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Ahh, the reviewer. The first line of defense to quell the flames of irrational thought and often the bearer of bad news for those of the general public. They're the Buzz Killingtons that take it upon themselves to blow the "no fun" whistle and send the partygoers back on the hype-train that they rode in on. It's a thankless job, one that doesn't reward anyone besides the smug satisfaction of the man with the whistle, tipping his top hat and waving "adieu" at the fanbase, outraged that someone had the audacity to bring an analytical lens to the "totally bitchin party, bruh!"
And as the seasonal lineup ends and the hype-train chugs on to the next destination to start the cycle all over again, the reviewer, Mr. Buzz Killington, slaps his final verdict in the form of a nasty wall of diatribes, as he carries on his endless crusade to educate would-be viewers, one party foul at a time.
Now, before I go any further, I'd like to put all my chips on the table. I don't plan to campaign for Re:Zero's public standing, nor will I bastardize its name for the sake of winning the appeal of dissenters. What will be written from here on out is simply one man stating his viewpoint. If that means dispensing the full-range of my vocabulary like a snobby know-it-all, then so be it. As long as my assessment is clearly understood, whether you choose to sling mud at my remarks or practice diplomacy is of no concern to me.
And without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, weeaboos and pseudo-elites, I, ZephSilver, will serve as your Buzz Killington for the evening, as we take a tour through anime's latest mistake, Re:Zero, or as I like to call it, Re:packaged goods.
Writhing in pain it doesn't understand, with paint-by-number personalities that desperately try to express it, Re:Zero is a gaudy, yet entertaining, blowhard that stumbles upon an ingenious formula for mainstream success. In a cynically calculated ruse, Re:Zero combines snippets of set-pieces from other works to create a Frankenstein that's built to be a surefire hit, regardless of how much manipulation is required to keep the circus act up. By capitalizing on the ever-increasing demand for MMORPG inspired settings, time-travel narratives and well... a gratuitous amount of shock value, it captures the general populace's attention with ease. And really, who could fault it? The anime industry has within its grasp a foolproof method to gain the public's ear. A method that's figured out, down to a science, thanks to countless trial and error. It just so happens that this 'foolproof' method is predicated on sales and popularity, whether it receives critical acclaim or not is secondary. Dangling its bait right after the success of works with similar setups, it was inevitable that many would bite. Re:Zero offered many fan-favorite arrangements all in a convenient, one-stop package: a smorgasbord of goodies to satisfy a wide range of palates. And if that wasn't enough to seal the deal, it marketed a premise that potentially subverted the MMORPG formula into something dark and decrepit, capturing any stragglers that might have avoided the bait in disinterest with the promise of something "re:freshing."
The rest was simply a matter of word of mouth. The match was lit, and all that was left was to sit back and watch the wildfire burn. With viewers exalting Re:Zero as "smart," "bold," and "enthralling," ignoring this show's existence became nigh impossible. An anime that was built to be popular. An anime that was predestined to become the centerpiece discussion of every anime-related thread during its run. A wonderful monstrosity concocted in a lab by a board of executives, perfecting their latest endeavor to siphon money out of people's pockets, without so much as making the intent noticeable. I know we all want to hold an optimistic view on this situation but I advise that we take a step back before purchasing the snake oil.
Re:Zero is to White Fox what Kabaneri was to Wit studio: a proven investment, disingenuous or not.
Seriously, think about it for a moment. What were White Fox's most successful outings so far? Akame Ga Kill, a show about gruesome deaths in a medieval fantasy world, riddled with the underpinnings of political intrigue, a setup that deviated from typical shounen fodder, and a broad range of colorful personalities that inhabited its universe. And Steins;Gate, a show about time-travel being used to save your loved ones after a conspiracy was discovered, forcing the protagonist to revisit key events to find the best path to save everyone. Putting aside how you may feel about those shows individually, the fact remains that Re:Zero meshes these two appeals in a fashion that seems far too perfect to be simply a case of coincidence.
When you look back at the shows that garnered the most attention in the last handful of years, how could you not feel that Re:Zero is a product of the machine? There's being at the right place at the right time, and then there's simply casting your fishing line after analytical charts and focus groups indicate that the waters are ripe with hungry prey.
