Review/discussion about: Re:Zero kara Hajimeru Isekai Seikatsu
“What happens after I die?”
I ask myself this question from time to time. Morbid, I know. But I can’t help it. The infinite blackness, the fact that the world will continue turning without me. Death is a concept that I understand but don’t understand, so I quickly stop thinking about it. Frankly speaking, it makes me feel uncomfortable.
Re:Zero kara Hajimeru Isekai Seikatsu is no stranger to death. However, as opposed to me, it embraces death wholeheartedly – and presents an entertaining, meaningful anime in the process.
Re:Zero (as it will be coined from here on out) stars Natsuki Subaru, an eighteen-year-old guy who finds himself transported to a fantastical land filled with animal people, magic, and a severe lack of technology. What at first seems like the usual goings when he helps an impressionable girl named “Satella,” the situation diverts down an unforeseen path, leading Subaru through the adventure of a lifetime (give or take eleven).
To call Re:Zero a popular anime would be an understatement. During the show’s airing, it caught the attention of nearly the entire anime community, making grail wars and head tilts look like mere passing fads. After more than a year since its first episode ran, it’s still easy to understand why the show captivated so many.
A large portion of the captivation stems from Return by Death, Subaru’s single “ability” that ties the entire story together. Yes, the time-travel trait is inherently interesting. But the premise also invites something much more sinister: darkness. Subaru’s deaths are often gruesome, involving severed limbs, slit throats, and frozen bodies that acclimate the audience to its darker atmosphere. An atmosphere filled with bowel hunters, demon dogs, amoral reactions, psychotic cultists, and burnt villagers.
In a clever move, Re:Zero also places a preventative measure – disallowed explanation – on Subaru’s ability. Not only does it up the darkness levels since it introduces a sad loneliness but also, and more importantly, it gets used as part of the plot. Luring enemies, killing Emilia (by accident), beating back Betelgeuse. Arguably, this self-induced heart attack is used one too many times, getting dangerously close to a plot convenience since its ramifications don’t seem to escalate.
However, the plot itself makes up for this issue. The anime showcases Subaru’s plight as he succumbs to the constant deaths and the inescapable darkness. Sword magic, twin mockery, and “invisible” hands provide the expected action and comedy, but Subaru’s defeats still take precedence.
Although, that’s not quite right. It should read his defeats and his triumphs, for what Re:Zero does quite well is counterbalancing its soul-crushing negatives with uplifting positives. When Rem brutally attacks Subaru, and he vomits from the pressure of making things right, Emilia approaches him with nothing but a lap pillow and sympathetic words to ease his pain. And when Subaru yells at Emilia with hubris and anger, he later confesses his love as tears of happiness stream down her face.
Yet, as anyone who has seen the show would say, a distinct negative and positive coupling stand out more so than anything else in the season: episode fifteen and episode eighteen.
Episode fifteen goes just about as horribly as possible. An addled Subaru, twisting up the despair, and some ending-credits artistic flair make the episode feel like a tragic finale rather than just a climactic moment in the series.
To counterbalance, episode eighteen appears, taking the appa. While “just” a dude in a track suit talking with a blue-haired maid for over a whopping twenty minutes straight, the emotional backing and zero-based context make their conversation seem as if it were only two minutes long as the show renews itself for its final leg of the season.
Throughout the whole season, Re:Zero also goes against the grain, subverting some of the conventional tropes associated with its (perceived) genres. A lot of losing. A selfish main protagonist who cannot do much of anything. A full confession of love turned down. These ideas are not novel, but, in a medium awash with trapped-in-a-fantasy-world stories, this fresher, more realistic depiction of a ne’er-do-well in uncharted waters sings a new chanty.
On purely a writing level, the anime is never exactly nuanced. That is, presenting a thrilling experience is more important to it than elaborating on complex themes. Nevertheless, the anime weaves together many of its plot elements in a satisfactory manner.
For instance, Emilia’s presence-reducing hood. It was used by her in the village, thrown at Subaru during his meltdown, and used by him when he finally makes it back to the manor. There’s also how Beako drains Subaru’s mana to tease him during their first encounter, and then a mana-loss curse becomes the main issue that he must contend with. Or simply how the insignia forms the catalyst for the whole tale while also signifying the underlying plot and bringing Felt from the beginning to the forefront.
Like any story – popular or otherwise – Re:Zero does not go without a few flaws.
Chief among its problems is a reliance on too many convenient excuses. Roswaal was always “away” while everything was going on. Reinhard had “business” to take care of. Beatrice couldn’t help in the final fight due to her “contract” (even though she left the mansion during the timeline where Rem dies to the curse). Rather than use these characters for plot purposes, the anime instead ignores them unfairly, knowing that their power would easily sway the tide of battle.
