2016’s Re:Zero has been met with a lot of criticism over the course of its run. While the show has excellent production values and direction, the show also occupies a worn genre space that has shown up in a lot of recent anime. Re:Zero is yet another show about an Otaku trapped in a fantasy Universe, and while the show is not strictly a comedy, protagonist Natsuki Subaru is a character intent on cracking a self-aware joke in regards to his situation whenever he can, and opts to start and continue as much comedic banter with the other characters no matter how confused by his words and behaviour they may be, or how unwilling they may be to follow along with him at any given moment.
Subaru’s obnoxious character will make or break the show for different people, and his overbearing presence dominates almost all other aspects of the show. If you don’t care about him early on, you won’t care when he struggles. I’m not really interested in discussing how entertaining or irritating his character really is, however. For me, he often cracked some bad jokes, but his dorkiness was often endearing and I found the overall package surrounding him to be quite appealing as I watched through the show. For once in an anime protagonist, the fact that he is lame is basically the whole point, whereas most protagonists are meant to be taken seriously no matter how bland or stupid they may me. I enjoyed the other characters, the mysteries, the twists, and the central premise of Subaru being able to ‘reset’ at an earlier point in time after his death. There will be significant spoilers from here on out.
At around the halfway point of the show, Re:Zero decides to completely eviscerate many things core to Subaru’s personality and motivations. In the very first episode, Subaru meets Emilia, a young girl who is a potential candidate for the throne of her country. Without knowing this, Subaru immediately falls in love with her after she saves him from a group of thugs. Subaru keeps this attraction towards her throughout the series, and is very vocal in complimenting her and make his love quite clear at every opportunity he can, although a combination of Emilia having been too socially isolated to pick up on Subaru’s attraction, and the fact that their relationship is frequently reset whenever Subaru dies, means that Emilia never recognises this until it’s too late. All of Subaru’s most important memories regarding Emilia are only relevant to him, since they take place in past lives that have since been overwritten. In past lives, Emilia has proved strong and dependable, frequently saving Subaru when he’s in trouble. However in the timelines when both Subaru and Emilia live, Subaru is the one who saves her repeatedly, simply because he has enough foreknowledge of events that he is able to save the day before her help is required. Over the course of the show’s first half, this builds up to a very one-sided relationship where Emilia doesn’t understand why Subaru tries so hard for her, and where she remembers none of the important moments that she had spent with him.
This affects Subaru immensely. As an Otaku taken to a fantasy world, he starts to feel entitled to the idea that he ‘must’ be the hero, as that’s how this story is ‘supposed’ to go. He starts to believe that Emilia should accept his love simply because of the effort he has put in for her, a sentiment that only gets amplified every time he must experience the excruciating pain of death, or when his ego is boosted whenever he is able to save her. Furthermore, he is cursed with an inability to explain his time resetting powers to Emilia, forcing him to lie or speak vaguely about how he is ‘doing this for your sake’ whenever she asks for an explanation for his behaviour.
It is in episode 13 that the two have a large argument following Subaru completely embarrassing her during an introductory ceremony for the royal selection. Subaru appears at the ceremony against her wishes, proclaims himself as her knight, and openly berates the nobility for their discrimination against Emilia’s half-elf heritage. He also challenges a knight, who mocks Subaru’s arrogance and weakness, to a duel, and allows himself to get severely beaten as a result. Emilia realises that Subaru does things in her name simply for the sake of his own ego. Even if he did have a better reason, his inability to explain himself is incredibly frustrating to Emilia, forcing her to leave him behind.
Subaru spends the next few episodes of the show in a blind, hard to watch haze as he attempts to return to Emilia. He learns of a witch cult, and sees them assassinate Emilia and the surrounding village before he too is killed, which only makes Subaru more determined to slam his head against the wall by himself until he’s able to save her. He has companionship in the form of the maid Rem, who midway through the show, has decided that she herself loves Subaru, and is absolutely dedicated to him. This is when episode 18 rolls around.
