(Photo: Polygon.com)

‘Re: Zero’: Thrilling adventure in a fantasy world to evolve through deaths and revivals

Stepping out of the convenience store on his regular evening routine, Subaru Natsuki (voiced by Yūsuke Kobayashi in Japanese), a high school dropout, is summoned to a fantasy world — with only his old sportswear that hasn’t been washed for days, his phone in the pocket, a cup of ramen and a bag of chips. 

Premiered in 2016, “Re: Zero — Starting Life in Another World” is an anime series with heavy contexts about death. The high-quality production with impressive sound effects makes a major impact on the audience by masterfully portraying the extreme emotional and shocking moments of despair and misery. It is almost startling to see Subaru’s persistence and development through drastically painful experiences. 

Initially, I disliked Subaru for his unreasonable conduct throughout the series. Pompous and reckless, he is an immature young adult in a society who never understands what others think or want. He assumes that everyone should accept his good favor because he believes what he does is beneficial for them. For example, during an important meeting, Subaru thinks of himself as brave and kind-hearted by speaking up for people at a disadvantage. But in fact, his discourtesy and ignorance leave them in an even more uncomfortable situation than before. 

However, as I watch it for a second time, I find his weird and foolish conduct understandable. Being considered a loser in the real world, Subaru is eager for recognition and desperate to prove that he is special for being summoned into this fantasy world. Yet, instead of an escape from his miserable reality, he has to go through numerous trials that are harder than anything he would ever experience in the real world. 

The trailer for an extended version of season one.

In a world of powerful magicians, sturdy orcs and mighty elves, Subaru is a weak and powerless human with the ability of “Return by Death,” where he would return to a safe checkpoint in time after death as if he were in a video game. Although the ability seems like a gift, it turns out more like a curse. If Subaru tells anyone about this ability, the listener will die. What’s worse, he reeks of a terrible scent, which many people in the fantasy world find repulsive and evil (Subaru suffers a lot because of people’s stereotypes towards the scent, but he doesn’t realize it for almost one-third of the first season).

Subaru is tormented by the perplexity of his circumstance as well as fear of death after being mysteriously killed several times. Eyes dazed with terror, Subaru runs and hides, but he is still bewildered at why people around him foster such strong hatred towards him and accuse him of being evil, even though he is helpful and kind to them. Subaru doesn’t realize this is because the scent he gives off.

In the cycle of deaths and revivals, when Subaru is brutally assaulted and left helpless, the voice actor’s astonishing performance in presenting the extreme pain and fear of Subaru is impressive. In addition, the fantastic background sound — the dripping sound of blood, dissonant sounds and frightening chords  — cast a shadow of spookiness. 

Promotional posters for Re:Zero season one (left) and season two (right). (Photos: re-zero-anime-jp)

The most touching scene that highlights the growth of Subaru of season one is when Subaru overcomes the fear of death for the first time. 

When Subaru finally survives and sees the sunrise after that night, he finds that someone he cared about is killed in replacement for him. A strong sense of guilt steals over him — she died because of his cowardliness, eluding from resolving the puzzling circumstance that leads to his death. In his determination to save her, Subaru jumps off a cliff, voluntarily triggering the time reverse, disregarding extreme pain of death by falling onto hard rocks.

“Re: Zero” is an unprecedented approach to the old theme of time-traveling and adventure in the fantasy world. With great production and outstanding sound effects, the audience will have a breathtaking experience seeing a man-child with clear shortcomings wallow in the fantasy world, learning to overcome himself and protect the people he cares about through his cycle of traumatic deaths and revivals. 

With the second season of “Re: Zero” on broadcasting, I look forward to seeing Subaru’s new adventure.

Re:Zero — Starting life in another world
Reader Rating3 Votes
Excellent sound effects
Strong character development
The story is a great adventure in a well-designed fantasy world
Dark themes about death may be difficult to swallow
Repeated violent and bloody scenes of people being killed
Portrayal of extreme emotions

— By Hermione Xian

Originally published in the Sept. 22 issue of the Octagon.

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