I will not rage.
After 20 episodes I realized that Re:Creators was somehow going to find a way to under-perform even the meager expectations I had about it’s telegraphed ending. I can’t pretend I was shocked, surprised, or even offended about how poorly executed the creators of Re:Creators resolved the central conflict of the series in episode 21. In fact, the only feeling of surprise I had while slogging through episode 21 was finding out how little I actually cared about how the show was going to resolve itself; I thought I was more invested in this show than I turned out to be.
Then again, maybe if all the likable characters weren’t killed or completely sidelined from the show, I might have cared enough about Re:Creators to feel the need to rage about this ending. Instead, I feel disappointed that not even a decent ending could have been salvaged from this show.
So, I will not rage. I will, however, lay out some of the reasons why Re:Creators was a disappointment.
Brandon Sanderson is one of the best fantasy writers out there. One of the hallmarks of his writing is a love of creating magic systems and having the characters figure out how to use the powers of that system to solve their problems in spite of the restrictions of the magic system. He’s needed to give much thought to how to write about magic because every world he creates has a different magic system and they need to be different. He’s half-jokingly created three laws about magic, but, there is much truth in them and they have relevance here.
Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magics
1) An author’s ability to solve conflict satisfactorily with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.
2) Limitations > Powers
3) Expand what you already have before you add something new.
Before I continue, I want to point out that for the purposes of this post “magic” can mean any type of power beyond the mundane. For example: a faster than light traveling space ship in science fiction, a super-powered hero in a comic book, or a magic missile casting wizard in fantasy.
I want to focus on the first law since we’re talking about the problems of the ending; however, the other two laws help explain other problems with this show. For example, Sanderson’s use of Superman to explain why it’s his limitations (moral code and kryponite) and not his powers that make him an interesting character does a good job explaining why Altair was a boring character. And the third law helps explain why shoehorning the dating sim game character into the second half was not the best idea.
In his essay detailing his ideas around his first law of magic, Sanderson postulates the use of magic falls along a continuum where one end is “soft magic” and the other end is “hard magic”. A soft magic system wishes to emphasize how fantastical magic feels from the mundane world and this is accomplished, in part, by not explaining how the magic works. The trade-off, if the author wants to write a good story, is that magic can’t really be used to solve problems because doing so saps the narrative tension from the story. One of his examples of well-written soft magic are the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. If Gandalf fixed every problem like an overpowered self-insert light novel main character then the name J. R. R. Tolkien would have been forgotten soon after he published The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
On the other end of the magic continuum – hard magic – resides the stories that detail how the magic system works in the story. Sanderson uses Isaac Asimov’s robot stories as a good example of these types of stories because Asimov created the three laws of robotics for these stories and then used the applications of these laws to solve the conflicts in the stories. An example I would give of a magic system that falls somewhere on the hard side would be Nen from Hunter x Hunter. How Nen works is given in detail and the viewer is given many different examples of how it can be used. The result allows the author to use Nen in ways to resolve problems in the story of Hunter x Hunter that would feel like a deus ex machina elsewhere.
Let’s move on to Re:Creators.
For most of the characters that are brought into the real world by Altair, because they are based on well-known character types found in anime, manga, etc., the viewer knows how their powers work and they have no problem seeing these powers used to solve problems in Re:Creators. And, if the magic use in Re:Creators had ended there – with what would be called hard magic – I probably wouldn’t be writing this since the creators would have been forced to write a better story to reach the conclusion they wanted.
There were three characters that didn’t spoof a well-known character type: Meteora, Magane, and Altair. And these three also happened to be the ones given tremendous magical power. Given how important these three characters were in resolving the central conflict of Re:Creators, time should have been spent explaining how their powers worked. Instead, any impulse to examine their power was squashed or hand-waved away. For example, “the internet” is not a valid explanation as to why Altair can pull whatever perfectly tailored magic spell she needed whenever she needed it. (And if it was so easy for Altair to gain powers, shouldn’t the government have been able to weaken her the same way.)
So, while some of the magic of the show could be considered hard magic, the most important part of the magic found in Re:Creators would be labeled soft magic. As such, Sanderson’s First Law asserts that having this magic solve the conflict would remove the narrative tension to the story (can you say deus ex machina) and make it feel weak. And that’s what we got.
I don’t understand how Magane gave her power to Souta. I don’t understand the limits of Magane’s power to explain why it was powerful enough to bring Setsuna 2 to life but not be powerful enough to bring real Setsuna back to life. I don’t understand how Souta was able to create Setsuna 2 close enough to the real thing that Altair is okay with her. I don’t understand why Setsuna 2 had to die again. I don’t understand how Altair has the power to stop this death. I don’t understand why Altair, in all the months she’s patiently – yet very angrily – waiting for the heroes to stop her, didn’t once think of creating Setsuna 2 herself. I don’t understand why Altair suddenly has this ability to create worlds and why she didn’t just create a parallel world where Setsuna was already living in it.