Some scenes don’t quite hit the mark. Subaru jumping off a cliff to commit (purposeful) suicide gets a bit too optimistic for what has transpired and what is transpiring. A half-mangled Rem crawling her way towards Subaru is silly rather than scary (especially when her body magically contorts back to normal). Betelgeuse chasing after Subaru (and Otto) in one final sloth-and-love attempt is unnecessary drama after their big final fight already occurred.
Re:Zero also fails to showcase Subaru’s background. Given his later conversation with Rem, it’s important, almost imperative to have details about the Subaru before he came to this world. Yet he almost never mentions his past life, and the only time it’s shown is in the first minute of the anime.
So, when he describes himself as a “small, cowardly, filthy piece of trash” who did nothing of merit, the audience can only take him at his word rather than compare it with tangible evidence. Thus, by not having that necessary foundation, it causes his development to not be as substantial. Especially when he has shown time and again to be of the heroic, non-lay-about type.
Return by Death also has an issue. A major crux to Subaru’s ability is his save point, the spot in time where, should he die, he begins anew. But it’s completely arbitrary. As such, it increases convenience levels for the narrative because it can just pick and choose whenever it wishes to advance the plot indefinitely. It also decreases tension because such advancement only happens once Subaru goes through those key positive moments, making it easy to guess that, now, he’ll succeed.
Other problems exist. A couple of forgotten plotlines (Elsa says hi). Scenes can be a bit too blunt (Subaru going through the red-and-blue-ogre fairy tale for Ram couldn’t have been any less subtle). The fact that the anime spends very little time establishing why the royal selection is so important (by focusing too much on the micro when the macro is evidently vital).
In all, these listed flaws range in severity. But, considering that this series of episodes is the show’s first, a little bit of leniency is in order. And besides, Re:Zero does enough within its debut to justify the massive appeal it gained and the intense need for a second season to continue – like Subaru – where it left off.
Re:Zero doesn’t have the most impressive movement for its characters, but it does include some finesse here and there. Subaru’s fingers fidget when under duress, and he performs his victory calisthenics when he can. Rem’s demon-form fights aren’t the smoothest, but she jumps around wildly while swinging her spiked-ball-and-chain. And the whole White Whale battle features falling, sword beams, magic, running animals, and explosions.
In comparison, though, aspects of the art are a lot stronger. For instance, the anime thankfully refrains from overly censoring its violence in obtuse ways. Pools of blood, chopped-off limbs, and grotesque scenes (Rem’s twisting, Subaru’s frozen, shattered body) keep Re:Zero filled with darkness.
The miasmic depiction of the witch’s magic and hands stopping Subaru from speaking about his Return by Death ability are also a plus, and the detailed facial expressions – especially Subaru’s faces while dying, yelling, or lamenting – up emotions that much further. And the show can provide bright, cheery shots when it wants to, like when Rem officially falls for Subaru or when Emilia smiles with complete happiness near the end of the season.
Not all the art is strong, however. The CG background characters are extremely out of place, looking more like animatronics than regular citizens. And the backgrounds themselves don’t try to stand out in any discernable fashion. The only location that really does is the slums where Old Man Rom calls home, and that’s only because it’s different from the constant streets, forests, caves, and buildings the anime takes place in.
Above all else, the character designs are both purposeful and interesting.
Subaru’s black and white tracksuit symbolizes his moral ambiguity. Meanwhile, the splashes of orange symbolize his ambition, his drive to not give up.
Roswaal, the lord of the mansion, is the wildcard of the anime. Naturally, he looks like one, too. Joker face paint, a mishmash of colors, and odd garb make him look like a clown, but hidden beneath his silly exterior is most likely something not so funny.
Ram and Rem dress as maids because they are maids. But their outfits also reflect their supportive characteristics everywhere else. Ram devotes herself to Roswaal, Rem carries Subaru, and the two twins have each other’s backs. Their choice of color is also important. Ram’s light red symbolizes her outward teasing attitude and inward aggression. Rem’s light blue symbolizes her soft personality and contrasts with her demonic transformation. And, given that red and blue are primary colors, they complement each other almost as well as Ram and Rem do.
Emilia’s design is better than the rest. She is dressed, from her hair to her main outfit, predominantly in white, signifying easily enough her purity amidst an impure world. The purple weaved into her clothing contrast with the white in a soft manner while also highlighting her royalty status. And her flowers – the floral headdress, the flower pin she received from the little girl – emphasize her frail, delicate beauty.
At the center of Re:Zero stands none other than Subaru, the guy who bought an instant meal and some chips from his local convenience store before being instantly transported to another world.
Subaru starts off rather typical. He has the handsome features, the easygoing personality, and the drive to help others (specifically “Stella”). Announcing that throwing his first punch hurt more than he expected is an early indicator of his relatable characteristics, but it’s not until he experiences Return by Death for the second time that he truly begins to go against preconceived notions.
