Reaper's Reviews: 'Re:Zero − Starting Life in Another World'
Production: White Fox
Format: 25 episodes
Release: April 4, 2016 - September 19, 2016
Source: Light novel
Originally, I was planning to make some comparison between Re:Zero and how the work most closely resembling it is the video game series Dark Souls, but after thinking about it for a while, I realized that it was too easy and too predictable.
Re:Zero is definitely the closest we'll ever get to Dark Souls: The Anime, however, which should already tell you what to expect here if you're even remotely familiar with From Software's flagship game series.
One of the many Isekai series to be born after the explosion of the genre, Re:Zero is a White Fox anime adaptation of the visual novels of the same name. I'm already saying that if you hate Isekai anime with passion, Re:Zero might try your patience.
But if you are willing to give it a go, well, you'll definitely be rewarded to an extent.
Story & Setting
Re:Zero does a wonderful job covering up its true colors for the majority of its first episode; our honestly idiotic protagonist Natsuki Subaru finds himself in a seemingly generic fantasy world in a typically Isekai fashion.
Natsuki’s general reaction to that sudden transition from his real-life home in Japan to Re:Zero’s fantastical world gives off the impression of what might be a savvy protagonist journey, as Subaru takes his relocation surprisingly well and rather enjoys the views over panicking about his current situation.
However all this is thrown out the window when Re:Zero makes it clear that Subaru’s quest is going to be far from an idealistic hero routine. By the end of the first episode most viewers will understand something: Subaru is stuck in a time loop.
Every time Subaru is killed he returns to what can be only be described as a “checkpoint” until he can solve the current time loop’s mystery and move unto the next one. Like a real video game, Subaru can only move forward by beating his current - often unknown - enemy, usually by utilizing stuff he learnt in previous lives.
Time loops are not something new in fiction, and not even in anime, where you got stuff like Steins;Gate and Higurashi, but Re:Zero’s usage of this plot device is pretty damn masterful, and helps shaking up the typical Isekai/game world formula.
Re:Zero uses its time reset “mechanics” mercilessly, showing how the most horrific of scenarios can play out given the smallest of missteps, while also viciously presenting its horrid side-effects on Subaru’s psyche; despite the fact that he can be revived constantly, death is never an easy thing for him.
There is always a sense of dread and gravity when Re:Zero brings out its big guns, and the question is never if, but when. When will the enemy strike? When will people get hurt? And most importantly, when will Subaru die once more? And Re:Zero also uses tons of hope spots to lure viewers in just when they think Subaru is in the clear.
There is so much good in Re:Zero’s main gimmick and its usage that I could spend a few more paragraphs talking about it, but unfortunately, the story in which this time reset occurs is far from perfect.
One of the main problems of the story is its lack of a clear goal. Subaru is hinted to have been transferred into this fantasy world by some ancient witch, but this plot point and his connection to her is often neglected and by the end of the season is still extremely vague.
There are some background events like a race to elect a new king - one of the candidates being Emilia, the main female lead - but even that is sidelined and is more of an excuse to introduce several new characters, deliver Subaru more misery and include another element that a mere 25 episodes can't cover.
By the end of the season I was wondering if there is some actual endgame to the whole story, if there’s some purpose to the events. Subaru himself doesn’t have any notable (valid) goals aside from not dying, wandering aimlessly in a narrative that lacks a tight and cohesive structure.
One could argue that this is forgivable because this is only a first season whose issues may be solved through future ones, but I’d argue that if even after 25 episodes a series has no idea what it exactly wants to do or where it plans to go, its writers need to stop for a moment and plan ahead or else we’ll get something like Bleach.
Another issue comes with how forced the story can come off at times, often sacrificing the consistency of its characters for that. There was a point halfway through where I started wondering if Subaru has done something horrible in past life, because the punishment he endures certainly feels like it, especially the third forth of the series.
The story tends to develop in such way that it would cause Subaru as much as grief as possible, often by dumbing Subaru down or introducing unnecessary adversaries for the sole purpose of starting another tragic time loop, and while I praised Re:Zero for how bold it is with its ruthless execution, I have to damn it for sometimes doing so in expense of Subaru's intelligence and the plot.
