We’ve seen average-person-transported-to-a-fantasy world stories play out in so many ways that we pretty much take them for granted now. Despite starting out in a pretty standard manner, however, none have gone the route of Re:ZERO -Starting Life in Another World-, contrary to whatever the unassuming title may lead you to believe. Ever since the anime adaptation kicked off as part of the spring 2016 season, viewers have been dragged through an emotional gauntlet, but what makes Re:ZERO special beyond the conceit that the lead character can Return By Death?
If that were the meat of it, we wouldn’t still be talking about Re:ZERO and clamoring for more. So grab that pillow of your favorite royal election candidate, set it on fire, and start your life from zero as we gaze at the rubble left in this unforgettable series’ wake.
Through the Fantasy Wringer
For those just joining us, the premise of Re:ZERO is shockingly simple. Subaru Natsuki is minding his own business in our world—taking a step outside of the house that’s relatively rare for your average NEET gamer—when he suddenly wakes up … somewhere else. It’s not like he popped on a virtual reality headset or strolled nonchalantly into a vexing mirror; he just came to in the kind of fantasy realm one might be wont to spell with a capital Ph. While he starts in a hub market the likes of which we’ve seen in so many RPGs, he’s quickly swept into a conflict that involves helping a beautiful young woman retrieve something that was stolen from her mere moments ago.
This is our first dip into the twisted waters of Re:ZERO. We don’t need to go into every single beat that follows in great detail. Subaru eventually finds the thief’s hideout, and he’s swiftly murdered along with the girl he was helping, who we soon learn is named Emilia. He then comes back, does it all over again a little differently, meets the villain behind his previous murder, and is killed again. Subaru dies a few times in this first loop alone, always returning to the same starting point with all of the events completely reset. Little by little he figures things out, makes progress, and dies again. Rinse, repeat.
If it sounds like a video game, that’s fair, but this isn’t Sword Art Online and Subaru doesn’t need to scale all 100 floors of Aincrad. Thanks to stories like those, though, Subaru thinks he has a grip on what’s transpiring. He quickly fancies himself some kind of hero, basing his expectations on everything he’s consumed while chilling in the safety of his home. His worldview is remarkably limited as a result, like someone who’s just now seeing the world for the first time. Only the world he sees is one in which he can point out every cliché right as it happens. He recognizes a grumpy old shopkeeper for exactly who he is. As he progresses beyond this first loop, he even observes that he’s made it to the next “save point.” Maybe dying and restarting over and over again isn’t so bad after all?
Or maybe not.
Peaks and Valleys
As Subaru’s hard-fought adventure continues, he begins to realize he isn’t the hero he expected to be in this world. Rather than this serving to humble him, however, it kind of causes him to double down on his own faults. What he lacks in actual physical ability he tends to make up for in dogged perseverance, and while that can be seen as a good quality, it doesn’t always turn out that great for him or those around him.
The second stop on his journey is Roswaal Mansion, where he meets most of the principal cast, including half-demon maids Ram and Rem, the latter of which would quickly go on to take the Internet by storm. It turns out there’s a royal election looming, and Emilia aims to be the candidate that comes out on top. What this secretly is, of course, is another event for Subaru to somehow screw up. He can’t leave well enough alone, and his insistence on saving the day for Emilia and everyone else only gets him in trouble and, more often than not, ends with his death and a trip back to the most recent starting point.
All the stupid mistakes Subaru somehow makes along the way triggered a vocal backlash among quite a few fans of the series. “Subaru is trash.” “He’s the worst protagonist.” “He doesn’t deserve [insert waifu of choice here, which is probably Rem].” It wasn’t just fans that felt this way, either. Interviews with the Japanese cast and staff often had them citing reasons they thought Subaru was an idiot. While I was joking with the “trash” line, series composition writer Masahiro Yokotani said this exact same thing! The words he followed it up with, however, are much more illuminating.
When asked about his impression of Subaru’s character, Yokotani said, “He’s trash. People often say that about him, but I feel sorry for him, and I think that his actions are understandable given his situation.” Yoshiko Nakamura, writer for Episodes 6, 7, and 9, added, “I didn’t think he was that much of a piece of trash. I like him enough that I ended up writing him as a good boy.… One could say that his way of struggling even when fate toys with him is what makes him trash, but I think that’s what makes him a bonafide protagonist.”
So is he trash or is he a good protagonist? Why are we all so conflicted when it comes to Subaru? It’s because we are Subaru. He makes countless mistakes, struggles to understand why they were mistakes, deals with self-loathing and the way others perceive him, and attempts to grow and change nevertheless. The events of Re:ZERO traumatize him to his core, yet he keeps going. He exhibits legitimate signs of PTSD after a couple of his more unnerving deaths, but he lives to die another day. What would you do in Subaru’s situation?
For my money, Crusch Karsten, one of the candidates for the royal election, sums it up best in Episode 21. As her troops struggle to continue an exhausting fight against the White Whale, she points to the ever-reckless Subaru as a point of motivation: “Look at that boy. He’s so weak and fragile, a breath could blow him away, and he’s unarmed! He is a powerless boy, whose defeat I have seen with my own eyes! He’s weaker than anyone else here! Yet he’s shouting louder than anyone that we can still do this.… So how can we sit here, with downcast gazes?
If our weakest man has not given up, how is kneeling in defeat acceptable for us?”
Re:ZERO is available from Crunchyroll.