Re:Zero truly wanted to be something. It shoots for the stars, it tries new things and throws the characters through so much torture and misery that the fantasy-world they are living in resembles more a hell. They boil in this hell, fuming with anger and regret, any shred of happiness they find fading almost immediately to nothing.
But Re:Zero isn't something. It reaches for its dear, dear life, but remains in the end wholly unremarkable shounen fare interested more in shocking the viewer with gore and theatrics than in telling a genuinely meaningful story. Re:Zero may not be terrible and irredeemable, but it certainly struggles throughout most of its twenty-five episodes to demonstrate that there is more to it than this. What is there in Subaru's tragic story that the audience can take with them at the end? What does it want to say? Not a whole lot, to be sure. Re:Zero is ambitious in mediocrity, notable only for its perverted sense of drama.
(Minor spoilers will follow from here, as it is near-impossible to discuss an anime like this without revealing anything.)
I have seen many people compare Re:Zero to Steins;Gate in the months since its airing. This is a great disservice to Steins;Gate. Where Steins;Gate spent nearly half its runtime developing the setting and its characters before asking the audience to empathise with and feel for them, Re:Zero does so immediately and does not ever ask for consent. It never develops its setting in any meaningful way-- about all you know for the duration of the story is that it is generic fantasy-land where people hate witches and bad things happen all the time-- and it throws death and gore at the viewer from the very first episode, when nobody even knows or cares about who Subaru is. It is shocking to see major characters die within the first episode, to be fair, but it no longer feels shocking the second, third or eleventh time.
If there was any consequence to these events, it is immediately brought to nothing by the show's contrived gimmick of rebirth and time-travel. It doesn't really matter if someone does die, as time will conveniently bend backwards for Subaru's sake-- never to the beginning, and always to the last major event in the story. There is no cost and no meaning to anything that happens. Subaru's mistakes are immediately erased upon rebirth, and he can go on about his day with nothing but his own guilt holding him back. He is the God of his story and the world is his playground.
What Re:Zero does to compensate for this is killing its characters off in increasingly brutal ways. They will lose their limbs, be hacked to death by chains or tortured to the point where they no longer resemble a human being. It is violence without meaning, as artificial as can be, extreme and over-the-top to the point that it can almost at times resemble satire. Everything that could possibly go wrong does go wrong for Subaru and friends, long before you are given any reason to care about their fates in the first place. The fifteenth episode is easily the biggest offender in this regard as it is nothing more than one massive slaughterfest, intent on making you feel bad for Subaru and his many waifus, him screaming in rage and gurgling on blood like it is some sort of torture porn. It is entirely possible for fiction to contain elements of death and gore without it negatively affecting the story, and in some cases it is even necessary, as it is for stories focused on issues such as war. Death is an entirely natural phenomenon, and humans are evidently not above committing acts such as murder. The issue with Re:Zero is that its death and gore exists for itself. It exists to shock and enrage the viewer, rather than serving as a product of the setting or as a vehicle for more substantial themes. For some people, this works, and throwing a character through a hurricane of awfulness is enough to instil sympathy. That's great, and I don't hold any ill will against these people. If anything, I am envious of how easily they can feel emotion. What actually bothers me is how effortless this method of storytelling truly is, and the audacity Re:Zero has to pretend it is something profound and on-par with film, as it did in the credits of the fifteenth episode. Re:Zero is visceral and sensually striking, and yet ever so empty.
"Empty" can easily be used to describe the characters as well. Emilia, for example, exists as little more than a personification of the average anime fan's ideal woman, similar in many ways to Asuna from Sword Art Online, and lacking in any meaningful characterisation besides her occasionally getting upset at Subaru. It's even more baffling that Subaru chooses her in the world of romance when she has done very little to win over his affection or help him, aside from giving him a place to stay for a couple days. She may as well not even exist-- the only reason she even does is to create more senseless tragedy for Subaru.
Rem and Ram are much better characters, as they actually have legitimate characterisation, backstory and development over the course of the story. The issue with them, particularly Rem, is that this development occurs so suddenly that it feels more like a complete change in character than an extension of who they really are. Rem goes from hating Subaru's guts to being so completely in-love with him that she is willing to follow him to the ends of the Earth and sacrifice anything for his sake. To be fair, there is reason for this abrupt change in personality: Subaru is one of the only people who has ever shown her kindness, and he did so selflessly, on several occasions, without regard for his own safety. He does a great deal to win over her trust and respect. But the extent to which she loves him, especially when she was still cursing his name just a couple short episodes before, is so extreme that it feels less like a natural progression of her feelings and more a way to instil feelings of love in the viewer, to make her palatable to otaku, an ideal girlfriend of sorts, a "waifu" much as Emilia is. It is very hard to convince me that her feelings are anything more than a fleeting puppy-love when merely showing her a bit of kindness is enough to immediately turn Subaru from her most-hated person in the world to her most-cherished one. It feels fake-- it feels like a lie, as many things in Re:Zero are revealed to be.
Betelguese, as creepy a bastard as he is, is by far one of the most obnoxious presences in the entire show. He is there, presumably, to create a sense of horror, as he will bend his body in unnatural ways, chew off his fingers in anger and bleed from his creepy little eyeballs, among other things. In reality, he is so loony and ridiculous that anything he says or does feels immediately silly, destroying any of the supposed horror he was supposed to generate. See, the thing most anime get wrong with horror (and indeed even most fiction in general) is that a truly terrifying character is not a raging lunatic, but rather someone totally ordinary and conscious of their actions. Hannibal Lecter is scary. Betelguese is anything but. If you want me to feel scared, do so in a way that resembles a reality humans can actually relate to, rather than a fantasy made of the likes of ghosts and goblins and bowl-cutted priests who eat their fingers for no reason.
