A regular guy is transported to a fantasy world and has adventures with a caring and beautiful woman. She is half-elf with silver hair, magical abilities and a cute but powerful mascot creature. He is a sincere but goofy nerd who wears his heart on his sleeve and does everything in his power to defend the girl he likes.
In a surprise twist, the show following this well-worn narrative just became one of the most subversive and challenging anime of the year. Whether it will maintain that status by the end of its run is debatable, but what it’s doing right now is striking and important.
In a decision that has taken some backlash, after presenting main character Subaru as a well-meaning hero for 12 episodes, episode 13 features a slighted Subaru lashing out, shouting at love interest Emilia that he is responsible for everything working out for the best in her life, and he believes she owes him for his efforts. Big time. In his exact words: “You should have a greater debt to me than you could ever repay!”
Fan response has been strong and mixed. Some are now more sympathetic towards Subaru, as they say his outburst showcases his flawed humanity, while others have lost all sympathy. Some have taken it personally; for 12 episodes Subaru’s character was praised for his relatability and likeability, and some have struggled with this unflattering presentation of his character. What does it mean for them when they identified so strongly with a character who then acted so badly with someone he claims to care about?
It means they justify his actions. They explain that he is simply traumatised from so many deaths; this is not a part of his character. They dismiss his words as being in the heat of the moment; they do not represent his true feelings. They praise Emilia for calling out his bad behaviour, but point out she has not been as open with him she could be; there is fault on both sides.
Here’s my take: Subaru’s actions in episodes 12-14 are completely consistent with his characterisation from episode one, before he experiences death. His character has been unflattering and uncomfortable from the start, and I have a theory about why this is not the popular impression of his character.
How accurate is Subaru’s version of events?
In the anime, Subaru shows up as a ‘hikikomori’ – a shut-in. Hikikomori are a real phenomenon in Japan, young people who refuse to leave their homes during the day and avoid participating in society for more than six months. Reasons for becoming a hikikomori include avoiding bullying, crumbling from exam stress or a serious relationship breakdown with family. It is treated like a disorder, with sufferers recovering through the same therapies used by people with depression or anxiety.
Subaru, however, is instantly comfortable, open and unembarrassed on arriving in this new world. He speaks with ease to a beautiful stranger he is attracted to, charms children, bartenders, lords and thieves in a world where everything is unfamiliar. And yet, in his home world Subaru had withdrawn from society entirely. His phone shows only four numbers: city hall, mum, dad and pizza place. How is someone so dedicated to making friends in one world so bad at it in another? Why was someone who places such a high value on being liked and appreciated by the people around him apparently happy to walk away entirely from everyone he has ever known, without a second thought?
You could speculate that he had social skills all along and just needed the right environment and a fresh start to unlock them instantly, with no need for the kind of therapy hikikomori sufferers tend to undertake to be able to get to that point. Alternatively, you could assume that Subaru’s self-identification as a hikikomori is inaccurate, in the same way as “I’m so OCD!” does not reflect a medical diagnosis. However, the lack of contacts in his phone, his late night convenience store visit and the way he looks at the couple who walk past him all support his self-identification.
More plausible is that Subaru is an unreliable narrator. He says in the first episode alone that he played games all day, that he works out every day and that he swings a wooden sword around at every opportunity. He can throw punches, holding off three attackers at once, but also sew clothing. This is not typical for hikikomori, for self-professed otaku or for Japanese teenagers in general. Doesn’t it seem like he is a character designed for wish fulfilment, generic enough to project on to but special enough for viewers to enjoy that experience?
Unreliable narration would also explain Emilia’s characterisation. Re:ZERO is very much a POV story, to its advantage. By seeing everything through Subaru’s eyes we can investigate the mysteries surrounding him with exactly as much information as he has, no more. It makes for an enjoyable and satisfying narrative experience. From a characterisation perspective though, this increases the chance that Subaru is presenting Emilia to us as an incomplete character, flattened and rose-tinted by his blinkered view. We see from a very early stage that Subaru’s view of Emilia is idealised and two-dimensional. By nicknaming her ‘Emilia-tan’ Subaru makes that clear; the ‘-tan’ suffix is only really used by otaku to express a strong one-way affection towards idols or fictional characters.
