A review by Christopher Kinsey
I figured this series was ruined for me from the get go. The hype in anime circles was mostly about how, at the end, the protagonist chose the wrong girl. I’ve never been one for “waifu politics” as I’ve been calling it, but the sheer amount of tearful pictures of the maid known as Rem almost made me never pick up this series. Couple that with the fact I knew a dude in a track suit was frolicking about in a fantasy world and it wasn’t Mr. Fujisawa (Ayyy, El-Hazard throwback over here!). We have had far too many tracksuited dudes dying and traveling to a fantasy world.
But, once I got over the initial stumbling blocks and sat down and watched this series, something happened. It got good. Not every aspect, and there are annoying things which I’ll bring up soon. However, it turned a lot of what I expected on its head in a good way, and I left this anime actually wanting to know more. I’m a world builder at times and I love seeing the lore of new fantasy places. Teasing me with a disaster long ago and showing me (not just telling me) the tales of the “Selfish Witch” has me wondering if this is the time I learn Japanese so I can read the light novels this is based on.
For those who don’t know, RE: Zero –Starting Life in Another World began its life as a kind of web novel in Japan, then got put in the hands of a light novel publisher, then pretty much got put through the media wringer of Japan. A manga, anime, merchandise and the like all came out of this one internet start-up. It tells of Subaru Natsuki, who is smacked down after a snack run and sent to another world. It’s there he finds the half elven girl Emelia and is instantly smitten. These things tend to happen, but the twist is after a day of learning a bit about Emilia and the world he’s now in, the day’s events lead to their untimely deaths in a pawn shop.
It’s here that the major gimmick of the series kicks in. Subaru returns to life back when he first arrived in the new world. He is the only one with knowledge of the events that are about to unfold. At first I hated this. Such a power totally writes off so much, especially if they make the protagonist immediately valiant and ready for anything this world has to throw at him, confidant in himself because he’s played all the right video games and watched all the right anime all his life.
However, in this series it’s remembered how much dying, especially violently, hurts like hell and would take a toll on the mind. Subaru is not a paragon of knowledge, and even admits to being way out of his league. He has steadfastness, to be sure, but that falters at times and he feels actually human, something that other series in this broad genre fail at. His reactions are more along the lines of someone who might be in these situations. And I think it’s a step in the right direction. Many of the protagonists in these series are wish fulfillment to the extreme, and usually thinly disguised harem anime.
There is some dabbling in several-way romance. It gets points for the fact that every female character isn’t drooling over that nice boy from the other dimension. It gets more points that every character isn’t a cute gal. It gets even more points in the fact that the fallibility of the hero in his romantic situation leads to definitive moments and changes in relationships rather than being humorous reasons for titillation. With the fact Subaru’s “Redo by Death” makes his relationships null and void until he figures out his next step without dying, and the fact that he himself had a definitive favorite, this is perhaps one of the least annoying romantic plots I’ve seen in anime aimed at young men in a long time.
But as a double edged sword this part of the anime is what led me to put it off for so long. When it’s actually watched the events between Subaru, Rem and Emelia make sense and are a fitting part of the story. However, the plight of Rem and a certain scene in the anime gave the internet a super charged moment of what they call “Feels” and, confused at feeling a general emotion beyond hate and horny, declared that Rem must be the face of this series. And that’s a shame because she’s such a good character when it comes down to it. To instead try and pull at the threads of the series and demand that it be turned into this one moment out of many interesting ones to be the very reason to watch this show? No. All such a tactic does is polarize the audience. People like myself are tired of endless waifu runs, and this series does so much more than present cute girls. It’s a disservice to it, especially to an audience who are tired of the same old, same old like me.
Character design does have its part to play in the preceding paragraph. I can’t fault the desire for the common anime fan that goes in for body pillows to go after characters who were pretty much designed to be on one. Looking at earlier artwork this wasn’t always the case and people had a more real look to them in the preliminary sketches for the light novel. As such we’re treated to a lot of variety in order to scratch those particular fan itches. This is especially revealing in several of the side characters which include a small army of cute animal people who are great magic wielders, loli librarians who are probably older than ten of your grandmothers (unconfirmed but I’m sure that’s where it’s going), and an effeminate cat-boy who wears dresses and nibbles on peoples ears to pick on them.
One does wonder when a creator’s work starts to get run by the whims of the publisher in Japan and it’s easy for young creators to have all these things shoved into their works. One gets to a point where you wonder why these side characters have these traits if not to draw more fans to the work. I do enjoy that there is a variety of people and powers to enjoy, but it does tend to overwhelm as these sprawling series do. In the moments that we focus on these kinds of characters, I see little things that draw me away from the milestones and parts of the story that really connect with the plot.
And the plot is a little confusing, as it can be when time travel is involved, doubly so when we’re learning the rules of the world at the same time as the hero. The first time I saw the effects of “Redo by Death” I inwardly groaned because if we had to start at the beginning every time our hero kicked the bucket I was prepared for an Endless Eight scenario and that would never have ended well. However, as we reach the season’s “Save points” for Subaru I find myself drawn to it like a mystery. What is the next problem Subaru must face? Who is the assailant who killed him? What clues can we get from this do over to make out own ways out of this? How does it relate to Subaru’s power? What piece of lore are we going to learn next about to help us in this situation?
A series that has me asking questions like this gets me excited because I now have an invested interest. It’s rare to have these interests wrapped up in an anime that genuinely looks like a lot of what I don’t like. And it’s the kind of anime that’s hard to discuss because the arcs within the series are spoilers upon spoilers depending on the number of times you saw Subaru die. And that’s actually kind of fantastic, because in a series which seems to offer the viewer yet another serving of waifu wish fulfillment actually gives me a story, a mystery, and an interesting world only revealed a bit at a time. And that is rare enough in any media now of days. I do love when I’m pleasantly surprised.
-A storytelling gimmick which, while familiar, leads to actual introspection and development of characters
-Large and detailed fights against overwhelming and interesting foes
-World building that is well thought out and a joy to discover
-Familiar character designs by today’s standards
-Some episodes have stretched-out pacing
-A secondary Chibi humor show which must be avoided so they stop doing it! Forever! No more side chibi shows. Stop it Japan.