The Very Good and Very Bad Writing of Re:Creators

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Grex has just finished the anime-characters-in-real-life series Re:Creators, and he has a few thoughts on the writing in a new analysis video.

This is a video review! The video is below, and is transcribed fully underneath for your reading pleasure! 

The anime community tends to go through these phases, where a particular sub-genre is loudly maligned, whether fairly or not. Not even a couple years ago, this was the “trapped in a video game” sub-genre, with stuff like Sword Art OnlineOverlordLog HorizonGrimgar, and DanMachi (I know they’re not technically trapped, nor in a game, but it fits). This naturally gave way to a general disdain for the broader isekai sub-genre, meaning “Another World”; shows where a random nobody gets inexplicably transported to, well, another world. Isekai shows run the full gamut of quality, from KonoSuba to Re:Zero to that friggin’ Smartphone one this season, but their general popularity is so pronounced that it’s surprising it took so long for us to reach Re:Creators. Sending a real world character to an anime world is incredibly commonplace, so why not send an anime world character to the real?

And that is the basic premise of Re:Creators, that these anime characters start showing up in reality, complete with their full arsenal of attacks and abilities, and no one knows why. It seems like such a no-brainer that I can’t believe it’s never been done before (although with how many anime exist, it probably has at some point and I just don’t know it). This premise, and how it’s handled, is easily the best part of the show. Far-and-away the most fascinating thing in the series is seeing how these fictional characters react to life in a real world, and it isn’t nearly as simple or as basic as fish-out-of-water comedy. No, as much as the first ED made me worry, Re:Creators is far from a comedy. Brought to us by the writer of Black Lagoon and (one of) the studio(s) behind Aldnoah.ZeroRe:Creators is without doubt an action drama.

Allow me to sing the praises of the premise for another minute. It’s honestly kind of brilliant. You can justify in your head characters acting shallow or illogically, because they, at the outset, have a very good reason to. They’re literally from in-universe popular, generic anime; they’re probably not the most well-written of people. And likewise, the story can afford to incorporate a mishmash of wildly different heroes and villains, a la say — I’unno, Concrete Revolutio, but in theory without the resulting convoluted mess of a narrative (in theory — we’ll get back to that).

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So for the sake of convenience from this point, I’m going to cut the cast into two broad groups, the Creations and the Creators, the Creators being the native inhabitants of our world and the Creations those were summoned to it, because the two occupy very distinct aspects of the narrative with little overlap. (FYI, this part about the characters is hands-down going to be the most extensive part of the video, because the cast really makes this show what it is.)

There’s mainly two ways in which the Creations react to their unexpected situation, many going through some form of both: there’s (1) the struggle with the disconnect between their former reality and ours, and (2) the struggle of realising that they are constructed, their worlds purely an avenue of entertainment for us.

By far the clearest example of the former is Magical Slayer Mamika. While most of the Creations summoned to our world originate from the same general type of story, action series aimed at teens or young adults, Mamika is a magical girl, a spoof on the likes of Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura. Coming from a world so starkly divorced from actual reality, the vast difference between them falls especially hard on poor Mamika. Used to a life without blood, and a story where the villains are clearly defined, Mamika is immediately repulsed by the pain and destruction her powers now cause. She’s frightened by the amount of meaningless violence that surrounds her and, used to putting her faith in others, is even manipulated by the villain to fight for evil.

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I won’t spend too much time on Mamika since she’s already the character people talk about the most, but what’s more impressive than anything is how quickly she internalizes the facts of this new world and changes to suit them. While she would certainly like to stop everyone from fighting forever, she’s sharp enough to realize after just a few episodes how impractical that now is. To quote a line of hers from Episode 7, she observes that “In my world, believing in things is what gave me power… but this place might be different.”, and she goes on to take actions that her prior self would likely have never dreamed of while still staying true to her fundamental “goodness”.

The utter incompatibility of Mamika’s original worldview with the world she found herself in is fascinating, I think everyone would agree, but while Mamika is the most extreme and obvious example of this, nearly every Creation must deal with it to some extent. One of Mamika’s chief allies is Alicetaria February, a regal knight hailing from a high fantasy setting, who is likewise unable to cope with reality for a number of reasons. There’s less to go off of because her character’s roots are more unclear, but Alicetaria’s extreme self-righteousness, and initially complete lack of self-doubt, implies having lived in a world where, despite the darker tone, morality was just as black and white as Mamika’s, where she was the hero and everything she did was unequivocally for good, even if she sometimes failed.

