Subaru Natsuki: The Best and Worst Thing About Re:Zeroby Jacob Chapman,
Spoiler Warning: This article contains spoilers through episode 18 of Re:Zero.
Re:Zero is definitely the kind of anime that draws polarized feelings out of people. Right off the bat, it's based on a series of "transported to a fantasy world" light novels, aka the most oversaturated genre in the business these days. Then its double-length first episode launched into endless "meta" commentary from its genre-aware protagonist, wads of worldbuilding exposition, and some incredibly strained attempts at humor that even stopped major fight scenes dead in their tracks. Any viewers with an allergic reaction to any of these questionable quirks got out early at lightning speed. But the fans who stuck with it? They adore Re:Zero. The cult fervor for this show easily matches or even surpasses any other anime to come out this year. It's difficult to find many lukewarm takes on Re:Zero one way or the other, giving it the strong scent of a "love or hate" experience even before the show's first season has wrapped up.
I guess you can blame this canyon between reactions on any number of things. Some people love the elaborate isekai lorebuilding, while others will find it exhausting or bloated. Some people find its unique style of dialogue endearing, while others will find it interminable. Some people find its bewildering twists intriguing and spontaneous, while others think this approach makes the story feel directionless and slow-paced. You could fill up a whole different article with any of these arguments, but one thing about the show stands out to me above all else: let's just talk about Subaru.
True to his nature as a chuunibyou NEET just itching to tap on the fourth wall whenever he can, Subaru Natsuki is the best and worst thing about Re:Zero from both inside its world and outside it.
After getting magically transported to the fantasy world of Lugunica, it doesn't take Subaru long to realize that he's been given some truly immortal powers over time and space. Every time he dies, he wakes up at a preset "checkpoint" sometime in the past, like starting a stage over and over in a video game until he figures out how to get to the next "level" of major events in his life. Subaru isn't sure what goal he's headed toward, but this cycle of death and rebirth seems to revolve around the progress of Emilia, the beautiful girl he fell for after she rescued him from bandits when he arrived in this world. As he befriends and follows her, there's no shortage of horrible things out to kill him, and with no combat skills, magical powers, or political influence to speak of in a dangerous world, Subaru inevitably gets murdered so often that he's living every couple days several times over. He's both extremely easy to kill and invincible. He has no power to protect himself or others, yet every death inevitably makes him stronger or smarter until he can find a way to squeak by. He's the best and worst hero that Lugunica could ask for.
But that's just the setup we need to give Subaru his protagonist part in this story; that's the "inside" view. It's not really what I mean when I say Subaru is the best and worst thing about Re:Zero. Of course, I'm talking about the world "outside" Re:Zero too, where someone might say the show is the best or the worst based largely on how Subaru makes them feel. Put simply, Subaru isn't your typical milquetoast self-insert light novel protagonist. While heroes like Kirito (SAO) or Bell (DanMachi) may spout heroic lines so generic that you could swap them around between the boys and not be able to tell any difference, Subaru rattles off the kind of cringey observations that would send him cruising straight into a swirly, and he never stops talking. From his desperate need to prove how well he knows his genre tropes to his incessant reliance on nerd reference humor and oversharing his own emotions and thoughts to communicate with anyone, even if they've barely met, Subaru is so ungodly annoying and embarrassing to watch that he quickly 180's back into being more likable for it.
Loathe as we may be to admit it, Subaru is a true nerd not as we would like to see ourselves, but as the awkward creatures we often wish we weren't. Since I was used to the tradition of light novel anime glorifying their incredibly boring nerd protagonists, I found it extremely hard to watch Subaru's behavior at first, thinking for sure that everyone was just going to give his manic chuuni trash an inscrutable pass. But with the exception of his endlessly forgiving (and also pretty socially awkward) love interest Emilia, the cast of Re:Zero surprised me by reacting to Subaru's antics with a refreshing mix of dismissal, confusion, and apathy. Suddenly, Subaru's painful personality had changed from a weakness into a strength, as he navigated the world around him, death after death and failure after failure, to slowly transform every new situation from a tragedy at his expense to a victory that no one was expecting of him. Just because Subaru isn't the kind of person I'd want to hang out with doesn't mean I couldn't respect the show's decision to let him shine, polishing his nerdy foibles into something that could gradually lift him up instead of dragging him down.