So after stating all this, it may surprise you to know that I fully recommend this show to anyone that confronts me about it. Why may you ask? Well, to be honest, it's pretty entertaining. Whatever my stance may be regarding the title, it cannot be denied that the show is easily digestible. With plot twists at every turn, bloody fatalities being dished out at a moments notice, and cliffhangers guaranteeing your return for more, Re:Zero is a binge-worthy viewing experience. However, my reasons for full-heartedly endorsing the show are probably not the reasons that the creators would probably like. For now, just hold on to that thought, we'll discuss why later.
And with that long-winded preface out of the way, it's time to continue our tour.
Stepping out of a convenience store in modern day Japan and being transported to a medieval fantasy world for no more reason than the writers saying, "We need to start the story somehow," our main protagonist, Suburu, enters Capital City; the epicenter of commerce for this foreign land of Lugunica and the place that would mark his burial ground on several occasions to come. After he comes in contact with a mysterious silver-haired girl named Emilia, he finds himself caught up in a web of deceit, hidden mysteries behind every corner and a bad case of groundhogs day that's marked with the end of his life.
And so goes the rest of his journey, constantly being respawned at key locations similar to game save checkpoints until he conquers a life-threatening obstacle. Death, birth, repeat. A rat churning cream to avoid drowning and hoping its efforts would create butter, allowing for solid ground to escape its entrapment. Some might refer to this as "torture porn" or a snuff film in animated form. And while I might find these sentiments to be a bit overstated, I still can't help but feel like there's an underlying truth to that way of thinking.
There's always a feeling that gnaws away at your subconscious when you watch the show. Something that many viewers may not be able to pinpoint but that they know is there, like the nuisance of a small object stuck in the sole of your shoe or a lingering thought that's just out of reach. I believe this feeling derives from the way the show presents its ideas. Themes that are supposed to be profound but end up taking on a whole new meaning when highlighted in neon lights and announced over a loudspeaker.
Suburu doesn't just die; he's butchered in the most gratuitous way imaginable. A newly gained tactical advantage isn't just implemented; instead, it's buffered through excessive expository dialogue. Character arcs don't just happen naturally; they're highlighted with drastic presentation changes and streams of confetti. In the words of Urban Dictionary, Re:Zero has no chill.
Re:Zero falls victim to sensationalizing things that it thinks would be considered poignant, as is the case with most shows that are said to 'subvert' the formula they're a part of. And by doing so, it indirectly counteracts that notion. A narcissistic protagonist being humbled by the realization that life doesn't revolve around him isn't a great revelation if the show goes out of its way to constantly point it out. Being mentally exhausted from the toll of dying constantly isn't eye-opening if the show literally has to tell you it is. Subtext ceases to hold meaning if the creators have a habit of making its intent obvious. This is the problem that many high-strung shows have, where they don't trust the viewer to pick up on the clues themselves. 2001: A Space Odyssey wouldn't be praised as a sci-fi classic if it had its ideas being pointed out with Blue's Clues paw prints. Se7en wouldn't be a great mystery/thriller had Dora the Explorer show up as a movie guide. Point being, good subtextual content is only good if the creators don't over-extend their control over how easy it's discovered.
Like Erased from winter 2016, Re:Zero's attempts at something far beyond it only backfires when this issue plagues every facet of its existence. It's trying to be symbolic; it's trying to interweave motifs; it's trying to create intrigue; it's trying to tinker with psychology... but, it's doing so in the most ham-fisted way possible. It fully rejects the idea of subtlety in every aspect imaginable, instead choosing to holler everything in an ostentatious display that's borderline masturbatory. A premature celebration of its accomplishments that's mired in the stench of hubris.
Setting tone and forcing tone aren't the same things. You can't give birth to natural reactions by simply pumping your content full of steroids to make it blossom faster. Anything worth having should come to fruition on its own merits through the course of the narrative. Re:Zero is simply too impatient for proper grooming, and as a result, we get villains that are essentially godforsaken hybrids of the Joker, Batman V Superman's Lex Luther, and the wacky waving inflatable tube men located outside of used car dealerships, snacking on their fingers like crispy chicken tenders. We get characters that deviate from common anime tropes to simply fall victim to yet another trope instead. Re:Zero's biggest enemy is itself, a show that can't be subdued even if it comes at the cost of its own integrity.
