Did this first episode really need to be fifty minutes long? Well… maybe. Maybe if the first half wasn’t so goddamn boring, I’d be more receptive of the first episode having such an extended run-time. But unfortunately, we don’t really get to the meat and potatoes of Re:Zero until the second half of the one-hour special, and by then, I was almost ready to throw in the towel. It all starts with the main character, and Subaru is your typical anime lead. So right off the bat, we start from zero. That’s how it is now. You start with these stereotypical characters, then the story tries to build from there. “What makes Subaru different isn’t how his tale begins, but where it goes from there!” is something charitable you might say. But personally, I was figuratively tearing my hair out. The first half just felt so slow-paced and inane. Woo, I gotta go save the world from utter destruction, but wait, wait, wait… let’s help this little girl find her mother in the starting city’s market area.
Because it’s 2016, it’s become almost expected to do this semi-fourth-wall-breaking nonsense. No, check that, it’s required now. So for the first fifteen minutes or so, Subaru just goes on and on about what a generic fantasy anime should be. Oh, I’ve been summoned to another world. Oh, I should have magic. Oh, I should run into a cute girl. Oh, I’m supposed to wake up with my head in the cute girl’s lap. Mate, shut the fuck up. Y’see, shows now are so mired in its own subculture that it thinks its being cheeky if the main character can kinda do a meta-commentary on the predicament he’s in. If you don’t point these things out, the audience then can’t pat itself on the back for being in-the-know. But while that might have been novel the first or second time around, again, it’s 2016. I just want the anime to get on with it already. And to top it all off, Subaru is a self-admitted loser. A shut-in. A broke nobody in the real world. Woo. Inspiring. Another one of these self-professed hikikomori for me to relate to.
Subaru runs into his equally uninspiring co-star, the prototypical fantasy maiden… Satella? Judging by the way Puck reacts in the screenshot above, that’s not her real name. But for now, she’s Satella, and like all fantasy maidens, she’s in need of assistance. She’s lost something very valuable to her — an insignia with a jewel at the center — and Subaru’s just the plucky, determined nipponjin to help her. Like it’s just second nature. I’m a stranger in strange land, and I have no shelter, food, money — hell, I can’t even read the language in this new world, but let me just help you ’cause you’re cute as fuck. Let’s get started then. But we don’t get started. It takes over fifteen minutes just for the two of them to run into and introduce themselves to each other. Then for the next five minutes, Subaru impresses a little girl with a simple coin trick. Then finally, helping the little girl pays off, because her dad gives them a lead as a reward. But not before the main character does some light flirting.
I’ve been blogging for a long time. I’ve heard it all. The anime is world-building, the anime is developing its characters, so on and so forth. But at the same time, after so many years of watching anime, I think it’s only fair that I expect more. I expect more than the scant world-building that we get. It’s a generic medieval fantasy world. I can’t tell Lugunica apart from any of the other fantasy anime cities I’ve come across. Even when we go to the slums, it doesn’t even gain much character. The slums don’t even look very slummy. Just add some hazy filter, and I guess we’re slumming it. Anyway, we’ve already established that Subaru starts off as a stereotypical character, and the same can be said about Satella. She likes to help people. Even strangers she’s never met like Subaru. Is that really character development? Only in the very technical sense of the term. The biggest revelation we get out of her character is that she’s lying about her identity, but this doesn’t suddenly render the first twenty-five minutes an interesting watch.
Ultimately, the best I could say about the placid first half is that it draws a contrast to the second half. And that’s not to say that the second half is a suspenseful thrill ride from start to finish or anything. It’s just that the story finally leaves the station. Subaru and Satella track Felt down to some ominous-looking house, but inside, they are murdered by a mysterious assailant. In his last dying breath, Subaru somehow manages to send himself back in time. What can I say? I like these stupid time-traveling gimmicks. Once Subaru found himself back at the beginning of his adventure, I was like, “Alright, I’ll finish this out.” I just saw Erased, so I guess another one couldn’t hurt. It’s like playing a visual novel where I have to reload a save over and over, because I can’t stop triggering those death flags. The only bad part is that I don’t get to make any of the decisions. Instead, I have to watch Subaru.
That’s why having a generic anime lead hurts. Like, if I’m going to watch someone else make these crucial decisions for me, at least make it an interesting character. I know what my decisions would be, so I may as well see how an interesting character might approach the same situation instead. But when it’s a blank slate — aside from the fact that it’s another hikikomori — it’s hard for me to really get behind Subaru. One of the most maddening things to me is that even by the end of the episode — and at this point, he has died twice and thus sent himself back in time twice — he still doesn’t realize what’s happened. Yes, he spends the entire first episode oblivious to the fact that he’s somehow reloaded an old save. Which is fine in any other story, but not this one. Not when the guy finds himself in a fantasy world and is not a bit nonplussed about it. The guy is all, “Well, I expect to have magic, because that’s how these stories work,” but he can’t realize that he’s gone back in time. It just cheapens the semi-metacommentary from the first fifteen minutes.
This likely gets rectified in the first five minutes of the next episode. It’ll dawn on Subaru what has happened, and we’ll get to see him get to know Satella all over again. Then he can finally start planning to use his special ability more effectively. It’s like we’re still waiting for the story to kick off in earnest. And I haven’t even really gotten to the second of the episode or the anime’s villain (or, at least, one of them). Like I said, it’s not like the second half is a thrill ride. We get shocked into attention when our hero and his main squeeze are murdered, but then the story goes back into a lull. Subaru returns to the scene of the crime, and this time, he gets to know the insignia’s thief and the guy who helps her out. At least Felt and Rom are slightly more colorful than Satella, but this doesn’t mean much. Every fantasy anime likes to juxtapose the refined heroine with a more wild, precocious girl. See Danmachi’s Liliruca.
As for the big bad baddie, her name’s Elsa, and her outfit makes it look as though she just stepped out of Tera Online or any recent Korean MMO. But for fifty minutes, we don’t really establish much. She’s after Satella’s insignia for unknown reasons, and she’s willing to murder for it. But really, she kills a bunch of slum rats, and I can’t imagine that people in this world will cry too much for either Felt or Old Man Rom. The only other interesting thing to note is that she goes on her murdering rampage when Subaru mentions that he intends to return the insignia to its original owner. Elsa remarks how this means that the hero is with “them.” But then again, you can’t even say that this really sets her off, because in the first timeline, she killed Rom anyway, and you have to presume that in that timeline, she managed to barter for the insignia successfully. Either way, people were gonna die.
So far, one of the more interesting thing about Re:Zero is how long the first episode is. That’s not a great sign. I like the time-traveling aspect, but that’s just a personal preference of mine. In terms of storytelling, world-building, character-developing, or what have you, Re:Zero echoes a lot of its predecessors. It’s the same characters, the same world, the same formulaic set-up, etc. We just mix in a gimmick or two, and here, it’s the hero’s ability to rewind time. But it’s not even a new gimmick. We’re just pairing things together as though writing a story is grabbing a few basic building blocks, then smushing them together to see what you get. Okay, lemme take this rewind time business and… attach it to this medieval setting! But can you blame Re:Zero for this? Practically every show does this. This is how anime has always done it. We take a handful of very basic stories, then just tweak a minor thing or two here and there. This is how we churn out 20 or 30 forgettable series every season, four seasons a year.