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We like to think that the world and society make a certain amount of sense, but mangaka ONE delights in putting the inherent contradictions of both front and center. Consider Saitama, the protagonist of the author’s hit series One Punch Man. He is the most powerful being in the universe and also predisposed to help other people. Saitama could be doing so much good for humanity, yet he is unable to even approach huge problems because he is held back by a bureaucracy which doesn’t have the metrics to appropriately quantify his value. In 2016’s Mob Psycho 100, ONE continues to shine a light on the absurdity of the world through lovable conman, Reigen Arataka. The author is arguably more successful here because the contradictions Reigen embodies are more local and at the same time more universal than the political philosophy of OPM. While being a petty criminal who commits countless acts of fraud, Reigen is a genuine servant of his community and is the moral epicenter of Mob Psycho.
Reigen owns and operates a small exorcism business called “Spirits and Such”. However, he cannot see most ghosts, let alone exorcise them, so he relies on being able to convince superstitious people that they are haunted in order to charge them for a decidedly fake exorcism. For some, Reigen’s career criminality precludes his being a good person. He breaks the law and profits from it, and, to top it off, he seems to have no remorse for engaging in illegal activities. It would be one thing if he was a starving man stealing to feed his family; in such extreme circumstances, we often excuse criminal behavior. Reigen is single and appears to be making a modest living from his scam rather than existing on the brink of survival.
Some may feel that any legal transgression precludes someone from having a net positive effect on society or others; for that person there will be little else to discuss about Reigen. If you let the legal system you live under govern your morality, then you’ll probably always view Reigen as an unethical guy. On the other hand, I believe it is a mistake to ground one’s own moral code solely in the law of the land. Should a law change one day, your own morality would need to change along with it. Such malleability seems an ill fit for a set of moral principles. Furthermore, this stance ignores the unfortunate reality that bad laws exist, and this stance also needs to provide an explanation for the moral superiority of the set of laws they live under versus the myriad different sets that are enforced in other parts of the world.
But what if the objection to casting Reigen as a good person is not based on his criminality? Many would say that the duplicity at the heart of his business, especially his deceit of series protagonist Mob, is what makes him nothing more than a scummy liar. The issue is not that he’s committing crimes, it’s that he is lying and hurting other people. This is a much more difficult accusation to fend off. Nonetheless, I believe an examination of the inhabitants of Mob Psycho’s world and a hypothesis on the purpose of ONE’s stories can do the job.
Take a moment to consider the number of out-and-out liars who populate this story. Mob Psycho is rife with institutions that have deception baked into their foundations. From big organizations trying to brainwash large numbers of people such as Claw and Dimple’s cult, to Awakening Lab, a well-intentioned-but-still-problematic outfit that experiments on ESPers, to school gangs spreading lies amongst each other, to small groups who just want to hide from the world and do nothing like the Telepathy Club; it sure seems like the community’s organizations– legal and non–are out to put one over on people. ONE isn’t just targeting institutions in his crosshairs, though; unaffiliated individuals also exhibit self-centered dishonesty. No character exemplifies the duplicitous nature of Mob Psycho’s world better than Mob’s brother Ritsu. Outwardly, he is a kind, deeply loyal brother; however, once the show allows us to peek into his inner life, we discover that he actually fears Mob and craves his brother’s psychic abilities. Ritsu’s intense frustration boils over once his own psychic gifts manifest, and his internal volatility bleeds through into his external appearance/behavior.
Society and its denizens are out to swindle you. This is built into the fabric of the world ONE has constructed here. My argument on behalf Reigen, however, isn’t that he is following the example of everyone else. Far from it, in fact. Most of the institutions listed above are designed to hurt individuals, to take from them and give nothing back. Dimple’s cult brainwashes its members into happiness while plundering their bank accounts. Unlike all the previously noted examples, “Spirits and Such” makes people happy and does so at a very low cost. Their clients experience joy and relief when their home or person is no longer haunted. Reigen is not interested in hurting individuals or the community with his business, so, relative to his own community, his transgressions appear minor at worst.
Is this argument going to be enough for the absolutist? Definitely not. But, I do think the context of Reigen’s community is worth factoring into judgments about his character. Once again, if you’re not moving from the “He’s a liar, so he’s a bad guy” position, then nothing I can write in this piece is going to convince you otherwise. Such objectors might point out that not all members of Reigen’s community are dirty liars. Mob, after all, is a big part of Reigen’s life, and that kid is as innocent as they come. While this is undeniably true, Mob oh-so-nearly forfeits his innocent nature during the series’ climactic battle. It was only because of Reigen’s influence that Mob finds the strength to adhere to his principles. And, let’s not forget that Mob is absolutely an outlier in this universe, and outliers don’t tend to make good counter-examples.
