Re:Zero is a Modern Classic (Part One)

If you couldn’t tell from the essays and the reviews, I am a writer. I have been writing for more than half of my life, and I have been halfway decent at it for what feels like a week or two. Still, you don’t need to be especially talented to recognize that talent in someone else.

When someone, like certain pretentious anime reviewers, says something has great writing, what do they mean? When you say a show has great animation, or that the fights are good, it is pretty easy to figure out what they mean. However, writing is not just one aspect of a show, it’s most of them. You can’t isolate writing as one cog in the greater machine, because it is actually the blueprint for the machine. Characters, story, dialogue, they all hinge on the quality of the writing.

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I don’t mean to elevate the importance of writing above that of anyone else in the creative process, quite the opposite. I have the utmost respect for everyone involved, the animators, the composers, and everyone else doing something I literally never could. My point is that writing serves as the foundation for most media, and it is almost impossible to create something truly great if the writing is lackluster.

To best illustrate that point, I’d like to talk about Re:Zero, the dark take on isekai that absolutely dominated the anime community when it came out in 2016, only to disappear for 100 years like the Avatar. When it returned in 2020, it felt as though it had never left, and that second season was phenomenal. At this point, I have to admit that while I think Re:Zero is a special series, I mostly mean that it is special to me. I’m completely biased towards it, I cannot lie and say I’ll be objective about judging it.

Re:Zero is just one of those things I have a hard time finding fault in. I have nitpicks, maybe a handful of choices that I might disagree with, but there is nothing in the series that I think seriously takes away from its appeal. It is perhaps the closest that a piece of art can reach perfection, and I’m aware that to others that might be gross hyperbole. But, when viewing Re:Zero as a full body of work, even when it’s not a complete one, I think it’s hard to deny how well-laid out that work is.

This essay serves as an in-depth analysis of Re:Zero at the time of writing this, but as it is one half of a whole, you don’t have to worry about being spoiled for the newest episodes. This analysis will only cover the first season of Re:Zero, and specifically Subaru’s character arc until that point. The second will be as up to date as possible, as the latter half of the second season airs. That means heavy spoilers for the first season, and I would actually advise someone who’s never seen it to watch it. I usually don’t recommend people watch 17 hours of anime if they’re not sure they’ll like it, but Re:Zero has made itself a fierce contender for my favorite anime ever, and it’s worth it.

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I will mostly be addressing this for people who have already seen Re:Zero, but any academic deconstruction of the series needs to see it as a piece of genre fiction. Re:Zero is an isekai, or other world story, and it was already immensely popular and oversaturated by the time that Subaru Natsuki appeared, both in light novels and in anime. It’s the type of story that allows for easy exposition and worldbuilding, while nerdy kids can self-insert themselves into the protagonist’s place and finally put all of their gaming and anime knowledge to good use.

Subaru, for his part, thinks the same thing. He is described in the light novel as a ‘young man poisoned by video games and anime’, and first of all, vibe. More importantly, though, Subaru is an otaku who thinks that he can use this new world as a springboard for the life he’s always wanted. He’s an otaku who knows that going to another world means you get sword skills, magical powers, and a wide array of cute girls to dote on you. The ultimate escapist fantasy, where he not only can forget all his problems back home, he can leave them behind forever.

And that would have worked out for him if Re:Zero were not a brutal satire of isekai. Good satire takes its subject matter and skewers it for the sake of demonstrating that this worshipped and idealized thing is not worthy of that praise. Satire should take common ideas and show how ridiculous they are, and the idea that a geek getting brought to a new world where his useless hobbies translate to useful skills is…well, ridiculous. And it’s not just silly, it’s downright toxic.

Isekai is generally all in good fun, light and breezy entertainment to forget the woes of the world for a half hour at a time. However, this mentality slowly builds up as the genre has become more popular, and it hands its audience the belief that the problems in your life aren’t your fault, that you just need to be put in the right environment where everything is handed to you. Appealing, sure, but considering the power of fiction to inspire behavior and belief, it’s irresponsible. And Re:Zero knows that, and builds it into its storytelling.

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In Subaru’s off time, he’s on the spin-off series Isekai Quartet, where the casts of Re:Zero, Konosuba, Overlord, and Tanya the Evil are transported back to Japan, and shenanigans ensue.

