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Mother Knows Best (Erased)

Snapshots is a monthly column in which one of our writers reflects upon a particular moment from an anime, manga, or video game. New entries are posted on or around the 15th of each month. To read previous entries, click here.

The first couple episodes of Erased took the anime community by storm and for good reason: director Tomohiko Ito (Sword Art Online, Silver Spoon) showcased a tense, even pacing and compositional attention to detail that we rarely see in TV anime. I want to take a look at one scene, illustrating this, from episode 3, which is directed and storyboarded by episode director Takahiro Shikama (Sword Art Online, Terror in Resonance).

In the scene, which starts at the 10:51 mark and runs until 12:40, Satoru (in his fifth grade body) discovers Kayo beaten in the shed behind her parents’ house. He attempts to help her but is thwarted by Kayo’s mother, who, to Satoru’s horror, spirits Kayo back into the house. As with all of the scenes that take place in the past in Erased, the entire thing is shot in widescreen. This creates a more exaggerated horizontal frame for the animation than is typical for TV anime.

Despite some quite expressive character animation, most of the character relationships and emotions, especially the separation between Satoru and Kayo, are expressed through the background art and lighting. Shikama establishes the importance of the environment right off the bat via three shots dominated by background art despite only one being a true “establishing shot” (since there are no characters moving in it). Each shot shows the rows of identical houses on Kayo’s block repeating off into the distance, emphasizing her intentionally emotionless interactions with others and the brutal monotony of her abusive family life.

When Satoru discovers her in the shed, the lighting becomes especially important. Other than the light cast by Satoru opening the door, the shed is mostly dark. This creates a contrast between inside (dark) and outside (light). As the dramatic cross-cutting between Satoru and Kayo comes to a climax, Shikama cuts back to a full body shot of Satoru in the doorway, where he is now flanked by Kayo’s mother. This is done with no establishing cutaway to show her approaching, which makes her appearance especially impactful.

As Satoru turns to glare at Kayo’s mother, the edge of the door forms a barrier between the two. Satoru is now “inside” the shed (as far as the two-dimensional frame is concerned) and thus in the dark, and the mother is outside and thus in the light. But being inside the shed means being closer to Kayo, something her mother can’t allow, so she shoves Satoru aside, moving him from the right (dark) side of the door to the left (light) and taking his place within the shed. When she emerges again, she crosses the frame with Kayo in hand and Satoru obscured behind them — literally and symbolically backgrounded while their family drama plays out in front of him.

The next two shots continue to emphasize the dark/light separation; both Satoru and Kayo are depicted entirely in shadow, while Kayo’s mother is tall enough to be in the light. This is ironic considering the stereotypical associations between light and dark. In this case, our heroes are dark and the villain is light. Then, as Kayo walks away with Satoru in the background, the backgrounds from the establishing shots become important again. They fill in the gap between Satoru and Kayo with the repeating backyards of the nearby houses. This repetition emphasizes the separation between Satoru and Kayo; as she walks away and unveils the background, more and more “layers” of separation seem to grow between them.

Finally, we see Kayo with her mother’s hand on her shoulder crossing the frame. At the very end, she moves from dark to light, underlining Satoru’s failure to save her from her mother this time.

The scene is an excellent example of the importance of background art to a good anime director; what may be nothing more than set dressing to one director can be an important storytelling mechanism to another. Without the use of light, shadow, and the repeating houses on Kayo’s block, this scene would not adequately express the conflict between Satoru and Kayo’s mother and Satoru’s sense of hopelessness at losing Kayo to her.

Erased is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

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