Entertainment allows for an escape from reality. For me, anime is the primary source of this escapism, and I am far from the only one. This need to distract oneself with a fantasy world is why Isekai are so popular. Isekai typically are about a normal person being transported to a fantasy world. More recent shows in the genre often satarize or parody Isekai tropes. One of the more popular examples of this is Konosuba, a comedy that pokes fun at its protagonist’s expectations for an Isekai story. It subverts the expectations of both the protagonist and the audience. What would happen if a story took this subversion in a more serious direction? Re:Zero is exactly that kind of story. Spoilers for Re:Zero‘s first season ahead.
Natsuki Subaru, the main protagonist of Re:Zero, has all the same expectations as the protagonist of Konosuba. His first line in Re:Zero is him announcing loudly that he has been summoned to another world. This implies that he was brought to Lugnica by a divine being to defeat some antagonistic force. When Subaru first meets Emilia, he firmly believes that his purpose in this world is to be her hero and protect her at all costs. His ability to return to life after he dies only fuels Subaru’s desire to be the hero, as he has a magical power no one else seems to have. The only downside of this is he is unable to talk about “Return by Death” with others without dire consequences.
While Subaru’s hero complex is present in the show’s first arc, it is not until Subaru arrives at the Roswaal Mansion that Re:Zero‘s writer, Tappei Nagatsuki, dives into it deeper. After spending a few days in the mansion, Subaru finds himself waking up as if the days had never happened. He immediately comes to the conclusion that someone must be attacking the mansion. However, when it is revealed that not only is he the actual target of the attacks, but that the people behind his deaths are those he was trying to protect, it breaks Subaru. In trying to play the hero, he made himself seem like the villain. This does nothing to deter Subaru, as he further pushes himself. While he has learned from his mistake of isolating himself, he continues to delude himself with his heroic ideas.
He continuously chooses to see himself as the hero even if deep down he knows he is not. This is exemplified most when he declares himself as Emilia’s knight at the royal selection meeting, despite having no formal training as one. This publicly embarrasses Emilia and paints Subaru as a prideful greedy man who only wants to be seen as the hero he wishes he was. When Emilia leaves Subaru behind at the capital, it is due to the pain he goes through to be seen as the person he wants to be. Subaru desires to be the hero of the story so badly that he believes the universe owes it to him. His need to be recognized by those more powerful than him ultimately leads to the confirmation of his weakness when he returns to the Roswaal Mansion, only to find everyone dead.
After reviving once again, Subaru is emotionally annihilated, lying in bed hoping for someone else to solve his problems for him. He still desires to be the hero, but the loss he experienced has polluted that dream. His unwillingness to act leads him to his first confrontation with Petelgeuse Romanee-Conti, who believes Subaru to be the personification of Pride. This revelation is likely informed by Subaru’s loud denunciation of the Witch’s Cult while in the Capital. As the Sin Archbishop of Sloth, Petelgeuse notices just how slothful Subaru has become. Subaru does nothing to save Rem, refusing to act until her body is mangled and nearly lifeless. He returns to the mansion only for him to be too late once again. We see his head roll off his shoulders onto the ground, his body still and unmoving, clutching Rem’s lifeless corpse in his arms.
Subaru spends almost the entirety of episode 17, “Disgrace in the Extreme” begging and pleading for someone else to be the hero. On the surface it may seem like he is willing to do anything to save Emilia, but in reality, he has already given up on himself. He firmly believes that there is nothing he alone can do. While this is a good revelation for him, he still refuses to accept help from the one person who is more than willing to give it, Rem.
When Subaru first met Rem, she was cold toward him. Her attitude can be attributed to her dark past. In the flashback in episode 11, “Rem,” we learn that when Rem was young, she was constantly upstaged by her twin sister Ram. When their village was attacked by the Witch’s Cult and Ram’s Oni horn was cut off, Rem smiled, knowing that the power her sister possessed was gone. She thinks of that moment constantly, demonizing herself for her elation after the event. Ever since that day, she has worked hard to make up for her sister’s weakness. Despite her strengths, Rem believes that if Ram still had her horn, her existence would be unnecessary. This self-hatred almost causes Rem to lose herself while fighting the Demon Beasts outside Erlam Village on her own.
If it were not for Subaru, Rem would have fallen victim to her intense anger toward both the Witch Cult and herself. However, cutting off Rem’s horn was only the first step. Subaru may not have realized it at the time, but his conversation with Rem at the Roswaal Mansion is what truly saved her. One of the first things Rem does when Subaru wakes up is apologize to Subaru for having to save her. Upon learning of Rem’s lack of belief in herself, Subaru states that “what could have been” does not matter. What matters is that she is there, and no one could ever replace her. He tells her that she needs to not drown in the past and look toward the future (which is ironic coming from a man who is constantly trying to correct his past actions). From their talk, Rem learns to appreciate herself for who she is instead of constantly comparing herself to what she believes Ram could have been.
At the beginning of episode 18, “From Zero,” Subaru finally acknowledges that he is not the hero summoned by a goddess to defeat the Demon Lord. He no longer believes he is meant to save Emilia or defeat the Witch Cult. He is just a normal man with no superior abilities who is powerless to stop the deaths of those around him. This realization crushes him. He chooses the slothful path, wanting Rem to run away with him to a far-off land where they won’t have to worry about the Witch Cult or the royal selection. Subaru is convinced that no matter what he tries to do, no matter how strong he acts, he won’t be able to help anyone. He may have accepted who he is, but he is unwilling to grow beyond that.
Rem declines his offer because she knows Subaru does not actually feel this way. She knows he still wants to help Emilia anyway he can. It is not like him to give up, and if she did run away with him, it would not be the same Subaru that saved her just eight episodes earlier. This time, it is Rem’s turn to save Subaru. She reminds him why he was fighting in the first place and shifts his perspective. Subaru is Rem’s hero, not because he can defeat Petelgeuse or the White Whale, but because he will never stop trying to. That perseverance is why Subaru was able to save Rem in the first place. He was not alone then, and he isn’t alone now.
Subaru’s self-acceptance was not just him recognizing his shortcomings, but understanding why Rem believes in him and why he should believe in himself. This allows Subaru to recognize that Emilia feels the same self-loathing. Emilia, as a silver-haired half elf, has faced prejudice and rejection all her life. Subaru treating her as he did in the early episodes only reinforced the burden Emilia felt. She had hoped Subaru would be different, that he would not look at her the same way everyone else has her entire life. Subaru finally realizes Emilia does not need him to be her knight. She needs him to just be there for her, to be supportive of her decisions without trying to protect her every second. While she may not reciprocate Subaru’s love yet, she still appreciates how much he cares for her. Emilia may not love herself yet, but I am certain that will be a major part of her arc in future episodes.
I have struggled with self-acceptance for most of my life. Seeing Subaru and Rem deal with the pain I know all too well is why they are two of my favorite anime characters of all-time. It is the reason why “From Zero” will always leave me in tears. Subaru’s words are ones I have certainly said myself before. Laying down and giving up is easy. Choosing to pick yourself back up and continue moving forward can seem more difficult than facing death time and time again. Re:Zero has many powerful themes, but its theme of self-acceptance is the most powerful one.