I was reflecting on my drive home about anime that have made me legitimately angry. I think I cut out of Re:ZERO before I got to that point.
I don’t usually write posts about shows I dropped because negative criticism is A) hard, and B) not something I want to incorporate into my normal writing patterns, but in the case of Re:ZERO I think that it’s been long enough since I dropped the show that I can talk about it without working myself into a fury and that the case itself is interesting enough to merit talking about at length.
Let’s first establish a timeline: for me the final straw came in the sixteenth minute of the fifteenth episode of the show—to be precise, the moment Betelgeuse’s magic began to twist Rem’s limbs and neck around in inhumane and grotesque ways. Now, although I maintain deep dislike of body horror and brutal graphic violence (Rem’s fate qualified as both), this was not the sole factor in my decision to drop the show. Rather, it was the merely the breaking point for me after the small number of problems I’d had with the show since the beginning (but had been able to mostly accept) compounded on themselves starting with the first episode of the third arc of the show, episode 12.
Before I dive into specifics, I want to make one critical distinction. When I saw “problems I had with the show,” I mean specifically and precisely that. Do not mistake my coming criticisms of Re:ZERO as being directly specifically at the character of Subaru. The way I see it, the issues I want to talk about are structurally embedded into the show. Subaru may be the flash point, but I have no desire to make him alone the whipping boy. His show has done that job well enough already.
I think the beginning stage bothers of Re:ZERO do not need much explanation—generally speaking, I think most people understood them the same way I did. Subaru’s sort-of-fourth-wall-breaking-sort-of-not genre savviness often manifested itself in ways that were frequently obnoxious often feeling more like author-driven winks than an actual expression of his character. However, even this I personally found to have some nuance to it. Subaru at the end of the first arc drops into a weird stage-like persona when he asks Emilia her name and many other times leans into otaku-like behavior in awkward situations. Annoying or not, these antics I eventually came to see as bearable—sometimes even charming—coping mechanisms for a boy who just really, really liked a girl. Despite the artifact, I felt there was a genuineness to Subaru behind the mask. A heart behind the wink.
And thus, despite the essence of the show’s plot being something I didn’t much care for (post on that here), Re:ZERO and I got along pretty well through the end of the second arc, which concluded with some much appreciated sentimentality and warmth, despite the frustrations it had generated in the waiting. The “end of the puzzle” was thus satisfying enough to excuse the bumps of the journey there.
I would have preferred the show to maintain that structure rather than what came next. And I do confess, at the very least I appreciate that Re:ZERO appeared to make an attempt to avoid being just another light novel that has one or two fun arcs to start and then meanders into the lethargy of recycling its own premise over and over again. However, I can’t help but feel that this effort went of the tracks quite quickly—that is to say, it went about things in entirely the wrong way.
Although Subaru may be the nexus—he’s the protagonist, how could he not be?—of all this, I again want to emphasize that the third arc of Re:ZERO ultimately caused me to drop it not because Subaru is an insufferable idiot for most of it until he messes up so badly his sanity begins to slip. Rather, it was the way the show as a whole was built up around this bumbling, messed-up kid and the effects of those choices that induced a “rage quit.”
Perhaps central to all this is the idea that Subaru “deserved” everything he got. In one sense, this is true. The painful, eventually awful, things that happen to Subaru are without exception direct consequences of his actions. His fight and eventually distancing from Emilia? Subaru’s fault, despite the explanations that might be given for his outburst and progressively nastier words. Rem’s death at the end of episode 14, when he stumbles on her corpse in the courtyard? Subaru’s fault, for insisting that they leave the capital when they were told not to do so. Heck, even the whole conceit of the arc—Emilia at home, at risk—develops because Subaru wouldn’t just stay in and rest in as Emilia gently and insistently asked him to do.
On the other hand, though, this kind of cosmic viciousness in response to Subaru’s actions is… well, I find it fundamentally disturbing and misguided. I do not think Re:ZERO deserves props for identifying Subaru’s behavior as wrong: the logical extrapolations from his conditions to his actions (particularly if they are intended to function as a composite of LN protagonists for critique) are not satisfying to me. Perhaps they are for others. To put it in a rather tongue-in-cheek way, “All I will say is that…if Emilia told me to stay in my room and wait for her to come back…I would do that…”
Taken at face value, yes, that quote is unfair. I am not Subaru—and, again, there are arguments that can and have been made for why Subaru’s attachment to her grew so quickly and so poorly. The larger point is that at some point the show is responsible for drawing the arc of Subaru’s dysfunction in a coherent way. This I do not believe it ever did in a meaningful way. We catapult from Subaru having a touching moment with Rem at the end of the second arc (the fact that this moment is with Rem and not Emilia further emphasizes the gap—at some point the emotional wires got crossed) to a Subaru who responds to Emilia’s earnest entreaties with deaf ears.
