Re:Zero: A Genre-Defining Fantasy Anime

Bradford Ozuk // The Watchdog.

Fantasy stories almost always reach the same inevitable conclusion of good triumphing over evil and bringing peace and prosperity to whatever world they reside in. It’s textbook escapism, which is an important part of surviving in the modern world. However, it isn’t the only way to approach a fantasy setting.

Anime is no stranger to this plot development and includes an additional common trope of the main characters having been transported (by death, teleportation or whatever) to the fantasy world, having to adapt to their surroundings before getting into the main story. Called “isekai,” this ‘reincarnation in another world’ storytelling has saturated the anime market over the last decade, serving as a way to provide fantasy stories with a main character that the consumer can insert themselves into. It’s often about creating a power fantasy, where this average citizen from Earth can become a superhero of another world.

In this saturated market, what makes an isekai story stand out is how it contradicts the typical tropes of the genre. Some examples include:

  • “The Devil is a Part-Timer” is considered a “reverse isekai” in which a powerful being from a fantasy world finds himself on Earth, where he works at a fast food restaurant.
  • “The Saga of Tanya the Evil” is an isekai where upon reincarnating, the main character climbs the ranks of the military and propels the Empire to become a superpower of a war-torn world.
  • “Rising of the Shield Hero” is an isekai that features a main character that is repeatedly betrayed; leading him to a life of using all underhanded tricks at his disposal exclusively for himself.

While awesome watches in their own right, none of these challenge the main tropes of fantasy writing quite like “Re:Zero – Starting Life in Another World.” Natsuki Subaru was a shut-in in his past life and immediately recognizes his being transported to a fantasy world. Using his self-aware understanding of isekai stories, he massively overestimates his own ability and finds himself on the wrong side of a blade, tragically cutting his life short.

Suddenly, Subaru is back in front of the merchant stand where he was when he was first transported to this world. As it turns out, whenever he dies in this world, he restarts at a checkpoint and is the only one with any knowledge of this previous timeline to run through the events again until he can overcome the challenges ahead.

The premise is exciting, and the writing was executed flawlessly on the potential consequences of life that seemingly do not matter. As the checkpoint shifts after every “successful” progression, Subaru finds that not all mistakes can be corrected. Some people are seemingly destined to die and relationships often break. There is no path in which everything can work out, which Subaru must learn to accept.

Coming to terms with the harsh realities of life is not Subaru’s forte. Subaru was a shut-in and is in no way prepared to lead a charge to save the world. He doesn’t get any overpowered abilities or heroic companions to cater to his every desire, like other isekai stories feature. Predictably, his emotions don’t hold up under the pressure. Not to mention, he is frequently experiencing the pain of death, having to re-build relationships that he had established so well in a previous run. He is as miserable as they come, which is the greatest selling point of the show. Subaru’s inability to handle the despair he feels is oftentimes hard to watch, but the writers handle it well and slowly push him in the right direction in a way that sounds feasible. And of course, holding this show in such high esteem means it’s not as simple as explaining his “special” ability to others.

Supporting Subaru’s development is a vibrant world with great characters and compelling villains. Re:Zero created a world with some of the most popular individual characters that even non-anime fans might stumble across to this day:

  • Emilia is one of the five members in the running for the royal crown.
  • Pack is a “greater spirit” that lives under a contract with Emilia, lending his power to her.
  • Rem and Ram are twin maids under the service of Emilia.
  • Felix/Ferris Argyle is an… eccentric magic user, considered the best to reside within the Capitol.

And this barely scratches the surface of very memorable characters that stick with you the entire way of the show. I was considerably impressed with how consistently the side characters left an impact, and how that impact grew with the time they spent on screen. I watched the first season of Re:Zero four years ago, and the characters are still vibrant in my mind. The second season which aired in 2020 only added more characters to love. If you can stomach the darker aspects of Re:Zero, it is absolutely worth a watch just to experience something entirely unique. I have no doubt that the plot points and characters will keep you wanting more.