Re: Zero - A Cycle of Hope & Despair
Life, what is it really, if not an endless cycle of good and bad, love and hate, hope and despair. That is Re: Starting Life in Another World from Zero (Re: Zero from here on out) a nutshell. Howdy everyone, today I'm going to be talking about an anime that left me feeling tense, depressed, hopeful and satisfied. Oh, and there will be minor spoilers!
Okay, so after that oversimplification I’m sure you’re curious just the heck Re: Zero is actually about, especially if you’ve managed to miss any mention of the breakout anime over the past few months. First things first, when it comes to anime, there are quite a few overused tropes and settings—protagonists being protected by plot armor, and/or being transported to another world and bestowed with special (and sometimes excessive) powers to fight against some great evil, or getting trapped in a video game, or effortlessly bringing together a harem of women by being nice well…the list goes on and on and I’m losing you, aren’t I?
Anyway, back to Re: Zero. You see, when I first started the anime I thought it would be another run-of-the-mill trapped in another world story, complete with a generic main character who’s ridiculously overpowered, a bland, colorful-haired love interest, and a forgettable villain that the mc eventually defeats. I was pleasantly surprised that this was not the case with Re: Zero. This is a show that uses the tired “transported/trapped in another world” trope, but what it does with it is almost a deconstruction of the idea as a whole. Or at least, a fresh take on it.
We meet Natsuki Subaru, our protagonist as he’s transported from the real world of Earth and his home country of Japan to a foreign, fantasy world.
Him being the shut-in otaku he is, after overcoming the shock of being transported to another world, rather quickly I might add, he pulls on his vast knowledge of similarly plotted anime and manga (yes, yes very meta), and comes to believe he is to be a hero in this bizarre new world.
That is until he has his butt handed to him by a few thugs in an alley (though he does put up a bit of a fight), and he is saved by the ashen-haired beauty that is Satella, or rather Emilia and her familiar, the feline-looking spirit, Puck.
Emilia quickly fills the role of main heroine, what with her saving Subaru while in the midst of dealing with her own problems. A very important trinket of hers was stolen and while chasing the thief, she comes across Subaru getting jumped in the alley and the confrontation ends with him fainting while she saves him. Though, he does wake up to the "lap pillow" he spends a lot of the show shamelessly desiring...though to be fair, it's not Emilia's lap.
Once the rescue is out of the way, our oh-so-generous protagonist makes it his mission to help Emilia in any way he can, to pay her back for saving him. She accepts his help, begrudgingly in my opinion, but the two warm up to one another as time passes, and they track her stolen item to the slums. They find the thief trying to sell Emilia's trinket for a big payday, and Subaru works to worm his way into the negotiations. He does, but when Elsa Granhirte, the other interested party makes an appearance things take a turn.
And when I say things take a turn, I mean a complete 180. Prior to this little meeting, the tone of the show was light-hearted and funny, but when Elsa shows up, and her patience wears thin with how things are going, you almost get whiplash from the abrupt change in tone when she pulls out blades in order to just kill everyone and take what she wants.
This of course leads to *SPOILER* the death of everyone in the meeting place, including Emilia and our boy Subaru.
This results in Subaru discovering that after he dies, he has the ability to return to a previous point in his past, a "save point," if you will. He wakes up no longer in the meeting place that lead to his death, but the town square he was first transported to. While the rules of these save points are never clearly explained, it is clear he retains memories from before being killed, but no one else does. So, that means all the time he spent with Emilia before being killed is erased, except for in Subaru's mind. He's nothing but a stranger to her now, and he realizes this the hard way.
This begins that good and bad, love and hate, hope and despair cycle I spoke on earlier. Re: Zero does a painstakingly great job at allowing you to watch Subaru learn, little by little from the experiences he gathers when dies and resets at a save point, or "returns by death," as he puts it. You get to watch as this 17-year-old guy tries to earn the trust of those around him, while navigating a world that boasts magic-wielding humans, half-elves, cat-people, humanoid reptiles, talking animals and bowel-loving psychopaths...I mean Elsa. Whether it's to save the girl he likes, to make himself stronger or just to survive and get a better understanding about what's happening to him, you see Subaru make choices that, as a viewer seem asinine and incomprehensible. But, in the world he's living in, being utterly powerless and at the mercy of those with power, the choices he makes don't seem as bad. Still, he is a character that constantly acts in a way that almost always makes things worse, and changes people's perception of him, and not for the better.
The combination of Subaru's young age, pride, immaturity, relatively low level of intelligence and lack of skills is summed up by the man himself in the very first episode:
Despite being aware of his shortcomings, he constantly reinforces the lackluster and outright unlikable parts of his personality, including being so prideful that almost everyone turns their back on him at one point or another. However, if you had to endure dying countless times, while watching those you came to care about die alongside you and were unable to do anything to stop it, and not knowing why it's all happening in the first place, I think that would break most people irreparably. One thing I can say about Subaru is that he doesn't ever fold, not completely at least. He fights with all his meager might, and even prevails at times, but his pride is a constant pitfall for him, and makes him a character you almost don't want to root for.
I don't say all this not to make you want to watch the show; quite the opposite actually. While many of Subaru's decisions and actions rub many viewers the wrong way, I'd be hard pressed to say that I'd do it different. I mean, he's a smitten teenager, who's trying to stand by the side of a heroine who's stronger than him and doesn't really need him, in world where he's virtually powerless and constantly has to suffer and/or die horrible deaths, only to repeat it all over again. Like I said, it's an endless cycle, but when you o reach the end of the line, you're stronger for it.
Buuuut, there's a lot of up and down (down more so than up) to go through before the conclusion is reached. And I mean a LOT of downs. It's a rough journey, but definitely one that is worth it.
Nonetheless, there is light at the end of the tunnel!