#1 A fantasy world done right
Writing a fantasy story might sound easy: just set it in a vague, medieval country, throw in some elves and dwarfs, and think up some cool adventure. Whether it’s Tolkien, Dungeons & Dragons, or nowadays Game of Thrones, there is a lot of dry fantasy out there that has the familiar elements of beloved stories, minus all the heart and skill that went into their initial creation.
With Re:Zero it really feels like writer Tappei Nagatsuki was giving it his all. While the story is set in medieval times and has a lot of creatures that are undoubtedly borrowed from popular culture, once the show gets going it develops a feel all of its own. The world this story is set in has culture and history to it that shapes the way its people behave and interact with each other. And in his wisdom, Tappei decided to leave a lot of this unspoken, it just happens all around and the viewer takes it in via observation. Sure, sometimes characters explain things or tell stories, but it’s never unprompted or unnatural, this isn’t the kind of show where you have to sit through lengthy expositions before any of the fun stuff happens.
A good example is the early episodes, where the main character walks into a bar filled with Lizardmen (love me some Lizardmen!) and is promptly asked to leave because the bar is exclusive to them. It’s a short scene, yet it brings up a lot of questions. Are the Lizardmen(!) discriminated against and thus forced to go to bars run by their own or do they just prefer being around their own kind? Are there more half-human races and, if yes, can they be in the same bars as Lizardmen(!)? What kind of beer do Lizardmen(!) even like?
Re:Zero is good at bringing up questions like these simply by spending enough time actually showing off its world. In fact, a large portion of the story is about the succession of the throne, for which one of the main characters is a candidate. This entire storyline is interesting because it shows off the political system and the candidates represent what the people of the land value and would support. At the same time it shines an interesting light on the nobility and the knights of the land, who seem to be openly picking sides themselves. While I am happy with the way this adaptation ended, one of the primary reasons I want to see it get a continuation is just so I can figure out how this entire system is supposed to even work.
#2 And then there is Subaru
The story concerns Natsuki Subaru, who is a hikikomori, a person that has withdrawn from society. During a quick visit to a store his life makes a turn for the strange, as he crosses the street, only to find himself standing on the paved roads of the fantasy world described above, surrounded by merchants, city folk, demi-humans, and all the other, amazing stuff he read about in light novels and manga.
This setup has been popular in anime lately, with big names like Sword Art Online, Overlord, Gate, and Log Horizon featuring a story that is in many ways similar. Still, many of these series are about the hero, be it a warrior like Kirito or a strategist like Shiroe, quickly taking the reins and showing the fantasy world who is boss. While Subaru is eager to charge at it and become a hero, defeat monsters, and get all the ladies, the world is quick to smack him across the face. This isn’t the kind of story where Subaru gets everything handed to him, he is ill-prepared to attain the things he wants, and that makes him an interesting person.
Many anime fans, or geeks in general, probably harbor a secret wish to be transported to a fantasy world where the restrictive, grim reality of our own does not exist. Subaru has this wish granted and then realizes that the fantasy world has challenges of its own that he must overcome. And what do you need to be a success in medieval fantasy? Strength, bravery, arcane knowledge, skill, a keen mind, all qualities that aren’t exactly prominent in a social recluse. All Subaru has going for him is his willpower and the friends he forms around him, both of which help him bounce back from the many, MANY setbacks he faces.
#3 Oh yeah, and he can’t die
Subaru has one thing going for him, though at the same time it’s kind of a curse. By some bizarre magic, probably related to an ancient evil, Subaru can’t actually die. When he does, he awakes at a sort-of save point, which he has no control over. He retains all his memories of what happened, which is cool, but he also feels absolutely everything as he dies. And, well… some things you probably don’t want to remember.
Kind of funny how often shows about time travel turn out really well. Higurashi, Steins;Gate, Haruhi Suzumiya, The Girl who Leapt Through Time. What makes it work particularly well for Re:Zero is that Subaru meets Emilia, one of the candidates for the throne, and among those perhaps the most controversial due to her half-elf lineage. When Subaru becomes indebted to her and later becomes friends, he is drawn into the battle for the succession, and each arc has him attempt to prevent a plot, starting with the first arc where he tries to help Emilia reclaim a pendant that was stolen from her.
Powerful forces are working against him and, by all rights, he shouldn’t stand a chance. Subaru dies a lot, but through his deaths he is able to eventually formulate plans and overcome these hurdles, even when it sometimes pushes him to a breaking point. Each arc is a mystery and a puzzle at once, as you wonder how all the events tie together and how Subaru could ever hope to overcome them. I also just… really enjoy seeing him get the snot kicked out of him.
#4 Amazing cast of characters
As I debated with my friends about this show, the one thing we could all agree upon is that the characters really make it work. The world is populated with a large variety of people and being part of the race for the throne, Subaru is destined to meet some of the most powerful and influential of them. The striking character designs are sure to immediately catch your attention, be it the nearly symmetrical maid sisters Rem and Ram or the Dark Souls-like appearance of the bodyguard Al, but even after the first impressions are made they are quick to endear themselves.
I can’t really go into too much depth without outright spoiling some of the fantastic character arcs, so let me just say that I got teary-eyed on more than one occasion. Especially Rem, the blue-haired one of the two maid sisters, gets a lot screen-time and arguably more development than main character Emilia. Other surprising additions are the cat knight Felix Argyle, an elderly butler with remarkable fighting prowess, and the highly disciplined Julius, who becomes sort-of a rival to the much more informal Subaru. I am also not exaggerating when I say that the villain of the final act is probably one of the most entertaining bad guys in modern anime, and is brought to life by an absolutely stellar performance at the hands of Matsuoka Yoshitsugu. Funny how the guy that voiced the hero of Sword Art Online is now playing the bad guy in another person’s “lost in a fantasy world” story.
As I said before, I enjoyed the ending this anime got. It manages to play it in a way that doesn’t feel like a conclusion to Re:Zero as a whole, yet a satisfying ending to a part of it. Still, another reason I’d love to see a continuation would be to see more of characters like Al and his absurdly egocentric boss Priscilla, or the flamboyant Lord Roswaal. Heck, I even want more Subaru.
#5 Animation that delivers
White Fox has been consistently one of the best animation studios out there and for this show they had some amazing talent on board. While Masaharu Watanabe isn’t exactly a favorite of mine he really handled this production well, and at his side he had Kyuuta Sakai on character design and animation. Sakai is absolutely legendary, having done a similar job for my favorite anime, Higurashi: When They Cry, as well as other interesting titles like Rozen Maiden and Humanity Has Declined. His work in Higurashi shows in how utterly gruesome the many deaths of Subaru and friends are.
Like Higurashi, it’s a challenge to base a whole show around the idea that the main cast will die over and over again, without diminishing the shock of it happening. To counter this Masaharu and Kyuuta worked to make the deaths as brutal and sad as possible, often surprising me with how much they could get away with on the censored TV episodes already. Death always hits like a wrecking ball and, though viewers should know better, often comes unexpected.
A key in this is the emotion of the characters and Subaru in particular. Yuusuke Kobayashi came out of the left field and did an amazing job, as he manages to nail both Subaru’s wacky sense of humor, as well as the instances where he is reduced to a sobbing husk of a man. Subaru is traumatized, brutalized, watches loved ones die before his eyes, and often has nobody but himself to blame for a lot of it. Perhaps the best scene in the entire show has him snap and lash out at a friend, throwing a fit of barely intelligible rage. It’s perhaps the hardest scene in the entire show to watch and the cherry on top of an episode already filled with second-hand embarrassment, but that just goes to show how skillfully this entire show has been put together.