But what about the people that don't see these issues? What about those who are genuinely enthralled by Re:Zero's efforts? Those who, despite the obvious blare of ‘trying-too-hard’ fireworks, don't pick up on the show's underlying meaning until further inspection? What about the people who push the agenda of the show being "smart," "bold," and "enthralling?" The foot soldiers that perpetuate the show's self-worth, finding depth where others see beyond it? Surely they're not mistaken. What do they see that others don't? As it turns out, the real question isn't what they see, but what they choose to give the show credit for.
It's the interesting themes that Re:Zero flirts with throughout its narrative. The outer shell that masquerades as in-depth concepts. If there's no prior contact with the ideas that Re:Zero presents, this kind of perception is easy to understand. First exposure to something that insinuates a deeper layer could cause any viewer to wax philosophical. And there lies the difference: those that have seen the laminated copy, as well as the genuine article. When the same concepts are seen done right, suddenly that laminated copy starts to become all the more noticeable. And so is the case with Suburu's supposedly "broken psyche."
Like the case for Gakkougurashi of summer 2015, another show proclaimed as a 'deconstruction' of its genre, Re:Zero also takes pleasure in tinkering with delirium, but refuses to dive truly into it. It glorifies the main character's mental breakdown, turning it on and off at the whims of the scriptwriters. With something as easy as a pep talk and hug from LoveInterest#2 being all that's needed to make things better, it's really hard to justify the "psychology" that Re:Zero boasts about.
Want to truly show a mentally broken state? Then have the line between past existence and current life be obscured with each reincarnation, and don't fix it. Just imagine how amazing it would be if the memories of all respawned events were compressed upon each rebirth, to the point where Suburu is no longer aware of the difference between them. It would truly demonstrate the anguish that Suburu suffers through by making the consequence something that's not only visual for the viewer but also something that implies that deeper layer that the show so desperately seeks to obtain. Instead of simply being the laminated copy, it could have been like other animated works that truly dive deep into this concept, such as Satoshi Kon's Millennium Actress and Perfect Blue. Both featured films containing women who slowly lose their minds and grips on reality as they descend further into a fever dream of delirium and jumbled memory. It didn't just carry around psychology like some fashion accessory, but it made it a very real thing for the viewers looking on and the characters that took the plunge into the never-ending spiral of irrational flatlining.
See that the protagonist suffers a loss that he can't simply fix with a jump off a cliff. Have stakes. If respawning to checkpoints is the only way to advance the narrative, the very least the creators could do would be to place Suburu at the crossroad of a decision that would allow advancement only if someone else were to perish. Let there be permanent blood on his hands, not just a never-ending clean slate. Don't resolve psychological trauma like it's just some phase people get over after a few days. Don't just wave around psychology like it's a toy. People don't simply undo damage because the plot demands a rational mind in a given scenario. This shouldn't change even for Suburu. Embrace it fully. Let go of safety nets if you truly want something that's "deep" and not just another copy of something other creators (Satoshi Kon) have proven is possible to achieve.
And really, this is just covering one aspect the show chooses to claim as its own. The same level of commitment is expected for every aspect of Re:Zero, not just some half-assed effort. With these nebulous concepts about redefining a protagonist's importance and exposing inner truths that felt entirely too heady for something as simple-minded as Re:Zero to muster up in any meaningful way, the only chance that the other half that doesn't see the show as "smart," "bold," and "enthralling" could buy into it, is if the show stops trying to find compromise that's easy to live with. It may seem "smart," but it does so with an air of smarminess while also over-pronouncing its efforts. It may seem "bold," but it never takes any risks that could be seen as irreversible. It may seem "enthralling" for advocates, but for everyone else on the other side of the aisle, it's just dumb schlock-entertainment.
And if there was anything that made this half-ass commitment more apparent, it would have to be the presentation that it was given.
