The first in a series of character spotlights where I’ll be highlighting a character’s development throughout the course of the show and explain why I find them interesting from a writing perspective. I’ll generally be sticking to characters that spring up some debate and stand out in the medium by how different or complex they are.
[Major spoilers for Re:ZERO Season 1 (Episodes 1-25) ]
First up to bat, this buffoon:
“Subaru? More Like Stupid-baru!”
If you were following the discussion around Re:ZERO’s airing back in Spring/Summer 2016, you’d remember that Subaru was a very divisive character at the time (to put it lightly). Some empathized with him. Some pitied him. Many found him incredibly frustrating. Ask anyone you know who dropped the show, and they’ll likely cite Subaru as one of their reasons. And if you ask why that is… Well… *Opens scroll*
Subaru learns too slowly, makes the same mistakes repeatedly, and does/says stupid and irrational things a lot of the time. He doesn’t know when to shut up. He’s selfish. Prideful. Incompetent. Clingy. And man, can he stop screaming so much? It’s only death. Sheesh! *Rolls up scroll*
Jokes aside, I do share some of these criticisms of Subaru. However, I don’t think that this makes him a bad character. In fact, his imperfections are what make him a great character (or, at least, a well-written one). Regardless of whether or not I think Re:ZERO is an amazing first season of a show that successfully communicates its themes well, I believe that if you’re looking for character development, Natsuki Subaru is a really good showcase.
Now, development doesn’t necessarily mean a character becomes more competent over the course of a show. Really all it means is that things that happen in the show notably change the character as the plot progresses, and boy does Subaru go through a wild rollercoaster of change.
In the beginning, Subaru is ecstatic. He gets transported to a fantasy world! What more could an otaku like him ask for? Of course, he’s played this kind of game before, so he knows just what to expect. He’s going to level up, learn magic, romance a hot half-elf girl, so on and so forth. It’s going to be great. His life in Japan wasn’t all that great anyway, so why question it? This is awesome!
He is immediately mugged and killed. Woof…
When he wakes back up again, he’s in a daze. What just happened? Why, he was killed, of course! We just witnessed it first-hand, plain as day. Surely, Subaru knows what’s up. How hard is it to accept the fact that he has been killed and brought back to life? And through time travel, no doubt?
I’m being a little facetious here, but this was one of the first prominent criticisms of Subaru starting out, and it only escalated from there. I kept thinking, “Who’s going to immediately realize that they’ve traveled back in time through death?” Even for a genre-savvy otaku like Subaru, I could only imagine how disorienting that would be to experience firsthand! I certainly wouldn’t have been able to connect the dots any faster than he did, but some felt that they would and that it was reasonable to expect him to do the same.
I bring this up only because these types of expectations persisted throughout the course of the series’ airing, and Subaru not coming through on those expectations became a major point of contention. I couldn’t understand why this was a thing because I knew Subaru was not that kind of character.
So, What Kind Of Character Is He?
Before Re:ZERO, the most popular shows of the isekai genre featured protagonists who were basically the exact opposite of Subaru: minimal flaws and a maximum of unearned ability and/or unwarranted charm. Whether you’re a fan of Re:ZERO or not, we all know Subaru doesn’t have much going for him in either of those departments.
For instance, in episode 8, Subaru thinks he’s going to learn awesome magical abilities and is excited at the prospect of being taught how to access this power. At this point in any other anime, you would discover that the character has some sort of unlocked potential that makes them a cut above the rest! But in Re:ZERO, Subaru sucks. He’s weak and remains weak for the entirety of the show.
He does learn some shadow cloud explosion ability (“Shamac!”), but that only screws up his inner gate. Magic never becomes his go-to.
I mean, his most useful “power” can only be activated by him dying. Talk about a raw deal…
Ok, so maybe magic wasn’t his calling, but… oh look, he’s learning sword fighting! Finally, he’s going to kick some butt! Nope. The writer immediately dispels that fantasy as well.
I love the fact that this is the case. Every time you think Re:ZERO is going to fall into some trope-y nonsense with Subaru’s development, it doesn’t. I understand why this could be frustrating to a viewer who just wants to see our MC (main character) “get good”, but I know that Re:ZERO isn’t that show and Subaru isn’t that character. In this story, the only way Subaru is special is the fact that he’s super not special. Outside of the “return by death” thing, he’s the epitome of unremarkable. He’s eventually rewarded for some of his efforts, but up until then, the writer never treats him like he’s the best thing since sliced bread. In fact, he does the opposite, taking many opportunities to highlight some of Subaru’s most negative traits. And that’s really cool from a writing perspective.
Is Subaru Really a Hikikomori?
Early in the show, Subaru makes a quick, offhand comment about being a “shut-in” in a lighthearted conversation with Puck. The translation says “shut-in” but the actual dialogue says “Hikikomori,” which basically refers to the same thing: a social recluse. And that’s roughly the extent to which the writer explicitly talks about the subject, so it’s easy to forget that it was ever mentioned.