Episode 18 has Rem and Subaru talking on top of a building for the majority of its extended run. Subaru tries to run away from Emilia and the witch cult, he tries to convince Rem to live with him, and he lays out each and every one of his character flaws, from his arrogance in spite of his weakness, and his laziness that masquerades as pointless effort for the sake of effort with no real progression towards self-improvement or any other long-term goal. The episode is hard to watch, however Rem lists all the small things she loves about Subaru, and the way he had encouraged and motivated her earlier in the series. Rem becomes something of an ultimate source of validation for Subaru, a character who can tell him that he is perfect the way he is, even if he loves Emilia instead of her. With full awareness of his flaws in mind, Subaru once again resolves to become Emilia’s hero.
Because he still deserves to be, right?
It is true that Subaru at that moment in time was the only person who could save Emilia’s life and that of many others, and that the plot had to progress down the path of him reuniting with Emilia. However Subaru’s attitude following episode 18 largely just returns to how it was before episode 13. He still wants to be a hero, and he still wants to be with her despite how much his social circle has rapidly grown, and how badly he screwed up his relationship with her. He even has Rem, a girl who is about as devoted to him as someone can be, her blind devotion to Subaru almost mirroring his devotion to Emilia. It’s not exactly fair to call Subaru an idiot for not choosing to be with Rem- feelings of love aren’t something you can logically control, after all. But in terms of narrative the justifications for his love for Emilia, and his overall attitude, start to wear thin. Emilia gets very little screen time in the second half, and Rem and many other other characters get more screen time overall, meaning that the audience naturally isn’t going to be as attached to Emilia as Subaru is. On top of that it just doesn’t feel narratively rewarding when Subaru gets his way anyway, despite the show plainly stating all the reasons why he shouldn’t be rewarded. Life isn’t really a linear progression of effort in > reward out.
Subaru of course does deserve a chance at redemption, as does anyone, and his awkward dorkiness is one of his main charms. (arguably) And in truth Subaru is able to learn how to negotiate, and how to not demand that others conform to his needs. He’s able to convince one of the royal candidates to help him save Emilia and combat the witches in exchange for the location of the White Whale, a deadly beast that has been terrorizing the world for centuries, which he had encountered in an earlier timeline. He’s able to earn respect from the knights and the nobility for risking his life to help them put down this menace, and as a result his victory feels earned.
In the last episode, Subaru finally defeats the witch cult and saves the day, and clearly professes his love for Emilia for the first time. While he isn’t able to explain why he’s so devoted, he’s able to apologise and still be far more open with his feelings than he had been previously, as well as a lot calmer. He lets Emilia know that he’ll still be devoted to her, and that he won’t expect her to accept his love right away. His entitlement still creeps in however- telling her that ‘I’ll let you fall for me slowly’, clearly still expecting her love as an inevitability. While Emilia doesn’t explicitly return his feelings right away, her tears and the way she explains that she never expected anyone to fall in love with her make it clear that Subaru has succeeded in winning her heart.
While Re:Zero does a good job attacking the ugliness at the core of many shows of its type, and the arrogance at the center of an unfortunate amount of anime Otaku culture and media, Re:Zero simply can’t help but indulge in many of the same cliches and aesthetic choices, as well as developing a character who doesn’t fully progress past a lot of his character flaws, and who, indeed, chooses to embrace his flaws. Subaru chooses to pursue his goals by putting in the effort rather than demand others hand it to him, but the show can’t help but feel like it conforms too neatly around him, as even when he does suffer, die, and screw up in horrible ways, the time reset mechanic will leave these times, while emotionally devastating in the moment, ultimately lacking in lasting impact on both Subaru and the audience.
But in the end, I don’t think anyone really wanted to see, or indeed write, a story where the main character becomes so acutely aware of his faults that he gives up completely. Maybe in real life he wouldn’t deserve Emilia, but miracles happen. At least, people want to believe that they can happen. We all want a happy ending, and Subaru’s story is still very aware of all the ways that that that attitude and desire can be twisted. I feel Re:Zero’s ultimate message of championing emotional honesty and gradual self-improvement still manages to hit the mark in spite of the flaws surrounding it. Re:Zero’s subversions of its genre, and the overall effort put into its production and plotting still perhaps make it one of the best of its genre for years.
Although that isn’t really saying much when Sword Art Online also occupies your genre space.