Re:Zero is that kid that just learned a new 3-syllable word and just spews it out at every opportune moment in a sad attempt to appear intellectual. There're some elements here that demonstrate some semblance of writing chops, I would give the show that, but the way the writers flaunt their ability to come up with said ideas comes off as conceited, especially when these moments wallow in content that's tantamount to idiotic orchestral displays. It's a proud peacock, flaunting its ideas, while strutting around with toilet paper stuck to its ass. As it navel-gazes, everyone else looks on in amusement.
When I said it points things out with neon lights, this is what I mean.
“Hey, the camera is shaking excessively. Hey, we're giving Suburu a manic expression, one step away from having him foaming at the mouth. Hey, we literally added a 10% darkness opacity filter to Suburu's color scheme. Hey, all of these scene compositions literally bathe Suburu in a constant shadow. Hey, his eyes are big and bulgy. HEY, HEY, HEY!! Do you get it yet!? Hey, are our actions to paint him in an obscure light after a big altercation with Emilia not made clear yet? Please reward us. Please tell us we're smart. I learned a 3-syllable word today! Please applaud my efforts!”
Evil can't be expressed without outlandishly warped expressions. Happiness can't be felt without copious amounts of animated tears, a gust of wind, and painted on blushes. Insanity can't be expressed without darkened eye bags, manic expressions, and rape faces. Everything is calculated. A stage play executed with no blemishes. A play that remains a play. Art that imitates the art of others. Re:Zero wants to be a real boy, but its growing wooden nose tells the truth it doesn't want to admit to itself. If the warped face of anger looks forced, then guess what: it's forced. If the happy moments felt a bit too inflated with random rose peddles flying around and kawaii-level faces, then guess what: it's inflated. If sadness felt unauthentic with instantaneous waterworks and elastic expressions at the drop of a hat, then guess what: it's unauthentic. You're not interpreting it wrong. That pang in the back of your head that tells you this is kinda overkill isn't "just you." Deep down you know what you're seeing is over exaggerated, and after time has settled and you reminisce about key events, that would become clearer than ever. Re:Zero is a novelty act that blinds you with flurries of action and plot twists, but the moments the spectacle is over, what would remain is the realization that what you held dear was nothing more than snake oil sold by a quick-witted businessman.
Even things like auditory cues can't help but feel like the show signaling excessively to get your attention, an example being a high pitched hum, like angelic beings from a choir taking a laxative-laced shit. It could be seen as "chilling" to some, or you could be like me and think it's the angels of heaven passing a kidney stone in orchestic unison. Point being it's played only to signal a disturbance. And seeing that the show is all about disturbances, it just ends up exacerbating a problem that didn't need any more highlighting than it was already getting.
What needed more attention, however, were the characters and environment that the story took place in. For a show that's supposed to be genre defining, it does very little to prove it.
We get characters whose defining personality trait is being a loli with a speaking habit, I suppose. Beatrice and the rest of the loli cast could fuck off, I suppose. But I suppose since half of Re:Zero's main cast is lolis, getting rid of them would leave very little, I suppose. Stereotypical roles don't suddenly become better by simply switching them to another stereotypical role. A visual novel maid character doesn't gain depth by making her “waifu-bait” contestants. And this extends to every other character Suburu comes across on his journey. They're all just there to fill in expected roles, like a bunch of NPCs that are brought to life.
There's no sense of culture. No ethos to pull from. Nothing that defines the world that Suburu is tossed into. Just snippets of ideas cobbled together to serve as yet another medieval fantasy world that draws from the same well as any other. Were Re:Zero the only anime to tackle high fantasy, this wouldn't be a problem, but sadly for it, Escaflowne exists. Rage of the Bahamut exists. Berserk(1997) exists. Moribito exists. There's nothing here that defines Re:Zero. Even trainwrecks like Akame Ga Kill had a better-thought-out universe. And for whatever it does try to establish, it's either extremely overbearing or missing things that could be attributed to half-assed resolve. To go into specific cases would require spoiling some events, so join me in the spoiler section to go over them if you've already seen the show. As for everyone else, skip past for final thoughts.