I definitely appreciate Re:Zero’s dark atmosphere and deceptive presentation, and while the two issues I mentioned do stop it from attaining some modern classic status, it’s saying something when the main plot device of the series manages to carry on most of its narrative’s problems.
Oh, and as far as unanswered questions go, there are still plenty by the end, but Re:Zero at least manages to give a proper ending to its current story arc.
Whether you like it or not, Natsuki Subaru is both the greatest asset and biggest fault of Re:Zero. The story constantly revolves around him, and it is through his successes and failures that the series either progresses or drags.
Re:Zero’s writer, Tappei Nagatsuki, once said that Subaru is a sort of antithesis to your usual Isekai protagonist a la Sword Art Online’s Kirito, and boy howdy, it shows. Only few characters in the anime medium has suffered like Subaru, who is deliberately portrayed as a boastful loser and hopeless failure hero whose punishment borders on being a cosmic plaything.
Due to the time loop, he is the one character who will always change, and the series does a terrific job at showing how heavy is the toll of being constantly resurrected after awful death scenes and even more horrible fates of his friends and allies.
All this leads to a heartbreaking mental breakdown later in the series, which in turn triggers his development to a more heroic and bold character who, while not as powerful as his fellow characters, makes up for it thanks to his on-spot thinking and risky strategies.
He does suffer from a bit of inconsistency as his own intelligence and common sense become somewhat of victims to either progress the plot or set the stage for another ungodly pain scene. Some scenes have him smartly manipulating the scenery and his own limited abilities to score a devastating attack on his current enemy, while in another he crashes an important meeting that sends him all downhill from here - because he couldn’t keep his mouth shut.
And of course, this is in part of the absolute worst aspect of his character: his utter devotion to Emilia. It just makes no sense and borders on stalker territory. I understand that Emilia was the first person to help him in the setting, but the more the series goes the more insignificance it becomes as his love for him becomes less genuine and more obsessive, when it becomes clear he loves the ideal image of her, not Emilia herself.
And my problem is how almost every single action Subaru takes is for or because Emilia, to the point that the entire second half of the series is kicked off because he… couldn’t keep a promise to her because he wanted to be by her side? See, this also ties to his idiocy. From what I understand, this is intentional by the author, but it eventually clashes with some of Subaru’s character traits.
The two other characters with considerable significance are the aforementioned Emilia and the maid Rem, both serve as love interests for Subaru. I don’t have much to say about Emilia, a beautiful half-elf lady who is integral to the setting’s future; she is rather cute, gentle and relatable with her troubles of being accepted by society, but while she is a motive for Subaru, by the end of the series she still doesn’t have enough substance to stand out.
Rem is the opposite; you’ve probably heard already about how people gash over and call her the series’ best female character, and it’s because she is. Starting off as a cold ice queen with immense detest for Subaru, their relationship gradually and naturally evolves over the course of the series despite the time loop.
This reaches the point where she is the one to pick up Subaru from his emotional breakdown, and going through one of the most heartfelt love confessions that easily sky-rockets her to the series’ breakout character. And she has more things going on for her, such as her tragic background and her actions as a child, as well as her more comical and easy-going moments.
The supporting characters beyond Emilia and Rem are very likable and memorable in their own right, regardless of their development, or rather lack thereof.
The sheer diversity in the characters is stunning, and each one of them has their own unique personalities and quirks that set them apart from each other, not to mention distinguished appearances and design. Except from one or two deliberate cases, every character is its own person.
For obvious reasons, their own development is pretty non-existent, but their relationships with Subaru - as well between each other - and how it sometimes plays out differently within each scenario makes them unforgettable, like a scene near the end of the series between our unlucky protagonist and two knights who started off mocking him, the feminine cat-boy Felix and the stern Julius.
And I just wish we could see more of them, from Rem’s twin sister Ram to the spirit Beatrice to the thief Felt. It’s rare to find an anime with so many interesting and likable characters, and I hope to see a second season utilizing that cast more.
Animation & Art
Re:Zero’s bright colors and vivid visuals work surprisingly well against the shadowed scenes and visceral violence of its darker areas. It uses the same technique as Madoka Magica and Hunter x Hunter 2011 by throwing its cutesy-designed characters and lash environments into a bloody and fiery terror show and the contrast helps showcasing how grievous the situation is.
