Reigen Arataka is a con man who’s out for himself, but we love him anyway.
If you know nothing else about Mob Psycho 100 you’ve likely at least heard of Reigen Arataka (Takahiro Sakurai). The character is a beloved target of fan appreciation and jokes with a deluge of fan art flooding the #RedrawReigen tag on Twitter after every new season. His newest bout with Twitter infamy is after a whole host of polls naming him #1 Anime Dad and Hottest Anime Woman (among other titles he is equally unqualified for) went viral in September. He’s memed on by the Mob Psycho 100 fandom to an almost outrageous extent, but this deluge of fan content is much more than a joke. Reigen Arataka, while often the butt of jokes both within the show and without, is an incredibly complex character who does the important work of embodying the show’s central themes of self-determination and self-actualization.
Reigen Arataka is a con man with no friends. This is not an overstatement. Reigen runs an exorcism business called Spirits and Such, where he pretends to be a psychic, offering clients deals to help get rid of ghosts, spirits, or other evils plaguing them. Lucky for him though, he happened to meet a young Shigeo “Mob” Kageyama (Setsuo Ito) who actually does have spiritual powers. So he employs Mob as his single part-time employee paying him 300 yen an hour to do the actual exorcism work. His main tools for exorcisms include table salt (ineffective) and distracting hand movements (even more so). It’d be easy from these things alone to write off Reigen as an exploitative and terrible person, but it’s just not that simple. Reigen’s complicated and while he has no problem lying or grifting, he doesn’t leave people empty-handed. The spirit cleansing massages he offers may not actually exorcise ghosts, but he still helps to take a (metaphorical) weight off his clients shoulders. He underpays Mob but also tries to help Mob learn to navigate the world, helps him to understand his powers as a tool rather than a hindrance, and offers generally good life advice. Even if he doesn’t always follow it himself.
A Con Man, but Also a Mentor
“Con man with a heart of gold” is by no means a new trope but the way Reigen does it feels fresh. In shounen anime settings, so often the adults will encourage kids to face dangerous situations themselves. To fight adults or militaries or governments because it serves a greater purpose with little mind paid to the fact that these challenges are being left to literal kids. But Reigen, as the resident normal guy amid a sea of super-powered people, has the clarity to speak plainly that it is not Mob’s, or any other kid’s, job to solve these problems.
When they infiltrate CLAW at the end of Season 1, Mob is prepared to unleash his full 100% power on the other espers for what they’ve done but Reigen reminds him that it’s OK to run away when things get this difficult. This literally helps Mob redirect his powers from a violent explosion to a tool he hands off to Reigen. Reigen, even before getting imbued with Mob’s powers, was going toe to toe with powerful psychics and telling them off for fighting kids. It’s not only refreshing to see an adult show this kind of responsibility and care in an action anime, but also deeply emblematic of the themes of the show. The choice is always ours whether that be to fight or flee, to foolishly fight kids because of your ideals or back down like the bigger person, and Reigen is there to remind us of this time and again.
A Downward Spiral
This sort of internal juxtaposition between con man and kind mentor comes to a head in the so-called “Separation Arc” — aptly called that because it’s the only portion of the story in which Mob and Reigen are not talking. This occurs about midway into Season 2. After Reigen made some rude comments about Mob’s friends and social abilities, Mob decided to take a break from Spirits and Such to enjoy his own life. In his absence, Reigen is trying to prove himself and takes a position on a talk show for psychics. His appearance however, turns out to be a trick designed to expose him as a fraud while proving a rival psychic superior. This public display of humiliation leads to Reigen getting canceled (yes, really) on Twitter. In this arc, Reigen is completely isolated and forced to his lowest point. He’s harassed by reporters trying to get the scoop on him, lambasted online, and we get to see how empty his life is without Mob and the purpose he brings him. He spends his birthday alone with a single email from his mother as company.
At the very bottom of his downward spiral, he holds a press conference in an attempt to clear it all up. It seems he’s ready to come clean until Mob comes to his rescue putting on a display of psychic powers that causes a massive commotion and clears Reigen’s name. It’s a touching reunion where Reigen’s learned how much he values Mob as a person and Mob has come to take Reigen off the pedestal he once put him on. Reigen, still reeling, asks Mob what he thinks of him after all this. He says, “I know what I’ve always known. That my master is a good guy.” Mob extends to Reigen what Reigen always extended to him, empathy and kindness. At this point, Reigen is as lost and adrift as Mob was when he first walked into Reigen’s office. Mob offers the same comfort and understanding his younger self was shown back to Reigen. And herein lies the magic that makes Reigen work. Because for all his faults, his missteps, and his blatant lies he is, at his core, a good guy who (despite his own shortcomings) imparts compassionate ideals onto those around him.
Reigen Sticks to His Guns
That’s the thing about Reigen, he sticks to his guns no matter the situation. If that means talking circles around people to stop them from realizing he doesn’t have psychic powers so be it. But it also means that he’s willing to go into situations that are far out of his depth if it means doing what he feels is right. The end of Season 2 sees the leader of CLAW, Toichiro Suzui (Kazuhiko Inoue), laying siege on Seasoning City, and Mob and his friends are trying to stop it. Even when the other psychics start to fall back to safety, Reigen keeps going because Mob is at the heart of this fight, and he wants to keep him safe. Suzui is one of the most powerful espers in the world and when Reigen arrives at the fight he’s wielding a gun that really won’t do him any good. (This comes only a handful of minutes after he decked another extremely powerful psychic who’d just been throwing buildings at teenagers.)
Reigen is, obviously, pretty useless in the fight. The show doesn’t pretend his gumption somehow makes him an equal opponent in this fight. He’d have been blasted out of the building if Suzui’s ex-henchman, Serizawa (Takanori Hoshino), hadn’t come to his rescue. Every other person there is a psychic and far more powerful than him, but that’s not the point. The point is that Reigen won’t just let things be, he tries to help and defend people until the very last moment. It’s Mob who actually saves the day, but he does it using compassion and words he learned from Reigen: “I’m the protagonist of my own life,” a message that imparts a sense of ownership and responsibility over one’s own destiny.
Reigen is a con man, and he’s selfish but at the end of the day he’s kind above all else. Even if he’s not actually exorcising the spirits for his clients he often helps them in other ways like fixing their bad backs or helping an old man clean his dog. Most importantly, Reigen always values self-determination, and he acts on that value constantly. Season 3 starts with some usual Bad Boss Reigen shenanigans with Mob worrying about his future and Reigen stating his future is set, Mob will continue to work at Spirits and Such. It’s a typical Reigen response but when later in the episode Mob expresses that he wants to see more beyond this job, Reigen immediately accepts his decision. He tells Mob, as he always does, that he can be whoever he wants, do whatever he wants, even if it isn’t work.
Reigen Arataka is complicated and not in the brooding, hiding-a-dark-past manner a lot of mentor characters are. Reigen is a con man, but he’s also one of the most responsible adults in the story. He’s just a normal person with layers and faults who happened to (through his own foolishness) end up entrenched in a conflict much larger than himself. But he chooses to stay involved because above all else he’s a caring guy who doesn’t want to see injustice done, especially if whoever’s being villain of the week makes the mistake of targeting Mob. He’s perfect for his imperfections. He’s a bit of a loser. And we love him for it.