**** brief spoilers****
(scroll down to avoid)
Naita Aka Oni (The Red Ogre who Cried), is a popular Japanese children tale that teaches kids the cost of assimilation and what it means for loved ones left behind to gain it. This is shown with a red and a blue ogre. Re:Zero attempted to use this story to insinuate the relationship shared between Ram and Rem. But like everything else that the show highlights unnecessarily, this parallel drawn was also made blatantly obvious, with Ram and Rem's hair color being pink and blue, which obviously alluded to the red and blue ogres, respectively. This wouldn't have been a big deal had they kept it at just that, but like I've already stated, the show doesn't trust its audience to pick up on the subtext implied. Instead, we get the arc with the inclusion of both sisters being superimposed with a symmetrical balance of pink and blue at every turn. It beats you over the head with the symbolism it's trying to present. This also included Suburu stating to the sisters that they're “fanatical like demons” with their reactions indicative to their origin as literal demons. It's this kind of obviousness that shows like Erased demonstrate when they highlighted everything in red to insinuate danger. Attempts at cleverness that's just painfully juvenile. And now this same kind of forcefulness is being carried over to Re:Zero.
And 17-minutes into episode 11, Suburu states, "You know, Rem, you keep putting Ram on a pedestal and undermining yourself—," while the camera unapologetically focuses on blue and pink flowers, both literally sitting in a vase (pedestal) of equal height. These are the kinds of things that Re:Zero does repeatedly that demonstrate its lack of restraint. Constantly drawing attention to your symbolism only defeats the purpose of it, to begin with. Symbolism and motifs alike are supposed to be discovered, not spoon-fed. And this is the problem with this show: it can't simply let things be without intervening with forceful resolve.
And then you have ideas that are used only to add detail to the universe or serve as a new plot reveal to keep the story exciting, but that are never properly thought out.
Like the battle against Moby Dick, a beast with the ability to erase the memory of people's existence consumed by its fog. We get an example of this when Rem sacrifices herself to save Suburu and is immediately forgotten by everyone who knows her. But yet, when this incident occurs again during the heat of battle against a battalion in episode 20, the powers don't work the same way. Where in the case of Rem her very presence and existence was erased, in this battle, soldiers only forgot the names of the soldiers lost in the mist but are still aware of the fact that people are missing. So how do people remember a whole platoon going missing during battle when they're consumed when prior cases of the whale's mist made it clear that you wouldn't even be aware of the lack of anything missing? This is just one of many small plotting issues littered across the show, and the only conclusion is that the creator needed another plot twist to hook viewers in, but fell victim to a plot hole later on when it no longer served a purpose.
Suburu is said to smell like the witch to a few people, yet, from all accounts, no one has ever encountered the witch face to face, so how do they know this assessment to be accurate? So the statement:
"Do I smell like the witch?"
is no better than saying:
"Do I smell like the thing you've never seen or come in contact with in your life?"
The entire show is just built on one unanswered question after another. How did he arrive in this world? How does his respawning ability work like a save point? In episode 24, he was shown to restart after getting past the whale and into the mansion, but then he could conveniently go back to the point where he defeated the whale as a save point after he dies at the village? It's obvious that this was done only to bypass having to reset the progression he made with Rem in episode 18. A moment where the show bends its own rules by going beyond simple retconning, instead, rewriting the very nature in which the resets work.
How could he speak their language and be understood but not write their assigned text? It's minor things like this that demonstrated that they wanted to appear insightful, but in actuality had only half-baked ideas… half-baked ideas that gave way to a show riddled with plot inconsistencies.
And then there're just scenes that are supposed to be tragic but just come across as ludicrous. Episode 15 contains the biggest culprit that comes to mind. This is where we met joker-inflatable-tube-man, who proceeded to break Rem's neck and limbs, and yet, somehow, she crawls over to Suburu and uses magic to free him… and this is supposed to be tragic? Nothing about this moment makes any sense whatsoever. And to top it off, it also demonstrates a moment where the writers switch Suburu's mental breakdown on and off whenever it suits the story. This isn't some "deep" moment; it's bullshit.
