By Andrew Osmond.
It’s been a long wait, but at last it’s time to return to the adventures of the time-looped teen hero Subaru with the second volume of Re: Zero. If you’ve not heard of it before, its high concept is Sword Art Online meets Groundhog Day, and you can read more in our previous article here. The comments below include spoilers for the first volume, so be warned.
When we last left Subaru, he had just returned to the Royal Capital – the setting of his first adventures – along with the half-elf Emelia and everyone’s favourite demon maid Rem. While Subaru is theoretically healing after the last few battles, he can’t leave Emelia alone and ends up blundering into the ceremony where the candidates for the royal election – Emelia included – are being nominated.
One tip: it’s well worth re-watching part 12, which was the last episode on Volume 1, which sets up this story arc. The same episode introduces several characters who’ll be very important in what’s to come, including Wilhelm, a gentlemanly old knight, and Julius, a younger knight serving a rival royal candidate.
A very short way into the second volume, while we’re still at the ceremony, Subaru ends up in a confrontation with Julius. Some would see it as a duel of honour, others might call it dick-measuring. It may seem trivial compared to what Subaru has been through previously, but it escalates catastrophically. The situation brings out a nastier side of Subaru’s character than anything we’ve seen before (in earlier episodes, he seemed far wittier and more personable than the average anime hero).
Soon there’s a furious, ugly confrontation between Subaru and Emelia, who literally turns her back on him. From there, things just get worse, and worse, and worse. Increasingly angry and boorish, Subaru is woefully hopeless when new dangers threaten his friends. His downward spiral becomes a plunge to madness, as he time-loops repeatedly, seeing worse horrors with every cycle and growing still more pathetic. Rarely has a hero fallen from grace so fast.
This volume is a very different watch from the first, and much riskier conceptually. Seeing Subaru fail and fail and fail again – there are whole episodes where everything he does is plainly wrong – can be deeply frustrating, even with all the viewer goodwill built up by earlier episodes. Some fans will see it as plain trolling, and be inclined to drop the show. We won’t spoil much, but things do change eventually, and the show will make another huge shift in tone and tempo. There are rewards waiting for the audience, but Re: Zero insists that they’re earned.
Very obviously, the show challenges the whole idea of the hero fantasy and the hero’s journey. One pivotal episode – in fact, the key episode of the whole volume – is mostly just a verbal fight for Subaru’s soul, which is conducted entirely in dialogue between two of the key characters. As a concept it has echoes of the infamous TV ending of Evangelion, with Subaru as a Shinji substitute, but it’s also far more romantic.
Subaru is mostly kept apart from Emelia in this volume, in ways that become horribly extreme. The device recalls less Shinkai’s anime about separated lovers, and more a classic British science-fiction novel, The Separation by Christopher Priest (author of The Prestige), where two brothers are forever parted by maddening shifting realities.
In Emelia’s absence, Rem often takes the centre stage instead, replacing Emelia in the hearts of many Japanese fans. No doubt her blue hair and cute maid outfit helped, but so did her rather extraordinary character arc. As the blog’s previous article on Re: Zero pointed out, there aren’t many anime characters who can kill the hero slowly and brutally in one timeline, then makes heartbreaking sacrifices for him in others.
In Japan, Rem topped one of 2016’s polls of best female characters in Newtype, beating Mitsuha from Your Name. (Rem was also the subject of a bestselling hug pillow, but we’ll skip over that.) Her success probably benefited Japanese voice-actress Inori Minase, who’s enjoyed several plum roles since in anime, including the Asperger hacker Ami in Lupin the Third Part 5, and the bubbly girl lead of A Place Further than the Universe.
This volume of Re: Zero also boast especially good heavies. There’s a monster that we’ll leave you to discover (it’s big and it flies). But there’s also Betelgeuse (aka Petelgeuse), a finger-crunching death cultist who can be described as a satanic evangelist tripping on an acid ocean. His name may be a nod to Michael Keaton’s old zany Beetlejuice, but his floridly-written ranting evokes the grotesque opulence of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books.
By the way, the madman’s ear-aching histrionics are provided by Japanese actor Yoshitsugu Matsuoka, who’s rather calmer in his best-known role, Kirito in Sword Art Online. Time loops can make people change in the most extraordianary ways…
Andrew Osmond is the author of 100 Animated Feature Films. Re: Zero 2 is released in the UK by Anime Limited.