Subaru is brought to a new world, the kingless kingdom of Lugunica, and he’s sure that he’ll make it big. He treats every person like an NPC, ignores real world danger because he thinks it’s a scheduled event to show off his new magic, and comes across as a clueless idiot who has never left his house. That’s correct, but Subaru doesn’t get the message, especially after meeting the beautiful half-elf mage, Emilia, who is programmed by the developers to fall in love with him once he has grinded enough XP. Then, halfway through the first episode, Subaru is quickly and brutally murdered.

It would be one of the shortest OVAs ever, if not for Subaru’s newly acquired magical ability, Return by Death. He can rewind time up to several days, back to a predetermined checkpoint, but he can only do so by dying, and he doesn’t get to pick his own checkpoint. Subaru doesn’t realize it yet, but he’s been handed one of the most useful abilities possible in this lethal world, he just has to learn how to use it.

Time travel stories are not known for their tight plots, but Tappei Nagatsuki manages it by having clearly defined rules, even among all of the different moving parts. Subaru can only travel a few days at the most, sometimes a few hours, but since he can only move backwards a restricted amount of time, there’s no need for the usual time travel garbage about paradoxes and alternate timelines. Okay, the idea that Subaru creates alternate timelines every time he dies is suggested, but it’s not the focus of the show.

But the premise of Re:Zero doesn’t just allow for creative stories that are intricately plotted, it also means that Subaru can do something he never could in his old life; look at a situation from multiple perspectives, and understand the people around him. After narrowly escaping the capital of Lugunica with his life, Subaru is brought to the mansion of Emilia’s political patron, Roswaal Mathers, and is subject to the scrutiny of Roswaal’s twin maids, Rem and Ram. The inhabitants of the mansion immediately distrust Subaru, as he’s coated in the scent of the Witch of Envy, a monster who wreaked havoc in Lugunica before being sealed away centuries ago.

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I don’t have the time to address it here, but the Witch of Envy and specifically her theme, The Call of the Witch, give me traumatic flashbacks.

Subaru dies four times in the mansion arc, as he acts like a suspicious idiot and Rem and Ram like to eliminate threats to their master before they can do any real damage. This is the first milestone in Subaru’s character arc: learning how to communicate with others. The maids only ever see Subaru as a potential spy, or a foreigner who is hilariously bad at doing chores, and he does nothing to address those concerns. If he would stop for a second and figure out how to communicate that he isn’t a threat, he’d realize that a shaman is due to attack the mansion much quicker, and avoid some painful demises.

Subaru’s desperation to avoid another traumatic death, coupled with his inability to communicate, comes to a head on his fifth attempt in life at the Mathers estate. He puts up a front of unwavering positivity, and his suspicious behavior grows as he demonstrates too much knowledge about the mansion and the people in it. If Emilia doesn’t intervene, seeing the cracks forming in Subaru’s facade, Rem was already gearing up for another attempt on his life.

But, Emilia does intervene, seeing the difference between the laid-back and confidently cringe Subaru, and this thinly-veiled ball of paranoia and anxiety doing its best to pretend it is the first Subaru. The lap pillow scene, where Emilia coaxes Subaru into talking about his feelings, is one of the clearest messages the show has to offer. Sometimes you need to take a step back, talk about what’s going on, and maybe cry in your crush’s lap like a baby, even if some maids are going to mock you for getting snot on her skirt. It’s not revolutionary writing, but it’s Subaru’s first step into becoming a functioning adult, even if it gets him in more trouble very soon.

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Gosh, I wish that were me.

Most protagonists have one character arc that spans the entirety of the series, if they’re lucky enough to get one at all. Sometimes this development is about becoming the right kind of person to meet the challenge at the end, sometimes it is about improving some fundamental flaw present at the beginning. Subaru is not so lucky, as his character arc is actually multiple arcs, each with individual steps that come together to form one great ongoing arc. Re:Zero might present as a story about the fate of a kingdom and a world, but it is truly about Subaru’s growth as a person, and viewing it through any other lens will give you a warped view of it overall.

So Subaru’s first step was about the value of interpersonal connection, or simply learning to verbalize his condition and rely on someone else for help. Learning to ask for assistance be vulnerable with new people is difficult, but it’s basic life stuff. Most people learn to do it on earth and without a single death, but if Subaru weren’t an actual garbage person at this point, he wouldn’t need the rest of this story. So he learns one small and simple lesson, and immediately gets cocky with it.

