Reigen Arataka | Confidence Man

Mob Psycho 100 is a great anime. I know, I’m christening this new blog with a scorching hot take there. The psychedelically animated series starring a 14-year old boy with ESP strong enough to warp reality to his whims—but all the confidence and ambition of a three-legged hermit crab­—has swept up enthusiastic fans and critical accolades since it first aired in 2016. But to be honest, I wasn’t riding high on the Mob train back then. While Shigeo gradually becomes a perfect protagonist for the specific story being told, his nickname, Mob, does mean “just a face in the crowd” for good reason. Maybe I’ll write about Mob Psycho 100’s humble protagonist some day in the future, but this story didn’t really make landfall in my heart until 2019—when its second season devoted a silly yet sobering two-parter to internet sex symbol Reigen Arataka.

I am at most barely responsible for this perversion of Google’s algorithm, but the sin still haunts me.

I can’t be sure if all that Reigen thirst online is sincere or ironic, but I’d guess it’s a little of both. Sure, he’s a con artist exploiting a middle schooler’s psychic powers in exchange for pocket money, but if you can look past that, he’s great at mentoring Mob where it counts, and his ability to roll with the endless punches to his dignity can be inspiring. But if Reigen’s got such a heart of gold, how do you square that with his choice of profession? What would make such a thoughtful and flexible guy choose a life of deceit and manipulation? Why is Reigen Arataka a con man? I wondered this to myself throughout season one, because I felt like it was important to his character in some deeper way, but I didn’t know why—until season two.

In his own words, Reigen seems to think he chose the grifting game for the most obvious reasons: easy profit. He saw an ad in a magazine promising fabulous wealth to anyone who purchased a worthless hunk of “lucky” jewelry, and that inspired him to re-brand his exceptional massage skills (another solid checkmark on the boyfriend list) as a bogus form of spiritual healing. But the Spirits and Such Consultation Office never became a cash cow, and Reigen just kept playing psychic anyway. Not only that, he’s remained the cheapest psychic in town three years later, offering all his clients bargain packages that just manage to keep the lights on in his humble office—and that’s after hiring the most talented esper in the world (for about five bucks a day, but that’s beside the point). Reigen is a classic case of a liar for hire deceiving himself more deeply than he can fool anyone else, so I had to dig deeper to find my own answer for what made him into a con man. (Oh sorry, Reigen, I meant con artist.)

So, let’s begin at the beginning. Before we get to know “the greatest psychic of the 21st century” from his own perspective in season two, we have to see him through his pupil’s eyes in season one. Since Shigeo is such a trembling void of ambition, Reigen overcompensates to propel the show’s dramedy forward, vacillating wildly between mentor and punchline as he encourages Mob to take ownership of his life, while secretly blundering his way through his own adult hardships. Reigen’s flop-sweat-with-a-smile routine is comedy gold, while his genuine care for Mob’s future is heartwarming, and this contrast ties beautifully into Mob’s character arc. Reigen may be a shiftless weirdo barreling toward his 30s with no plan whatsoever, but Mob doesn’t realize that any more than he grasps the terrifying gravity of his own godlike powers. The impressionable Shigeo just takes Reigen’s advice at face value. After all, Reigen is a grown-up, wearing a nice suit on a big poster, so he must know what he’s talking about, right?

And to Mob’s credit, sometimes he does:

“Just because you have psychic powers doesn’t make you any less human. It’s the same as people who are fast, people who are book smart, and people with strong body odor. Psychic powers are just another characteristic. The truth behind one’s charm is kindness. Become a good person. That’s all.”

Now, from Reigen’s perspective, this speech is yet another con job at the end of another long day of lying for a living. He doesn’t believe that this cute little squirt actually has psychic powers. He just wants to tell a troubled kid something he thinks will help him feel understood, so he can scoot the ankle-biter out of his office. If Reigen actually knew what Mob was capable of, maybe he would have painted the kid’s weighty destiny in a different light. Instead, Reigen mistook Mob for a fellow problem child, the kind of mischief-maker who lies for attention and dreams up psychic powers to make himself feel special. Naturally, Reigen leaps at the opportunity to tell a version of his childhood self to do things differently this time around. And when Mob does as Reigen says and not as he does, it puts him on the path to becoming a true superhero in a world overflowing with more self-absorbed psychics.

