“Before you try to save the world, you need to first try and save yourself.”
I’ve made it clear on his blog that I am a big proponent of the idea of “self-reflection”. The concept of looking back at one’s deeds and actions and pondering on them, whether they were right or wrong, and how it defines oneself both in the past and the future. I’ve talked about this in manga and anime as well, most notable with Issei in the fourth season of High School DxD. It has also allowed myself personally to come to terms with my dislike of Shinmai Maou no Testament, and not devolve into one of those idiots who makes post after post or video after video decrying something they dislike.
Frankly, I think self-reflection is vitally important to how we can behave and act properly in this world, and seeing it in anime has raised many series from good work, to great ones, and that is no truer than with ReZero. After the cut let’s continue our character dive into the main lead: Natsuki Subaru.
When we last left Subaru, his arrogance and the burden of the curse placed on him had stripped away the last defenses of his sanity. We left not the strong and god-like Isekai hero we expect, but instead a broken, selfish, cruel and pitiful lump of a man. Abandon by Emilia who cannot trust him, embarrassed by Knights who thought so little of him, Natsuki Subaru has been left him only his self-importance and his self-hatred. At this time you would think he’d have hit rock bottom, but we still have more hole to dig.
It would be at this point you think that Subaru would try to reflect on his actions, or at least take stock of who he is, cut his losses and try something different. Instead, however, the next handful of episodes consist of Subaru attempting (and failing) to try and save Emilia from the cultists who would see her dead. It is here we see that Subaru has not learned any lessons yet, but instead of pride, we see a sniveling and weak boy go to each of the princess candidates begging them for their help. Each of them turns him down, not wanting to help such a pathetic person, and even when one of the princesses offers it if he’ll “kiss her feet” the fact that he literally almost does it, disgusts her. To see that a man would subject himself to such embarrassment in his eyes is not a man worth having in their service.
With only Rem, who maintains her deep loyalty to Subaru, at his side. We see Subaru attempt to go it alone to save Emilia, only to fail time and again, each time ending up with him being killed in more and more gruesome ways. The darkest of these, when Subaru actually manages to get to Emilia, his attempt to tell her what is going on only ends up killing her through the curse, and sending Puck, the cute animal companion of Emilia on a rampage.
What happens next leads to probably the series greatest moment, and a culmination of everything that has been laid out for now. For Subaru and his constant failures to prove himself or even rescue Emilia, he has finally reached a point where he is ready to call it quits, to hang up his hero cape and cash in his chips. Looking to Rem, he begs her to run away with him, to start over in a new town and a new country, to forget about Emilia and the political game and trying to be a hero. We see here that Subaru has decided to cut his losses and just accept that he can’t do what he wants to do and that it is ok. Now while that is in some cases an admirable thing to do. To know when to quit and to stop beating yourself against a wall, to realize that you can’t do everything, that sometimes you have to accept your own limits. ReZero wisely doesn’t let that be the end but instead takes this time for Subaru to undergo that crucial self-reflection.
The eighteenth episode of the series is just one long single conversation, in which Subaru finally confronts and accepts that he is a man full of self-hatred and pity. That while he puts on the air of a guy who is a “hero” he is only a desperate wannabe who can talk a big game, but do nothing to back it up. That he has wasted his young life being a shut-in NEET and how he is incapable of helping anyone, and more importantly, that he has done everything so far not for Emilia, but for his own personal self-satisfaction. Not because he wants to help people, but because he wants to get high off the feeling of it. In this single monologue, Subaru finally admits what we the viewer have always known: That he’s an absolute asshole of a person.
And then it is Rem, the girl who herself is a walking talking representation of Otaku culture, the living embodiment of the “waifu” that helps him out of it. She tells him that despite all of those things, despite being a man who has nothing, he was able to help her with her own problems and become her “hero.” That while he may not feel the same about her as she does for him, that he needs to accept his flaws and move forward. That by focusing so much on himself, he is blind to how others may perceive him, good and bad. That if he is a man with nothing, then he must start over “from zero” and build himself into something better. It is this speech that finally allows Subaru to accept who he is, and give him the courage to try again, to start over from zero and remake himself into a better person, and better man, not only to save Emilia and win back her trust but to save himself.
The following episodes then see a new Subaru, one who is still the same person, but stronger, wiser, and more accepting of his place in the world. He uses his curse to his advantage and learns to play within the system and politics of the world he finds himself. Subaru becomes calm, humble and realizes that he can’t depend on Isekai main-character powers he never had in the first place. It is through these actions that he begins to win the loyalty and respect of those around him. Whether it is Princess Cruche’s admiration for his brains and knowledge, or Julius, the knight who beat him to near death, respect and friendship. By calming down and taking that time to work on himself, Subaru is able to accomplish more in a few days than anything and in the end, succeed in defeating the cult, saving Emilia and coming to an understanding with her. He still has his flaws, and he still struggles with them, but Subaru is no longer defined by his self-hatred, and assholish demeanor and is on the path to recovery and being an overall better person.
Now as you can probably tell, I love everything about this. The character arc of Natsuki Subaru is frankly one of the best I have ever seen in anime, and is the great comedown, stripping away and rebuilding of everything that Isekai and anime heroes are. I went from wanting to see this piece of shit suffer, to actively rooting for him to succeed, because it is much easier to try and support someone when they realize they need to better themselves. To see that before someone goes out and arrogantly tries to save the world, that they need to spend some time trying to save themselves first. I think much of our current culture, both anime and not, can learn something from that. I also think the story of Natsuki Subaru worked so well, because in many ways he speaks to the general audience of anime, while also working to give some much-needed humility to the idea of the Isekai hero that has so long dominated the medium. It showed to me, a bitter and jaded anime fan at the time, that anime is self-aware and is able to be something more than wish-fulfillment, and I think it proves that anyone if they take the time to better themselves, can work towards becoming a better person. Finally, it is (to me) undeniable proof that ReZero is one of the greatest works of anime in the last decade.
Of course, that’s just my view, and I’m curious what others thought of it.