Seeing as the original season aired four years ago and a new one is airing at the time of writing this, it would be incorrect to say that I was late to the party with Re:Zero. In my case,it would be more accurate to say I got lost in the wilderness for four years as I tried to find the location for an annual holiday party, stumbled through the front door of the venue four whole holiday parties later, and shocked everyone with my arrival and grizzled looks. My wife, who has since remarried and has children with my co-worker Kyle, ducks in shame as she realizes she presumed the former love of her life had died tragically the night he went out to find a holiday party.
With the legacy and popularity of the series already cemented, I suppose that there is likely nothing I can write that has not already been discussed ad-nauseum. Despite this, I found myself with a notebook full of thoughts I wanted to discuss regarding the mega-hit isekai show. My goal today is to conduct a critical analysis of the series from a fresh perspective since I had never completed a viewing since this anime aired (I made it roughly two to three episodes in before life kept me busy).First, I will identify any biases, attitudes, and/or behaviors that may otherwise influence my opinion without properly calling critical attention to before I dive into my thoughts on the series. From here, a look into how the way Subaru is written will be conducted. Next, how the show handles its key narrative device(s) will be considered. Following this, I will look at the writing of the character of Rem and mull over the complexity of determining the role this character plays. Additionally, I will dive into the “Battle with the White Whale”, my favorite part of the series. Then, I would like to spend a moment addressing the criticisms of the show. Finally, I would like to offer closing thoughts. It is through this analysis I hope that there may be a fresh look into a wildly popular anime that, perhaps, others may have not read to this point.
When Re:Zero hit the scene in spring of 2016 season, it was impossible to avoid the pull it had on audiences. At this point, I was just getting my feet wet with anime and had not joined AniTAY until the midway point of the show’s first season. The season in of at itself was jam packed with shows that had social media buzzing. Indeed, My Hero Academia, Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress, JJBA: Diamond is Unbreakable and Kiznaiver were all anime I recall reading about on my Twitter timeline long before I joined AniTAY. Surprisingly, I ended up watching Re:Zero last of that batch. Other shows that had cult followings that I ended up exploring before this point were Flying Witch, Big Order, Space Patrol Luluco, and Tanaka-kun is Always Listless.
Now, I’ve never really been one to be deterred by the “hype train” surrounding shows in the sense that they are discussed to an exhausting point. Rather, the rabid fanbases of shows can,admittedly, sour my opinion on a show long before I watch it. Re:Zero had a problem. A big problem. If you have been fortunate enough to avoid this issue, I commend you. For everyone else, I will reiterate what was,undeniably, one of the nastiest spats in anime fandom in quite some time. When people shitpost about “waifu wars”, the old example that was used to define it was Asuka vs Rei from Evangelion. 2016 gave us the updated definition with how fanbases locked horns over Emilia vs Rem in Re:Zero. A quick Google search will bring someone up to speed with how nasty fans got over this debate. For anyone on the outside (and, likely, those watching the series without a horse in the race), this was simply exhausting to read.
Perhaps the most notable result oft his quarrel came from the spoiler culture of the show. It is one thing if this back-and-forth was just name calling and anime profile pictures, but rabid fans took it upon themselves to blast content (often filled with spoilers) across every corner of the Internet. As it was airing, “waifu warriors” loaded their debate pistols with new examples and screencaps from every airing episode. This was at a time where there was no spoiler tag for Discord and Twitter did not allow for muting content like it does now. If your buddy James was really into Emilia, he was going to let you know what happened to Rem in the most recent episode. Because of this, going on Twitter during the run of this season meant being spoiled thoroughly. Needless to say, I had been spoiled to what I imagined was every significant beat the story had. By this point, I was also fatigued simply hearing the series mentioned.