As a mentor, Reigen voices the show’s main theme, that everyone is “special” in some way or another (or thinks they are, which is basically the same thing), so instead of basing your worth on something so secretly common, it’s best to focus on being a good person. Goodness isn’t a special power or talent that anyone is born with. It’s a subjective quality defined by our actions and how they are remembered by others, so it’s something you must learn how to be in roughly the same way as everyone else, by making kind and brave choices day by day, as you learn to exercise your own will for your own life. Then as a punchline, Reigen reminds us that, while finding our place in the world based on our special talents can be daunting, the bar for being a “good person” is so damn low that even a shifty slacker like Reigen shines brightly compared to Claw’s megalomaniacal espers, who spend their whole lives huffing their ectoplasmic farts in arrested development until they literally become Old Babies like Ishiguro. It’s hilarious to see these supervillains’ spirits get shattered not by the power of a stronger psychic, but the sober self-deprecation of a total loser who outclasses them in adulting regardless.

“You’re telling us to return to being commoners?”

“You still don’t get it, do you? Who the hell do you think you are? You’re just a part of the masses! I’m a commoner! I’m much more powerful than you, and I’m still just a commoner. So what does that make you?”

For as often as Reigen steals the show in season one, of course Mob Psycho 100 still needs to be Mob’s story. His gifted-kid coming-of-age arc is unique in that it downplays the importance (and subsequently lightens the burden) of being gifted in the first place. Mob has learned how to develop his powers from a charlatan with no supernatural acumen whatsoever, and that may be for the best. It would be better for Shigeo to become like Reigen than most of the other maladjusted espers he meets; that’s the joke and the message all rolled into one. But at the end of the day, I can’t call Reigen Arataka aspirational, either. I mean, he’s exploiting an eighth-grader to run a business that makes as much money selling bullshit exorcisms and seances to shmucks as it does busting actual ghosts. The greatest psychic of the 21st century is overdue for a towering wave of karma, which finally brings us to the midway point of season two and the darker side of Reigen’s heart.

In the episode titled, “Oh, It Me” “Poor, Lonely, Whitey”, Reigen’s uptick in clients begins going to his head around the same time that Mob has finally started to develop a social life. After Reigen pressures Mob to leave his new friend’s birthday lunch and exorcise a small fry spirit in exchange for ramen as usual, his faithful pupil turns down their celebration dinner, expressing discomfort with how this Spirits and Such gig is cutting into his personal life. Without warning, his master explodes into a strangely cruel and defensive rant.

“I don’t know what you were doing with your schoolmates, but do they really understand you? Come on, we’re saving lives here! You’re making a difference in the world by helping me out! Not to mention, I’m your master! Choose your social circle wisely, Mob! If they’re going to get in the way of your exorcism job, get rid of them! They don’t actually care about you. They’re just having fun mocking someone as wimpy as you.”

Now, Reigen’s no stranger to talking his way out of trouble—he’s mastered this superpower about as well as Mob has mastered his own—but we’ve never seen anything like this from him before. Instead of coolly fibbing just as much as he’s gotta so he can slip past the problem, Reigen’s heightened emotions mutate his gift of gab into something destructive at the slightest indication that Mob wants to spend less time working for him. We’re getting a taste of Reigen’s own version of ???% Mode, as he exorcises feelings he can’t handle, not through explosive ESP, but explosive words that he hopes will brute force the situation back to normal. While Reigen’s uncontrolled powers can’t disintegrate buildings like Mob’s, he can definitely cause devastating emotional damage, and Shigeo does seem to disassociate from the shock for a moment. But we’ve watched this kid go through a lot of growing already, and he’s stronger than Reigen remembers. Mob is now discerning enough to recognize his master’s outburst as a red flag worth avoiding for a while. “I’m beginning to understand that not everything you say is true” is all Mob has to say to render Reigen’s big mouth powerless.  

Now that we’ve seen Reigen do this to someone once, it’s easy to assume he’s done it before. Hell, we don’t have to assume, because we see it happen again just a few minutes later. Reigen improvises some word vomit to try and manipulate Dimple into helping him get Mob back, but the semi-evil spirit also decides to drift away from the conversation. Why bother debating a guy who’s never lost an argument, but has clearly lost too many other important things in the process? Indeed, the rest of the episode paints a bleak picture of Reigen’s life, now that we’re not seeing it through Mob’s eyes. He’s been so alone for so long that he forgets his own birthday, and the only way he can think to celebrate is to visit his local bar and get sick off of a single virgin lemon sour. Hey, he’s gotta do something to forget about the only b-day message he got: an overbearing, judgmental e-mail from his mom. As he beats himself up for puking in a back alley, Reigen is rapidly unraveling inside his own mind.

“This isn’t good. I’m going in a very bad direction. Me, of all people! Wait. Me? I mean, what am I? I guess I’ll just have to become somebody.”

Surprisingly, this crisis of confidence kickstarts a brief golden age for Reigen. He decides to turn over a new leaf and become his best self, combining his old ways of doing business with more honest odd jobs that give back to the community he’s been hoodwinking. Sure, he’s still pretending to be a psychic, but at least he’s helping to solve real problems again, like he did when Mob was there—and all that busy work is great for silencing the voices in your head. Who needs Mob? Reigen’s turned his haunting brush with ???% in front of Mob into a 100% fulfillment of his talents for the whole world to see. He’s even been invited to perform an exorcism live on TV! What could possibly go wrong?

