SPOILERS for the entire series of Re:ZERO
Subaru is the most polarising figure in Re:ZERO. He is the reason some people were drawn to the show, and the reason others refused to watch past a certain point. The only other character who has similar control over the audience is Rem, the blue-haired maid voted best girl by half the internet around the mid-point of Re:ZERO.
As a feminist viewer and big fan of the Re:ZERO anime, Rem is a problematic character for me. On the one hand, I like her. I wouldn't expect to like a subservient maid character, but something about her deadpan smackdowns and thinly veiled distaste for Subaru won me over early on, while her loyalty, fierceness and vulnerability made her an endearing, stand-out character. I completely understand her popularity. (Respect to the Re:ZERO production team - that is quite the accomplishment.)
On the other hand, she’s a self-loathing young woman in a sexualised maid’s costume who spends the entire series devoting her life to the people around her. Rem is a strong and beautiful woman who hates herself and falls in love with an otaku, and anime fandom adores her for it. That’s uncomfortable to see, especially when most of the love came after the deadpan and distaste had been dropped in favour of rose-tinted love goggles for our polarising protagonist. It's a wish fulfilment step too far in an otherwise sophisticated story of complicated characters.
However, it becomes easier to watch if you stop thinking of Rem as a character in her own right. If Rem is not supposed to be a fully realised character, with motivations and ambitions independent of the people around her, then suddenly her character makes sense. If Rem's primary purpose in Re:ZERO is to be a foil to other characters, we can’t resent her lack of identity away from Ram or Subaru or mourn her loss when she inevitably disappears from the narrative (though we can of course criticise both). By then she will have served her purpose and have no further reason to exist.
Introduced as an alternative to Emilia and reflecting truths about Subaru’s character straight back at him, Rem is an example of what such a character can achieve, serving several important purposes in the story of Re:ZERO. In these posts I will look at a few of those functions, which have given me more of an appreciation of Rem's character.
1. Rem clarifies Subaru’s feelings for Emilia
This process begins in episode 5, in which Subaru uses the same lines in conversation with Rem as he used with Emilia in episode 4:
“Really, Subaru, you idiot.”
“Hey, what’s with that reaction? This is where you fall for me all over again.”
- Emilia and Subaru, episode 4
“It’s just as Emilia said. You have no ambition at all.”
“It’s weird... I’d think that’d make you fall for me all over again, not disgust you.”
- Rem and Subaru, episode 5
In episode 5 there is a moment when Rem smiles, petals floating past her. Subaru looks stunned then throws out an exuberant and unwelcome response: “That smile is a million volts!” Rem is not impressed.
By repeating scenes and snippets of dialogue in this way, it is clear that Rem is intended to resonate with the viewer in the same way as Emilia does, hitting the same notes at a different pitch. Both are suspicious of Subaru, but where Emilia simply withholds her real name as a precaution, Rem murders Subaru. Both are maternal towards Subaru but Emilia is fussy and condescending, with low expectations and firm boundaries, while Rem is over-indulgent and loves unconditionally with high expectations.
“It’ll be fine. We’re not the sort of lovable little kids to get our feelings hurt so easily. We’ll get right back, and I’ll fix things.”
“Yes, I have put all my faith in you, Subaru.”
- Subaru and Rem, episode 14
There are two moments in this scene when Subaru responds differently. The first is in the moment of dialogue above: by saying “I have put all my faith in you” Rem calls back to Subaru’s conversation with Emilia in episode 13, in which he asks Emilia to have faith in him and she says she can’t. Hearing Rem’s affirmation in Emilia’s place he blushes and turns away from her. The second moment is when he dwells on Rem’s statement that she is helping him because she wants to, calling back to Emilia’s words in episode 8 that she helped him (reviving him after he had used up all his mana) because she wanted to. In these moments Subaru is not responding to Rem but to his thoughts of Emilia, who does not once lose his attention or affections throughout the series.
For Subaru to reject someone who is so similar to Emilia and offers him much more immediate gratification proves that his feelings for Emilia are uniquely for her. Thanks to Rem, we understand that something about Emilia has captivated Subaru and what he feels for her has no alternative. Exactly what Subaru loves about Emilia may be a mystery to viewers, but attraction is not logical and we cannot control who flips that switch in us. Subaru doesn’t need to be able to analyse or articulate his feelings for them to be real, and no amount of analysis or articulation of why he should be attracted to Rem will make it true.
2. Rem’s character growth foreshadows Subaru’s
“I do realise that I am a powerless and incompetent demon clan dropout. So no matter what I do, I can never match my sister. I am merely her replacement and one far inferior to her. Good for nothing.”
- Rem, episode 11
“All of my powerlessness, all of my incompetence, is the product of my rotten character. Wanting to accomplish something, when I’ve never done anything, goes beyond the limits of arrogance!”
- Subaru, episode 18
“It’s... It’s my fault. So I have to take responsibility. If I don’t, I can’t do anything for my sister or you... I haven’t changed at all.”
- Rem, episode 11
“And nothing... Nothing about me has changed! I knew it all along. That all of it was my fault… I’m the lowest of the low. I absolutely hate myself...”
- Subaru, episode 18
“I am... very weak. So I’m sure I will end up leaning on you.”
- Rem to Subaru, episode 11
“Will you help me? I can’t do anything alone. I lack in everything. I’m not confident that I can even keep walking straight. I’m weak, fragile, and small. So, to make sure I keep walking straight, to help me realise when I’m wrong, will you help me?”
- Subaru to Rem, episode 18
“Listen, where I’m from there’s a saying, ‘Three heads are better than one.’ Wait, is it two heads? Whatever! The point is, three heads, thinking together, are harder to break than only one arrow! It means you should rely on those around you instead of thinking about stuff alone!”
- Subaru to Rem, episode 11
Obviously this is just speculation, but looking for potential hints of Subaru’s future in Rem’s actions adds a layer of interest to the viewing experience which would not exist without Rem’s role. Looking for clues is part of the fun.