It’s an unmistakable setup: Someone from our world suddenly finds themselves transported into a distant, mysterious land, left to fend for themselves in often hostile conditions. It doesn’t matter if the transition came about through a rip in time and space or a virtual reality headset, we’re pretty well conditioned to predict where it goes from there. Said character runs into locals—some friendly and many more that aren’t—gets caught up in the many quandaries of this new world, and typically emerges triumphant in some way. It’s a well-tread story conceit, and if the opening moments are any indication,
that’s precisely what’s in store for us in Re:ZERO -Starting Life in Another World-.
As it turns out, however, looks can be deceiving. While Re:ZERO is indeed based on a light novel series like many of its contemporaries, it’s far from another riff on tales like those found in Overlord and Sword Art Online. Before long you’ll realize that there’s much more to “Returning by Death” than simply pressing Continue on life.
Playing with Expectations
Our story begins with protagonist Subaru Natsuki—a confirmed gamer and hikikomori who probably has more than a handful of games to get back to—as he returns from the convenience store. Without any warning he finds himself whisked away to another world, which fits plenty of fantasy tropes right off the bat. There’s a town full of surly shop keeps, lizard people, and even a fleet-footed thief who crosses Subaru’s path as she picks the pocket of a beautiful white-haired girl named Emilia. The latter doesn’t give her real name right away—she calls herself “Satella,” which is a significant bit of information for the future—but she does help save Subaru from a group of thugs who ambush him in an alleyway. Thus, Subaru ends up involved in her plight, helping her track down the important insignia that was stolen. Once they finally find it, though, they discover something sinister lying within a dark loot house. Emilia winds up dead, and before Subaru can react he’s swiftly cut down by an unknown force. His death is a violent one, and it looks as if his stay in
this new world was destined to be brief.
And then he wakes up in the village
without a scratch on him.
It’s hard for him to grasp, but Subaru is most definitely alive. Somehow, some way, his death brought him back to where he started in this world, only something isn’t quite right. No one he met before remembers who he is, and all of the previous events have yet to occur. That makes this
a true do-over; a phenomenon we come to refer to as “Return by Death.” There’s no
time to sit and question it, though, because Subaru has a job to do. He has to make sure whatever just happened to him doesn’t happen again. More importantly, he has to save Emilia from a similarly gruesome fate. That’s when the hook of Re:ZERO starts to sink in, but the way the series plays with expectations doesn’t stop there.
Subaru continues to run through a day very much like the one that ended in his death, making slight adjustments and gaining experience along the way. He eventually makes it to the loot house earlier than before, meeting new characters in the process, including Felt, the girl who stole Emilia’s insignia. Subaru attempts to trade for it, but before the deal is done its intended buyer shows up: a powerful assassin named Elsa. Once Subaru reveals his plans to return the insignia to its original owner, Elsa murders everyone in the room, sending Subaru right back to where he started. Rinse, repeat, etc., but as painful as death is, Subaru’s starting to get the hang of it all. When he, Emilia, and the rest end up finally succeeding in a battle against Elsa, Subaru wakes up in an expansive manor, and he’ll soon learn that he’s freed himself of this particularly nasty loop.
Unfortunately, he has to find this out the hard way, just like everything else. The first time he dies in the manor he wakes right back up in bed, seemingly having triggered a new “checkpoint.” Now any future Returns by Death will send him back to day one of his stay at the manor, which is full of curious new characters and some revelations about his new friend (and instant obsession) Emilia. The clown-like Roswaal L. Mathers just so happens to be a powerful mage, benefactor, and sponsor for Emilia’s bid for the royal throne. She needed that insignia to qualify as a candidate for the next ruler of the land, and she’s greatly indebted to Subaru for his help. Not everyone in the manor is as thrilled with Subaru’s presence, though. He’s as vulnerable to death here as he was in town, and a new mystery is brewing beneath these seemingly tranquil grounds.
Two Steps Forward
Re:ZERO is all about taking baby steps throughout the plot, mixing in the occasional giant leap for good measure. The pacing tends to jump back and forth between the two, making the story all the more unpredictable as it chugs along. Even when you start hitting the double-digit episodes you’re unlikely to have a complete grip on where things are going, and that’s one of the aspects that makes it a tough series to put down. Even the characters themselves are mostly enigmatic, like the questionable intentions of twin manor maids Rem and Ram, whose personality differences are further highlighted by the fact that they sometimes share lines yet have separate voice actresses (Inori Minase and Rie Murakawa, respectively). Minase expanded on that in an interview, saying, “I think Rem’s unique personality comes out in the way she speaks. So even in the same mean line, Ram would just be direct, while Rem would beat around the bush and at the same time not beat around the bush (Laughs).”
As for Subaru, he makes for such an unremarkable character in the opening moments of Re:ZERO that he’s essentially a walking everyman cliché. If this were an actual role-playing game, he would be the bog standard base for a customizable player character. It’s not like he doesn’t know it. He starts the series with the mind-set of someone who isn’t anyone special. He knows games, though, so he thinks he knows how this fantasy world works the moment he steps into it. Just like us. As he grows he begins to realize that his quest in this world isn’t as simple as learning skills and battling enemies. It’s an adventure full of conditions, each one very specific in the way it must be met. Keeping games in mind, it’s best to think of Re:ZERO as an RPG with obtuse objectives and absolutely no strategy guides. Success is dependent almost entirely on trial and error, and every failure is greeted with the swift kiss of death.
Previously an episode and animation director on the Naruto/Naruto Shippuden TV anime as well as some of the movies, director Masaharu Watanabe also helmed the Rock Lee & His Ninja Pals spinoff as well as 2015’s Wakaba Girl. Together with series composition writer Masahiro Yokotani (Maria Holic, Beelzebub) and the rest of the staff at anime studio WHITE FOX (Jormungand, Is the order a rabbit?), Watanabe weaves something that goes in a different direction than most real-life-to-fantasy stories. We’ve got a bonafied mystery on our hands as we join Subaru on a heated quest to find out who wants him dead and who’s trying to keep Emilia from the throne, and all signs point to the journey being just as twisted as the myriad violent disasters that lead to Subaru Returning by Death time and time again.