The punishment inflicted unto Subaru is brutally portrayed and the art style always does a superb job showing it; from the muted color and thick pools of blood to Subaru’s terrified and pained expressions, Re:Zero isn’t shy about presenting its cold violence against our protagonist, nor against any other characters.
Characters can change their expressions into horrific ones with the drop of a hat.
As a White Fox project, Re:Zero keeps an overall high quality and consistent when it comes to animation. I already mentioned the facial expressions which are amazingly versatile, but this also extends to body movements and action scenes, despite Re:Zero is more of a thriller than a straight-up action flick.
The CGI used for several magical creatures such as "mabeasts" and the rideable earth dragons, however, is pretty subpar per the usual for most anime. I understand the need to save either money or time, but damn if those shots where animals running frenetically aren’t excessively jarring and stiff.
Audio & Sound
Re:Zero’s soundtrack is the kind of soundtrack that does nothing particularly new or experimental but is rich and memorable nonetheless because of how good it is. It is emotional, it is empowering and it is lovely and varied with different offerings that capture most of the scenes wonderfully.
Some tracks are those epic and bombastic musical explosions filled with dramatic drums accompanied by ominous or heroic vocals, and they blend so damn good when Re:Zero stands up from its usual depressive moments.
Other tracks are downright freaky and chilling thanks to either swift or broken usage of strings and Latin speech. Perhaps the only one track that feels tired is “Call of the Witch”, whose usage for every time something fishy arises makes it unbearable to listen to by the end of the series.
But of course the two tracks that stand out the most, at least for me, are the deliciously sinister “Theater D” sang partly in Japanese and partly in “Engrish”, and the absolutely soul-crushing “Requiem of Silence”; both pieces are amazingly done and as far as I’m concerned were two of the best anime tracks from 2016.
As far as opening and ending themes go, the strongest one is the first opener, “Redo” by Konomi Suzuki, which starts hauntingly (alongside beautiful animation and creepy distorted TV noises) before exploding with more pop tunes that assure you that you're unto a wild ride. I also grew to love both endings songs, “Styx Helix” and “Stay Alive”, especially since the former explores Emilia’s thoughts while the latter plays out during one of most unexpected time loop ends in the series.
At the time of this review there is an English dub, but it’s only halfway done; I have nothing bad to say on it, however, so if to base on the first twelve dubbed episodes, those who desire to watch the English dub version will have their patience rewarded thanks to the likes of relative newcomers such as Brianna Knickerbocker (Rem), Sean Chiplock (Subaru) and Kayli Mills (Emilia).
For those worried you also have more experienced voice actors like Kira Buckland (Beatrice), Erica Mendez (Puck) and Robbie Diamond (Reinhard), as well as the Japanese voice acting who as far as emotion and chemistry go, is fantastic.
For a second season (whenever that’ll arrive), Re:Zero needs to finally understand where it wants to take its story. With Subaru finally gaining significant character development by the end of this first season, Re:Zero’s chief problem is its lack of a clear direction that may hinder future continuations, regardless of how well-executed its main twist element is.
But even with its flaws in its main story and Subaru’s early actions that made a bizarre half-baked love triangle, Re:Zero is a highly entertaining series with strong moments and drama and lovely supporting cast. It’s no masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but it is captivating, intriguing and fun.
- Great usage of its time loop element
- Supporting cast is superb, especially Rem
- At his best, Subaru is sublime
- Story has no clear direction
- Subaru's early actions are painful to watch
- Some forced misfortune to create drama
& The Ugly:
- Rem sure is flexible...
As far as alternate recommendations go, the two best fitted to go hand in hand with Re:Zero are Higurashi: When They Cry and fellow White Fox production Steins;Gate.
Higurashi is less about a time altering 'mechanic' and more about different timelines piling up on each other, but it uses it excellently to deliver suspense and horror similarly to Re:Zero.
Steins;Gate works more similarly to Re:Zero with both protagonists having the ability to 'reset' time for their own needs, even if Subaru's time reset is more painful, but Steins;Gate is nonetheless one of the best anime around using time loop as a plot device.
© 2018 Raziel Reaper