A friend of mine once ran a panel on how to create fictional characters. One of the things he mentioned was that a character’s silhouette is a good way to assess how well a character is defined, at least visually. If the character is recognizable from the silhouette alone, the creators did a good job. This grading tool is appropriate to most game characters or shounen-esque figures from anime or manga, but I’d argue it’s not very useful when creating characters that look normal. So when a show like Re:CREATORS decided to put an ordinary high school boy like Mizushino Souta next to an assembly of visually strong characters from books and media that he is a fan of, it’s no surprise some of the viewers have Souta written off as a self-insert.
The reason why everybody hates self-inserts is that they are a relic from a time when media literacy wasn’t as high as it is today. Aside from giving the viewer an angle from which he or she is comfortable experiencing the story – in this case an anime fan with an unadventurous high school life – there’s not much merit to be had with them. But gaming culture that came to prominence only reinforced the need to have a character like that around. The problem is that the self-insert is already a well-studied device and makes some people uncomfortable merely by being present, by unwittingly generalizing them.
I’m writing this because I have a strong suspicion that Re:CREATORS is trying to do something more with Souta. That there’s a connection between him and Military Uniform Princess and that he has a role to play is obvious enough and really not something to write home about. But the one visual sign that forbids me from thinking of him as a self-insert is the scene from episode 1 where he walks upstairs to his bedroom. Series composition decided on a first-person perspective, but the interesting thing about its atypical camera positioning is that it’s situated between his eyeballs where his nose is. The edges of his glasses are visible and appear to be blurred, indicating it’s not Souta who’s watching him climb the stairs, but rather us, the viewers. This scene is trying to say Souta is his own character with his own unique eyeglass prescription, separating him from the viewer he is by convention supposed to fill in for.
Souta receiving such careful treatment signifies the series’ ambitious nature with what it wants to say. At the surface level, Re:CREATORS is set up in fashion of a typical Battle Royale story that pits characters from different worlds with obviously different worldviews against each other. The verbal standoff in episode 2 between Selecia Upitiria and Kirameki Mamika is a good example. Selecia drives Mamika into a corner by the sense she is making, arguing against Mamika’s simplistic views, forcing her to lash out in a very childish and expected manner. Selecia countering Mamika’s words before she even had a chance to say what she was thinking was hilarious not just because she was putting a child back to her rightful place, but because Mamika’s island mentality rests at the core of every good Battle Royale-type story.
In the original Battle Royale, a group of classmates is kidnapped and taken to an island where they fight each other to death. As it turns out the illusion of a harmonious classroom is shattered when survival is at stake. The only way to win the game is by killing God that put them in this scenario in the first place. Anime shows like Mirai Nikki, Death Note, and Re:CREATORS derive the drive for their characters to become or replace Gods from the same place this iconic piece of cinema did. But Selecia’s refutals are just too good and strike too close to what makes these shows tick. Re:CREATORS has proven it knows what it’s doing, and for that I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.
Some of the dismissive commentary is justified though. Souta has undeniably been the passive protagonist, driving the story by proxy of somehow being related to Military Uniform Princess. In a way, it feels like the show is willing to let Souta take the back seat whilst holding their relationship secret until the appropriate moment. But it’s not like passive protagonists haven’t been a thing even in some of the most highly acclaimed anime. One example of that would be Hoshi no Koe, where the protagonist is merely keeping contact with the girl he likes, while she’s off fighting aliens in the depths of space and time. Passive protagonists that have beautiful fighting girls carrying out the actual fighting for them, as is the relationship between Souta and the girls on his side, are a characteristic of sekai-kei – a story genre that usually features a small group of characters influencing the state of the world without intervention of the world at large. Now, this assertion would be a stretch if it weren’t for the fact the show is firmly planted in survival-kei tradition. The most important thing to keep in mind when talking about sekai-kei and survival-kei is that the tropes behind them are just two sides of the same coin. Whilst the main heroine from a sekai-kei story unconditionally loves the protagonist and fights for him against an Other, characters from a Battle Royale-type story mercilessly antagonize anyone that doesn’t conform to their worldview.
“I might be you, or I might not be, but I’m sure I’m somewhere close to you.”
I’m not 100% confident to proclaim what this show is trying to do, but it has gathered all the ingredients to cook up significant meta commentary. That being said, I am kind of fed up with shows that just bank on appealing to the viewer’s pride of their knowledge of tropes. Therefore, if Re:CREATORS wants to make a statement while being meta as fuck, finding a way to elevate the passive self-insert into an actual main character may just be the noble goal that it needs.
Overshadowed by more striking figures from his life, Souta is content with being the narrator of this story, or so he says. Though I think him saying that just shows a certain lack of confidence. As Mirokuji hints, the characters that were chosen and brought over by Military Uniform Princess leave lasting impressions. He was probably speaking in general terms, but he’s right, the characters are cool and leave an impression on people. On ordinary high schoolers. Perhaps even on a particular high school boy that happened to name each of them, off the top of his head, immediately after he saw them. I’m certain that by the end Souta will have learned that “the story that surpasses all stories” is none other than his own. Our own story.