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But arguably even more interesting than these character-specific struggles are the general ones that all Creations face. By definition, each Creation originates from a world that was created, and if that Creator just didn’t give much thought to something, then it didn’t exist. Selessia, a light novel mech pilot character, mentions the difficulty in grasping a reality where fiction is so widespread. Her world had no stories, not because her plot explicitly prevented them but because the existence or lack thereof of fiction just wasn’t important to it. It didn’t matter. Similarly, it is mentioned a handful of times by the Creations that the amount of sensory feedback in the real world is magnitudes greater than their own. Smells are much more vivid, and the food tastes so much more full and delicious.

I just find that really cool, the degree to which this was thought through, the fact that there are these levels of worldbuilding that we take for granted, that the fiction itself doesn’t touch. We assume the existence of smells and tastes and culture without necessarily having to be directly told, but without those details being put to paper, the inhabitants of these fictional worlds inherently live in a watered-down reality, nothing but a pale imitation of our own.

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For some of the Creations, this change is a liberating one. Rui Kanoya is not exactly the deepest character of the show, but as a play on the likes of Shinji Ikari, his presence does offer an interesting hypothetical: what if Shinji was suddenly removed from all that stress and pressure? What if he suddenly held no responsibilities, and had proof positive that he was important and mattered since he’s the main character of a very popular TV show. Well, regardless of your own thoughts on the subject, Re:Creatorstakes the opinion that this would be one of the best things to happen to him, that it would afford him the clarity of mind to step back and improve.

Naturally, Kanoya isn’t the only one who goes through changes after being divorced from his narrative. For instance, Yuya Mirokuji, a violent delinquent-type hailing from a Persona-style story, is told in episode 19 that he’s become far less cruel and desperate (though we pretty much have to take their word for it, obviously being unfamiliar with his to us nonexistent source material).

While the Creations can marvel at the depth and freedom of their new reality, and the positive changes it can bring to their outlook or personality, there is of course another side of the coin. Many of the Creations come to feel a certain scorn or loathing for their Creators. Obviously, most do not take happily to the thought that their worlds were a fabrication created by man, their loved ones snuffed out by the whims of a supposedly unfeeling but now very much corporeal “god”.

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Some Creations are shaken by this much more than others, usually as an extension of how much pain and suffering they went through in their stories. Characters like Mamika or Mirokuji seem to feel little or nothing for their Creators, with Mirokuji even remarking that “A Creator is nothing more than fate with a personality stuck onto it”. Others, like Alicetaria and cyberpunk bounty hunter Blitz Talker, hold an active disdain for their Creators, even considering killing them if the opportunity arises. There’s some great conversations that highlight this point, but most are near the end of the series, and since I do keep my videos as spoiler-free as I can, let’s continue.

As much as some Creations may build them up in their heads, the Creators obviously aren’t gods, but people. Each one is just a guy (or a girl) making a living doing art. The Creators as characters are all well and good, but being normal denizens of this reality played pretty straight, they just don’t give me as much to talk about. Their most interesting scenes are, perhaps naturally, their interactions with Creations, and the things that are said about fiction in general as a result. The show’s quote-unquote “protagonist”, Sota, caught a lot of flak when the series began because — I mean, just look at him. He’s Yuuji Everylead… except he’s not. He’s not going to win awards for character writing, and he is something of an audience proxy, but he is also an actual character, with his own clearly defined opinions, past and beliefs.

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He has this speech, in episode 10, when he’s facing down an enraged Alicetaria that really stuck with me. In this brief monologue, in response to a furious question she makes about the worth of her story as entertainment, about how sick people must be to enjoy her suffering, he asks if an experience is any less valuable just because it’s fictional? Is a story more important, or more inspirational, by sheer virtue of being “real”? Can’t we look up to the ideal of fictional characters and larger-than-life heroes, striving to be like them despite the impossibility? Obviously, not everyone feels that way. I’m sure there are people out there that would enjoy her hypothetical source material just because there’s death and violence, but Sota makes the claim that that’s not everyone.

The further intricacies of Sota’s character, as well as his links to the larger plot, are blocked behind the wall of spoilers, but his story does touch on some other key aspects about creating, such as the anonymous cruelty borne from the internet, and the impact that that can have on creators.

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But of course, there are many other Creators in the show besides Sota. Almost every Creation’s Creator is involved in some way, and this video would become more cumbersome than it already is if I took the time to talk about each and every one of them, but suffice it to say that a number of these Creators, sometimes in tandem, provide an opportunity for the show to entertain some interesting discussions, such as the unavoidable duality between those who create for work and those who create for pleasure. And on a completely different level, watching the Creators bond with their Creations in all sorts of different ways is surprisingly touching, at times like adoptive family.

