Modern life kinda sucks, doesn’t it? Capitalism disenfranchises entire populations and exploits the poor to make the rich even richer. Technology has made us alienated and miserable. Politicians and the media have created a cycle of perpetual anxiety and outrage. Millions of people struggle with debt, mental illness, and addiction. But what if you could get away from all that and start over? What if you could live a life free from the shackles of society, in a fantasy world where you can be anything you want to be? What would you do to have this, and what would you be willing to sacrifice?
Re:Zero – Starting Life in Another World took the anime community by storm back in 2016, and it hasn’t lost any steam in the four years since then. It’s arguably the most popular isekai series around right now. But there are just as many people who think the series is generic shlock with an over-reliance on gore and an unlikeable protagonist. I would know: my first time watching Re: Zero, I got halfway through before I nearly dropped the show out of frustration with its lead, Subaru Natsuki. But I’m glad that I stuck with it, because I eventually realized that while Re:Zero appears like just another isekai story at first, it’s actually – secretly – kind of a masterpiece.
To explain this, I want to talk about a question that seems obvious, but is actually quite complex and confounding: What is Re:Zero about? On the surface, it’s about the same thing every isekai story is about: a young otaku protagonist is sent to a video game-esque fantasy world, gifted a unique and overpowered ability, and sent on a quest to conquer the evils of the land while winning fame, glory, and a harem of hot babes in the process.
Except, well, it’s not really like that at all. The Kingdom of Lugunica, the setting of Re:Zero, has many of the same political and social problems as our own world. The ability our hero gains, Return by Death, is actually a curse from an evil witch. The ladies, while definitely attractive, have their own personalities and goals that often clash with Subaru’s. And Subaru dies, constantly, due to his own weakness, selfishness, and stupidity, until he learns to accept his own limitations and work to become the hero he always wanted to be. Re:Zero is not just any old isekai – it’s a horror/fantasy/coming of age story about a flawed teenage antihero learning the violent and painful struggles of growing up.
But while Re:Zero is definitely Subaru’s story, I want to come back to him in a bit and talk about the outstanding worldbuilding and supporting cast. While most isekai series drop its heroes into a world tailor-made for their own benefit, the Kingdom of Lugunica is a socio-political clusterfuck not unlike that of our own world. There’s massive inequality and discrimination against demi-humans is rampant. The government is run by a bunch of corrupt pencil pushers who would rather argue amongst themselves than do anything to solve their nation’s problems. And there is an enemy from within: a death cult of religious fanatics who are also basically incels. The world of Re:Zero is massive and complex, though you need to read the novels to get the full scale of it, and it goes a long way in making its story and supporting characters truly shine.
And the characters are all great. Emilia has everything you’d want in a strong female lead – she’s pure-hearted and only wants the best in everyone, but tough as nails in combat and not afraid to put her foot down when she’s treated unfairly. Ram is an under-appreciated master of sass who goes out of her way to help others even when they don’t ask for it. Ferris is the most adorable crossdressing cat-boy in the universe and has become something of an icon in the trans community. And Rem – well, there’s a reason that there are so many overpriced figurines of her. She’s gorgeous and has arguably the best character arc outside of Subaru himself. Watching her grow from an insecure and ill-tempered demon maid to a confident and loving heroine is so damn heartwarming.
Of course, none of this matters if the series doesn’t have a hero that the audience can relate to and cheer for. So here’s my big hot take: I think Subaru Natsuki is a fascinating and genuinely underrated protagonist. He may not be strong, sympathetic, or even likable at first, but that’s kind of the point. Subaru is a reflection of our own deepest fears and insecurities, and an example of how we can recognize and overcome them to become the best possible versions of ourselves.
I get the hate directed towards him. I really do. For most of the series’ early arcs, Subaru is kind of a dick. As an otaku shut-in raised on escapist media, he comes into Lugunica with a weird mixture of cluelessness and entitlement. He knows nothing about how this world works, but expects it to cater to all of his needs anyway. He’s oblivious to social customs and other people’s feelings, and constantly makes dorky pop-culture references that go over everyone else’s heads. He falls in love with Emilia despite knowing almost nothing about her, and that shallow infatuation gets extremely possessive and creepy during the Royal Selection arc. As he sank deeper into despair, I couldn’t help but think, “Why doesn’t this lazy, selfish idiot ever get the slightest modicum of self-awareness, realize that the world doesn’t revolve around him, and use his unique abilities for others and not just for his own benefit?”
Subaru Natsuki isn’t just some dorky Japanese kid transported to another world. He is the hikkikomori in all of us, the product of a world that is so hard to thrive in and so damn easy to escape. He’s anyone who, due to mental illness or an inability to function in society, has locked themselves in their bedroom and spent years of their life in a fantasy of their own mind. He’s anyone who’s had a stronger attachment to the fictional characters on their television or computer screen than the living, breathing human beings they share the Earth with. And no matter where Subaru goes, or what he does, he’s just going to have the same problems over and over again until he realizes that and makes a genuine effort to change and connect with others.
And when he finally does, in Episode 18, it floored me and made me a bawling mess. Subaru finally admits all of his problems to Rem – his pride, his jealousy, and his laziness, and it’s more brutal for him than all of his deaths put together. But Rem (BEST GIRL FOREVER) tells him she doesn’t see him that way. For all of his weakness, Rem recognizes his strengths – his resourcefulness and unmatched bravery in battle, his ability to see in others what they can’t see in themselves, and his selfless dedication to protect all of his friends. Sure, Subaru is an otaku hikki-NEET, but he embodies all that communities’ strengths as well as their weaknesses. While he can only think of himself as a pathetic mess, Rem thinks of him as a hero – the kind of hero he always wanted to be.
I’ll be honest: I see a lot of myself in Subaru, or at least myself when I was younger and still in the closet. I was bullied and ostracized a lot as a kid, and after a while I looked for anything I could find to escape my own reality. I started binge drinking, got addicted to drugs, spent thousands of hours playing video games in the dark, and got too emotionally attached to girls who were clearly wrong for me. It took years of slow, painful, sobering growth for me to realize how miserable I was and try to change myself for the better. I’m not anywhere near where I want to be yet, but at least now I’m trying. Watching Re:Zero helped me remember how far I’ve come, and how I can work harder to make myself a stronger, kinder, and braver person.
Re:Zero is not perfect, and it’s not necessarily a series I’d recommend to just anyone. Compared to the breezy tone of most isekai, its dark, psychological vibe can be a real turnoff to casual audiences. The pacing can be inconsistent at times, and I think the series does go a bit overboard in making Subaru so unlikeable before his character development kicks in. But for my money, there is no other isekai series I’ve seen with as much intrigue, personality, depth, and raw emotion. If you somehow haven’t seen it yet, or even if you have and didn’t particularly care for it, try watching it again with an open mind. You might find that you end up liking the series a lot more than you thought you did at first.
And if you still find you just can’t deal with Barusu’s constant bumbling? Well, that’s fair. I don’t blame you.