I wanted to love this anime. From moment one I was drawn in by the intriguing story and the understated characters. I wanted to like it but… there were a couple of aspects that did not shine so brightly. When you have a show that does so much brilliantly, it’s hard not to feel a little cheated when certain aspects fell so flat. This is why I understand how the fan community is reacting. Half the reviews I read are giving it a 10/10 and praising it as a masterpiece and the other half are giving it a 1/10 and saying it's horrific. As is obvious from the rating I gave it, I am one of the few people who are somewhere in between.
Story: The story revolves around a man named Satoru Fujinuma, a struggling manga artist, who has a special ability that (without his control) jumps him back in time (usually only a couple of minutes) when somebody’s life is in danger. The first episode deals a lot with getting us used to this power of his and explaining his relationship to his mother. The two have been distant since he was a child due to a series of murders that occurred when he was 11, resulting in a number of his friends ending up dead. However, when his mother is murdered in the present, Satoru’s time traveling ability jumps him back in time to try and stop the murders of the past and, possibly in turn, stop his mother’s death. The interesting thing about the story is that, on the most obvious of levels, this story doesn’t work. If I were to classify the story in a category, it would likely be time travel or mystery. Yet, the show doesn’t handle either of those categories particularly well. As a story about time travel, the rules of time travel don’t seem particularly clear. A couple of times, we don’t even see the result of what would have happened if he hadn’t stopped said event from happening. There are times when he has no control of his abilities and times when he does. Neither of those things bother me too much but what does confuse me is this stories stance on “fate” in relation to the theme of time travel. On a basic level, this seems like a story where a character has the ability to change what has been fated. Yet, many of these time jumps occur before a death has occurred, or where Satoru has no idea what the consequences would be if he did nothing. Thus, this doesn't seem to be Satoru's ability per say. If it were, he would either have control over it or he would be jumping around at random. This take seems to imply that an other worldly omniscient party is using him as a tool to force fate to occur. It made me wonder what was going on behind the scenes to allow for this strange time traveling to occur in the odd way that it did. Why is he necessary in this concept of “fate”? (But this is a thread for another essay) Thus, the time travel in this show doesn’t seem to make much sense logically or thematically. As a mystery, the show breaks just as many rules. Obviously, the key to preventing the murders of the past is to find the murderer. The only problem is that the murderer is not a secret. We see the murderer a number of times. We have a basic idea of what the murderer looks like. The only problem is… there is only one person that looks at all like the murderer in the whole show. Immediately, audience suspicion goes to one person… and stays on that one person because there is no one else to suspect. By the law of mystery stories, a murderer must be someone the audience has been introduced to, but usually we get a couple of options of people to suspect. Just about every fan of the show guessed pretty quickly “who dun it”. However, in spite of these two primary parts of the show essentially failing, this show did something surprisingly right. As a story about “friendship” this story was handled in a way that most other shows never accomplish. Ultimately, what I loved the most about this show were the character interactions and the moments created between them. A lot of the interactions that happened between the characters were not essential for the plot to continue. We didn’t need the scene where Satoru takes Kayo up into the mountains. But, as an isolated moment, it was beautiful. We become invested in these people and how they feel about each other. I’ve seen so many shows where some awful friendship speech gets written in and it ruins things. Most shows don’t have the maturity to handle a show about friendship without throwing in tropes like “I’m secretly in love with you”. The show does not handle it's ending well. It feels like a quick tie up of most loose plot threads. Even so, I still believe that the journey to get to the end had a lot of magic to it.
Animation: The animation was deceptively simple. It doesn’t have quite the flash and glitter of a show like Attack on Titan but these animators are definitely smart (if not sometimes a little too smart). If you know how to look for them, there are a million little hints in the animation that give you some kind of foreshadowing. It’s very clear that this show knew where to focus their attentions and what details needed to be added in. Plus, even when I, as an audience member, knew that something was going to happen, it didn’t stop me from having a strong reaction to the scenes. It’s largely because it was animated so well. Unfortunately, this is also a negative for the show. You see, if you know anything about symbolism you can read these scenes like a book. For instance, I was immediately drawn to the lighting in this show. They know how to set the tone with the lighting and they do it pretty damned well. Yet, this also lead me to say things like, “This character is constantly put in shadow. I bet there is something shifty about him/her,” way earlier than I should have been able to. The animation got a bit cocky and gave a couple of things away pretty quickly.