Everything I’ve said so far was purely about Re:Creators’ writing. I never once mentioned the hype Sawano soundtrack or the good to great fight animation, and that will continue, as while the writing is Re:Creators’greatest strength, it is also unfortunately its greatest weakness. Once we move away from the premise and characters in isolation to take a look at the broader story, we will find that it is rife with issues of exposition, dialogue and pacing.

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These all tie into and build off each other in some very clear ways, but what most people would probably notice earliest is the dialogue. Re:Creators’ dialogue is, simply put, long-winded. Many of the show’s early fights and conversations are strongly reminiscent of Fate/Zero, one of the director’s other works. In both, characters may spend five minutes talking for every 30 seconds of action, which is an easy recipe for straining audience interest, especially when not much is actually being said. I find this kind of surprising because, from what I remember, Black Lagoon wasn’t too verbose of a show, but maybe there were other factors at play, or Rei Hiroe’s involvement was to a lesser extent than they make it seem. I can’t say.

Regardless, an extensive use of dialogue has a tendency to in the long-run bog down pacing, and that unfortunately does happen here. The midpoint of the show especially is mired in contrived drama and countless episodes of planning and preparation, with only a vague goal and endpoint in mind. It’s worth noting that this buildup did pay off in a spectacular finale full of exhilarating twists and great character moments, but going out with a bang doesn’t just excuse the four, fix, even six episodes of fluff that it took to reach that point.

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As another consequence of the show’s penchant for drawn-out dialogue, the introduction and development of the plot, especially in early episodes, is plagued by exposition dumps, and strange as it sounds, they weren’t even good exposition dumps. If you absolutely have to unload all this pure plot on the audience, pacing be damned, you would hope that the story is at least tight-knit and well-explained as a result. Those two words belong nowhere near Re:Creators. The central thrust of the plot is rooted in this pure conjecture that we are only ever told, and not actually shown: “the presence of Creations will fragment the world and bring about its demise.” How? Why? They talk around this with plot babble about “restoration power” and “acceptance levels” but it’s all nonsense. It’s meaningless. They fail to properly make the case that the larger narrative is important, with tangible stakes and clear danger, and a result it can be difficult to feel invested, when the actual significance of any given event is dubious at best. The boundaries and extent of the world are so ill-defined that the plot can do whatever it damn well pleases, which is fine when it does it for the sake of fun action spectacle — less fine when it does it for the aforementioned six episodes of monotonous conversation.

And I had to ask myself: Why so convoluted? The story could have functioned just as well without all the nonsense. Remaining spoiler-free, Re:Creators’ villain is a juggernaut, a being with practically godlike power. So what’s the point? Why not just threaten the destruction of the world in the most normal, traditional way possible, with fire and fury? She could do it! There’s no need for this “her presence clashes with our reality and threatens to overwrite the laws of physics” BS. (And as an aside, they do justify very well the villain’s invincibility. It’s a whole bigmixed bag.)

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If you look at the time I spent talking about the good writing and the bad writing of Re:Creators, there’s a pretty clear slant towards the good, and while I would say the good outweighs the bad, it is not nearly to the extent that the timestamps would indicate. The good writing, the characters mainly, give you a lot to talk about. There’s a lot of ways to dissect and discuss a strong cast (and you can do a lot more than I did here), but the bad writing — while simpler to summarize as general things like poor pacing and contrived plotting — are very pervasive parts of the experience. As interesting as any character is, if you only get meaningful interactions with them once in a blue moon, then they can be difficult to appreciate.

So that’s my main takeaway from Re:Creators. It was a good show with a lot of promising ideas, and my overall opinion is certainly a positive one (especially once you take stock of the soundtrack and general aesthetics, which I barely mentioned), but it was held back from greatness just by being bloated and overcomplicated. This could’ve been, while not perfect, certainly better as like a 16 to 18 episode series. It wouldn’t have fixed all my complaints, but it would have greatly benefitted the pacing, and I think even the production team at some point realized this, since Re:Creators had an unusually short run of only 22 episodes — one of which was recap, so 21.

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But that’s all I got. If you would like to watch Re:Creators for yourself, and by now you should have a pretty good handle on whether or not you do… here’s the rub. The series is currently available exclusively for streaming on Amazon’s Anime Strike, which is great for the five of you *cough*including me*cough* that subscribe to the service, but for everyone else, either grab a free trial or well — wink wink.