The heart of good anime—like all storytelling—is character development. The best series are tales of how the hero, and sometimes the villain too, adapts and changes in response to the events of the plot. They’re about how the protagonist levels up, be it their martial skills (Demon Slayer), social skills (Hitoribocchi), their emotional resilience and maturity (Re:Zero, Tokyo Revengers, and maybe one day Zenitsu too?), or a combination of all three and even more besides. All the literature about good writing tells us that the hero’s arc is one of change.
And that is exactly what Mako’s arc in Selection Project is not.
I said in my last post that the idol anime Selection Project is about the baggage we bring with us in life—some of it obliviously, and the rest, more knowingly. In episode 5, Mako’s baggage rolls after her without her awareness, while her two bandmates, Shiori and Uta, feel the persistent tug of it and do their best to avoid looking at it directly, while allowing it to spill out all over everyone—and especially each other. The two youngest members of GapsCaps, as they name their band, are “Ecstatic Troublemakers” indeed, as the episode title labels them.
But the interesting thing is that all three girls have essentially the same thing tucked away in those burdensome suitcases: the nagging question of where they fit in their families, especially in relation to their mothers’ expectations.
Shiori, the heiress of a well-established traditional family and known to the group as “Mistress”, lugs around a metaphorical super-sized black lacquer box of unparalleled craftsmanship, stuffed to bursting with the pressure to uphold the honor of the family name—though maybe she gets her servant to do the heavy lifting. In the presence of her mother and staff, she is a young woman of serene confidence (to the point that it annoys her regional competitors in episode 1 quite ferociously!). But with her bandmates, she is a relentless, self-centered perfectionist determined to put off the live performance until she is satisfied with their practice run.
Uta, a child actor nicknamed “Master” for her vast experience in the showbiz industry, carries with her the pressure of proving to her mother that she is no longer a child (though she’s only twelve!), but rather a mature professional deserving of some independence. She will not allow herself to text her mother when she’s struggling, editing away her discouraged complaints and only contacting her when things are going well again. But while she’s careful about what she lets her mom see, Uta shows no such restraint with her bandmates! She lets her frustration rip when Shiori keeps dragging out the practice even though the clock is ticking, and unleashes on her the full force of her childish petulance. She knows how fame works, and it means performing whether you want to or not.
Meanwhile, Mako, the so-called “Mommy” of the group, is stuck playing referee along with her drums. Which is kind of what she’s done her whole life, throughout which she’s never had the time to think about herself, being too occupied with helping her mom out with her six younger siblings.
Shiori and Uta’s heroic journeys are only just beginning. They’ve been confronted with what Will Storr, author of The Science of Storytelling, calls the flaw in their theory of control. Shiori seeks to prove her perfection through relentless practice; Uta seeks to prove her professionalism by pulling her fame card and touting her superior experience in the entertainment industry. They both act these ways in an attempt to control how others (and especially their mothers) perceive them. And it doesn’t work. It is nothing short of disastrous.
But it doesn’t really get any better by the end of the episode. They don’t talk/hug it out with heartfelt confessions or teary-eyed gushes of self-awareness, discovering that they can understand one another’s perspectives and pinky-promising to help each other be their best selves.
Instead, after focusing on the high-strung melodramatics of the two younger members of GapsCaps, the episode turns to Mako, the eldest.
And where does Mako turn?
She asks the matronly cook where the nearest shrine is, much to the older woman’s bafflement.
It is there at a forest shrine, amid the peacefulness of nature, that her bandmates find Mako as the clock ticks down toward their live performance.
Wasting her time—and theirs—praying.
Only, it’s not a waste. Finally, after four days of panicked conflict and squabbling, time is being put to good use. At last, instead of endlessly replaying the same broken record of discordant priorities and clashing personalities that filled the practice room with the clamor of strife, GapsCaps comes into some kind of harmony.
Not because any of them change, but because Mako remembers who she already is, and she owns it. Her nickname—previously the emblem of her baggage around never having time to dream for herself—suddenly frees her to recognize who she is. Mako finds herself again through her time in prayer and it empowers her to step into her identity as “Mommy”—the mature voice of correction, affection, and active leadership—and get her band through the trial set before them.
Until now, she had refused to express an opinion on any matter, and instead of leading, remained neutral. But now finally, as she embraces the Mommy she has been all this time, Mako provides GapsCaps with much-needed direction and charisma. She becomes their leader.
Shiori and Uta don’t come into any kind of understanding or sympathy for one another, but they do both come under Mako’s leadership as their mom-figure. Mako reprimands them with a fierce ear-pinch and some truth-dropping, dispels their anxieties with a hug and some wise words, and affectionately spanks away their scowls in true Mom style, before firing them up to do their best. After this, the three are able to play well together and pass on to the next round.
And so, in this brief, quiet scene, Mako is revealed to be the hero of this story. It is a tale that hinges not so much on how the protagonist changes, as on how she lives up to who she already is.
Too often in Christian circles, we valorize personal change as the evidence of our faith. We paint a picture of the life of faith as one of becoming someone else, a different person, a new creation; of casting off our old selves, and letting it die.
Now don’t get me wrong, transformation is biblical, and is a crucial part of our growth in life and faith. Jesus himself was transfigured, and it’s our destiny and privilege to become more like him. It’s what we’re called to, and what we were created for.
But when we focus on life as only a tale of becoming someone else, someone new and better, we risk missing the full beauty of redemption, which tells us that we are already someone who was loved by the Creator, and that this someone is not irredeemable, but in fact very much worth redeeming on the grounds of who they already are. When we focus too much on how we must change, have changed, are changing, we risk starting to believe that we weren’t or aren’t worth loving without that change. That somehow, it’s the change that qualified us for God’s love, rather than the other way around.
Transformation does not always mean changing; sometimes, it means become more of who you already are: a refined, purified version of the person you were even before you came to faith. A more concentrated version.
Because you see, we are wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14)! We are the part of creation that God deemed “very good” (Genesis 1:31)! And no matter what we do, what happens to us, and how these things shape our thoughts and behavior, we can never separate ourselves fully from how we were made. It can get twisted, but it can’t be erased.
So sometimes we don’t need to change so much as rediscover who we already are, and become more so that person.
That’s what Mako does, and it saves her and her bandmates. It helps her discover her dream and the confidence to walk in it.
If you’ve been feeling down on yourself lately, struggling with what you see in the bathroom mirror or the mirror of your heart, why not spend some time in prayer like Mako—not necessarily doing all the talking, but rather asking God to speak to you, to remind you how he sees you and where the “wonderfully made” and “very good” are in this person he created, called “you”. Is there a part of yourself, or a nickname maybe, that he wants to redeem for you?
Selection Project can be streamed on Funimation.