Imagine if you were whisked back ten years. What would you do differently the second time around? Hitchhike around the Sonora Desert? Buy some lottery tickets? How about cramming for some calculus tests and running laps at the track? If you’re familiar with Yayoiso’s hit web manga ReLIFE or its summer 2017 anime adaptation by TMS Entertainment, you probably already know protagonist Arata Kaizaki’s grudging answer. While ReLIFE is a charming series with fun characters and a heartwarming story of personal growth, the premise is also fairly ridiculous. For this reason, ReLIFE is a great example of the role of magic and scale in storytelling. It all comes down to a marvelous anti-wrinkle pill.

ReLIFE Title Card
ReLIFE Title Card  | Image: Crunchyroll

What’s in a story? Compromise and Content

In storytelling, there are a lot of compromises. Writers compromise with editors, editors with readers, and readers with writers. In this way, a piece is published, distributed, and read. This is the nature of commercial writing. However, beyond this system of compromise, there is a much deeper rift between the story and the audience. This rift is the suspension of disbelief: the consent of the reader to enter the world of the story and play by its rules. In exchange, the storyteller must be consistent with the rules they’ve established. Moreover, they must have a reason for establishing these new rules. This compromise is at the heart of all storytelling. Carelessly dealing with these rules can break immersion, violating the reader’s suspension of disbelief. This problem is one as old as language, one that has sunk many tales over the years.

Judging by this, we might say that any magical mechanism in a story is a violation of this trust or even just lazy storytelling. However, there is a time and a place for magical resolutions and convenient oversight. Whether or not it is appropriate has largely to do with the story itself, and the message the storyteller wants to impart to the audience. Is it alright to take a shortcut? What are the ramifications of flouting these self-imposed rules? These are questions I found myself asking after reading some forum threads about ReLIFE.

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Seventeen Again: The World of ReLIFE and the Magic Pill

The world of ReLIFE functions in a similar way to an isekai, the popular alternate-world genre. Arata Kaizaki is a 27-year-old man and master’s graduate is our unemployed protagonist. Struggling to find a job due to a weak resume, he floats from interview to interview, unable to explain away his short stint at his first employer. Drunk and listless after a dinner with his successful friends, Kaizaki stumbles back to his dirty apartment.

At this time, he is presented with a pill by the mysterious Ryo Yoake, ReLife Laboratory’s support specialist and a professional stalker. ReLife, through careful observation of Kaizaki’s recent life, determined he was a failure, but one with the potential to change. He is thus selected for an experimental “resocializing” program. Magically, the pill takes ten years off Kaizaki, who then enrolls at Aoba High School to rediscover his passion for life and his self-confidence. While Kaizaki is the protagonist, ReLIFE pays heavy attention to his new friends: Yoake; the resident ace, Ohga; the driven Kariu; and the walking textbook, Chizuru Hishiro. Most of the story takes place within this social circle. Moreover, this much is the same in the manga, anime, and live-action adaptations.

Kaizaki and Hishiro
Kaizaki and Hishiro | Image: Crunchyroll

What’s the Big Deal?

While it’s easy to forget that it existed, this pill is the foundation of the plot and a perfect example of a magical plot device. ReLIFE’s miraculous anti-aging pill is not just a high-grade beauty product; it is also a ticking time bomb. If Kaizaki divulges his secret or information about the ReLife Laboratory, everyone he interacts with will forget about him, and he will lose his memories. Plainly there is no such drug in real life. However, ReLIFE’s dealing with this device is a great example of how storytellers deal with particulars. Notably, it was also a source of confusion for some commenters, including myself. How does it work? Why does Kaizaki take it? Will it actually work in the end? These are good questions, but not the most relevant to our discussion.

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Why the Magic Pill?

While a critical part of the story, the pill is largely invisible and forgotten. This is exactly as it should be. Yayoiso periodically raises the rules to remind the reader of the stakes, but it is simply a means to an end. Without such a magical pill, how could Kaizaki feasibly be put into a high school classroom as a senior (or third-year according to the Japanese grade system)? This is the most obvious defense of a magic plot device: the ability to take a story in unusual directions. Another justification for using an improbable setting is that it adds some spice that a normal setting would not. While this is a more subjective claim than the main defense, it doesn’t apply in the same way to ReLIFE, a story set in modern-day Japan.

Kaizaki's fateful encounter with Yoake.
Kaizaki’s fateful encounter with Yoake | Image: Crunchyroll

However, it is still relevant. Despite the grounded nature of ReLIFE’s setting, the entire premise is ridiculous, fantastic even. Why does Kaizaki, an educated adult, need to go back to high school to get a job? Why doesn’t the ReLife program just find him an internship somewhere? The return to high school is, in other words, an attempt to remove the story from the everyday. Yayoiso, therefore, sets the story in a removed and idealized setting, Aoba High School. This is a transaction. The reader allows the storyteller some leeway in exchange for a more interesting story, even if the minor details don’t quite make sense. In this way, the magic pill gives just enough of an explanation that the audience can go along with it.

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Reading, Vehicles, and Exchange

This transaction is key to storytelling. The audience, in some way, pays for the story. In exchange for what? That depends. Some stories are simply entertainment, but many aim to speak a higher truth. For these latter stories, which aim to educate morally, small lies—like magic pills or dei ex machina—are simply expedient means to get the audience thinking of something more.

In the same way, a lie like Plato’s Myth of the Metals or the Buddhist allegory of the Burning House may get people to adhere to some “higher” moral standard; the small lie of the magic pills allows Yayoiso to present the audience with a plausible setting for this redemption story. From here she asks, “What if you were 17 again?” TMS Entertainment follows suit in their adaptation. While a fun series, ReLIFE is also a vehicle for the discussion of good living. That it is a fun story filled with relatable characters and pleasant art helps attract the audience and reach them.

A thick book rarely excites people, much less a thick book on life choices and responsibility. This is where ReLIFE shines. With a silly premise, Yayoiso and TMS Entertainment bring the audience to a familiar setting and once again confront them with choices since past. ReLIFE is not a simple exercise in nostalgia, but rather a way to personally connect the reader with the story. To this end, they use devices like magic pills and improbable corporations (who exactly funds the secret ReLife Laboratories?) to bring big questions to the table and tell a fun story of second chances and personal growth.

Featured image courtesy of Crunchyroll.

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