During his final moments in his second life, he laments what almost everyone else would in that same situation: “I’m scared!”
It’s human to fear death; most people living a happy, regular life enjoy being alive. He repeats these words in different ways throughout the season. He tells Beako during their conversation about saving Rem as she rampages through the forest how “forming the habit of giving up because you’re used to dying is dumb. Life is precious! You only get one!” Or when he’s left alone with the White Whale, battered and bruised, he desperately tries to escape, pleading “Help me!” and “I don’t wanna die!”
Living through the same set of events over and over is the least of his worries thanks to the pain that hurts him both physically and mentally. Losing his arm makes him scream, and trying to carry his burdens by himself erodes his mind. He may protect Rem in more ways than one, and he may be “fanatical like a demon,” but these events slowly build up and get to him.
His true feelings surface after he embarrasses himself and Emilia before the knights and the council of Lugunica as well as humiliates himself in a total defeat in a duel with Julius. Emilia wants to understand Subaru, to believe him, but his broken promise (of staying put) and him not explaining his reasons (due to his Return by Death limitation) make that impossible. In retaliation, Subaru yells at Emilia, furiously letting her know that she’s only there now, that everything is all right, because “he was there.”
Once again, Subaru demonstrates a common human trait: self-centeredness. A lot of people would make the same selfish response after trying so hard and doing so much without anybody noticing. Especially if the person he or she most deeply cares for is included in that group.
Subaru’s unbecoming outburst sadly distances him from Emilia (both literally and figuratively), yet he has no time to rest as evil near her emerges. What occurs, though, is a string of horrible outcomes. Subaru witnesses the deaths of his friends and loved ones no matter what he tries to do, literally losing his mind. All the while, his reasoning, groveling, and negotiating with the other ladies of the royal selection process (minus Felt) expose his weak, useless self.
The culmination of his failures leads to his defining character moment of the season. In speaking with Rem, he breaks down, vilifying himself as worthless, as someone who never amounted to anything before and nothing since. As he words it, “I’m the lowest of the low. I absolutely hate myself….” (This small snippet does not do his full monologue justice.)
Subaru’s words highlight yet another human quality: hopelessness. People often get into situations that seem impossible. As if the whole world is against them with nothing changing no matter what is done. When this feeling arises, it requires outside help.
That’s why Rem is there. Rem’s words of love and encouragement bolster Subaru, drawing parallels to Subaru’s own passion for Emilia and giving him the support he needs to push onward. To save Emilia from the threats that surround her, he enlists the help of the candidates, takes down the White Whale, evacuates the village, defeats the witch-worshipping cultists, and removes the bomb beneath Emilia and the children’s carriage. And, during this time, he becomes a respectable comrade to Crusch, reconciles with Julius, and takes to heart that he is weak and must rely on others.
A final question still must be asked: Why does the anime make Subaru try so hard? The audience already knows why he tries so hard: to protect Emilia. But his goal doesn’t explain the purpose on a writing level.
A fair way to look at it is through what Re:Zero itself revolves around. That is, the idea of never giving up. The narrative supports this argument with his Return by Death ability; he has multiple chances to succeed. It’s also supported by the characters, too. Rem doesn’t give up on Subaru despite knowing that he’ll never fully reciprocate her feelings. Subaru doesn’t give up on Emilia despite dying in horrific fashion over and over and over. Emilia doesn’t give up on her kingdom and its people despite the way they mistreat her.
On its own, the message that one should never give up is a thoughtful sentiment. However, it goes further than this thanks to what Subaru and Emilia represent.
In life, everyone has at least some evil. Obviously, Betelgeuse is evil for his psychotic actions. But Subaru is also included due to his arrogance. Rem as well for being happy when Ram lost her horn. Crusch wouldn’t mind letting innocent people perish if there should be no gain in it for her. The appa salesman was rather rude at the start. Even Puck, who seems like the chilliest of dudes, wouldn’t mind decimating the entire planet.
There’s only one individual in the entire anime who is wholly good (and only one guess is needed): Emilia. People judge her for her half-elf appearance, but she doesn’t think less of them. As ruler, she aims to unify the kingdom and bring peace to all. And she’ll even stop to help a random guy in a track suit, without asking for anything in return, even when she is in dire straits herself.
Emilia, then, is all that is good. And what of Subaru? As discussed, he doesn’t always do what’s right, experiencing negative emotions and unfortunate feelings. Yet, that’s what makes him human. People are not perfect – but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve goodness.
And that’s exactly what Re:Zero shows. Humans are frightened and selfish and weak and hopeless. But Subaru trudges through gluttony, sloth, pride, and even death itself to protect Emilia. In other words, the anime’s message is more than just not giving up. It’s that not giving up will ultimately lead to something truly good.