Most of the side characters are weak and one-dimensional as well, as they either serve as more empty harem material (with flat-out catgirls and lolis), are defined by a single-trait or catchphrase (as Beatrice and Roswaal are), or are there as a weak attempt to instil more horror, like the stupid kid on the carriage (whose name I forget because I was too busy being angry at his annoying voice and how dumb the scene was) who completely breaks character and turns into a raging lunatic in another shallow attempt to push the story in a dark direction. The one main exception is Wilhelm, whose backstory and motivations truly do feel meaningful and justified. It is just a shame that he is immediately thrown to the benches again once this backstory reaches its quick end, serving afterwards as little more than some old dude who is skilled with the sword.
This leaves our buddy Subaru. I think, without exception, he is the factor that determines one's enjoyment of Re:Zero. If you can put up with his utter stupidity, you will find it possible to empathise with the trauma he goes through and his mental breakdowns that follow. If you are annoyed and disgusted with his presence (as I regularly was), it will be virtually impossible to care about most of what occurs. Subaru is the difference between being a fan of Re:Zero and being someone who actively dislikes it.
In many ways, he resembles a typical shounen hero. He is hot-headed, makes frequent out-of-place jokes (which I never once found funny, by the way), and refuses to ever think things through in a logical process, preferring instead to jump into battles he cannot win or to lash out at innocent people merely because his pride and fragile ego are called into question by his own mistakes. He thinks he is the coolest dude in the world, that he can save everyone through his own power, and the mere presence of someone with more skill than him offends him right to the very core. He yells and cries on a regular basis and seems incapable of having a normal conversation with anyone. Subaru is a child, and without any doubt one of the more infuriating characters I have witnessed in perhaps ever. There were points in the story where his characterisation legitimately made me angry and made me want to stop watching the show. Some moments were honestly baffling, too, such as how he switches from being completely mind-broken during the events of the fifteenth episode to being totally normal (albeit with a desire for revenge) in the next.
I say all this, but the eighteenth episode is actually one of the best episodes of anime I have seen in quite some time.
Let me explain.
Where the first two thirds of the anime spent its time showcasing unnecessary gore, Subaru's stupidity and empty characters who exist for little more than space on hug pillows and other creepy merchandise, the eighteenth episode redeems the anime and gives meaning to all that has happened, even if it doesn't erase its mistakes. It is an episode dedicated entirely to characterisation. It is a single conversation where Subaru shows remorse for his actions, recognising all the mistakes he has made and why he kept making them. He understands that he is a deeply flawed, broken person incapable of saving anyone or indeed even himself. It is at this moment that Subaru becomes aware of who he is. And you know what? I stopped hating him as a result, even if I still fundamentally disagreed with his actions and his character. He showed himself to be a human being for the first time in the entire story.
I have great respect for scenes such as these. It's not often we get entire episodes dedicated to something as ordinary as a conversation. Re:Zero didn't need to use gore and death to identify its characters or make us care - it did so merely by giving Subaru a stage to speak. This leaves just one question: why didn't Re:Zero do this from the very beginning?
It's a bummer, as there was actually potential for a great anime. The pieces were there, and the writer and the staff behind the anime demonstrated that they had the talent to execute things in an effective and honest way. The music is excellent, complimenting Subaru's struggles without ever going overboard in sappy piano pieces and cacophonous orchestral pieces as many shows of its type tend to. Its visuals look totally fine, maintaining a consistent quality despite the longer-than-average episode count and abundant battle scenes, while the facial expressions, if occasionally a bit excessive, are undeniably effective at demonstrating the characters' pain and anguish. Re:Zero is very much a well-produced anime; you can tell that the people at White Fox truly wanted to create something special.
I think this is why, even if I was bothered by most of the things I witnessed during my viewing of Re:Zero, I don't think it is a truly awful anime. It may not be a good one, not by any means-- its mistakes cannot be so easily erased-- but I do think its consistent effort and its eighteenth episode do at least redeem it to the extent of being a passable anime. It's why you see me giving Re:Zero a mediocre rating in my review rather than a poor one. I dislike much about Re:Zero, but for that one episode, I was a fan.
I have a feeling I am in the minority here, as opinions on Re:Zero almost seem to be split into a dichotomy. It is the best anime ever made for some, a life-changing adventure packed with emotion, and for the rest, it is a pile of irredeemable refuse aimed at the lowest-common denominator. To be perfectly fair, I am far more critical of Re:Zero than I am supportive of it. Its issues are certainly more numerous than its good points, and having one great episode can only take things so far when the other twenty-four vary from terrible to merely OK. But I'll be damned if I said it wasn't worth putting up with all the nonsense to get to that one point in the story. I just don't know if others are nearly as patient as I am, and I do have my doubts that future material will ever come close to that level of quality again.
Chances are, you'll have a better time with Re:Zero than I did. Many anime fans aren't looking for anything especially profound or complex in their entertainment, and I do not say that to be arrogant or dismissive. It is perfectly valid to watch anime for its entertainment value-- I do it as well, and so does just about anyone who is honest with themselves.
But this is a review and not a fan-piece. I am here to share my opinions and to judge the anime with a critical, yet fair eye. Re:Zero has a great deal of issues when viewed under these lenses, and none of them are insignificant. No matter how emotional its copious amounts of death and suffering made you, it would be quite hard to argue there is much more value to Re:Zero than its spectacle. It is a master at manipulating the audience's feelings, and while it succeeds at entertainment and has one special little moment, Re:Zero fails at making the case that it is anything more than lavishly produced, yet cheap theatre.
The question is, is that enough for you?
It wasn't enough for me.