And so I went from loathing Subaru's irritating lack of specialness to seeing it as the very thing that made him special. With enough time and effort, even a truly useless uberdork like Subaru can save the day, using only his determination to learn from his numerous mistakes until the impossible task ahead of him is finally conquered. If Kirito or Bell are perfect cardboard fantasies who win the day in tidy ways that no "real" nerd could accomplish, Subaru is both more and less appealing as a genuine otaku who wins the day in ways that seem attainable to anyone who feels like they're stuck at the bottom of the weeb trash barrel. Subaru frequently jokes that the universe is conspiring to make him the hero of this story because that's just what happens in isekai light novels, but it's clear that he really means "I have to force myself into the role of hero, because I don't have any other choice to survive, so I might as well just keep on going for fun!" It's the kind of genre-awareness that's relatable to any otaku trying to put themselves in Subaru's shoes, even if it's a little annoying to hear him say it out loud.
But is that really how Subaru feels?
Subaru's uniqueness aside, giving an otaku hero "friendly flaws" still isn't really anything new. Giving him real flaws is a whole 'nother ballgame, and Re:Zero at its best came from seeing Subaru at his worst.
The sad fact is that, like any realistic otaku, Subaru absolutely relishes this hero status that Lugunica's world has conspired to give him, because he's been anticipating it through his own favorite media for years. Yeah, dying over and over sucks, but it sucks in a very chuunibyou-friendly "this angsty dark curse I have makes me super-important and interesting" kind of way. Even if you consciously know that it would be painful to be Shirou (Fate/stay night) or Okabe (Steins;Gate), they both save the world and get the girl in the end, through an adventure that only they can fully appreciate, whose importance resonates with all the people in their lives. It's not always "fun," but it's endlessly validating, so it's not long before the win-even-when-you-lose fantasy Subaru's found himself in starts going to his head.
After Subaru has conquered enough time loops to get Emilia into position as a prime candidate for the kingdom's Royal Election, something terrible happens to him: he stops being important. First of all, he's wounded, so the most helpful thing he can do for Emilia is stay behind and recover. But if he did that, he would miss the "main plot" going on inside the royal court. So the next most helpful thing he can do is keep his trap shut while the knights and nobles begin their selection process and Emilia makes her case (despite prejudice against her for being a half-elf). But if he did that, he'd have to listen to the courtiers besmirching "his girl," who he's now determined to put on the throne. So Subaru makes a scene, calling the royal knights a bunch of prejudiced idiots who got their jobs from their dads, claiming himself as Emilia's right-hand knight, loudly promising to make her queen, and agreeing to a big public duel with a knight he insulted. After all, even if he dies in the duel, he can just come back!
But there are some mistakes you can't come back from, and when Subaru wakes up from getting curbstomped by the knight he challenged, Emilia isn't looking at him the way she did before. He disobeyed her, endangered her chances in the election and his own life, and he did it all to sate his own ego. Instead of apologizing, Subaru responds to this accusation with even more self-righteousness, assuring Emilia that he really did all this for her, and she should know this by now because of all the other times he's saved her. To Subaru, Emilia owes him unconditional friendship because of all the things he's done for her across many lost timelines, but he can't make any case for his own importance because he's cursed to keep silent about his powers. Instead of putting their friendship first, Subaru can't stop thinking about the validation he's not getting for his hard work, so he lets loose a tirade of frustration over why she won't just trust him unconditionally when she owes him more than she can ever repay.