That said, some of those that remember this fact have a hard time seeing Subaru this way. After all, for a shut-in, it’s well established that Subaru is a pretty athletic and sociable guy. Since he’s so outgoing and energetic in his new fantasy home, it’s hard to imagine him being the opposite in his previous life. Is this an error on the writer’s part, or does Subaru being a hikikomori only exist for convenience sake? The answer to both questions is no.
I think that Subaru might be a hikikomori, though maybe not the extreme case that you would see portrayed in something like Welcome to the NHK, for instance. Based on my limited understanding of the two terms, I’d liken Subaru to more of a NEET (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) than a hikikomori.
A NEET is generally someone who deliberately avoids seeking full-time employment or higher education. Instead, they either stay unemployed or choose to take on low-wage part-time jobs to get by, if they can’t rely on things like allowances from family members. As a result, they may be depicted in anime as someone who stays home most of the time, only leaving to buy the essentials for their survival. This behavior tends to contribute to or coincide with being a hikikomori, but that doesn’t necessarily always have to be the case, though anime certainly likes to conflate the two terms.
Subaru later confirms himself to be a homebody that does indoor exercises and plays video games all day. So, by his word, he’s someone who isn’t contributing to society in any significant way (NEET).
However, outside of some hints you might glean from the brief real-world scenes we saw in the beginning of the show, he doesn’t really show signs of any major social impairment, like you’d see in your average hikikomori.
Regardless, even if he did exhibit hikikomori behavior in Japan, we must remember Subaru is treating his new life in this fantasy world as just that, a new life. One with a clean slate. Not only that, but he treats it like a video game, where he’s the main character and everything centers around him. He has this newfound sense of importance and purpose. It’s everything he’s always yearned for made into a reality. He has a different attitude about his life, therefore he’s going to behave differently than he did back in Japan.
That is until some of those latent negative qualities of his personality begin to manifest later in the series as he continues to suffer and be challenged time and time again.
Subaru’s Deteriorating Mental Health
Whether you believe it is a realistic depiction or not, Subaru clearly suffers from psychological trauma. According to PsychGuides, common emotional symptoms of trauma include “denial, anger, sadness and emotional outbursts.” (Boy does that sound familiar… Let’s continue.) “Victims of trauma may redirect the overwhelming emotions they experience toward other sources, such as friends or family members.”
I’ve read arguments that even if Subaru is experiencing trauma, his attitude is erratic. Sometimes he’s up and sometimes he’s down. Some have argued that psychological trauma, in general, should be long-lasting. However, that isn’t always the case. Trauma affects everyone differently. Subaru may display some symptoms sometimes, and they may only last a brief amount of time before similar or different symptoms surface later. It’s not totally inaccurate if he doesn’t display every symptom associated with psychological trauma all the time for an extended period of time.
Episode 15 is probably one of the most talked about Re:ZERO episodes, and that’s because a lot of crazy stuff goes down. This is also probably the most blatant depiction of Subaru’s mental anguish because, at this point, he’s been reduced to a catatonic state, where he barely moves or talks or acknowledges his surroundings.
I know this is one of the things that was laughed about and meme-ified by some (especially since this episode introduced Mr. “My Brain Trembles!”), but this state of stupor that Subaru experiences was likely caused by something called a brief psychotic disorder. This was triggered by the overwhelming psychological trauma that Subaru had experienced up until that point. (I mean, the episode literally opens with Subaru discovering the corpses of all the friends he had made up until that point before freezing to death himself.)
Yes, a “brief psychotic disorder” is a thing. So, it is possible that witnessing Rem’s gruesome death by Betelgeuse could snap Subaru out of it, as it ended up doing towards the end of the episode. Sadly, it was converted into blind rage instead, which didn’t help him much in the next few episodes.
Desperation And Brokenness
In episode 16, when Subaru negotiates with the candidates for the royal throne, you learn how desperate he’s become. He requests help, but can’t talk specifics to the people whose help he’s requesting. He wishes everyone around him would just “get it,” even if that’s an unreasonable expectation, considering where he stands in their eyes.
The time resets put a strain on him and the rage he feels toward Betelgeuse clouds his judgment. He’s experienced a terrible future and the memories are so vivid that he expects everyone to feel the same sense of urgency he has. At this point, he’s witnessed so many terrible things and is so wrapped up in the horrifying thoughts that plague his mind that he can no longer step outside of himself and think rationally. And yet, he expects people to help him when he’s given them no convincing reason why they should.
Instead, the people he’s clinging to for assistance use him, humiliate him, and doubt him. They accuse him of being selfish and acting like a mad dog. Belittle him to a status of a pig. On top of all his rage and mental preoccupations, he’s severely emotionally wounded. Why some viewers felt it was fair to expect Subaru to behave rationally during this time is beyond me.
