Loved by few (well, depending on what episode you’re currently on) and hated by MANY, Subaru Natsuki might as well be the most talked-about anime character of 2016. Talking about Re:Zero is talking about Subaru because, while Re:Zero is not really a deconstruction of the isekai genre, it’s certainly a deconstruction of the isekai MC.
NOTE: This analysis contains HEAVY spoilers for the anime!
Over the many discussions I have participated in on the character of Subaru Natsuki, I have noticed that there’s a recurring conclusion to most of them: whether a character is likable or not has nothing to do with how well it is written. In fact, there are often a few misconceptions when trying to assess characters by their likability. For example, disliking a villain means that it’s well-written. So should only villains and antiheroes be disliked? Not necessarily. You see, Subaru Natsuki is not a good, nor a bad person. He’s just human. And by “human” I don’t mean that he’s realistic and easy to relate to. Quite the contrary. Subaru is so human, that the author risks losing the audience by showing us the ugliest side of a human being. We are talking about a side that we do not like to see, let alone admit that we have. There’s envy, guilt, hatred, pride… and many other negative emotions that come out when an individual is put under huge amounts of stress or when they have nothing left to lose. Such is the case of Subaru Natsuki.
The isekai genre is filled with characters for self-inserting, and so a character as flawed as Subaru can be a bit jarring at first. “Hey, that’s not what I would do!”, “Why is he behaving like this?”. Every week that a new episode aired, the anime community would be divided depending on whether they agreed or disagreed with Subaru’s decisions. Some even argued that Subaru was overreacting. But the thing is… can we even put ourselves in Subaru’s shoes? Coming back from death is not a thing, so we can’t possibly have any information on how that could mentally affect Subaru, let alone relate to him. It gets even worse when you consider that Subaru has been brought back multiple times, that most of his deaths are painful and traumatic, and that he’s also seen those he loves die over and over. On top of that, he’s not even able to talk about it with anyone. Ask any therapist and they’ll tell you that the best way to start overcoming trauma is to open up and talk about it with someone. Subaru just can’t. The question is: why is anyone even asking for Subaru to act rationally?
Putting external traumatic events aside, Subaru is someone who already had some issues before even being summoned to this world. The signs were very subtle, but they were all there from the beginning – the opening scene where Subaru is buying some groceries shows the face of a man who’s pretty much dead inside. There are more hints at something not being quite right with Subaru after that, but it probably takes some re-watching to catch them. His issues finally become explicit and come to the surface in Episodes 12-13 with the Royal Selection fiasco. And, in case someone classified that outburst as “out of character”, Subaru straight-up spits out the harsh truth and all his self-hatred in Episode 18.
So what are those “issues”, really? Subaru’s full background was not been explained in the anime (it actually comes up a bit later in the novels), but we can already draw some conclusions from the things he’s showed us, especially from his rant in Episode 18. We know that Subaru is a 17-year-old neet, that he works out (yes, the two things can be compatible) and that he lives alone. And, from the dead eyes he has in the beginning (his “evil, off-putting stare” is something that is often commented by others throughout the series), we can deduce that he was not happy with his life. In fact, that way of life is what he considers to be the cause of his misfortune. The reason why Arc 3 (especially episodes 14-18) are so highly praised is not only for the brutal, shocking events that take place, but also for Subaru’s attitude and the way he deals with the situation. Long gone is the cheerful, obnoxious boy who kept doing meta commentaries. Arc 3 Subaru is arrogant, obsessive, hate-driven, and borderline psychotic (the anime skipped Subaru unconsciously attempting to stab Crusch with a spoon. Yes, I said spoon).
To understand what exactly made Subaru snap in Episodes 12-13, we also need to understand why Episode 13, “Self-Proclaimed Knight, Natsuki Subaru”, was so controversial in the first place:
Some viewers thought Subaru was acting out of character. Again, Subaru has always been like this. It’s just that it wasn’t until this point that the situation forced that negative side to come out. The very unfortunate “You should have a greater debt to me than you could ever repay” line is actually related to the hero complex he’s had since the beginning. It’s just that neither Reinhard nor Roswaal were there to save him this time.
Subaru didn’t get away with it. Any other anime would have had someone like Julius or Wilhelm comment on Subaru’s tenacity as a good trait. Here, that doesn’t happen. Subaru is a nobody, he’s interrupted a Royal event, and he’s publicly insulted the Royal Knights. He got what he deserved. No excuses.