Another important factor worth considering in my analysis and something that I had to do my best wipe from my expectations going in was that this show is popularly hailed as the “best isekai anime” (if you Google “isekai anime”, Re:Zero is the first example, followed by KonoSuba, Sword Art Online, Overlord, and Log Horizon, in that order). The “transported into another universe/fantasy setting” genre is the standard for shows now, and it is safe to say there are far more bad ones than there are good. Calling an anime “the best isekai” is sort of a loaded statement since it opens up two trains of thought- either it establishes an expectation that this will be some remarkable, groundbreaking experience or, on the opposite end, could create the pre-existing disdain for the genre that keeps the viewer close-minded to the experience before they ever watch the thing. Everyone has an example of when they were hyped up on a piece of media and were let-down, but I think of the latter train of thought and am instantly reminded of how some anime fans feel about the shounen genre. There are so many shounen that drop every season that, at some point, viewers snap and generalize that “all shounen suck” and, in many cases in anime social media, will be vocal about this.
What does this mean for me? Well, I think I was timid to go into this series because I thought I would be let down after hearing my friends pound for me to watch it for so long. I was admittedly growing wary of isekai shows, but this was not something I felt would influence my opinion. It was not until there was a Director’s Cut of the first season available I decided there may be enough separation from what my friends watched that I could experience the series a little differently. With that said, I set out to watch this decorated anime with as blank of a slate of expectations as I could allow.
One of the loudest opinions about this series came from just how unlikable viewers found Subaru to be. While I will be digging into criticism and my reflections on them later, it is difficult to begin discussing Subaru without setting the table here with that point first. I also wanted to bring it up because, frankly, I think the way Subaru is written is one of the more impressive aspects of this anime. Having a character be as flawed as Subaru is allows the narrative to build from scratch. This, as both the title and the series explain, is the entire impetus for the title being Starting From Zero. The story itself builds from nothing because it follows a boy who, without mincing words, is nothing.
A critical point to Subaru’s mistakes is that he lives with the consequences of his actions. Something that disappoints me in dramas is that consequence does not get utilized as much more than a temporary inspiration for the character to“get better/good” and reach the apex of their development. Through this entire season (and even to the current point in the second season), Subaru does not have his “be all, cure all” epiphany moment. He has to suffer through the results of his action. Even after he clears a hurdle, his character is still flawed because there is another hurdle he stumbles through awaiting him on the other side. These repeated mistakes are not the indication of an “annoying” or“dumb” character, they’re simply realistic barriers in the development of man.The writing of the show and of Subaru himself understands there is no set goal that will make everyone and everything better. I find it ironic that a story about a boy being transported into a fantasy world can convey the message that the real world and the challenges that an individual faces as they develop into a successful adult is an ever-changing, moving target.
Another fascinating part to Subaru is that it becomes clear that he has had no significant relationships in his life prior to his transportation. While the second season gives a bit more evidence to into this, he was a shut-in who did not have bonds with others. Conversing with royalty and other interested parties in this new world, Subaru’s flaws are clear by his lack of awareness and communication skills. Everything he says and does is seated at his own desires, his own drive, and with images of others’ wishes he paints within himself. We see this in the way he communicates with Emilia, who, for the bulk of the first season, he objectifies as this “damsel in distress” that he must save and look after. When he constantly oversteps his bounds, partakes in reckless behaviors, and proclaims he does all of this for her, Emilia justly calls him out on the fact that he isn’t considering her at all with his actions. This is where the famous line she says in “The version of me that lives inside you must be amazing” really delivers. He has this idea of who she is and what he will do for her and how grateful she will be for him, but Emilia is her own person. It sounds simple to a functioning adult, but Subaru is just a boy without an understanding of how others feel or how to understand their wishes. The depth to Emilia’s character is surprising when considering this meaning that the perception Subaru has of her is a driving element to what makes her anything but the prototypical isekai princess.
While this last point is a little broken off from the rest of this topic, I needed to address it now. I will get to Rem in a little bit,but I think it is important to annotate here that her character and relationship to Subaru is critical in finding the good in his writing as well. Just hold that thought for a minute here.
