By Andrew Osmond.
Re: Zero takes one of the most familiar templates of recent anime, then bends it into a phenomenally twisty series. It starts with a high concept – Sword Art Online meets Groundhog Day. One moment our hero, who’s your common or garden teen boy gamer, is in the “real” mundane world, shopping at a convenience store. The next moment, he’s transported to a fantasy realm. There he finds magic, monsters, beautiful girls from sundry species; the works.
The snag is that our hero, called Subaru, keeps getting killed in very sticky and unpleasant ways. Then he comes back to life in a traumatised blink, to find time has reversed hours or days, leaving his head full of memories of things that never happened. It’s enough to drive anyone mad, and it does drive Subaru mad, repeatedly.
If you’ve followed anime in the 2010s, you’ll know that a certain type of story – “the protagonist finds himself in another world” story – has multiplied drastically. It’s a very old idea. Alice, Peter Pan and Wizard of Oz are Western alternate-world classics from generations ago. So is one of Japan’s great folktales, Urashima Taro, about a fisherman who visits an undersea palace but realises the costs of his adventure too late. Similar stories in the anime world include outstanding titles like Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, Mamoru Hosoda’s The Boy and the Beast, and TV’s Vision of Escaflowne.
The rise of the computer game has seen a vast proliferation of such anime storylines, right from Running Boy in 1986, which featured a hero trying to escape from a game of his own devising. A watershed in the genre came eight years ago with the Sword Art Online franchise, in which youngsters enter fantasy game worlds by donning VR helmets; these worlds are meant to be safe but quickly turn deadly. Sword Art Online was outstandingly popular, particularly in light novel form. A deluge of similar publications followed, cyber and otherwise, and many of them became anime. In 2016, a short story competition in Japan specifically banned alternate world stories, as they’d become so prevalent.
One reason was that so many such stories could all too easily turn into fan fiction for lazy writers, descending into self-insertion wish-fulfilment; at worst, they’re full of teen ciphers on mechanical quests, so self-absorbed that they negate the point of going to another world. But one of the main achievements of Re: Zero is that it’s brilliantly unpredictable. Instead of self-absorption, it takes the hero’s complacent “self” and gives it a heck of a kicking. It’s great fun, but it’s also rather disturbing, and you often won’t have a clue where it’s heading.
One of the show’s black jokes is that at first Subaru, our hero, thinks that everything will play out completely predictably. After all, he’s a veteran gamer who knows the fantasy clichés and heroes’ journeys. Within moments of his arrival, he meets an enchantingly beautiful silver-haired elf girl; she says her name is Satella. Of course, Subaru eagerly accompanies her, offering to help her with her problem – she’s had a precious item stolen by a street thief. So the adventure begins.
Along the way, they help a lost child, they start to bond… and then Subaru has his first experience of his own violent death. Of course, he’s shocked, but he’s resilient enough to start over and try again; and while at first he’s just out to help the girl, he finds other things to care for, too.
Subaru slowly learns more about the world he’s in. There are references to an imminent contest for the throne, and to a dreaded enemy – seemingly this world’s answer to Voldemort – called the Jealous Witch. There are monsters in woods, and dark cults in the shadows. But the narrative is punctured over and over by Subaru’s multiple deaths, which mean that the world is constantly reversing and resetting.
Sometimes Subaru is lucky; he gets to experience small moments, charming little encounters with people he likes, things that anyone would treasure. Then he dies again, and these moments are brutally erased from history, so that only he remembers them. If this is a game, Subaru is not the player. He’s a luckless piece on a board with snakes and no ladders. Even when things seem happy, there’ll be another Bad End just round the corner.
Of course, Groundhog Day-style stories comprise a huge sub-genre in itself. Just the last few months have seen the slasher-comedy-looper film Happy Death Day and the anime Fireworks, Should We See it from the Side or from the Bottom? But it’s much rarer to see this story in a fantasy-world context, where it has a whole different resonance. Re: Zero will feel familiar to anyone who was ever “killed” umpteen times in a computer game or a pre-internet gamebook like The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Looked at one way, the show is a Black Mirror-style tale; what it would be like for a fantasy character to experience everything such a game puts him through, receiving more suffering and trauma than a torture-porn victim.
Yet when Re: Zero’s not monstering Subaru, it’s a very funny show. Many of the characters who Subaru meets are eccentric, sometimes to the point of absurdity. One highlight is a pair of near-identical sister maids who serve in a mansion that’s the base for several episodes. The maids’ deadpan, duetting insults aimed at Subaru are a scream, and they’re not even the weirdest denizens of the mansion. More than once, the talky cast of Re: Zero feels akin to the characters in Mervyn Peake’s classic Gormenghast.
Subaru – who’s livelier, wittier and far more personable than most anime heroes – can’t resist trolling these characters in turn, leading to some delightful badinage. If you’re old enough to remember old-school gamebooks, Re: Zero’s funny bits may remind you of the Grailquest series by J.H. Brennan. Published in Britain in the 1980s, they whisked “you, the reader” back to the days of King Arthur. The books’ dialogue was always funny, their tone always genial, even if you were being fried by dragons or eaten by fungus.
It’s possible that this isn’t complete coincidence. The Grailquest books reportedly influenced Japan’s Jun Maeda, best known as a leading writer of “Visual Novels” (multiple-choice computer stories) such as Clannad. But Maeda also created the anime series Angel Beats!, which feels like an especially close precursor to Re: Zero. Both series feature a boy hero who must die many times over; they also share some of the most extreme tonal changes ever seen in anime, as wacky comedy alternates with horror and anguish. Both series also feature extraordinary character arcs. In Re: Zero, a character can kill the hero slowly and brutally in one timeline, then make a bloodcurdlingly harrowing sacrifice for him in another.
I don’t know if Tappei Nagatsuki, the light novel author who created Re: Zero, ever saw Angel Beats!, or absorbed any influence from Grailquest. Maybe Nagatsuki was inspired by other anime. One possibility is that he saw Higurashi When They Cry, which also has extreme shifts between wackiness and horror, with characters dying over and again. Or maybe Nagatsuki just arrived at the series by imbibing lots of games and anime in general. Either way, Re: Zero is a clever, mind-scrambling and genuinely moving show, that cloaks itself inside comfortably well-worn formulae, then leaps out suddenly to knock the viewer’s head off.