Before Reigen’s star inevitably comes crashing down to this bitch of an earth, I think we’ve already seen enough to finally answer the question I started with. Why is Reigen Arataka a con man?

Well, when you take a closer look at the work he’s been doing, to what extent is he even conning people at all?

Reigen’s hideous homepage does exist and you should visit it.

Unlike most fraudsters, he doesn’t research people’s personal tragedies to exploit their grief, he doesn’t sell them trash disguised as spiritual totems, and the services he does offer—massage, photoshop, forensics, etc.—are fairly priced for the positive results he delivers, even if his clients don’t realize they’re paying for something different than advertised. I think the true service Reigen offers people is just plain showmanship. He eases their fears of the unknown by giving them closure however he can, bringing Mob into the picture only when the ghostly threat turns out to be real. So, if your definition of a con man is a deceitful criminal who preys on the weak, of course Reigen is too lovable to qualify.

No, I’d consider Reigen a con man in the purest sense of the term, because the word “con” doesn’t come from con as in “negative” or con as in “convict.” The word originally referred to “confidence,” and confidence—not money—is what Reigen Arataka impulsively tricks people for, all to feed a nameless void inside him that grows every time he pretends for them.

While it’s true that a swindler should exude confidence to run a successful scam, this term was not coined in reference to the confidence of the man himself, but what he must first take from you; he has to win his mark’s full confidence, their trust, before he can get their money. It may surprise you to learn that this English idiom is used in Japan, too. I’ve heard “コンフィデンスマン” spoken in a few anime over the years, most notably in this year’s Great Pretender, where the protagonist drops it like punctuation. I don’t know if this etymology was on ONE’s mind when he began developing Reigen’s character, but winning the confidence of others—not as a way to their wallets, but just for its own sake—is certainly the phony psychic’s core motivation.

Reigen’s life has been spent posturing at a table for one, begging the world to believe in the self-made man he wants to be, but his big personality only belies a guy who is deeply insecure about everything. This comes out most clearly in his ???% explosion at Mob. He’s not really upset about work; he’s upset because he’s terrified of losing time with his only friend. Even if he can’t admit it to himself, Reigen has been clinging to the adoration of this 14-year old boy to feel like he’s where he’s supposed to be in life: successful, sincere, somebody’s senpai. After years of failing to connect with anybody at one insipid sales gig after another, Reigen stuck with a job that requires him to fool people and therefore keep them at a distance. However, mentoring Mob has forced him to stay honest and even a little vulnerable between clients. He can say things like, “All that matters is that you become a good person”, and when Mob believes him, he can believe it himself despite the bitterness of his adult life and the needs of his duplicitous occupation. But despite Mob’s positive influence on him, Reigen can’t seem to take his own advice and stop pretending to be something he’s not. Psychic powers aren’t the only talent that can make you feel isolated from society, and Reigen’s own gift of gab is a double-edged sword that has crippled his ability to believe in himself.

I think the most valuable thing we ever learn about Reigen is that he’s gone his whole life without ever losing an argument. Just imagine for a minute what that must be like. It might sound great at first, but on further inspection, “never losing an argument” doesn’t mean “always being right”. On the contrary, Reigen is a great comedy character because he’s assertively wrong about so many things, and he knows it. But he has the power to convince everyone he is right, so he can’t help but use his greatest talent compulsively, leaving him alone in his head with the weight of all the things he doesn’t understand. No matter how deeply Reigen might care about telling the truth and being a good person, he’s only human. He’s bound to make a mistake or find himself forced to bend the truth to protect himself in a cold and slippery world. Whether by accident or on purpose, Reigen has gradually turned his life into a pile of lies and incongruities he can’t keep straight, but people always believe him anyway, so he never gets the chance to grow from his mistakes. Everyone assumes Reigen knows what he’s doing, so nobody gets close enough to see how empty he actually feels. He’s the only one who knows that he’s lying. He’s the only one who “knows” that he’s a bad person.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds like an absolute nightmare to me. 28 years of this unique mental isolation has already gotten Reigen addicted to the confidence of others, the closest thing he has to some objective metric that he can’t be that bad, he can’t be that lonely. However, no amount of adoration can make Reigen accept that he’s a good person, because his talent for making people believe everything he says will leave him feeling like the bad guy when he inevitably says things that aren’t true, with all the painful consequences that follow. If Reigen believes it’s not possible for him to be a good person, then he’ll flip the script on the advice he gave to Mob and use his talent to become a real “somebody”: the greatest psychic of the 21st century!

