Last week, when I talked about Konosuba, I mentioned that it had close ties to Re: Zero, and to really get one, you had to kind of get the other. As I said then, it’s because the two are basically a mirror of each other, one dark, the other light.
As much as Konosuba is a light hearted, slapstick comedy, Re: Zero is a dark musing on both the fragility, and resilience, of the human psyche. An exploration of just how much punishment, suffering, loss, fear, and horror a person can endure, and remain sane, if they have a reason to.
Where Konosuba embraces parody and slapstick, Re: Zero embraces horror, of pretty much every variety imaginable, though the psychological aspects are what let the story really shine the brightest. Which is to say, if you are expecting a standard Taken To Another World story with Re: Zero, you’ll want to think again. It’s anything but normal.
Re: Zero began as a web series, written by Tappei Nagatsuki, and appeared on the website Shosetsuka ni Naro in 2012, where it instantly garnered a massive following, and began drawing a great deal of attention from the larger publishing houses in Japan for it’s unconventional approach to a very old genre.
The series quickly made the jump to traditional press as a light novel series, followed by several manga adaptations, and finally, a 25 episode anime series from studio White Fox (Steins;Gate, The Devil Is A Part Timer) in 2016. Basically, it took four years for Nagatsuki to go from web publishing to anime adaptation.
The story follows 17 year old Subaru Natsuki, a hikikomori, or social recluse, who does nothing but hide from the world and play video games, not unlike Kazuma from Konosuba. One evening, as he’s leaving a convenience store, he finds himself suddenly stepping into a fantastical world of magic and monsters.
This is done without any fanfare, as well. It just happens. One moment, he’s on the curb, the next, he’s in the middle of a street in another world. It’s a bit of a departure from the traditional manner of showing such a world crossing, and that sets up how different the show will be as well.
At first elated to be living out such an exciting premise, Subaru quickly discovers that he’s still just himself. No amazing magical powers, or sudden skill with weapons. No princess or wizard waiting to fall madly in love with him. Nothing. He’s still the same socially inept, bumbling loser he was.
While getting mugged, he’s accidentally saved by a silver haired half elf that introduces herself as Satella. Deciding Subarau really is a helpless idiot, Satella lets him tag along with her as she tracks down the pickpocket who stole from her, leading the two to a very unpleasant side of town. There, they learn the pickpocket probably sold whatever they stole to a fence, but upon arriving at his establishment, both Satella and Subaru are killed by an unseen assailant.
Then Subarau finds himself standing back on the street where he first entered this world, at the same point in time he entered. Time has rewound, but just for him. He remembers everything that happened, but no one else does. Desperate to understand what’s going on, he manages to find Satella again, but is even more confused when she reacts to her name as if he’s given her a grave insult. He quickly learns that Satella is the name of a mythical figure from this world’s history, better known as the Jealous Witch.
Subaru races to the fence ahead of “Satella”, who’s real name is Emilia, but ends up being killed yet again, and restarting back at the same point in time he did before. Realizing that whenever he dies, time rewinds, Subaru finds that for some reason, he’s been tasked with protecting Emilia, and while it takes him a few rewinds, he manages to accomplish this goal, setting him on a path of heroism, fraught with danger, ever mounting horror, and more death than one person should ever have to experience.
The first thing Re:Zero does right is Subaru himself. He’s not a hero. He’s nowhere close to a hero. He’s clumsy, not real bright, and has no actual skills that really help him beyond his vast experience in playing video games. Basically, he’s exactly what most of us would be if suddenly yanked into a sword and sorcery style fantasy world. Utterly helpless, lost, confused, and useless.
The only advantage he has in this world is his ability to rewind time when he dies, allowing him to gather information, and enter the next time line with a bit more knowledge and understanding than he had before. It frequently takes him several deaths to sort out the best way forward, however, and those deaths begin to take a mounting toll on his psyche, eventually leading to a complete mental collapse that he only recovers from out of mindless rage.
All of this makes Subaru a relatable, realistic, and very compelling character, as he slowly works his way toward a goal he doesn’t even understand, at the behest of a power he openly fears.
Emilia, on the other hand, is more of a mystery. A skilled mage, and one of the contenders to take the throne of the nation the story is set in, Lugunica, Emilia bears more than a passing resemblance to the Jealous Witch of lore, Satella. In fact, most people consider her to be the reincarnation of Satella, and shun her based on this. Where the show gets troubling, is that she may actually be, as it appears to be Satella who has pulled Subaru into this world, and given him his ability to rewind time by dying, charging him with protecting Emilia at all costs.
As to whether or not Emilia is aware of any of this is not made clear. She may be truly ignorant of her connection to Satella, or she may just be putting on a false persona, using those around her. This mystery lies at the very heart of Re: Zero, and makes for a very compelling story, as Emilia is a very likeable character. Just not one you can ever bring yourself to fully trust.
This is made even more complicated by her familiar, Puck, a small cat like creature with an incredibly charming personality. Who also happens to be one of the most horrifying things in the entire show, capable of destroying the entire world if he so wishes. While Puck himself seems friendly enough, that whole destroy the world thing kind of casts more question on Emilia.