Sticking to his POV also means that if Subaru himself doesn’t dwell on a throwaway line or incident, we don’t either, making Re:ZERO a very rewarding show to rewatch. Watching the pilot now, I am impressed by how much is communicated about Subaru’s character through such small moments, and amazed by how few of them I picked up on at the time. Looking back it seems obvious that Subaru crafts his own narrative of who Emilia is, the motivations for her actions and what place he has in her life from the moment he meets her. His words and deeds in episodes 12-14 all show up first in the pilot, before he dies. By episode 13 he’s just feeling reckless enough to be upfront about it.
Was Subaru changed by traumatic circumstances?
From episode 1, Subaru has cast himself as Emilia’s selfless hero, insisting on assisting whether she wants him to or not. When she agrees to let him negotiate to get her insignia back he feigns surprise, saying, “The way you’ve been acting, I thought you’d say, ‘Leave this to a useless boy like you? That’s so ridiculous, I’m laughing my head off!’ And I’d be hurt, but still decide to help you all over again.” No matter how unintentional, that’s a manipulative statement to elicit gratitude from her about something that hasn’t even happened. It’s no wonder Emilia gets frustrated with this habit, and in episode 13 exclaims, “Stop telling lies about how everything is for my sake! Coming to the castle, fighting Julius, using magic… Are you saying that was all for me? I never asked you to do any of that!”
From episode 1, Subaru makes assumptions about Emilia’s background and character without seeking to learn the truth. In the pilot he pulls her back to the fruit stall and tells the owner that she is a paying customer, and puts her in the awkward position of having to confess she has no money. When he says that he expected her to insult and laugh at his offer to negotiate, she responds, “I wouldn’t say something that mean.” By episode 12 we know this to be true, and looking back at episode 1 there is nothing in the text to support his presumption. When she finally gives him a small piece of insight about herself, he doesn’t even seem to notice it: “You have no idea where you are, you have no money, you can’t read, and you have no-one who can help you. You might be in an even more precarious position than I am… Um, Subaru, was it?” He is instantly distracted by the fact that she said his name, and does not take in the clue to her vulnerable social situation. Of course she has picked up on Subaru’s idealised fantasy of her by episode 13. “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.”
From episode 1, Subaru demonstrates a paternalistic view of the women around him and refuses to respect their wishes, assuming he knows what is best for them despite being a stranger from another land. In the pilot he insists that he accompany Emilia, even after she turns him away repeatedly and firmly discourages him. In episode 12 he says to Rem, “I can’t stand not being involved in Emilia’s important affairs” and follows Emilia to court after promising he wouldn’t. By episode 14 this instinct has turned toxic, as he thinks: “Emilia is hopeless without me. Because I care about her… so much...” The thought that Emilia might be somehow dependent on him brings him pleasure; we see him smile during statements like “The moment I leave her side, this happens? Everyone around her is an enemy. The only one who can take her side… is me.”
If Subaru’s thoughts in episode 13 had been warped as a result of trauma these seeds would not have been sown in the earliest episodes. If it had been a temporary response to stress he would be seeking to apologise by episode 14. That we can track everything in his outburst back to his behaviour before his first death, and that it continues and worsens for days after their argument, suggests that Re:ZERO employs seamless character development to bring its protagonist down to rock bottom, where he seems to be headed, in order to raise him back up as a true hero. That is strong storytelling, and an obvious arc repeated time and again throughout film and television history. To undercut this development by attributing it to external factors only does a disservice to the work put into Subaru’s characterisation from the start.
Do your circumstances affect how you relate to Subaru?