Re:Zero doesn't know the difference between mental anguish and parading characters around for personal amusement, nor does it understand that tossing ideas and lifting entire passages from other folktales don't mean it would work as a cohesive piece. There's a reason there's no cohesiveness between arcs; all it does is pattern storylines from works that proceeded it. A fairy tale whose identity can't exist without leaching off of others, and whose attempts at something different result in the aforementioned problems.
*******end of spoilers*******
When Hayao Miyazaki said that people "don't spend time watching real people" with industry, in-house anime creators being "humans who can't stand looking at other humans,” this is what he's referring to: shows that can't find inspiration outside of their own anime tropes because the people working on them don't see anything beyond anime. Re:Zero is a self-indulging anime with no worldly influence to speak of. Shinichirō Watanabe, Satoshi Kon, Mamoru Oshii, Yoko Kanno. What made these industry giants well-known was their ability to draw inspiration from influences outside of anime. They brought something new to the table, a claim that shows like Re:Zero can't prove. It's a product of its environment. Anime feeding into anime. It's Ouroboros incarnate.
Remember that thought I told you to hold on to, as to why I still suggest this show, regardless of how I feel about it? Well, this is the reason why. This is what it all boils down to. Re:Zero is an embarrassingly pompous try-hard that's fun to gawk at. It's a show that has proven to be a source of entertainment for those unconcerned with the finer details and who simply want to be amused for 20-minute intervals, as well as a comical mess for those who do see beyond the smoke and mirrors and enjoy dissecting silly shows for purposes of discussion. It's a show that takes itself dead serious while being oblivious to the fact that it's anything but. It's the Elfen Lied, the Mirai Nikki, the Akame Ga Kill, the [insert your own example here] of 2016. A show that could appeal to everyone, regardless of how they view their entertainment or how much thought they place into the pixelated images flooding their peripheral. It's the "M. Night Shyamalan" of animated works, a name big enough to fill in seats on opening night, but consistently funny enough for critical thinkers to jump in knowing they'll experience something amusing, even if unintentional.
Everyone wins. The studio heads make their profit; the majority get to be entertained, and the critics get a new punching bag for their inner circles. The world needs titles like Re:Zero. Titles that everyone will see. Cynical cash grabs will always come and go, but if I'm given a choice in the matter, I at least want my price of admission to be a show that's still entertaining. And with Re:Zero, that's what I got, a good ole dumb time.
Re:Zero is a great show if you don't care for subtlety, think 2-D waifus are laifu and are impressed by characters emoting in boisterous ways. But in terms of actual quality, this is an anime that puffs its chest out, holding its breath for as long as it can, with the slightest release exposing it for what it truly is: hot air.
I could count on one hand the number of shows I've ever used the forbidden "pretentious" word on without so much as second guessing my stance and I would unequivocally state here and now that Re:Zero became one of them. A show that strong-armed me into using a buzzword that I promised myself I would use only as a final ultimatum. And in a way, I guess that could be seen as an achievement. So congratulations Re:Zero, a show where only the cheapest blow every self-respecting critic dare not to resort to, could be the only appropriate response left available. But in this case, it's worth it. No other shows I've seen in recent years deserve the rare honor more than this. Take the mantle Re:Zero. You’ve officially become the most conceited MMORPG-inspired anime to date.
Re:Zero is spray-on tan psychology with peel-off sticker-tattoo themes. It's the kid on internet forums who are constantly saying "90's Baby," with a 1999 birth certificate. Its out-of-touch executives googling anime-related search results in an attempt to assure their product is "totally dope.” It's an anime that's rallied in on a stage sponsored by corporate suits, with "best waifu" pillows and other merchandise already pre-made upon launch date. Re:Zero is shallow, plain and simple. A skim off the surface of whatever topical events stick their noses out far enough to be noticed by those too busy counting the zeros in their bank account to dig any deeper.
But you know what? That's fine. I watched it, laughed and had a good time. And if people could cherish the laminated copy with the same vigor that others do the genuine article, who am I to stop them? Shows like Re:Zero will always come and go; you could either fight it or say "fuck it" and simply kick back and enjoy the nonsense on screen.
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