He foils the shaman attack on the manor and the village, and he does it without dying once. This contributes to his belief that he’s far more competent than he is, and knows better than all the people he just learned how to communicate with. So when Emilia begs him to not go to the royal selection ceremony, she just doesn’t get that he’s the only one who knows how to keep her safe and happy. It makes him insult the nobility she’s trying to appeal to, and embarrass himself by fighting Julius, whose common courtesy he mistook as threatening Subaru’s romantic prospects.

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He humiliates her, himself, and proceeds to enter a downwards spiral of failure, death, and repeat. Rem, who fell in love with Subaru after he risked himself to save her repeatedly in the mansion attack, now takes the lion’s share of the punishment dealt to him. He fails to foil the new attack on the mansion by the cult of the Witch, and all of his friends die several more times before he finally decides to give up. If this arc is about Subaru becoming a person who can meet this challenge, then he never will.

Here, he has alienated Emilia beyond the point of possible reconciliation, driven Rem through hell on his behalf, and it’s too much. He shuts down willingly, refusing to speak or react to the world around him, but that obviously doesn’t solve anything. Subaru’s very real problems can’t be ignored, and they’ll come to him if he won’t come to them. Sitting by senselessly while the same series of events plays out doesn’t help, obviously, but as he watches Rem die in the most horrific way yet, he comes to his senses and breaks even harder. The next try, Subaru doesn’t just give up, he decides to run away.

Running away and trying to take Rem far away from the problems of Lugunica and the Witch Cult is this monumental heel turn. The hero, if not that then at least the main character, has given up, and is going to let the people he knows and care for die so he can spare himself a little more trouble. It would have worked, and Lugunica would be so much worse off for it, if Rem had fallen in love with the kind of guy who throws the table when he’s about to lose. But as she says, giving up doesn’t suit Subaru.

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Rem’s insistence that Subaru is at his core someone who would not admit defeat is actually telling for her as a character. Rem is firm in her principles and true to herself, she doesn’t care that Subaru is weak and cowardly, but she doesn’t want the Subaru that follows those worst impulses. Even though the Subaru she loves will pick Emilia over her every time, she’d rather he reject her straight up than compromise on what she loves about him. Rem’s display of genuinely unconditional love is one of the best written parts of Re:Zero, because it’s pretty rare to see this kind of love that has high expectations for the recipient, but none for their reciprocation, at least in the romantic context.

Episode 18: From Zero, is the payoff to all of the suffering that Subaru has experienced in the series thus far. Whether he has deserved it or not, he is someone who can take those beatings and keep moving for the people he loves. In the opening for the second season, Realize, he emphatically declares, “if it’s to save you, I don’t care how many times I die,” or at least he would, if that weren’t silently written in the OP. Either way, you get the point. It might take dozens of tries and two girls who are way too good for him, he has all it takes to succeed, even if all he has is persistence.

Subaru has the chance to use what he’s learned pretty quickly, solving the Witch Cult attack in only a couple more tries, and by cooperating with people and listening to their wants and treating them as important as his own. He helps defeat the White Whale and subvert the Witch Cult, but it isn’t until he makes a mad dash on best girl Patrasche to save Emilia that all of this development comes to a head. It isn’t even that he saves the girl he loves and looks heroic doing it; he looks her in the eye, tells her he loves her, and asks nothing from it. Well, Subaru actually starts behaving like a grown man, I’ll be.

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I am a staunch Emilia simp, and I will challenge every Rem fan personally.

I can’t give a great or satisfying conclusion, as this is only the first part, but I can summarize pretty darn well. The first season of Re:Zero has a tremendous amount of character growth for Subaru, but that’s only natural, as he’s starting from zero. Worse than zero, if you consider being an otaku to be a lower form of life, which I do. I am confident that Re:Zero could have never had a second season and it would still be a masterpiece, but it would be incomplete. In the same way that the lap pillow or the from zero scenes were the payoffs for what came before, the second season is a long string of payoff for the first.

This is the most dramatic change that Subaru is going to go through, as he has fully flipped that switch to being a capable adult. The growth in season two is going to focus a lot more on him going above and beyond, actually giving him a bit of wisdom beyond his years. It plays more into what Rem has done for him, and what he can now do for Emilia.

Sorry that this has gone on for so long, I usually keep things on a pretty strict format, but I clearly have way too much to say about this show. I hope you’ll tune into the second part, as this has been a massive labor of love, and while the second season of Re:Zero might be the payoff for the first, the second essay will be the payoff for this one.

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