“I have no family name. You can just call me ‘Satella’.”
How many people do you think have downplayed and/or over-explained their reasons for doing something nice for someone so that they wouldn’t read too much into it?
“I didn’t do anything deserving of thanks. I told you, I already received compensation for healing your wounds.”
How many people do you think have deliberately deflected hints from someone who has an unrequited attraction to them?
“At best, I can’t see you as anything more than this little girl’s older brother.”
How many people do you think have dropped their own hints to get someone to leave them alone?
“Since you helped the little girl, isn’t your one good deed over?”
How many people do you think have been blunt with people they worry might overstep their boundaries?
“Don’t get any weird ideas. I can use magic.”
Subaru’s behaviour towards Emilia raised red flags for me very early on. From my perspective, she was being as neutral and gently deterring as she could possibly be, and Subaru steamrolled straight over every carefully placed clue that she wanted him to keep a certain distance.
Many people have not viewed their relationship in this way... but I’m sure I’m not the only one who has. While not necessarily universal experiences, the scenarios listed above are far from rare, for women in particular, and the type of man Subaru represents is everywhere. He has the best of intentions, some strong personal qualities, he’s not unattractive and he would do anything for someone he likes. Anything except the things she asks him to do, because he’s convinced he knows better than she does what she wants. Especially if she doesn’t want him.
What Emilia wants from Subaru is friendship. She has been treated as different her entire life and finally meets someone who interacts with Puck with ease and is entirely unfazed about her half-elf ancestry, royal background or resemblance to the Jealous Witch. Emilia’s parting words in episode 13 are: “You’ve done enough, Natsuki Subaru. You know, I had hopes for you. I thought maybe you… That only you wouldn’t give me special treatment. That you’d look at me in the same, exact way you look at everyone else.”
Subaru replies, “I can’t do that. I can’t look at you the way I look at others. It’s impossible.” From episode 1, Subaru decides that Emilia needs his help. Even after it’s canon that she doesn’t, after Subaru learns that Emilia would actually have tracked Felt more quickly without him, he still clings to this made-up narrative that she needs him to help her, to protect her, to “save” her. Rewatching Re:ZERO it is starkly clear that she doesn’t need him for anything, but she wants him as a friend – and that’s not enough for Subaru.
And so, with nothing left to lose and a good chance this will all be undone in a death reset anyway, he tries to guilt her into feeling like she needs him, like she owes him something intangible and will do for the rest of her life. It doesn’t work on Emilia. Not everyone has her self-esteem, independence and social support though. How many people do you think have been told that they’re lucky to be with someone who has done so much for them? How many people do you think have believed this?
“She needs me by her side... I can save her. Once I do, I’m sure she’ll understand.”
Friendzoned. White Knight. Nice Guy(TM). We have a number of ways to label the type of problematic masculinity Subaru represents by episode 14, because people like Subaru are so common. Re:ZERO became one of the most subversive and challenging anime of the year so far by making their likeable main character unlikeable after encouraging their viewers to identify with him. Moreover, they made him a very specific type of unlikeable which many women in particular have experienced, without contradicting earlier characterisation, making their hero into a villain or making their love interest unsympathetic. Subaru is not a “bad boy” with dark appeal. He is not an anti-hero, ambivalent to the love and approval of people around him and reluctantly doing the right thing anyway. He is caring, warm and sincere, but also angry, arrogant and entitled... And Emilia is every person out there trying to keep a valued friend without misleading them or allowing them to cross lines.
Everyone brings their experiences to the consumption of media products. It’s how we form such different interpretations of exactly the same text. I am not criticising anyone who holds a different interpretation of Subaru and Emilia’s relationship, or who doesn’t think that Subaru’s behaviour crosses any lines or caused Emilia any concern. But if you picked up on the same red flags I did in early episodes and found the extensive praise for Subaru’s likeability and relatability as uncomfortable as I did, here is confirmation that you are not the only one viewing it through that lens.