Frustrating to watch on a basic level—even more so when his stubbornness seems merely to be folded into “Subaru acts rashly.” Somehow we have gone from Subaru wanting a date with Emilia (completely parseable via the show up to that point) through an arc in which his main immediate motivations are a) survive himself, b) save the children, c) save Rem and protecting Emilia is left as a vague idea that we can of course believe, but that is not stated, all the way to Subaru being unable to keep himself out of Emilia’s affairs. To me his complete insistence on joining Emilia was not justified within the story despite aligning with the obnoxiousness principle. In other words, I think it would have been more believable for Subaru to have listened to Emilia. But of course, he doesn’t, and so we move on. This is still digestible.
The end of episode 13 has been much praised, and many of the reasons offered I find convincing. Emilia assertively, kindly, and thoughtfully attempts to understand Subaru’s feelings, and ultimately stands up for herself in a display of agency like none she’s been granted before or since to end things. This is all good, as is the clear drawing out—in personal terms—why Subaru’s behavior is not only self-serving, but destructive. I didn’t enjoy this confrontation because of the reasons given above regarding the build-up to it, but at the very least I respected what it was doing, even if I felt the place Subaru ultimately ended up was perhaps too far distant from anything we’d previously seen from his character to feel emotionally logical to me.
While it was annoying to see Subaru’s story override what ostensibly began as an arc about Emilia, that was nothing compared to the fact that the sneering Subaru who utters “You should have a greater debt to me than you could ever repay” frankly feels like he emerged from an entirely different show. And, hold, I hear the objections already. There are valid metatextual reasons for this to occur—that vile entitlement, pettiness, selfishness, and cruelty are without doubt recognizable products of the rationalizing, guilt-refusing attitudes Subaru holds. But for them to be expressed in such an outburst within only two episodes of the arc’s start felt like the show had jumped ahead of itself in eagerness to achieve an emotional impact and some sort of commentary.
Though perhaps it says more about me that I felt all along that Subaru was at heart a good person who tried hard for others (remember “I’ve honestly never tried so hard at anything in my life”?) and that a heart like his, however battered, would never contort itself so quickly into such an inhuman form. I am not convinced my unhappiness on this point is the fault of my bias, but I offer up the self-reflection nonetheless. The eternal disappointment of one who believes in the fundamental goodness of humans, I suppose.
Confrontation of biases that may or may not be at work aside, the point is that the incongruence I felt in Subaru’s character is arguably in service of a larger point. But the shows that best blend characters and commentary do so in a way that allows such thematic weight to organically grow out of its narrative elements (see Concrete Revolutio for the best recent example of this via character, or SDF Macross for an old example of this via setting). But I could have accepted a little fault here had Re:ZERO followed up the pivotal encounter with the plot beats that really needed to follow it.
At its core, Subaru’s dysfunction is a relational one. His tragic flaw may be “Pride” (incidentally, I rather resented this play at a larger superstructure of context for his issues), but the victims of his attitudes are other people.
In other words, if Subaru is to learn, if he is to be “fixed” as the show set established through the entirety of episode thirteen, “Self-Proclaimed Knight Natsuki Subaru,” then the way that it needed to be fixed was in a relational setting. Up through the end of this episode, the consequences for Subaru’s actions are, even including his beatdown by Julius, relational in nature. He insults the knights, and is subject to their retaliation. He snaps at Emilia, and she cuts ties with him. Thus, the path to redemption must necessarily occur through a similar relational structure. Subaru needs to learn humility, respect for others, and how to listen. And learning relational skills requires being around people. The path for Re:ZERO to take, in my opinion, was crystal clear.
Well, we wound up quite a long ways from there, now didn’t we?
At last, we arrive at the fundamental structural issue of the third arc. Putting aside the fact that there’s a certain level of unavoidable(?) hypocrisy in the fact that an arc seemingly designed to deconstruct Subaru’s selfishness ends up focusing on him to the exclusion of all else (including the immense good of destructive warpath empress-elect Felt), the plunge into the external plot, rather than the character-based plot, following Subaru and Emilia’s fight was felt as if Re:ZERO had seen a way to resolve the arc sensitively and meaningfully, turned 180 degrees, and sprinted the opposite way as fast as possible. I don’t really even mean that hyperbolically—that’s really just how I felt when Subaru got tongue-lashed by Crusch and the bombshell that Emilia was in danger (again…) dropped. And for this to then end with Rem twice dead, Emilia presumedly also so once, and Subaru insane? What the heck does that tell us about Subaru? Nothing at all.
