The isekai (parallel world) subgenre is one of the most common subgenres in anime and light novels now. All that’s really required is for it to have a main character transported into a fantasy world, which is pretty easy to do. The problem is that a lot of isekai anime end up as pretty generic wish fulfillment shows. That’s what Re:ZERO -Starting Life in Another World,- more commonly known as Re:ZERO, seems like at first, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
It starts as expected: a hikikomori otaku named Natsuki Subaru is suddenly transported to a fantasy world for no discernible reason. Being an otaku, he figures that he must be the chosen hero and goes around trying to find the main girl. He meets a girl looking for her stolen insignia, and while helping her he ends up getting killed. Subaru discovers that he has the power to “restart” whenever he’s killed. Like reloading in a videogame, he suddenly wakes up at a specific point a few hours to a few days before he gets killed.
Re:ZERO doesn’t make the best first impression. The dialogue early on leans toward repetitive and a lot of the humor isn’t particularly funny. Much of it revolves around Subaru repeating what someone just said in a dry tone, which gets old fast. Subaru himself is also somewhat annoying at first. He constantly points out every anime trope he sees and seems a bit full of himself. It’s amusing at first, but his act wears out its welcome pretty fast. Luckily, he gets more likeable as the show progresses. Subaru is a decent guy when he’s not trying too hard, and he has a self-deprecating sense of humor that makes him more charming. It also helps that the supporting cast doesn’t put up with his otaku antics at all and finds him just as annoying as the audience.
Most plots cut their main character at least some slack, excusing their mistakes or giving them a way out. Re:ZERO does not do this at all. Aside from his ability to go back in time whenever he dies, Subaru has no special abilities at all. He’s clueless about how the world he’s in works, mostly useless in a fight and has a disproportionately large ego. His only advantage comes from knowing what’s going to happen in loops he’s already gone through, and even that isn’t enough to help him when he keeps trying to be a hero. Much of what Subaru is able to accomplish involves getting more capable people in the right place at the right time, not fixing every problem himself. Subaru wants to be a hero, but not completely out of selflessness. As Emilia (the girl he meets early on) says, he’s more selfish than he claims. Subaru likes the idea of being a hero because that’s what he thinks he should do and because he thinks things will work out for him if he always does the “heroic” thing, which isn’t the case at all. His ego frequently gets him in trouble and sometimes causes problems for Emilia as well. Recklessly standing up for someone when you don’t understand the situation isn’t heroic, it’s stupid, and Subaru struggles to realize this. The story makes no excuses for this and his attitude regularly gets him and the people he cares about killed, often in brutal ways. Seeing this happen over and over takes it’s toll on Subaru and over time, he starts to realize that he isn’t some great hero or chosen one, and his presence isn’t enough to fix everything, especially when he charges in without thinking. The episodes where he goes through all this are genuinely hard to watch because the audience realizes that Subaru can’t fix anything on his own. His struggle with himself makes Subaru an interesting character and is one of the best parts of Re:ZERO.
Among the secondary cast, the two best characters are the twin maids Rem and Ram. The entire concept of having two cute twin maids sounds like a recipe for two bland waifus, but Rem and Ram both end up as interesting characters (Rem especially). They’re given actual backstories, a real relationship that doesn’t revolve around Subaru and their friendship with him is actually justified by what they all go through together. They’re even capable fighters, far more than Subaru. Rem can occasionally be a bit waifu-y (I know that’s vague but you know it when you see it) but she’s still an actual character and not just a trope. Subaru even ended up having more chemistry with Rem than Emilia, even though it was obvious that he wasn’t interested in Rem romantically. Going into more detail would involve spoilers, but Rem and Ram are a perfect example of how to use tropes well. The trope is still there, but it’s not all there is to their characters. The rest of the supporting cast is written the same way: tropes on the surface, but enough original personality to keep them interesting.
The time looping mechanic is also well used. It could have easily gotten repetitive or ended up undoing any character development outside of Subaru, but neither of those happen. The point the loop starts at moves forward as the series progresses, which allows the secondary characters to develop, and even the loops where Subaru dies at the end still reveal crucial details about the other characters. The show also makes sure to avoid getting redundant, and skims over scenes that have already been shown in previous loops so it can get to new content faster. All told, the time looping is used very well.
I don’t normally talk about this specifically, but the direction in Re:ZERO is excellent and deserves mention. Lighting is regularly used to create a stronger mood, and the soundtrack supports this very well. Some of the most impactful scenes happen with no music, which can be just as atmospheric as any soundtrack. The camera also avoids showing Subaru’s face in some key scenes to make the eventual reveal of his expression even more dramatic. Masaharu Watanabe hasn’t directed much before, but I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for his name in the future.
The action is also very well done. It’s not the main focus, but there are still plenty of action scenes (and plenty of blood). Subaru himself doesn’t fight too much, but most of the supporting cast gets good fights (especially Rem). Especially of note is a larger scale battle that occurs later on and does an excellent job of balancing all of the characters involved and giving everyone a chance to shine.
One of the few noteworthy problems in Re:ZERO is Betelgeuse, a fairly important villain introduced in the second half. He was framed as though he was supposed to be intimidatingly crazy, but the show was never able to completely sell it. He was too over the top and goofy to be intimidating and his mannerisms ended up being more irritating than scary.
Like many light novel adaptations, Re:ZERO has a read the novel ending. It’s not a cliffhanger on the same scale as something like Berserk, but it’s still somewhat frustrating since it left a few plot points and foreshadowed details unaddressed. A second season would help a lot, although who knows if that’ll ever happen.
The animation in Re:ZERO is generally high quality and is distinctly better than most of White Fox’s previous work. Most scenes are solidly done, and the action scenes are always impressive. It’s not on the level of Ufotable of Kyoto Animation, but it’s still very well animated. The character designs are generally okay as well, although Subaru’s face looks somewhat bland compared to the rest. The music complements the show well and includes haunting vocals that are used very well with the more disturbing content.
Overall, Re:ZERO demonstrates that a show doesn’t need to be limited by its’ genre. Instead of going the way of many isekai anime and novels, it focuses on developing its’ characters and keeps the lead interesting without making him a self-insert character. It’s easily one of the top anime of 2016 and I’m hoping for more in the future.
Re:ZERO is available for streaming on Crunchyroll, but hasn’t be licensed for distribution as of this writing.
Final Score: 9/10