Emilia's response is shocking: "The version of me that lives within you must be amazing. She can understand everything, even if you don't explain it to her. She can feel all your pain, sadness, and anger as her own...You've done enough, Natsuki Subaru. You know, I had hopes for you. I thought that maybe you, only you, wouldn't give me special treatment."
In perhaps a light novel anime first, the hero's love interest gently informed him that he wasn't the hero, she wasn't his love interest, and he needed to take her off his pedestal and get out of her story. The next four episodes of Re:Zero are an agonizing series of escalating tragedies as Subaru drags his wounded pride all over the countryside trying to force himself back into a story that was always bigger than his obsession with what the world owed him. By sending him away, Emilia set her own demise and the world's apocalypse into motion, but unlike every other otaku fantasy before it, Re:Zero never blames her for this innocent mistake so the "misunderstood" hero can swoop in and save the day. Just because Subaru is the key to Emilia's future through pure narrative circumstance doesn't automatically make him a hero, but this show actually had the balls to take that away from him with real consequences, and without making any excuses for his warped attitude.
Re:Zero challenges the feelings of egocentrism that consume otaku media, cutting right to the uncomfortable idea that NEETs only want responsibility when it comes with outlandishly fantastical rewards, and even pinning all the blame for the ensuing disaster squarely on Subaru for caring more about being the hero than actually doing anything heroic. Now stripped of the rewards he was enjoying, Subaru is still stuck with the responsibility of being the hero. Unable to let go of his selfishness, bitterness, and endless excuses for why people shouldn't be hard on him, Subaru fails in new ways for the same reasons again and again, until he finally just starts begging for death at the top of his lungs, desperate for any escape from the consequences of his actions, hoping for some reality where he can start again as a different person, maybe someone more like Kirito or Bell, a hero who owns his role without embarrassing himself by actually caring about recognition for that role. Subaru wants to be someone he's not, and maybe he always did.
I was genuinely stunned by this turn of events. Otaku fantasy anime basically never tears down its own walls of escapism like this. For me, this low point for Subaru was the height of the series, which made it all the more disappointing when it couldn't stick the landing in episode 18.
After trying and failing to reclaim his role as protagonist half a dozen times (with as many traumatic demises), Subaru finds himself completely alone apart from a kindhearted maid girl named Rem he rescued in a previous time loop. Not knowing what else to do, he begs her to run away with him to the countryside and leave the whole story of Lugunica behind. This is where the problems first start creeping in. First of all, Subaru is not in love with Rem, he's in love with Emilia. But Rem is absolutely in love with him. Re:Zero tries to paint this as him "settling" or "running away," but he's still "settling " for a fantastical reward, complete with Rem's doting description of the happy life they would have growing old together. After spending so many episodes calling out the egotistical fallacy of how chuunibyou fantasize giving up perfect cliché happy endings for imperfect endings that worship their heroism, Re:Zero plays its hand completely straight by relishing in the pathos of Subaru imagining the "perfect life" he could have if he didn't need to be a hero and pursue more imperfect glories.
Humoring the idea of running away to an "easy life" with a girl he doesn't love, toying with her feelings as a way to punish himself, is just another flavor of egotism. Just as Subaru isn't "owed" a hero role, he isn't owed that idyllic life as some consolation prize for giving up on it, and since Rem knows that he doesn't even love her, she shouldn't just be humoring this hypothetical as if her own feelings don't matter. That's when I realized that the minute Emilia stepped down from that pedestal, Rem took her place, not as a love interest, but as an endlessly forgiving pillar of support to validate Subaru not as the hero he wasn't, but as the otaku he is.