This story raises a lot of questions.
The cast later expands to include twin demons Rem and Ram, who play a huge part in Subaru’s character development, Rem especially. Initially suspicious of Subaru, she soon learns that whatever he may seem like, he’s actually a fairly decent person, and grows to care for him. As the story progresses, Rem becomes one of his staunchest allies, and a powerful force in his corner, due to her impressive command of demonic magic. Ram, on the other hand, never fully trusts Subaru, and is more loyal to the master both serve, Emilia’s patron, Roswaal Mathers.
Who is a whole other story in and of himself. A powerful mage, a count, and a generally suspicious person, his reasons for supporting Emilia’s bid for the throne are suspicious at best, nefarious at worst.
All of this dumps poor hapless Subaru into the middle of an intense power struggle of both magical and political meaning, all of which puts him ever farther out of his depth, leading him to making desperate decisions on many occasions.
Most of the story actually revolves around the contention over the throne of Lugunica, as each of the contenders via in their own ways, and hope for their own personal outcomes, ranging from transforming the nation into a totalitarian regime, to tearing it all down and instituting complete anarchy. Subaru must navigate each of the contenders at various points in his bid to save Emilia from not just assassins, but the insane cult that worships Satella.
Basically, Re: Zero is an incredibly dense story, with richly crafted characters, a plot that unfolds with increasingly dire stakes and depth, and an ever expanding mythology.
Where Konosuba is a slapstick comedy about a loser accidentally becoming a hero, Re: Zero is a fantasy horror about a loser choosing to become a hero. Which is just what Subaru does.
Where Kazuma just wants to live as comfortably as possible, Subaru actively chooses, at several points, to either be killed, or kill himself, so he can accomplish a larger goal, and while few will ever know just what extent he has played, or how noble his sacrifices get, as the story progresses, more and more people do begin to regard him as a hero worthy of admiration, due to the decisions he makes to put the good, and the needs, of others ahead of himself.
This is important because Subaru, in his old life, has a total slacker who didn’t want to do anything but play video games. That he chooses this path is more than a result of him being forced to relive days until he gets it right. It’s a choice he actively makes, not for himself, but for those around him, in order to help them, save them, protect them, or to just makes their lives better.
Whatever Satella’s plans for him, and whatever Emilia’s true nature, one thing that can never be questioned is Subaru’s growth as a character into a heroic figure that is worthy of respect.
In terms of animation, White Fox really outdoes themselves with this one. The world is rich, beautiful, vibrant, and moves with a stunning beauty and grace. The character designs are familiar, yet new and fresh at the same time. Every part of this show is stunning to watch, and easily one of the beautifully animated series I’ve seen in some time.
Re: Zero was directed by Masaharu Watanabe, who doesn’t seem to have a ton of director credits to his name, but has been a key animator for a very long time, working on shows ranging from Air, to Inuyasha, Full Metal Panic, Naruto, and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. So, he certainly knows what a show should look like, and does he ever bring that here. Re: Zero is beautifully directed, with striking visuals, atmosphere, and perfectly arranged shots. Every frame conveys a gripping story, even when nothing is happening.
Hiring Watanabe turned out to be a smart move, as his primary focus was on capturing the mood and themes of the original work as fully as possible, leading to the number of planned episodes being expanded mid production, just so it could do justice to the original work. This isn’t the kind of thing that happens very often, either, but apparently Watanabe went to the mat on this, and the show definitely benefited from him being in charge.
The writing was done, at first, by Mashiro Yokotani, who has worked on shows like Toradora, Free, and The Devil Is A Part Timer. However, the dense script soon proved difficult for him to handle alone, and Yoshiko Nakamura (Gekkan Shouko Nozaki-kun, Shounen Maid) was brought in to help out. By the second cour, both of them felt they weren’t enough, and a third scriptwriter was brought in, Eiji Umehara (Chaos;Child, Beelzebub) specifically to handle the most graphic parts, both emotionally and plot wise.
The combination of these three proves worthwhile, as the script never feels jumbled, the characters are consistent, and the story grows ever more dire and dark, with a strong and even hand. Personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing what these three could do left to their own devices.
The music was arranged Suehiro Kenichirō, who has worked on several shows in various capacities as a musician. Suehiro drew on his love of both Ennio Morricone and Hans Zimmer’s work to create a truly powerful soundtrack that enhances every scene, while also being powerful on its on. The music used for Subaru’s time rewind especially is haunting and beautiful, and the scores for the action scenes are truly epic. This one is a must own for fans of anime soundtracks for certain.
At every turn, the tale of Re: Zero is amazing, from it’s origin as a counterpoint to Konosuba, to it’s rocket like rise to fame, to the the diligence of White Fox in producing an anime worthy of bearing the tile Re: Zero. It’s a testament to kind of writing, world building, and character crafting that can take an age old idea and truly give it a new twist that is compelling an worth seeing.
Let’s just not tell Kazuma how much worse he could have had, yeah? He’s got enough to deal with with Darkness being a perv.
Though, that considered, maybe Subaru is the one who got off easy.