young Satoru’s school teacher and imbues the role with kindness and paternal warmth. Look out for a lovely scene involving a stash of lollipops.

The young actor who plays Satoru in 1988, however, pretty much runs the show. He certainly steals every scene he is in. Reo Uchikawa is outstanding, carrying the weight of half of the show on his shoulders like it is nothing at all with his wonderfully expressive face and often deeply moving performance. Young Satoru’s primary aim is to look after the first child who was kidnapped 18 years ago to prevent the murder spree from beginning, and in so doing befriends the vulnerable Kayo Hinazuki (Rinka Kakihara). It is in his scenes with Kayo that young Satoru really shines and this fantastic actor will certainly tug at your heart strings in his desperate plight to protect his new friend and let her know she is not alone.

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Erased’s cinematography is hugely impressive, with the repeated shots of smoke billowing out of industrial chimneys against a variety of skies punctuating the action down on the ground. Snow is a big feature of the show’s aesthetic, too, with the school yard in 1988 covered in a thick blanket of snow. Some of the shots in the school’s playground between Satoru and Kayo are truly breath taking; the images of the brilliant white snow wonderfully counterbalance the warmth that Satoru and his mother offer those in danger and it is as though every moment Satoru spends with Kayo could be stopped in a picture-perfect freezeframe.

Erased is a gripping drama driven by some brilliant performances that will keep you clicking that ‘Next Episode’ button. You’ll not only want to know how these clever stories tie together, you will really care what happens to the characters.

All twelve half-hour episodes of Erased season one are available now on Netflix UK.