Calling it “bad writing” is a vast understatement when the creators take the most obvious and basic way to conclude a conflict and somehow still need to enter multiple cheats to get the story from point A to point B.
Moving on. Oftentimes, what a show lacks in making coherent sense can be made up with a satisfying emotional conclusion. Most people, myself included, will even allow a story further latitude at the end to get the ending we want without penalizing the story for it’s lapses in storytelling. If this had been the case with Re:Creators, I might have been able to overlook a great deal of what happened in episode 21. However, the other major failing of this concluding episode of Re:Creators is the lack of a satisfying emotion conclusion.
I understand that I was supposed to feel something when Setsuna 2 forgave Souta and gave him the absolution he’s been seeking since Setsuna’s death. The problem with this is that Setsuna 2 is a creation of Souta and does not have the power or right to forgive her creator’s past actions to the original Setsuna. It all seemed a bit too self-serving. On the other hand, maybe Setsuna 2 is somehow actually Setsuna come back from the grave. In this case, she does have the power and right to forgive Souta and I’m glad that Souta will be able to move on now, but, what actually happened in this episode is so fuzzy only the creators could say with any certainty.
And, honestly, I don’t particularly care that Altair is now all happy. She’s killed too many honestly good people for me to want to see her have a happy ending. I think I would have preferred to see her sacrifice herself by getting run over by the train which would somehow let Setsuna 2 live on in the real world. Being honest some more, conceptually I’m glad that Setsuna 2 is happy but seeing her happy does little for me. If the show had spent time getting me invested in caring about Setsuna then I’m sure I’d feel differently. The characters I actually care enough about to see if they can get a happy ending have all been killed at this point.
As I said earlier, I’ve come to expect this level of under-performance in what should have been a very interesting anime. I almost wrote a post after the first few episodes called The Missed Opportunities of Re:Creators. It would have lamented that almost no time was being spent on the culture shock the various characters certainly would be feeling. Nor was significant time spent on the characters coming to grip with all the little things missing in their created world that the real world had. I remember really being emotionally hit when, in Log Horizon, the former NPC characters were fascinated by Isuzu’s music because they knew of no music beyond the 42 songs that made up the original game of Elder Tale. There was nothing comparable to this in Re:Creators. And the last point I would have brought up was that now that the creations were given real life and freedom from being their creator’s puppets there should be some drifting of personality as everything that’s happened to them would give them opportunity to redefine who they are.
I’d’ve also loved to have seen an episode were the creations went to Comiket and get really incensed over all the crappy, creepy doujin made about their characters.
Later, I began to wonder about Altair’s motives. I couldn’t tell if I supposed to read into Altair’s actions that she actually wanted something other than destroying the world that hurt her creator. Because, to me, summoning a group of heroes and asking them to help hurt people seems like a really stupid idea. Summoning a group of villains and asking them to wreak havoc makes a lot more sense. Was it bad writing, I wondered, or was the show setting some interesting revelation at the end? Maybe, I thought, Altair actually wanted to be stopped. As of episode 21 it appears that, no, she really wanted to destroy everything but was willing to patiently wait months to do so and she really planned to use heroes to help her do it. That she’s not going to pursue this as soon as Setsuna 2 showed up was just an unforeseen coincidence to her planning.
To end this post on a positive note. If you found the premise of Re:Creators interesting there are two books that immediately come to mind that use the central idea in a much better way. The first is Red Shirts by John Scalzi and the second is Ilium/Olympos by Dan Simmons.
In Red Shirts, a group of Red Shirts (the disposable extras the show kills instead of the star characters) from a Star Trek clone TV series realize they are inside a TV show and use the time travel ability of their ship to go back to present day California in our world and demand better treatment from the show’s writers. The more I think about, the more I wonder if this 2012 novel was translated in Japanese and if the writers for Re:Creators read it and if that’s where the idea for Re:Creators came from because there is a lot of similarities between the two, even beyond just the starting premise.
Ilium and Olympos give a more oblique treatment of the core premise to Re:Creators. In the far future of this story humanity has bestowed upon themselves all the powers one associates with being god-like and, after finding an alternate world that matches Homer’s Iliad, they set themselves up as the literal Greek gods of this world and use Olympus Mons on our Mars as their home. Before finding this world, while punching random portals into the various alternative worlds, they also let loose other things, including something that wishes to devour the Earth. The story is way too complicated to even summarize here but it starts when an agent created by these post-human gods to study how this alternative world differs from the Iliad realizes he’s about to be killed by the gods and convinces both the Greeks and Trojans to set aside their Trojan War and attack the gods instead. Thrown into the mix are sentient robots from the moons of Jupiter who decide to study what is causing the breaking of spacetime around Mars and the reawakening of the Eloi-like herd of “old-style” humans that the post-human gods keep alive on our Earth. The resulting story is epic.
Red Shirts is shorter and the media characters used are closer to the contemporary nature of Re:Creators. Ilium and Olympos are a much longer read and uses older, more literary, characters to bring to our world. I most emphatically recommend either above watching Re:Creators.