The private conversation between the two, how they share tears and words of love, not only makes all the struggling up to this point worth it but also clearly demonstrates this main message. A message that anybody can follow – be they near the finale or, well, starting from zero.
First and foremost, Yuusuke Kobayashi as Subaru and Yoshitsugu Matsuoka as Betelgeuse deserve recognition for their superb voice-acting performances. Mr. Kobayashi had to scream, cry, and hurt while juggling lighter emotions for the whole season, but he did it with ease. And Mr. Matsuoka captured Betelgeuse’s comedic insanity so well that it makes one wonder what could have inspired him to match the character so perfectly.
Special shout-outs go to Satomi Arai as Beako for her “I suppose” vocal tic, Rie Murakawa as Ram and Inori Minase as Rem for the back-and-forth insults they slung at Subaru, and Rie Takahashi as Emilia for her kindhearted way of speaking.
Moving to the music, the opening tracks inject the same darkness that the plot steeps itself in.
“Redo” uses static sounds and whaling background instruments to create an unsettling feeling. Its final few notes mirror the start of the piece, acting as a metaphor for Subaru’s own deathly repetition.
“Paradisus-Paradoxum” includes an ominous beginning and an uncertain-sounding ending that both spell doom on the horizon. The larger emphasis on orchestral violins, drops in music, and vocal variation up the gravity of the song to match the higher stakes in the second half of the season.
The ending tracks go in a tonally opposite direction.
“STYX HELIX” is without a doubt the strongest track from Re:Zero. It’s not a depressing piece, but there’s a weight to it. The simple beat is carried by strong singing and harmonizing, and the whispers, the resonating sounds, and the abrupt closing of the piece press down on the listener with sadness and just a twinge of hope.
“Stay Alive” (not the Bee Gees variety) is much slower and a lot happier. Not that it’s jubilant but, after hearing every other OP and ED, this piece easily leaves one feeling at least optimistic about what the future holds.
As for the original soundtrack, surprisingly, its softer pieces are the most noteworthy. Delicate piano playing, triumphant violins, and reserved orchestral compositions simultaneously give the gentler moments and the more dramatic ones their strength. On the opposite end, the chanting and the lonely sounding tracks achieve their spooky, dark purpose, and resounding drums aid the action-filled scenes.
And as a last shout-out, the sound-effect played whenever Subaru’s Return by Death was involved always made for a strong signal that some crazy happenings were about to go down.
It must be known to all who read this: Emilia is better than Rem.
Since her introduction, Emilia has been kind and understanding, caring first and foremost about the people around her before herself. That goodness within her heart already makes her more attractive, but half-elf ears, a pretty design, and a warm, sincere smile solidify her as the best in show.
Unlike Rem who would rather murder Subaru than give him a haircut. In fact, I like Ram more than Rem. Ram at least isn’t so dichotomous when it comes to her feelings and spot-on teasing.
That’s not to say I don’t like Rem. Because I do. Episode eighteen was my favorite from the season, and Rem helped to make the episode so wonderful by listing off the things she loves about Subaru (and by being cute when talking about forming a family).
Rem is a sweet girl – but she’s no Emilia (or Ram for that matter).
Wars aside, I had a lot of fun overall. Subaru could be annoying at times with all the yelling and grandstanding, but his silly nature and willingness to keep going made him a likable dude. I didn’t care too much for the action segments, but the time-traveling deaths and the embarrassing scenes were entertaining. However, it was Subaru and Emilia’s big fight that got me watching episode after episode to make sure the two would end up happily ever after.
While I never cried, I did get teary eyes during Rem and Subaru’s conversation as well as during the final scene shared between Emilia and Subaru. And after finishing the season, I’m eager to see where they go with the characters. Rem’s arc appears complete by this point, and the same can be said for Subaru after arguably steeling himself to never give up again and after his confession of love to Emilia. I’ll just have to wait for a second season – whenever that may be.
Re:Zero kara Hajimeru Isekai Seikatsu is by no means a masterpiece. But when it delivers a thrilling tale, a thoughtful message on never giving up, and a handful of strong artistic and musical offerings, it makes thinking about death not quite as macabre.
Story: Good, convenient excuses, missing background investigation, and smaller problems aside, this dark, balanced, and satisfying tale has more than earned the attention it garnered
Animation: Good, the strong character designs, uncensored violence, and consistent movement alleviate the out-of-place CG and the bland locales
Characters: Great, the start of Subaru’s journey proves that never giving up leads to goodness no matter how weak someone may be
Sound: Good, okay first OP, good second OP, good first ED, okay second ED, good OST, and great VA performances
Enjoyment: Good, Emilia is better than Rem
Final Score: 8/10
Thanks for taking the time to read my review. If you want, take part in the discussion below! :3