#1 A well-balanced isekai
Natsuki Subaru is a Japanese teenager that was living a pitiful life without a shred of excitement to it. That all changes when a routine visit to pick up greasy snacks at the convenience store suddenly concludes with Subaru standing on the paved road of a medieval fantasy city. In the literal blink of an eye, he has been teleported to another world.
Recognizing this scenario from light novels and anime, Subaru, of course, assumes he’ll be a powerful main character. However, he soon finds out that he is just as unremarkable as he was in Japan, and winds up stumbling around the city in confusion and desperation. When he then ends up mugged in an alleyway, a mysterious half-elf girl swoops in to rescue his sorry ass.
While Re:Zero does have elements of wish-fulfillment and allows Subaru some moments where he gets to feel powerful, loved, and appreciated, these usually come at the end of a long road of hardships for him. He stumbles in everything he tries to do, he alienates people, loses friends, ends up publicly embarrassed, lethally wounded, and conned many times over, yet keeps trying to make this new life work out, even though he knows he squandered these very same opportunities back in Japan.
Perhaps my favorite scenes in the story are the moments where Subaru is confronted with his own shortcomings by other characters snapping at him and how this doesn’t always inspire immediate change in him. Several times Subaru is reminded that he is a foreigner in Lagunica, yet hasn’t made any effort to learn of its culture and people. While this sometimes comes in handy, many times over he ends up deeply insulting characters by trying to talk a big game and not understanding the ramifications of his own words.
Subaru’s struggles are the central focus of Re:Zero, to the point that entire episodes are dedicated to him trying to mentally cope with his problems, new and old. It really digs into his character and explores what it would really be like if a person like him were to end up in a fantasy realm.
#2 Every character has mystery to it
The moment Subaru arrives in this fantasy world and finds himself wandering around the streets of the kingdom of Lagunica, he begins stumbling his way into befriending various people that take pity on his dire situation.
What Re:Zero does well is that every relevant side-character and, of course, the main cast, is made immediately interesting. There is an immediate hook to characters like Reinhard van Astrea, Emilia, Roswaal, or the twin maids Rem & Ram. The show gets you wondering what they might be about and slowly develops these characters over time, while always leaving some lingering questions that keep you looking for answers.
There was not a single character in the story that I actually disliked and screen-time is distributed fairly to make sure nobody in this interesting cast is absent for too long. Even more remarkable, the show often plays around with familiar tropes that many may find recognizable, only to then develop these in clever, new directions that catch the audience off guard. Even Subaru, unlikable otaku dipshit that he is, ends up developing into a respectable and intriguing protagonist over the course of this adventure.
#3 Great use of time looping
Subaru has no amazing magic and a lifetime of gaming & watching anime has left him physically useless. He is also not exceptionally intelligent and certainly not charismatic enough to cheat his way through life. What he does have is a bizarre gift likely related to the world’s most-feared villainess: he can return to life after dying.
When Subaru dies, he awakens at a checkpoint earlier in the story and retains all his memories, yet also feels every bit of pain that came with dying. It’s not a pleasant experience for him and not a great cop-out to get him out of trouble. Sure, it permits him to figure out plots too complicated for him to immediately understand and gives him multiple chances to stop bad guys beyond his actual capability to foil, but it also weighs on his psyche and begins to visibly drive him mad. Who can blame him? The guy is repeatedly subjected to torture and watches his beloved friends die over and over again, always falling just short of managing to prevent it.
What hurts Subaru the most is that his friends don’t share his ability to remember previous loops. His happy memories with people like the twin maids, the initial encounter with Emilia that sees Subaru fall in love with her, and many other beautiful moments are undone when he passes away. Only Subaru remembers them and the isolation this causes tears him apart. Nobody can ever truly understand what he is going through and the influence of the great evil responsible for it prevents him from explaining it.
His inability to cope with this makes him suspicious, as he becomes desperate to have his experiences validated. To someone like Emilia, it’s bizarre to suddenly meet this stranger with no verifiable background who is utterly devoted to helping her, because the loop in which she saved his life and earned his admiration has been erased. While I do feel characters don’t question Subaru quite enough, this power gives him enough trouble and lends itself to enough emotional drama to compensate for that.
#4 Compacted storylines
Watching through Re:Zero, it always felt to me like I could pinpoint exactly where one volume of the light novel ended and another began.
Each story arc presents Subaru with a problem to overcome. In the first case, he ends up meeting Emilia and learning of her stolen pendant. He vows to help her retrieve it, yet discovers he is not the only one after it and is woefully underpowered to overcome his competition. That storyline consumes the first 4 episodes of the show, after which the setting moves away from Lagunica proper to a mansion out in the countryside. As Subaru begins a new life there and finally scores a date with Emilia, he suddenly finds himself waking up one day, realizing that time has once again reverted to his first day in the mansion.
Each story arc is fun and has its own novel twists, but I also like how each one is so neatly compartmentalized. You can watch a few episodes and get a satisfying conclusion to one amazing storyline, after which you can call it quits or move on to the next one. This has also made this a fun show to introduce to other people, as you can get a pretty solid idea of what it’s about by the first arc.
#5 Racism & Politics
After first arriving in Lagunica, Subaru ends up meeting and falling in love with Emilia. He doesn’t think too much about her place in the world or about her being a half-elf, even going so far as to comment that he finds elves cute, which eh… causes some problems down the line.
After the first story arc, Subaru is told that Emilia is a candidate for the now-empty throne of Lagunica and in competition with several other potential heirs. However, Emilia is the least-popular candidate, because that ancient evil I alluded to earlier is a half-elf witch with silver hair, which every single person in the nation is fearful of. And one look at the other possible candidates betrays just how deeply that racism against her people runs.
Subaru has no connection with Lagunica and can’t comprehend this racism, which leaves him infuriated whenever somebody comments that her participation in the election is ridiculous or that she has no chance of winning. He lashes out at people and tries to shame them, only to find that this belief is so deeply rooted that he ends up being the weird person people take issue with.
Re:Zero is far from done and a second season is scheduled for this year, which will likely delve further into Emilia’s candidacy for the throne. What is here, however, is already plenty intriguing and offers a lot of food for thought. I was fortunate to grow up in a more enlightened era and society, which made the depictions of racism here quite shocking to me. To see Emilia work hard to still have a shot at winning this political race is encouraging and an underdog story like few others. It reminds me of Eagle in all the right ways.