Why, would you look at the time! It's weeb o'clock! Have you noticed that every anime series as of late is an adaptation of some sort? Re:ZERO is another one of those, and it's our favourite trope as well: getting transported in a 〜different world〜. Wait, I mean, 〜getting a harem〜. I'm starting to get things mixed up, but don't worry, it's no biggie, because Re:ZERO has all of our favourite tropes and the kitchen sink. Getting war flashbacks yet? OD on your meds and strap yourselves in for a joy ride through the Vas theme park, where up is down and down is even more down, in our quest to answer but one question: should we KILL ALL JOURN— is Re:ZERO a waste of time?
I've slept on it and I finally understand why I hate the different world meme so much. I've long since accepted that normie anime is going to appeal to the lowest common denominator and serve as shit-tier self-insert power fantasy for the author and the incels in denial in the target audience. It's not that it's bland, it's that it takes blandness to a whole other level. Blandness is neither new nor unique to this medium, hell you could argue Hollywood does it ten times worse on any given day with its
propaganda for used-up SoCal divorcees romcoms, but at the very least bland protagonists have the benefit of actually existing in the world that they inhabit.
Different world garbage takes even that little thing away. To its credit, Re:ZERO kind of acknowledges this problem in its half arsed attempt at being genre savvy, but it doesn't give it the solution it needs: a protagonist with some actual fucking connection to the world. Since Subaru gets transported to a different world out of the blue, he has no emotional attachment to any of the setting's people or institutions. With zero vested interest beyond wish fulfilment and a vague desire to do what's right, Subaru must be equipped with the most boring of motivations for actually doing anything at all: saving the cute girl. Bet you didn't see that coming.
Re:ZERO has apparently been praised for being innovative. It innovates nothing in its genre. Its world building, as displayed in the anime, isn't amazing, but it isn't hot garbage either. This is largely the problem with creating new worlds out of nothing, as nothing humans create could possibly match the nuances and emotional impact of the real world, but as far as imaginary settings go, it's a wash. It didn't fill me with joy and interest, but it didn't bore me, or worse yet, make me want to pull my hair out.
The series does have a very interesting trope in that whenever the protagonist dies, he respawns back at an earlier point in time, plus some minor flavour relating to this mechanic. In itself this is more than enough of a gimmick to warrant taking a look into it, to the point where I don't understand why the author even bothered with the different world bullshit to begin with. The alienness of the protagonist becomes largely irrelevant in a very short time, something Realist Hero for example avoided, and the irony of me praising Realist Hero in any fashion suffices as suicide fuel. Pass the rope.
Whether this trope is used to its utmost is in the eye of the beholder, and significant improvements would require changes too radical to be worth discussing, but nevertheless it is impossible to deny that the series' best arc is episodes 14–18, where the protagonist's ability to resurrect are coupled with a psychopathic organisation and eldritch abominations to deliver some quality nightmare fuel. I'll dub it the Despair Arc, and in it Subaru experiences genuine character development by becoming short-sighted and entitled in the truest sense of those words, thereby giving a unique voice and presence to his character, distinctly identifiable amongst the rest of the cast.
It isn't a positive development, because these aren't nice traits to have, but considering this entire genre boasts about its flat, zero-dimensional protagonists, this is gigantic improvement. By the end of it the arc was almost addictive to watch, and I don't know how much of it can be blamed on its innate qualities versus the contrast with the arcs preceding it. That said, it marks a sharp tonal shift, the kind that's impossible to justify as premeditated, and in all honestly it feels patched onto for drama. It's good enough that it made me consider whether it's a deliberate deconstruction of the failings of the bland protagonist trope; alas, Subaru reverts to his blandness afterwards. It is enjoyable while it lasts, but it only brings to light the series' biggest flaw (besides Subaru): incoherence.
I do feel that the Despair Arc could have been much better if the protagonist had more connections with the world. It is good precisely because Subaru has some attachments to the people and the locations that suffer and get destroyed, but if we had more context the delivery could have been more impactful; as much as I appreciate kicking the puppy for shock value, this ends up being this arc's crutch rather than the climax. There is a Fate/Zero hidden in there somewhere, and it's sad to see it squandered by a clearly inexperienced author, unable to capitalise off his greatest success through sheer ineptitude.
Anyway, the arcs before and after it are for the most part your standard happy-go-lucky harem fare, with occasional bouts of seriousness whenever Subaru dies. Subaru notwithstanding, the other characters are fairly interesting, and this is especially obvious in the first arc. However, due to how the series is structured, characters are introduced, and then we can go entire arcs without seeing them again, and it feels as if they're left out to rot.
For example, Subaru's primary love interest, Emilia, is good enough, but the arcs following it end up revolving around Rem and Subaru, so she ends up receiving comically little screen time. Felix and Wilhelm end up leaving a more memorable impression merely due to how much of them we get to see. The effect on fandom is entirely predictable, with Subaru/Emilia considered a shit tier pairing, because, to be blunt, with all the erased time loops (due to death) and the time Subaru spends with Rem, you would've thought Subaru/Rem is the author-endorsed pairing.
All characters suffer due to this, like for example Ram, who remains stale as her sister experiences character development, and this ends up wearing on their sisterly relationship that's practically forgotten as soon as we'd started getting invested in it as the audience. Emilia herself comes off as grating to some people, but that is understandable in the context of her social isolation, which is only expanded upon in the very last episodes—is this some sort of joke? Almost all of this could have been solved if Roswaal's mansion/domain was closer to the capital, or ideally in the capital, so that character interaction was easier to justify from a writing point of view.
This is the reason why the second arc, taking place at Roswaal's, is by far the most boring one. Though we are introduced to what are arguably the most interesting characters in the series, this doesn't even come close to offsetting what is effectively a domestication arc: Subaru becomes a butler for Roswaal. Combined with its isolated location compared to the metropolitan first arc, this ends up reading more as Lotte no Omocha! than Re:ZERO. It does eventually come around, but the delay is far too long and the gratification is far too little: more details about Ram and Rem, and acquiring an extra member in the harem. The exposition is inelegant and would've fit better as part of a different arc and a more gradual approach; the oni sisters do warrant an air of mystery.
Overall Re:ZERO feels more like a patchwork of occasionally enjoyable plot threads that accidentally form a complete story, rather than puzzle pieces that carefully fit together. I can say with authority that this is entirely due to the author's inexperience, as many of its greatest failings could have been solved with a decent editor. There are other problems, such as overacted and overwritten dialogue, but these are minor grievances compared to Re:ZERO's inability to strike a tonal balance. The Despair Arc clashes so blatantly with the butler garbage that it's hard to believe it belongs to the same series—hell, even that the same person wrote it. It's almost as if it's suffering from bipolar disorder.
In closing I'd also like to note that the anime adapts nine volumes of the light novels, which might be too compressed, hence losing nuance, but it's also doubtful how much padding the series can really bear, so your guess is as good as mine. Re:ZERO is largely a mediocre snoozefest, but it does have some interesting characters with intricate dynamics, and a 5 episode run that at bare minimum flirts with excellence, but unfortunately these cannot be its saving grace; soon after it improves, it's back at its original antics. I enjoyed the parts that I liked a lot, so I will do it the honour of being far too lenient and rating it as dead average.
Final Verdict: 5/10