This past Sunday, “Re:Zero kara Hajimeru Isekai Seikatsu” (“Re:Zero -Starting Life in Another World-”) ended its 25 episode run as the highest rated anime television show of 2016 on MyAnimeList.
The show features Subaru Natsuki, a 17-year-old shut-in NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training) who gets transported to a fantasy world with no way back and nothing on him except his jumpsuit, a phone and some groceries.
The basic premise is a trope that has been gaining popularity in recent years. A genre savvy protagonist gets transported to a world where they expect to be extremely powerful but end up being just another person. In “Sword Art Online,” a show in the same subgenre but which takes place in a virtual reality video game, the protagonist’s knowledge of the game gave him an edge and allowed him to win. In “Konosuba,” the protagonist was killed and sent to another world like in “Re:Zero,” but him being weak in every area except luck was played for laughs. “Re:Zero” manages to hit a middle ground by giving the protagonist powers, but not giving him much in the way of control.
Subaru can “Return By Death,” as he calls it. The power makes it so that whenever something kills him, instead of actually dying he simply returns back to a previous moment in time. To solidify that he knows he is in a fantasy world that seems like video games he has played, he even refers to where he returns to as his “save point.” However, he does not know where his most recent save point is most of the time, so does not know when his actions are final, or what events he can change.
The series truly shines in how it portrays Subaru and the other characters. Instead of Subaru instantly learning from his mistakes and becoming the hero the audience expects him to become, he is human. Sure, he can die to reset mistakes, but dying is terrifying and hurts a lot, so he is not willing to kill himself unless it is truly the best option available. Even when he ends up dying and reseting, he learns from his mistakes, but not immediately and not completely. Subaru’s arrogant and at times egotistical nature shows through even when he is trying to make amends with people. The knight Julius beat him to a pulp when they first met. After an entire arc of physical suffering and character development, instead of forgiving Julius on the spot, Subaru grudgingly works with him and even says that he still hates him. Subaru has grown enough as a person to accept Julius’ strength and help, but not enough to forgive or like him.
Although he does not grow as much as the audience might like, he is not dumb. He knows that most people underestimate him and think that he is just a loudmouthed fool, and so uses that to his advantage. He may not be able to wield a sword or use much magic, but he can taunt and aggravate seemingly any enemy into attacking him instead of focusing on other potential threats.
Another example is that he realizes people do not know what his phone is, so he calls it a magic device on several occasions so that people will trust him, when he actually has just lived the timeline before and so knows what is about to happen. Subaru may not be gifted in any way, but he is resourceful and knows what his few strengths are.
In a Crunchyroll article, Frog-kun wrote about how a Japanese audience might take the news that Subaru was a shut-in NEET, among other characteristics, to mean that he was lazy or stupid. But as the show progresses, Subaru’s actions continually try to prove the viewer’s assumptions wrong.
This is true for seemingly every character in the show. Emelia, the female lead, is a silver-haired half elf. In the show’s world, that means that she is the spitting image of the Witch of Envy, who everyone fears, and so almost everyone actively shuns her. However, in every interaction between Emelia and normal citizens, she seems to have their best interests at heart. When they are in danger, she makes sure to warn them in advance. When they ignore her, she fights to protect them.
Another example of good character writing is the next most prominent female character, the blue-haired maid Rem. At first, she is quiet and seems to simply do her job and only tolerate Subaru, even as she begins to teach him to read and write the country’s language.
The reason she is so quiet though is because she feels that she is only a replacement for her twin sister Ram. It turns out that when they were born, the village was going to kill them, since twins were forbidden, and only Ram’s incredible proficiency for magic kept them alive. A few years later, the village was attacked and burned down, with Rem and Ram being the only survivors, and Ram no longer able to perform magic. They then began their lives as maids at the mansion where Emelia would eventually be staying at. Rem was originally so quiet because instead of being a simple maid archetype, she had an entire backstory and personal issues to work through before she could open up to anyone, let alone Subaru, a person she meets for the first time during the show.
Having characters with fairly unique backstories and who manage to break stereotypes in order to grow into their own allows for more unique conversations and interactions. Allowing Rem and Subaru to spend so much time together and grow closer is what made episode 15, “The Outside of Madness,” such an amazing episode.
After every one of Rem’s limbs is broken and her neck snapped, she still cares so deeply for Subaru that she crawls over to where he is chained to the wall, uses magic on her own blood to help him escape and then dies in his arms. Subaru then carries her back to the village, where everyone has been massacred.
The depth of character interaction also made episode 18, “From Zero,” uniquely powerful. Instead of the episode being full of violence or tense situations, almost the entire episode is just Subaru and Rem talking about whether to run away from everything and go live in another country, since Subaru has given up on managing to save the village. There aren’t even many cutaways to imagination or other scenery, just different shots of the two talking. However, because the audience cares so much about them by that point, it works as one of the best episodes of the series.
The quality of episodes is largely because of Studio White Fox, the people in charge of adapting and animating the show. The studio formed in 2007 and is fairly new, but they masterfully adapted the source material. In some scenes, they added visual elements and lines of dialogue that the original author, Tappei Nagatsuki, reportedly wished he had included or decided to include in later material. At the same time though, White Fox also knew when to hold back. In many of the more dramatic scenes, such as the aforementioned “From Zero,” they decided to animate the episode nearly word for word from the source material.
“Re:Zero” is an extremely interesting show. The world is a parallel to the characters, it is introduced as a standard fantasy world, but over time evolves in to a wholly unique entity by getting the viewer to care about almost every character through personal depth and relatability.
One of the few downsides is that the story completely caught up to the light novel source material in its 25 episode run. While the main story has enough material for at least another season or two, it has not been released in light novel form yet, and so it is unlikely to be adapted to anime for at least another few years.
How very slothful, Nagatsuki-san. You are making my brain tremble in anticipation.