Reigen lives off the confidence of others like a drug, and the money is just a side benefit he needs to get by, which is why he cares so little about cash compared to popularity. The real long con is just convincing people that he’s a good person when he secretly believes that’s impossible, and that’s why his post-Mob golden age is just setting him up for a greater fall. Even if his ventures are more altruistic than they were before, he’s still depending on a steady income of smiles to keep his self-worth afloat. Reigen is still so miserably alone that he thinks the regulars in his favorite bar must be his friends because they smile when he gives them free life advice. They’re basically just clients he doesn’t charge, because he’s getting paid in confidence instead.

Naturally, Reigen’s barfly “friends” abandon him the second he gets cancelled on live TV. After trying to exorcise a perfectly healthy child actor for 30 minutes in a cruel prank at his expense, the supposed psychic’s silver tongue is powerless to stop the world from seeing the truth. At long last, Reigen’s worst nightmare has come true. Everybody, everybody, everybody knows he’s a big fat phony. Now the whole world can see the version of Reigen that he’s hated and feared in his quiet apartment every night. Mob has rightfully left him behind, and the more fickle mobs Reigen relied on to justify his existence are rushing to paint him in the worst light for their own entertainment. Previously satisfied customers flood social media with all of Reigen’s saddest little shortcomings. The media swarms his house and pressures him into a press conference. Internet detectives unearth his dweeby high school yearbook photo! It’s a long way down a mountain he was never going to reach the peak of, and at rock bottom, far away from all the lies he’d been using to climb to nowhere, Reigen manages to find himself again.

One especially smarmy reporter at Reigen’s press conference whips out a copy of the confidence man’s old graduation essay. “You wrote ‘I want to be somebody.’ So why did you become a psychic?” he asks. Reigen’s mind rushes back to that alleyway, where he puked up a virgin lemon sour on his birthday, as he felt himself disintegrating from all the same anxieties he’s had since childhood. You’re a phony, you’re a liar, you’re nobody, you’re nothing. If he really wanted to escape those voices in his head, why did he leave his honest sales job for a career that relies on lies? All the fame he attained and all the confidence he stole couldn’t change him into something he wasn’t. At the height of his success, Reigen still didn’t feel special himself, but he kept going because there was one special thing about playing psychic—it was Mob.

The solution to Reigen’s confidence addiction is not popularity. He could become the greatest psychic in the universe, he could even acquire real psychic powers somehow (he briefly did in the season one finale!), but the voices in his head would remain as loud as ever. Reigen only felt like somebody when he became somebody to Mob. This kid wasn’t just another smile to give him confidence, and he wasn’t just another positive review online. Mob was special—not because of his psychic powers or even because of his goodness—but because he was special to Reigen. That’s all a friendship is: two people who are special to each other, and it doesn’t matter if anyone else in the world thinks they’re special or not. There may be a 14-year gap between them, but there’s not much daylight between Mob and Reigen in terms of emotional maturity and social experience, so of course they became close friends! These two had a connection that no amount of approval from the entire world could replace, and Reigen threw it away out of fear that Mob would find him out or leave him behind. Now both of those things have happened anyway, and who knows how many other people Reigen has alienated in his futile pursuit of confidence.

Now at his lowest point, Reigen has to wonder if Mob is even watching this press conference. Why would he, after the way Reigen treated him? The incredible talent that’s kept Reigen from growing as a person has been stripped away from him, and with no power to talk himself out of this situation, he searches for the right thing to say. He shuts out all the judgmental faces in the crowd, all the voices in his head, all those humiliating e-mails from his mom. He simply thinks of what he needs to say to the one person who’s special to him. It doesn’t matter if anyone else understands.

“You’ve grown up so much. You know that?”

Naturally, everything works out just fine for Reigen in the end. We’ve gotta get back to telling Mob’s story for the rest of the season, so the titular angel in a bowl cut swoops in to save his master from behind the scenes, and Reigen plays off the chaos effortlessly, with his fast-talking mojo restored alongside his reputation. Now completely drained of confidence and wiser for the wear, Reigen knows he has to clear the air with Mob. If he’s not a great master psychic to his pupil anymore, who is he?

It’s a perfect ending to Reigen’s two-parter and the perfect start to a better friendship between them. I don’t have any more clever or fitting way to conclude this tough-love letter to one of my favorite anime characters, but pushing myself to write again has helped shrink the nameless void inside my own heart. All the good people I know are too hard on themselves, so if you’ve been feeling like nobody in this horrible year, just remember that you are special to someone. Even if it’s just one person, that’s all you need to live. It’s all you need to grow.

Mob Psycho 100 is currently streaming on Crunchyroll and Funimation.

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