Now, let’s talk about some specific ways Reigen serves his community, specifically the youth and the gifted. One of the things that rings most true about Mob Psycho is its portrayal of adolescence. The show believes it is the time in our lives when we are bubbling and crackling with potential, with energy enough to change the world; yet we are naive enough to be unquestioningly taken in and have our force of youth misdirected to serve causes that only benefit an avaricious few. This is the case with the low-level, teenage members of Claw. Most of these kids joined the group because they believed they could make a difference. Taking advantage of their idealism, Claw actually recruits the kids just to use them up doing meaningless grunt work. Since joining, they’ve been given little attention and no direction. And then, along comes Reigen.
With teensiest bit of trickery, the conman-extraodinaire has these teenagers convinced he is Claw’s head honcho. They are tripping over themselves to rally to him when he asks for their input or assistance. Now, these scenes (like much of Mob Psycho) are chiefly comedic in nature; however, that doesn’t mean they don’t also have something serious to say. And, Reigen says it loud and clear; grab hold of your own agency. Don’t shackle yourself to some self-serving group that doesn’t actually care about you. Finally, as you’re making your way through the world, don’t employ cruel methods to achieve your goals. If you do, then you’ll inevitably lose people along the way who you’d want to share your rewards with.
I think he really means all of this. This isn’t part of a con. Reigen seems to take this role he’s thrust into quite seriously. In fact, he sees himself as the only sane adult in these Claw kids’ orbit, which is quite alarming to him. The Claw higher-ups, he believes, are just a bunch of children who never grew up, and people like that don’t need to be in charge of malleable, trusting teenagers. Thus, he takes it upon himself to liberate these teenagers in hopes that they will “make it to the top the right way” by their own doing and transform society. So, we see here that Reigen’s function as a community servant extends from the professional to the personal.
Perhaps the most important part Reigen plays is that of mentor to the gifted. As teacher and role model to one of the most powerful beings on the planet, who also happens to be a shy, sensitive kid, Reigen is a vital part of his community. For a long time, he is the only person Mob trusts to confide in. He provides Mob with a moral framework for his life as an ESPer, something the psychic wunderkid’s contemporaries seem to lack, and when Mob seems like he is about to go astray and abandon his principles, it is Reigen who is there to keep him on the right path.
But, even if Reigen is the right mentor for Mob, what if it’s for the wrong reasons? Perhaps the most memorable running gag of the show is that Mob, the most gifted psychic around, is the devoted student of Reigen, a man with no discernable psychic ability. While it’s funny to see the con artist wriggle out of increasingly ridiculous situations without having to come clean, it’s also easy to get angry with him for deliberately deceiving Mob. That is, it’s easy to get angry with him if one focuses only on the deception and ignores other important aspects of their relationship.
Reigen cares deeply about Mob. There is a scene in episode ten in which Mob admits to breaking the rule about not using his powers on other people. Reigen could have responded in several different ways. His first emotion might have been fear, anger, exasperation. Yet, the first thing on Reigen’s mind is Mob. The teacher is filled with empathy for his student and how desperate and cornered the young man must have felt. One of the final scenes in episode eleven shows us Reigen and Mob’s first meeting. Even before realizing Mob could be his golden goose, Reigen takes the time to encourage and mentor a scared kid who reminds the entrepreneur of his younger self.
It feels like Reigen has his arm around Mob’s shoulder throughout this entire show. Is he the wrong for deceiving Mob? Yes, and it would likely have a seismic impact on their relationship if he told Mob the truth (assuming the young ESPer doesn’t already know). But, consider the Claw youth once again and remember how Reigen is able to get through to them. He must deceive them before he can deliver his message. Consider, too, the service “Spirits and Such” provides its community. And, now, think of the positive, therapeutic benefits Mob derives from his relationship with Reigen. Above, I talk about how I believe the world of Mob Psycho 100 preys upon its individual occupants. Perhaps by making the moral compass of the story a lying con man, ONE is stating that the world is presently so fucked up that the truth won’t reach it. Reigen has accepted that this is currently accurate, but he doesn’t want it to remain so for Mob’s generation. He believes the Claw youth can “make it to the top the right way.”
It’s probably pretty easy to take an absolutist position on Reigen and dismiss him as a bad guy. But for those willing to make moral judgments with some nuance, the con artist’s positive impact on his community‒particularly young people and gifted people‒becomes difficult to ignore. “Spirits and Such” brings happiness and relief to the lives of many. Reigen offers to young ESPers a message of liberation and hope, and he does so with great empathy. However, because ONE’s world is the way it is, he can’t guilelessly approach teenagers, expecting them to receive and comply. And, Reigen does have to earn a living which necessitates him using his chief talent, lying. Maybe you have to lie in order to eventually set the world aright, but I suspect in Reigen’s ideal world, though, he’d actually be an exorcist too. Sometimes Reigen isn’t telling Mob the truth, but I bet he wishes he always was.