Management: Unlike more formal entries, this post is just me kind of freewheeling some hate I’ve worked up on something or other. I intend they be civil, but they are rants. They are demonstrably more passionately accusatory towards something or someone, but the points I’ll make will at least be coherent. I won’t do these on a regular basis. They’ll just spontaneously spring to mind one day in a conversation, and I’d rather at least the reasonableness, if not the rhetoric, of my sentiments remain etched somewhere for other people to read and reference.
Let me at least partially clear the potentially poisonous air that might settle around this post when I say that I’m a fan of Re: Zero. I’m not opposed to watching otaku-targeted shows heavy with otaku commentary. In fact, I quite enjoy them. I enjoy otaku characters engage in contemplation. I enjoy otaku creators creating critical discussions about themselves and their subculture. Commentary from shows have motivated me to do a decent amount of independent research on these matters. The conclusions that I’ve arrived at this research are as follows:
I see a subculture of otaku that are simultaneously problematic in some of the things they like and pitiable in some of the reasons why they like them. Subaru Natsuki is a fictional example of one of those otaku sights. He’s toxic in certain respects, kind in others, with deep insecurity towards himself connecting these two aspects of his character. His behavior can dip into sometimes questionable, sometimes deplorable, and many times frustrating depths. And yet, I find him relatable enough that I can’t help rooting for his self-improvement and happiness.
In that specific order of self-improvement and happiness. While I personally think the act of humanizing otaku is a worthy goal to pursue, I also personally think that some of the values otaku profess holding are dehumanizing. They are values that I believe we should avoid and protest. We should avoid and protest them even when those values seem to be presented to us unintentionally, if not deliberately. After all, media shapes the thoughts of those consumers unaware or ill-informed of certain values. Media also reinforces and hardens the held-values of people whenever they consume like-valued media. We shouldn’t praise Subaru or any other character whenever they believe something problematic, because there are some people may begin internalizing or further internalizing those problematic values as something they should mentally fetter and fasten themselves to as well. We also shouldn’t praise an anime when it frames elements of its narrative problematically. It’s a shame because of how otherwise self-aware Re: Zero happens to be when it comes to the benign and malignant aspects of the male otaku.
So it goes that, without a certain spoiler-ridden cliffhanger that would have occurred probably minutes after the end of Re: Zero’s Episode 25, “That’s All This Story Is About” is problematic on two fronts and are demonstrated via the show’s treatment of Rem. These two fronts are ones that delve into the harem set-ups and fridge stuffing that feminists have been critical of in fiction. Together, they undermine the thematic unity of the anime adaptation, a thematic unity of self-improvement alongside self-awareness that remains intact in the original source material.
Before I delve any deeper into what I mean about harem set-ups and fridge stuffing, permit me lay out a couple themes present in the show that drive some of its conflicts: self-projection and affection.
Re: Zero presents Subaru, the male otaku protagonist, with two different love interests. The first is Emilia. The second is Rem. Subaru makes it clear that he holds affection for both, but between the two of them, Subaru admits to pursue a romantic relationship with Emilia over Rem. He makes that clear to Rem, and Rem makes it clear that she respects Subaru’s preference. Subaru then makes his romantic feelings explicitly known to Emilia. Emilia respects them as well, even as she makes she can’t fully reciprocate them yet.
On the surface of this affection triangulation (and outside of the online raucous raised by butthurt shippers), the above scenario doesn’t sound like something that would provoke controversy. Mutual respect seems to be present within each node of this triangle. Rem might have been disappointed and saddened by Subaru’s decision, but as an individual, Subaru’s entitled to pursue romantically who he wants to pursue. Subaru communicates this sentiment to her while still valuing her as someone he’s close to and cares about.
Beneath the surface, however, is something thornier. Objectively speaking (a phrase that I never use to describe abstract concepts), the show has provided far more content for the audience to consume for Rem than for Emilia. Compared to Rem, Emilia has only the general contours of her character mapped out. Those contours betray further nuances, one may argue, but in terms of backstory and motivations, the details behind them is left to the viewer to imagine. The show illustrates for us Rem’s complete backstory, the clear motivations behind her actions. The show neglects, up to this point, to do provide the same illustratively thorough treatment of Emilia. All of these details inform a defining moment for Subaru and the story in Episode 13, “Self-Proclaimed Knight Natsuki Subaru”, about the kinds of self-projection the otaku subculture engage in when it comes to their preference of woman. Basically, it’s the woman of their corporeal and personality specifications.
Subaru attempts to tell Emilia what he believes she should think and do. Emilia responds that she’s not who Subaru believes she is. Subaru goes to emotional and physical hell and back to rectify his personal issues. The show proceeds to deconstruct Subaru as it dissects and unveils the intestinal reasons behind his warped image of Emilia. The show then reconstructs Subaru as Rem stresses upon him his capacity to improve his character. At the end of the day, Subaru manages to save Emilia, reconcile with her, and then confess his love.
On a tangent, I honestly don’t mind Emilia being saved by Subaru (let alone Subaru managing to save everyone), if the seeming reduction of Emilia into a damsel bothers people. Emilia’s a more formidable combatant in a straight fight than Subaru, Subaru has to go through cycles upon cycles of suffering to make it happen, and Subaru’s provides in these endeavors are almost always built upon situational knowledge accumulated through his previous cycles and always involves him critically relying on the help of others, the most prominent means of help he acquired via negotiation. This is not to mention the fact that Emilia has also saved Subaru on more than one occasion.