The point of Subaru’s argument with Emilia was not to argue over who’s wrong or right, but to 1) establish that Subaru is a bit of an idiot, and 2) show that their perspectives are completely different. Subaru cannot give a full explanation to back up his actions because he literally cannot tell anyone about Return by Death or the hell he’s been put through so far. And Emilia, who’s been discriminated all her life for looking like the Witch, thinks Subaru is just another person who wants to give her special treatment. All the negative emotions that had been piling up inside Subaru finally come out in the ugliest way after Emilia asks him to step aside and stay at the capital. And the thing is, even if Subaru could come clean about his experience, he would still not be able to justify the fact that he’s got an unhealthy obsession with Emilia. Yes, he might be in love with her, but he’s also proven how needy he can be with those who have offered him a helping hand. It’s, once again, a sign of low self-esteem and a fear of abandonment.
The second reason has to do with what I initially said about Re:Zero being a reconstruction of the isekai protagonist. Assuming that Subaru Natsuki has led a very poor, lackluster life in his previous world, he genuinely sees this new world as an opportunity for him to change and, well, to start a life in another world from zero. Given that he has been sent to in a RPG-like world, and considering the amount of similar anime he’s probably watched as an otaku, he quickly assumes that he’s the main character in this story. He puts on his happy face and prepares for some fun adventures, exciting battles, and of course, his female heroine. The fact that he’s been granted a special power that he calls “Return by Death” is, to him, conclusive enough to assume that he’s now in an RPG world. But while the ability to “respawn” and go back to a previous “checkpoint” is very similar to the mechanics of a videogame, nothing else in Re:Zero suggests such a thing (unless you’re thinking Dark Souls).
Subaru Natsuki is the protagonist of this story, but he’s far from being the protagonist of this world. In this world, he’s a nobody. He’s not smart, nor strong, and he has no talent for magic. Furthermore, his Return by Death is more of a curse than an actual ability that he can control and use to his advantage. So no, it doesn’t matter that he has a point in defending Emilia during the Royal selection, and it doesn’t matter that he goes all out when fighting Julius while talking about justice and bravery. Subaru is not special, and he’s sure as hell not getting a free pass for being the main character. He also doesn’t get a rage-infused power-up after witnessing Rem being brutally murdered by Betelgeuse, nor do his mistakes go consequence-free due to some Deus ex Machina. It’s a clear slap in the face for the genre, and something that is bound to not sit well with viewers who watch the series just to self-insert.
So what can Subaru do when he’s hopeless in Arc 3? The ability to rely on others is a theme that is very often explored in anime, and Re:Zero is no exception. In Episode 11, when trying to make Rem feel better about herself, Subaru tells her that it’s OK for her to lean on him if she ever needs it. He says it doesn’t make her weak, and that he relies on others all the time. Shipping discussions aside, Subaru and Rem’s is easily the most interesting relationship in the story due to how similar they actually are. Both Subaru and Rem had issues with themselves, and so they both find comfort in each other, be it through romance or friendship. When faced by Rem, a depressed girl with an inferiority complex, Subaru invites her to look up, to believe in the future, and to laugh. Ironically, these are all things that he fails to do when things go south for him. In fact, when things take a turn for the worse, Subaru completely shuts down, and barely lets Rem’s unconditional support in. Thankfully for him, Rem is there to return him the favor and remind him of his words in Episode 18.
It’s not until Episode 19 that Subaru actually starts thinking things though and trusting others. This results in him being able to form that alliance with Crusch and Anastasia, which ends up with the defeat of both the White Whale, and Betelgeuse and his fingers. These positive developments in the later episodes, both plot and character-wise, led many viewers to comment on how Subaru had gone back to zero… literally. And I’m here to argue against that – the Subaru from Episodes 19-25 is very different from the one in the beginning of the series. Sure, he’s still a bit of a dork and can get a bit obnoxious sometimes (he says so himself), but he’s a lot more mature, and mentally strong. The bottom line is that, the Subaru at the end of the season would not behave the way he did in Episodes 12 and 13 again.
Even if Re:Zero certainly does not fit in the shounen demographic, it’s still very refreshing to see that this character development does not come from physical (or magical) training. Subaru’s “Shamac” never did much for him, and it’s only because he learns from his mistakes and starts being respectful to others that things start changing for him. Subaru Natsuki is what happens when you give a main character a dose of humility, with lots of suffering on the side. Subaru is not necessarily a better person than he was at the beginning. He’s certainly corrected many of his previous bad habits, but he’s also lost a lot of his sanity and happiness. What Re:Zero tells the audience is that life is not fair, so forget what fiction tells you – things are not “going to be OK” just because you work hard and have good intentions. However, you mustn’t lose yourself to the darkness when faced by adversity either. Being mean to others never solved anything anyway.