At least before Re:Zero can completely undercut the message it spent so many episodes reinforcing, it does a great job laying Subaru's soul bare in more sympathetic ways. Subaru's assessment of himself as a NEET is brutal, revealing, and honest, as he explodes when Rem tells him not to give up just because it's easier. "There's nothing easy about giving up!" he shouts. What follows is a genuinely scathing autopsy of otaku pride and bitterness, as Subaru describes the pain and anxiety that being lazy and choosing to do nothing causes him, because of how much he wanted from the world and never received. "I hate myself! All I do is talk a big game and make myself sound like a big shot, when I can't do anything! It's amazing that I can live like this and not feel ashamed! Before I came here...do you know what I did? I did nothing. I had all that time, all that freedom...I could have done anything, but I never did a thing. And this is the result! What I am now is the result! At heart, I'm just a small, cowardly, filthy piece of trash who's always worried about how others see me. And nothing about me has changed!"
In this moment of vulnerability, Subaru most needs to accept that his overwhelming desire to be the strong, capable, beloved protagonist of his own world does not mean those things are owed to him, but neither does that make him trash or a failure, just one human of many in the world struggling to get through a life that's hard to live. But then Rem, bathed in a literal shower of sunbeams, yells at him for only thinking about himself...because her version of him is so much better than that. The "real him," from her perspective, is a hero who saved her life and taught her self-worth. After complimenting him profusely with just the right words (as only a girl on a pedestal can), Rem tells him that even if he can't forgive or accept himself, he can be a hero if he just puts that aside and "starts over from zero," giving us both a title drop and an unsettlingly sunny mirror to the dark truth that Subaru cannot fix his problems just by saying those problems exist. "Starting from zero" by relying on the words of a girl who says Subaru can be awesome now that he's admitted he isn't awesome isn't really any better than "starting from zero" by dying to temporarily avoid the consequences creeping over the horizon. Either way, the pride and entitlement at the heart of Subaru's problems have just been fed and hushed, not defeated.
Honestly, this could have been avoided if Subaru's conversation with Rem had gone just a little differently. She did need to tell Subaru he couldn't run away, but not because he deserves Emilia and his heroic destiny more than peacefully settling with her. She did need to tell Subaru he could overcome his problems, but not because he just doesn't appreciate the things that are great about him. She did need to bring up her own arc of self-actualization, but as an equal to Subaru, not as an example of his past heroism that earned him her servitude as a runner-up love interest, a "reward" he could fall back on if things got too hard. All of these tweaks could have made episode 18 a more impactful turning point thematically and not just emotionally.
But ultimately, coming to a realistic sense of place in his world as an equal to the supporting cast around him was never in the cards for Subaru. He can only swing wildly from the lowest trash to the bravest hero in his story because he really is the main character of the world. Instead of accepting that he doesn't automatically deserve the center stage when he puts in the effort to get involved with other people's lives, Subaru's resolution is to accept getting to be an awesome hero, even if he never gets recognition for it. The story's main concern is to show Subaru sacrificing heroic validation, as if it's something he really did deserve from the world. It's great that he's committed to helping Emilia even if she never recognizes his efforts or becomes his queen or girlfriend, but it feels like a disappointing half-step compared to something like Evangelion, which went out of its way to show the huge difference between self-awareness and self-actualization when it comes to facing life's hardships as an otaku.
And so, at the end of all this, Subaru, having firmly established himself as the best and worst thing about Re:Zero, delivers perhaps its best and worst line.
"Just watch. You get a front row seat to see the man you fell for become the most awesome hero ever!"
In the best way, this line is refreshingly honest about the shameless glee that such a believable nerd like Subaru would embrace after getting spirited away to save the day in a fantasy world. In the worst way, it reveals the smug entitlement and delusion that can make a character like Subaru unbearable to the people around him, who are all too aware that a fantasy world is the only place a person can "win" the role of protagonist. Ultimately, Subaru is a realistic character in an unrealistic universe. In the world of Re:Zero, Subaru becomes special simply by recognizing that he's not special, but in a more honest world that doesn't revolve around him like Lugunica does, Subaru wouldn't be a worthless god or a priceless weakling. He would just be one complex person in a world full of complex people: not the best or worst of anything.
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