Discussing the flaws that Subaru has and how he must face the consequences for his actions,I believe that his “Return by Death” experiences are an excellent narrative device to deliver this message. No matter how bad of a “run” Subaru experiences, he must confront his mistakes, take on consequences for actions,and grow. Much of Subaru’s growth comes from the constant tearing down of his character that is facilitated from “Return by Death”. Didn’t take the time to learn about the people living in the manor? Return by Death. Thought he could just valiantly come in and save the village? Return by Death. Oh, he thought he was tricky and skipped over a challenge just because he knew what would happen? You get the idea.
As important as having the protagonist learn by resetting, there are lessons of consequences that can be taught by whenever Subaru cannot reset to a certain point. In one particular instance, he messes things up on a huge level and does not “reset” to where he was hoping. Instead, he must live with the reality that his actions were transcribed. Couple this with the kicker that he cannot tell anyone about his condition, this makes the positions Subaru finds himself in after trying to reveal details he learned from “resetting” very uncomfortable.
Having a story that can explore the absolute pits of despair before hitting a “reset” button can allow for some haunting moments, and Re:Zero delivers on this.Moments like when Subaru is held prisoner in a cave and when Felix and Julius find Subaru in the woods stick with me because of how dark and moving they were. Besides propelling the audience (and Subaru) into the next “reset”, these set the series apart from the rest because of their willingness to explore disturbing roadblocks. I think of Higurashi when I view this mechanic-it’s a tried and true “bad end to get to the true end” trope in visual novel-type stories, but I’ve never seen it executed quite like it is here in an anime.
As I alluded to earlier, I believe that Rem is a far more important character to the narrative of Re:Zero than she appears. Whereas I believe that Emilia helps Subaru see his flaws, the faith that Rem has in Subaru helps him accept the good in him. This, of course, is encroaching on the “waifu war” territory,so I need to emphasize here that I think both characters have excellent relationships with Subaru in this specific regard. As a motivator, Rem is incredible, and her dedication and hopes for Subaru to live simply electrifies the series. Raising my hand and admitting to when I am swayed by something, I bawled my eyes out at her hypothetical life right before the spoiled moment happened in the capital as well. It speaks to how moving a moment can be that when the spoiler that frustrates thousands was supposed to ruin an episode for me, it didn’t. The means to that end were still powerful enough to deserve praise.
Where Rem has some turbulence in the story, however, comes from an evident struggle there is to find something else for her to do. To elaborate, besides the role she plays in building Subaru up, the gist of her remaining role is “smash bad guys” and “be cute” without much else. I’m saying this as someone who liked her character more than Emilia’s, but her lack of being much more than Subaru’s bodyguard through the second half of the season is a glaring flaw in her writing. This is exacerbated by her…reduced role in the second season.Do her highs outweigh the lows in her writing? I think so. Ultimately, the writing here is so well done that I believe that a lack of much more than one or two solid development points just makes how Rem is written look worse in comparison to the rest. If you were to transplant Rem’s role into another anime, I think more people would be raving about how deep her character was.
Something that left me floored in awe by its execution was a part of Re:Zero I never heard a peep about. The “Battle Against the White Whale” is the largest scale anime fight I have ever seen handled in such a smooth fashion. To this point,the show had impressed me with very small decisions that made scenes way more impactful like electing to go with no music in certain parts and utilizing a score that was subtle. In the rush of the story, it might be easy to miss just how suave the direction of this anime is. By the time the “Battle” came, I had long anticipated that the series would keep to small, contained conflicts and interpersonal quarrels.
Just in time to prove my expectations wrong, the “Battle” came around and shattered my perception of the direction. It was not just well executed because it dictated a slow, methodical pace. Rather, the direction of this series was clearly handled by professionals, as this conflict showcases. Right from the onset, we are given one of the most tense moments of the show. Subaru and the rest of the camps are waiting for his cellphone alarm to go off, indicating the arrival of the “White Whale”- a fierce beast that needs stopped. When his ringtone finally goes off, the atmosphere is so tense, as the Nokia-esque rings go off and we see shots of every character and their comrades awaiting the fight.