Sound: I love the opening and closing themes. I am truly addicted to them. Also, these voice actors were so phenomenal. Plus, I was surprised to learn that a lot of the voice actors were relative new comers, which made me really excited about the idea that these talented individuals might get a lot of recognition for this show. I will admit that there was one song that tended to play in light and happy moments that tended to draw me out of it but never in a major way.
Character: This, I would say, is where the biggest successes and also the biggest failures in this show lie. This show seemed to fail pretty hard with its villains and excel with it’s heroes. Let’s start off with the bad to get it out of the way. The murderer’s motivation is never explained well. Sure, we get an explanation, but never one that convinced me that this person was anything more than an evil psychopath. In the same vein, we also have an abusive mother in the story. The characterization for this character was painfully bad. For most of the story she just comes off like a demon who beats her kid because she can. Again, we get an explanation for why this character does it but it’s so rushed that we have no time to feel any real human emotions for this character. Essentially, there isn’t much in between with villains in this show. If you are a villain you’re the worst piece of human scum. Moving on to the good! Satoru would have been so easy to make boring. On the surface he is astonishingly normal because he believes himself to be average. Yet, the more you get to know him the more remarkable he becomes. He meddles in the lives of others because of a knee jerk reaction to use his time traveling powers for good even though he finds himself in so many situations where he has no idea how to fix the situation. I love that, for most of the series, Satoru is continuously trying to do the right thing but failing. This actually needed a lot of depth because his intentions are in the right place but usually has to face the fact that he still ends up messing up some really crucial moments. Kayo Hinazuki is a pretty tragic character. She was one of the children who was murdered when Satoru was a kid. As a child dealing with a lot of abuse it is easy to see how shut down she is. In scenes where she is blamed for things she was not responsible for she just takes the abuse with this distant look in her eyes. It’s obvious that she feels that whatever abuse she is given will happen no matter what she does. Yet, we also get to see her drawn out of her shell with people she really trusts and how much her personality changes when she is not alone. Satoru’s mother is an extremely well written character especially since we get to see her in a couple of possible time lines. She’s a fighter through and through. She seems to look at Satoru as someone she can trust entirely and never questions that his intentions are positive. Yet, at the same time we also get to see her as a mother who has become estranged from her son due to traumas that neither of them knew how to handle and help each other with. Airi Katagiri needed a little more fleshing out. She is obviously a key character in the show but mostly shows up to barely become important before she’s gone again. She was likeable for what we saw of her but I would bet money that her role is bigger in the manga. I think a lot of what makes these characters so effective is that we get to see how they are alone in contrast to when they are with others. This obviously ties into the themes of loneliness and loss but is also a very effective way to write characters. Satoru’s childhood friends always felt a little strange to me. First we have Kenya. This kid is far too smart. He’s incredibly serious and very adult even as a pre-teen. For a long time I thought he was a time traveler like Satoru because he was so intelligent and so mature. I enjoyed his character, but he never seemed to fit into the plot organically. Hiromi was a complete anomaly to me. Of the kids who were murdered when Satoru was a child, Hiromi was one of them. This was a person that Satoru knew well and hung out with every day. Yet, he had so little reaction to this kid’s death that it took me a long time to figure out that he was one of the murdered children. This is especially strange when we can compare Satoru’s reaction to the death of his friend Hiromi to the death of Kayo (who he barely knew) and he is obviously more broken up about Kayo. I never quite understood that.
I trusted this show. I think this show gained a lot of people's trust very quickly which resulted in a lot of fans feeling like they trust it to be a masterpiece in spite of its problems or betrayed when things went wrong. What it get's right is spot on. It handled itself so well on so many issues that I didn’t see its faults for a long time. It has a lot of faults. Yet, even so, I would say that the journey it takes you on isn't ruined by its faults. I would definitely recommend it.