My thoughts on the series known as Re:zero, or more specifically ‘Re:ZERO -Starting Life in Another World’, have shifted over the years. Looking at my MyAnimeList review from April 14th, 2018, it seems I had enjoyed my experience, but ever since I’ve been very unsure as to my consensus over the tv-series. From what I had remembered it seemed like a series full of potential that was stricken with a bold sense of superiority, but I was never really quite sure why. It was until Mother’s Basement’s video on the subject matter that I became more intrigued than ever. He speaks of the shows subtle critique of anime culture and that not having rewatched the series means you haven’t seen the show to begin with. And now that I have taken that advice, I would make the case that this is what made the show feel as pretentious and blatant as it did.
This analysis contains spoilers
The series follows Subaru Natsuki, the ordinary Japanese high school anime fan, as he is transported into the Kingdom of Lugnica, not too dissimilar from many other fantasy worlds we’ve seen the past decade. After getting into trouble with the capitals many crooks he is saved by the heroine of Emilia who Subaru quickly takes a liking to. The two look for her “insignia”, an amulet of a sort, and after scenes of blood and gore we learn that Subaru is able to “return by death” meaning he is sent back in time to certain events when he passes away. And this is where the critique of the anime fandom and the “otaku” is set up, as the ability Subaru achieves seems like an advantageous one but is throughout the series developed to be extremely trauma-inducing, as Subaru has to relive the suffering the world of Lugnica has to offer repeatedly. It takes the audience’s expectations of the story’s premise and turns it around to show the horror laying inside of it. But this is where the story’s interesting exploration of this critique starts and ends, as we will be looking at now.
The first 50 minutes of the show are emblematic of the problems the show has presenting this recurring theme. As I started the first episode I was impressed at how early they set up how Subaru isn’t the main character of this world. He is repeatedly disempowered, thinking that he can suddenly cast magic and save people and is then shown how this is false. But after lines like “Is this how it’s supposed to be? Wasn’t I summoned into a parallel world?! Where’s my protagonist status go!?” and “And besides, if I was summoned, where’s my cute girl who summoned me?!”, this starts become overwhelming. The entirety of episodes one is spent comedically disempowering Subaru over and over again to the point where it seems as though the creators are screaming the point of the show to the audience. My consensus after watching the first episode was that it wasn’t a masterpiece because it thinks it is one.
This is a common problem in anime I believe, where the point of certain characters or story elements are kept extremely clear. But when it comes to thematic elements, I don’t think I have a better example of overstatement than this show. While it is able to hide this problem in the first third of the show, where it’s either interesting in how it frames Subaru or just turns into the show I thought this was meant to critique as it gives us meaningless fan-service. But it is in the scene where Emilia leaves Subaru in the capital where this changes. This is probably my favorite point in the series, where Subaru’s arrogance and savior complex becomes increasingly transparent to the point of saying that Emilia is hopeless without him, and I finally feel like the show has a point while still wrapping it in subtext. But the high of writing a scene like this can be addicting and this is what we see after this point. This is what leaves a bad taste in my mouth after finishing the series even though as a whole I don’t think it’s awful.
The series becomes a lot more melodramatic and not afraid to cause mass-murder to make a heavy-handed point about Subaru’s flaws as a person. The “from zero” (where Subaru tells Rem he loves Emilia) is a pretty great summarization of what I dislike about the show. Whenever it wants to make a point about Subaru and people like him it isn’t subtle about it in any way. They scream it into the camera, in the exact words you would put into a wiki page. And while I don’t think subtlety is a necessary element of writing, I find it hard to take the message seriously or find any interest in it when there is nothing to read into. Like Folding Ideas said in his video on the film Annihilation, in this series the subtextual is the textual. And while I don’t think comparing the two is completely fair as Annihilations themes are very different from Re:ZERO’s, I don’t think there’s a lot of subtext to read into when it comes to this series, because everything is on the table.
In the end the problems I have with Re:ZERO are not easy to understand for myself. I have to credit the series for making me think about what makes something on-the-nose and what makes something honest, and if a clear line is needed in this case. I’m still intrigued by the series, from just thinking about the problems and why I find them to be so. But in the end, the fact that I find them bothersome should be enough to call it a flaw.
And even if I think other aspects of the series are fine, the way the theme is presented felt really lazy and really drags the series down. If there’s any element of filmmaking I find more interesting to discuss than any other it would be subtext and the meaning of media. But if there’s any case that says that conceptually underlying themes and messages cannot make a show great I think Re:ZERO is a pretty good one