One of this season’s biggest most hyped shows opens with the protagonist dying and being reincarnated into another world. But what about when a series decides to end this way?
All right. As we’re talking about endings, here, I feel obligated to say this, so: This is a Soft Spoiler Warning. Be advised that the endings and/or major plot points of some stories may be spoiled or implied.
I’m just going to come out and say it. I loathe these endings. Oh so very much. I can think of very few instances where I’ve seen it and it was passable, let alone completely worked. Yet, for the longest time, I couldn’t peg exactly what it was about them that I hated so much. And then it clicked. It just feels cheap.
For whatever reason, it seems the most prominent in romance arcs. With the most noteworthy recent example being Darling in the FRANXX. And it just comes down to lame storytelling, really. Remember what I said about earning your happy ending? Yeah. This isn’t that. It’s almost like a way of trying to have your cake and eat it too. You want the drama points of a tragic end for the star-crossed lovers, but also the “Awww. It’s that sweet?” points of actually completing the romantic arc. Make no mistake, I love my sappy “D’awwwww!” moments as much as anyone. I live for it. But slapping on a reincarnation to a more bittersweet ending just winds up cheapening both of the intended effects. The entire point of the bittersweet ending is undermined, thus mooting whatever point it was trying to make. And… well, I’ll get into the other reason in a sec.
Don’t get me wrong. Reincarnation can be and has been used to great effect in storytelling. Things like Sailor Moon handle it pretty well, of course. Inuyasha does an okay job with it. It’s the entire high concept of shows like Bleach and Aquarion. And on the romantic side of things, there’s stuff like The Seven Deadly Sins (no, but really. You are not ready for those feels). But the key difference is that these aren’t endings. In those, reincarnation is a major plot point and utilized throughout the work to inform the world and/or the relationships between characters as the story progresses, not as it concludes. So reincarnation, itself, isn’t the problem.
Then there are stories with reincarnation setups. That is to say they begin with the concept of reincarnation. Things like Tensei shitara Slime Datta Ken or So I’m A Spider, So What, for example. The latter of which I’m actively avoiding for a laundry list of reasons, not the least of which being violent arachnophobia. But also a general dislike of stories involving reincarnating as something that’s not even remotely humanoid. Slime gets around it by letting Rimuru transform, at least… my, this is a long tangent. What was I saying again? Oh. Yeah. Lately, reincarnation is turning into a really common means of kicking off an Isekai story. Though it does pop up elsewhere. And while this method of reincarnation as a narrative device has its own host of problems, I think Karandi tackled that topic better than I ever could. So check that out when you can.
But this is on the subject of reincarnation endings and, really, it boils down to one key fact that I feel like every writer who employs it just overlooks in the interest of being flowery and romantic (and I’m using that in the classical sense of the word, meaning ‘idealistic’, not the modernized sense referring to love). Put plainly? We have absolutely no reason to care about who the characters reincarnate as. At all.
I use Darling in the FRANXX as an example because it really captures the entirety of the problem, to me. Though it has far more problems than just this, to be fair. The thing is that it comes from both the writer and the reader/viewer in me. Yes. We all know I’m highly sensitive and don’t respond well to the death of main characters. And yet this surprisingly isn’t related to that. From a writing perspective – the thing I am literally trained to do – you’ve made me sit here with these characters and watch their struggles, adventures, and so-on. I have followed them through everything. The ultimate result of it all is that they die, either because of a big heroic sacrifice or the world was just gonna end anyway (meaning already I’m not in a great mood). So on with the bittersweet or downer ending. But what’s this? Centuries later they reincarnate? Aww! It’s a happy ending, after all! Eeexcept it isn’t. At least 99% of the time it isn’t.
“What? But everyone’s back/the couple is reunited, right?” Yeah… except they aren’t. These characters we’re seeing after whatever time skip brought them back in their reincarnated glory? They’re not the same people. They have different experiences. Different relationships. Different memories. Oh, sure, the soul is the same. But what does that matter? Memories are important. They shape who we are. And in most reincarnation endings, those don’t carry over. As such, the reincarnation is entirely different from whoever they were before. With an entirely different story. The point is that we’re not invested in who these new people are at all. We spent our time following the story of the old characters.
Now, I guess if we look at things purely from the flowery side, yeah, it’s nice that everything kinda turned out okay. In romance examples, in particular, there’s the implication of “Aww, see? Theirs is a love that transcends time and space. Not even death could keep them apart!” But again. Is that really them? Do they remember all of it? Because I could care less what the new people think of one another if they don’t. They’d have been better off just showing them together in heaven, for all it matters. At least that’d have been decidedly less cheap narratively, albeit a little on the cheesy side.
Now. One thing I’ve left out is things like Anohana and Angel Beats. Examples of stories that play with reincarnation (or at least imply it) but the characters in question were dead the entire time. I’m sure there’s plenty to say about those such stories, but these are the only examples I’m actually aware of. I don’t exactly seek them out because they’re generally just not my thing. That’s the great thing about media. It’s meant to be enjoyed in different ways by different people. Everything has its audience.
The ultimate result of a reincarnation ending is usually just an incredibly “meh” experience. It cheapens whatever bittersweet or melancholic effect you were trying to have. And purely based on how reincarnation works (or is supposed to, anyway), doesn’t fulfill enough of the qualifiers to be counted as “happy.” So they just wind up being unsatisfying at best, more often than not, and outright eye-roll inducing at worst. Unless you really do just look at it from the romantic (again. classical meaning) context, and nothing else.
What do you think of reincarnation endings? Let me know, down below. That’s all for now. Thanks for reading, as always. Keep up the Awesome. Take Care.