Now that college is over for now, I can start doing a few more reviews. To celebrate the end of 2016, today, we’re talking about one of the hottest anime of 2016: Re:Zero Kara Hajimeru Isekai Seikatsu （から始める異世界生活）or Re: Zero Starting Life in Another World.
The Story: The 異世界 (isekai or different world) genre refers to a story that goes something like this: a random teenage boy, usually a shut-in, hardcore otaku, or NEET, finds himself in a fantasy world, like something out of an RPG. Konosuba is probably the best recent example of this genre, though Sword Art Online and Danmachi (Is it Wrong to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon) could also be considered examples. Re: Zero is no different. Shut-in Subaru Natsuki, for no explainable reason, finds himself in the magical kingdom of Luguncia, where he is able to start a new life “from zero.” Or so he thinks, for on his first day in the kingdom, he manages to get himself killed. But when he opens his eyes again, he finds himself back on the streets where he was hours before.
Subaru has the unique ability to “respawn,” which he calls “return by death.” Should he die, he will start over at a predetermined checkpoint. The rest of the show follows Subaru and his comrades as he confronts the various evils hidden in the shadows of Luguncia.
In anime, especially in the Isekai genre there is usually an objective, usually the equivalent to an RPG’s “beat the final boss” objective. Re: Zero doesn’t appear to have that, at least as far as the anime is concerned. It instead opts to take its time and have fun with each of the various scenarios. Since so much time is devoted to each story arc and its local setting, much of Luguncia’s lore is poorly defined. It also doesn’t help that Subaru keeps dying, forcing replays of the same days. However, this isn’t that much different than other Isekai anime I’ve seen, and it actually works to the show’s advantage. Focusing on the local settings allows Subaru to establish relationships with other characters, which I will talk about in the next section, for that is Re: Zero’s strongest characteristic.
Re: Zero’s world is nothing special. In fact, it’s rather standard. Although it’s not a show with an amazing premise, it doesn’t need a unique setting a plot to be amazing. Re: Zero instead decides to take a standard world and fill it with some characters who are anything but.
The Characters: I’ve found that there are two types of stories, at least in anime. The first is where the premise helps to develop the characters (think Aldnoah Zero or Erased). The second has great characters, whose relationships help to deepen and enrich the plot. Naruto, Clannad, Maid-sama, and now, Re: Zero are good examples. Re: Zero doesn’t have many strong characters, but it’s about quality, not quantity. And Subaru Natsuki is an outstanding character.
Subaru Natsuki: What can I say about Subaru that hasn’t already been said? Love him or hate him, this guy is such an interesting character; I’ve seen character analyses about this man. Many Isekai protagonists are similar to RPG protagonists. Their main goal is to link the viewer with the world the protagonist inhabits. In other words, these characters are designed for self-insertion, allowing the audience to fully immerse themselves in this new world. Konosuba’s Kazuma Satou and SAO’s Kirito are good examples of this type of character. They can channel a lot of what the audience is thinking into their own thoughts and actions. They are our outlets for our frustration, disbelief, and overall enjoyment of the RPG world.
Subaru flies in the face of this stereotype. Unlike other Isekai protagonists and despite his initial appearance, Subaru is not designed for self-insertion. He is his own man, with his own set of goals, fears, and flaws. In a sense, he is no different from any one of us. His biggest strength, however, is that he’s a nobody, but thinks he is. There is nothing outstanding about him. He’s not strong, not too bright, heck, he dies multiple times in each arc, but according to the rules of his genre, he is the main hero of the story and of the new world. That’s what he thinks, and he’s proven wrong time and time again. Any other character, simply by being the main, could be justified. But not Subaru.
But to really understand what I’m talking about, I have to talk about the third arc of the show. Without giving too much away, Subaru makes a fool of himself in public, embarrasses his crush and, for lack of a better term, guardian, Emilia, damaging their relationship, and spends the next few episodes crawling around Lugunica trying to repair his broken ego. In this arc, he is arrogant and entitled, thinking that everyone in the world should give him what he wants simply because he wants it. This culminates in episode 18, when the stress of the world becomes too great that he spews this passionate rant, venting all his self-hatred and pent-up frustration. This kind of treatment is something you don’t normally see in Isekai anime. Re: Zero does not make any excuses for its main character. If he makes a mistake, no one’s going to cover for him, or even find something respectable in him. He is the hero of the story, but not the hero of Luguncia.
Ultimately, the best way I can describe Subaru is human. There are a lot of layers to him, enough so that any attempt to characterize him one way completely ignores other aspects of his character. I could talk about his actions in the capital in the third arc, but then that overlooks the genuine compassion he shows in the prior arcs and the fact that he cannot talk about his ability to respawn. However, that ignores the sense of entitlement he has during those very same arcs, and so on. He’s a character that, at times, you will loathe with every fiber of your being. But that just speaks to how well he develops and how complex he is. It’s nice to see a main character of an anime normally used for self-insertion get such meaningful development.
Emilia: Emilia looks like the standard main-character-love-interest. As such, she’s the main motivation for much of Subaru’s actions. She helps him to develop simply by standing still and being herself. Of course, that sacrifices her own development. The show hints at some, but it doesn’t come to fruition. Alone, I don’t see many traits that make her unique or outstanding. The only main distinction I can see is that she actually doesn’t like Subaru back. In fact, she gets one scene where she tells him that she’s not who he thinks she is, and that he’s not her hero. Despite her status as a stock character, she provides some sanity and at least something recognizable in this show. She’s not a horrible character; I personally enjoyed her a lot, but she doesn’t have many traits that make her different (which is why I can’t write paragraphs about her).
Rem: I cannot review this show without talking about the girl half the internet has proclaimed as their waifu or otherwise “best girl” of 2016. Alone, Rem is not much more than a badass piece of eye candy. That said, she and Subaru have an interesting relationship. She looks at him the same way he looks at Emilia, yet she and Emilia are very different people. The story treats them as polar opposites. Whereas Emilia does not consider Subaru her “hero,” Rem does. When Emilia shows Subaru compassion, Rem does not (in the second arc). For much of the second half, Rem is the main heroine; Emilia’s off doing some other stuff. But when Emilia comes back, Rem isn’t present. How that factors into the overall message of the story is a job for a literary analyst, but it’s something to consider, how their relationships to Subaru often oppose one another.
Rem is a character who does not have much to offer by herself. However, she becomes much more interesting when you combine her with Subaru. She acts as another avenue for his development, much like Emilia, but at least Rem helps him develop in such a way that helps develop herself as well.
Final Verdict: Re: Zero is refreshing. I don’t know much about Isekai anime, but I know a bit. Even if the story is nothing extraordinary, the characters, Subaru in particular, are enough to make this series worth watching. I can’t say you’ll like every moment, but I think that’s part of what makes this show so endearing.
Final Grade: A-