Where the show really dunks the ball, however, is when the fight begins. The shots are not jerky, and we get very smooth transitions between the forces fighting the White Whale. The smoke that this beast covers the battlefield with has effects that I will refrain from spoiling, but the stakes of such effects make the battlefield feel very claustrophobic. The battle is a constant shift from sprinting on the ground to aerial assaults that, despite their goofiness at moments, really bring out the wonder of a fantasy battle.
This battle also shows two of my favorite character moments in the series (and recent memory for anime). The first of these is the story of Wilhelm van Astrea and his revenge against the White Whale for taking his beloved Thearesia. Honestly, this should come as no surprise to my friends but I was moved to tears by his recollection of the love he had for his wife. By the time we got the full story, I was cheering for our boy to give that big White Whale the business. The second character moment that impressed me came from Crusch, one of Emilia’s rivals for the throne. Up to here, we have seen her as a razor sharp quick-witted militant mind who has not been afraid to call Subaru out on the way he views Emilia. Due to the effects of the White Whale’s smoke, the forces fighting on the ground are rattled and gravely injured. At their lowest moment, Crusch rallies the troops with a booming voice and an inspiring speech. Characters like these two speak to just how much more there is to the characters of Re:Zero than the usual discussion around the “big 3” main characters.
Speaking of the usual discussion around the “big 3” main characters, a huge criticism of this series comes from the core characters themselves. Despite already being discussed, its worth addressing these characters’ flaws in the criticism. Subaru, as covered, gets bashed online for being “annoying” and for his mistakes. I personally never found his development to be annoying, but I can understand there must be“buy-in” from a viewer to be patient and see the slow burn growth the main character has.
As for Emilia and Rem, I already mentioned the flaws in narrative for Rem, but Emilia is an interesting issue to consider. Despite serving the opposite role as Rem with regards for their relationships with Subaru, Emilia has a similar problem that Rem does narratively. She has some heavy hitting moments with Subaru, but the “waifu wars” coupled with the story sidelining her in rather glaring ways gives legitimate concern for fans and critics alike. Do I find her to be under-utilized? It depends on how much you think her interactions with Subaru and the others make an impact. I found the fact that her moments with Subaru were so few and far between more effective in conveying how special those moments were as they happened (and how much more crushing the mistakes Subaru made in some of them were).
Despite the characters sometimes not having much utilization in a busy story, I cannot agree with the ultimate criticism that this show is a “harem” or that it is “no more than waifu war fodder”. Characters like Emilia are written in a way that serves as commentary on the usual idolization of a pretty girl.Ultimately, I believe that this criticism is merely stemmed from the rabid fanbase that made the discussion surrounding this series toxic.
This was immediately one of the most enjoyable anime I had ever seen. At the time of writing this, I have it in my top 30 of all time (#26) because of how impressive the direction and storytelling was. I think it says something leading into this second season that it shows up every episode with high production value, quality writing, and invested voice acting performances.While I don’t see it as the GOAT like some fans, I still think this is plenty to respect.
A final point I wanted to discuss is the dub for this. I have been vocal in the past that I was once an amateur voice actor (albeit a pretty crappy one), and that I knew several prominent voice actors on the scene now. My best friend I had online growing up, my mentor, was Sean Chiplock. He always gave me the time of day and feedback on how to get better. More importantly, this was right around the time I started battling depression and his concern for me was appreciated in a way I can never overstate. While I didn’t watch this particular anime dubbed, I am well aware he was cast as Subaru and feel nothing but proud for how far he has come. Of all of the voice actors I knew, he was the most impactful on my life and I appreciate what help he was. While I wish well for all of the voice actors I knew, I especially root for him.
So, are there any popular anime you recently took the plunge into or have been wanting to? Let me know! Have a wonderful day and stay healthy and safe.