You know what would have actually undermined Subaru’s attitudes? For Emilia to never have been in danger at all. Or for him to arrive with Rem to find that Emilia and Roswall had eliminated the danger without so much as disturbing a flower in the garden. And then to proceed into relationship drama in which Subaru must contend with the consequences of his actions at the meeting of candidates. But instead we got Big Plot Things, and this created two issues: one somewhat acceptable and one entirely not.
The somewhat acceptable one is that Subaru’s agony suddenly increases exponentially in magnitude from the severity of his actions. All the terrible stuff he goes through and the resultant strain on his mental and emotional state is derived from bad, but not ultimately evil decisions. All those character logic thorough lines I dismissed as faulty before? Now is the time to trot those out to demonstrate that Subaru is not evil—and, as such, doesn’t deserve the trials inflicted on him as punishment for his actions. You don’t light your kitchen on fire to kill a few gnats. And even if he was evil, I’d have serious moral issues with saying this kind of universe-inflicted torture is a valid way of condemning him.
But even that might have been something I could stomach. What I could not was the way the choice to bring in the overworld plot impacted every other character around Subaru. Rem, in particular, suffers the greatest indignity, as Re:ZERO kills her once to make Subaru suffer and then wounds her, twists her body in awful ways, and makes her confess her love to him and die in his arms. Emilia dies at least once. Ram dies protecting a child. The village is sacked, graphically.
Let me break with an image here so you can start the next, critically important, paragraph with a clear mind.
If the point of this arc is that Subaru suffers because his actions cause the people he cares about to die, the mechanism of this arc for making Subaru suffer is inflicting horrific graphic violence on those same people. I quit the arc before Rem confesses to Subaru and dies, but I read about it later. I did not need heroic Rem die to know that Subaru is in the wrong. Perhaps Subaru suffers most in this, but the violence being inflicted on other characters to force his development is inexcusable—even more so since he apparently continues to not learn, thus prolonging the cycle. I dropped Re:ZERO because I will not watch the show physically mutilate the characters around Subaru in order to punish him and maybe-sometime-in-the-future teach him. If there is a point to be had, it has been utterly lost along the way. If Re:ZERO wanted to communicate a larger point about the destructiveness of Subaru’s attitudes, it has failed.
To lighten things for a moment and to introduce another check on my own biases, I did consider the possibility that my reaction here is drawn primarily from the fact that it is cute anime girls on whom this violence is being enacted. To be quite frank, unlike in the other case, I can’t honestly say that I don’t know. It is a factor. But is it the only factor? I don’t think so. While it being Rem, the adorable round-headed maid, who is physically contorted undeniably increases my aversion, I am convinced that the same base reaction would exist—and that the arguments I’ve made to this point still stand solid.
So it was the final straw, but—as I hope I’ve show—not the only one. It was the intolerable cap on a tower of irritants, and the whole thing tumbled.
It should be noted that all this is mostly based on the most charitable reading of Re:ZERO possible—that it attempted to make a valid, even important, point and just messed up badly enough on the way, bad enough that I dropped it. Despite the mistake, the attempt itself can be respected and appreciated. The other way to look at Re:ZERO is far less pleasant. If the idea of all this was never to make a point, then the story suddenly looks warped and cruel. Subaru is tortured for the sake of being tortured, Rem dies for him because it’s dramatic, and everything I disliked for being misdirected exists not because of an honest failure, but because of spite. I’d rather not consider that possibility, though. It’s both far more upsetting and far more disturbing.
However, although I’d rather believe Re:ZERO just wound up a poor shot than a deliberately malevolent, it’s still not something I care to watch. The show just wound up so far off base—from both an in-show character arc standpoint and a possible theme standpoint—that I just can’t and won’t watch anymore. I though that perhaps I might come back if the arc ends and we go back to Felt Destroys the Kingdom Time, but I both suspect that time will never come and that even if it did the implications of the resolution of this arc would be too aggravating for me to comfortably proceed.
So that’s the story of why I dropped Re:ZERO. I hope I’ve explained myself in a way that invites conversation and demonstrates that this decision was not simply a hot-headed, illogical gut-reaction. I said at the outset of this post that I think negative criticism is really hard, but I’ve attempted here to provide an example (although it perhaps wound up overlong) of the kind of thing I’d like to see more of when people talk about things they dislike or drop. Not that anyone is obligated to talk on such subjects, but at the very least I hope I’ve modeled effectively the type of negative critical writing I personally am most keen on reading. Thanks for staying to the end.