Finally, in episode 18, Subaru breaks down. He laments that he cannot do anything to save anyone, and seemingly has no options left. He suddenly takes off running at full speed as if he’s made a decision…
His Plan Is To Run Away! …Wait, What?
What I love about this episode is that Subaru reacts in a way you don’t typically expect a MC to (as he’s done consistently in the show). He’s running away! He’s actually going to abandon the purpose that he assigned himself. His main goal. His reason for living! He’s finally reached Game Over and doesn’t plan on replaying. Not many writers would allow their main protagonist to behave this way. It would be like if 3/4 of the way through the series, Naruto just gave up on becoming Hokage. The thought would never cross his mind.
Every time Subaru tries something new to save the castle, it fails miserably. He’s tired of dying, tired of seeing people die. As a viewer, even I was exhausted and stressed out. I kept thinking to myself, “What could he possibly do next? How is he going to remedy this? He’s outmatched completely.” Like he kept saying in this episode, he is weak. All the negative things about himself that people kept exploiting in the previous episodes… that all stacked up, toppled over, and crushed him. Before this point, Subaru was a self-proclaimed hero. But now? He began to recite what he truly felt about himself: nothing but hatred.
Yes, Subaru is selfish. He just wants to live a comfortable RPG life with his RPG wife. However, he also doesn’t want to see the people he cares about get hurt.
He felt important in this world. He felt like he had been given a purpose. He placed his identity in being the hero that could save everyone. But he never was quite that, and he had been denying that fact up until this point.
And finally, he’s backed into a corner and the only thing he can do is run.
Settling For Less?
He asks Rem to come with him, not because he’s settling for the next best thing, or feels that he should at least be rewarded with this, but because as much as he loves Emilia and everyone else, there’s nothing he can do to save them. Rem has been with him the whole time, and while he doesn’t share the same love for her as he does for Emilia, at this point she is the only person he believes he can protect.
Plus, who would want to run away by themselves, only to just be lonely again? Subaru acknowledges this himself in the episode; he does not want that anymore.
So, Rem is there, has been there, and it makes sense that he would want to take her with him if he can. After all, if he doesn’t, she’ll most likely end up hurt by the deaths of everyone in the mansion and may end up dying herself. Again. So him wanting to run away with her is probably his last-ditch effort at saving her.
Of course, he didn’t want this. Running away was never his goal. In fact, he tells Rem that he agonized over this decision. He’s just worn out and beat down. He realizes his existence is only causing everyone more problems and his help was never needed in the first place, despite how much he has tried to deny that fact. He thinks there is nothing he can do except continue dying and causing death.
Subaru explains that he needs Rem. In this episode, he pleads with her to choose to run away with him. He tries to convince her by describing what their idyllic life together would be. He tries and tries because he knows that if she doesn’t come, he’ll be back to square one. It’d be his life in Japan all over again: solitude with no purpose. No real reason for living. A hollow existence.
And he’s terrified of that.
A Hero Is Born?
Well, not quite, but his heart to heart with Rem helps him clear his head and release the dark thoughts about himself that he had kept inside for probably his whole life. In episode 19 out of 25, we finally get the turning point for Subaru that we were so desperately yearning for.
We’re seeing his words from the last episode being put into action. Now back at the capitol, with his judgment no longer impaired, he shows us that he has learned some things from his experiences with the other candidates, and is finally negotiating properly. He’s sitting confidently, instead of with his head down. Things I didn’t even care to remember from some of the previous episodes, Subaru kept in mind. He used everything he could muster up to develop a strategy.
Is he suddenly a perfect protagonist? No, and I don’t want him to be.
Sure, as the show closes out, the writer rewards Subaru with some scenes of heroism (not without killing him one more time, of course), but I believe giving him some time to shine was deserved. Not only for his character development, but it was also rewarding for the viewer to finally see him succeed for once. Besides, I know that Subaru still has a ways to go and that’s part of what I find so fascinating about him. He’s still a flawed kid who is only just starting to make up for his mistakes.
While Subaru saves the girl, he doesn’t actually get the girl. Sure, he finally accomplishes what he set out to do and keeps Emilia alive, but she doesn’t suddenly acknowledge him as a lover. However, she’s grateful and begins to understand him more.
And I’m hoping that reading this helped you understand him better as well (nice segue, self!). You may still despise Subaru as a person (which is fine), but I do hope that this article at least showed you how well-written of a character he is. I hope you can also see the awesome potential for even more significant growth from him in the next season of Re:ZERO.
Thanks for reading! Who’s your favorite character from Re:ZERO? Are there any notable characters from other series that you wish for me to highlight in the future? Post below, and I’ll be happy to respond! If you’d like to watch Re:ZERO, you can stream it on Crunchyroll or pre-order the blu-ray. If you’re interested in more content of this type, feel free to check out Grant’s Exploration of Ryo (Devilman: Crybaby) and Astra’s Yu Yu Hakusho Character Analysis.