In other words, Subaru is not an ubermensch, nor is his desire to save Emilia, let alone others, is a bad thing in and of itself. Frog-kun captures this point in his post about white knight complexes, where Subaru’s compulsion to save others from harm is an extension of his desperation to save himself from despair. The show acknowledges these personal issues of Subaru while also acknowledging independently that saving generally others someone care about is a good thing to do. Subaru clearly wants everyone, Emilia included, to live at the end of his loops. He strives for these perfect run through his loops to achieve those ends, even if it means him being mangled up in the process. I don’t mind this saving that he does.
What I do mind is how the confession at the end of the show was framed. With directional aplomb, and without that mysterious spoiler-ific cliffhanger I mentioned at the introduction of this post, it tosses the aforementioned conflict of Subaru’s love for the real Emilia versus his infatuation for the imagined one out of the window. I stress “tossed” instead of “resolved” in part because Subaru and the story, again, has only given us a general outline of who Emilia happens to be. That general outlined version of Emilia is the same Emilia that Subaru’s been seeking a romance with since the first time he met her. She’s the first pretty and kindly girl that he interacted with since he got stuck in this other world, and he’s been bending over backwards until his spine pops out to serve her ever since.
And since its start, the show has been mostly mum about the details surrounding who she is beyond these qualities. Even worse, she’s notably absent from the show for several consecutive episodes as the most immediate people to Subaru are himself and Rem. I know more than a few people who’ve complained that they couldn’t quite accept or fully appreciate the ending confession scene because of both Emilia’s lack of relatability and her long narrative hiatus. One argument for this lack of detail is that the show’s mainly revolved around Subaru’s self-interested head space. Another argument is that the writing for the story could have used an editor. I’d like to believe that this narrative structure is deliberate set-up on the part of the franchise’s creator to further explore the twofold conflicts: of a specific real Emilia versus an imagined Emilia (self-projection), and a more universal love versus infatuation (affection).
Permit me now to put these two themes aside temporarily while I discuss what I mean about harem set-ups.
Subaru claims that he has affection for both Rem and Emilia. That being said, he’s stated to Rem that he loves Emilia more. This could mean that Subaru loves Emilia romantically and Rem platonically, but an off-hand comment by Subaru in the show about considering Emilia and Rem is #1 and #2 suggests something that might give some more feminist-minded viewers some pause. If Subaru couldn’t make it with Emilia in the end, he would have chosen Rem instead. This implies romantic feelings for the both of them, albeit romantic feelings being stronger for one over the other.
Without naming anyone (and with all due respect to them), a number people that I talk to semi-regularly and who have also watched the show have taken these shared feelings of romance as grounds for a justified harem. If Emilia reciprocates Subaru’s romantic feelings for her while also not minding Rem getting romantically intimate with Subaru, then why not consider possibly a harem? After all, this particular harem arrangement would be forged through mutual consent. Subaru loves both of them, albeit unevenly in a romantic respect. It seems like everyone could be happy with this set-up. In fact, omitted from the anime script but present in the original source material, Rem explicitly requests that Subaru takes her on as his mistress if/once he takes Emilia as his wife. Subaru doesn’t reject Rem’s request outright, metanarrative probably due to how popular harem tropes are in the otaku subculture.
But what does that say about Rem’s dignity as a person? What value does that communicate to viewers? Because while there is mutual consent present in this harem arrangement, it is also one utterly devoid of mutual respect. Of the equality that is demanded from mutuality, lest the rhetoric of a respect that is mutual be a complete and utter sham. Rem would have to settle as the subordinate in that relationship. She would have to rely the leave of others to enter this this deal. As a result, this deal would also serve to formalize, institutionalize, and normalize Rem’s self-flagellated mentality of being objectively second-rate: second-rate to her sister, to her mistress, and to her lover. Whether or not Rem believes she’ll be happier in this arrangement or not, to me, it is degrading. It is humiliating. It stands in complete irony to her efforts to convince Subaru to value himself more.
Episode 18, “From Zero”. I defy people’s willingness have Rem settle for this arrangement with Subaru as the easy way to her happiness when was Rem who refused Subaru’s offer to run away with him as an easy escape from his suffering. It is the very antithesis of her learning to love herself. And yet, she demands of Subaru to value himself. Rem is being hypocritical. We shouldn’t take all her praise of Subaru and all her deprecation of herself uncritically. On that note though, if we can admit that Rem should be accorded the same amount of dignity and self-worth as Subaru, then we shouldn’t be content with Rem remaining that way. On those grounds, I reject this double standard, and I believe that viewers who were sincerely moved by Episode 18 should reject this double standard as well.
Permit me to put harem set-ups aside as while I clarify what I mean with freezer stuffing.
Fiction is replete with examples of male characters being moved into action due because of the suffering and/or deaths of loved ones, innocent people, or both. One of the more common targets of this edgy treatment are women. What’s problematic about this frequent fictional arrangement, as feminist criticism has pointed out, is that it turns said women into plot devices which drive male characters (who find them stuffed in figurative or literal freezers) into reclaiming their heteromasculinity. The pain and demise of these male characters’s women serves as a emasculating device for the male character. Their heteromasculinity is understood as being compromised otherwise if they can’t protect or take vengeance for their women, who are often reduced into being passive objects that are referenced now and again with fondness rather than personable actors that dynamically shape events.
That’s a criticism that’s been aimed at Re: Zero in the case of Rem, who’s subjected to horrible deaths and tremendous suffering for several consecutive episodes. Subaru at one point even swears bloody revenge at a particularly traumatic episode of her demise occurring in front of him after previously being mentally reduced in a past loop into inaction. The gratuity of the violence was enough, in part, for iblessall to abandon his viewing of Re: Zero together. I defended my continued viewing patronage of the show as her multiple gruesome demises as aimed toward Subaru’s uneven progress toward becoming an overall better person in place of an angsty hardboiled avenger. That happened to a certain extent. He struggles with his angst, and then he lets it go. He offends people and burns bridges, and then he apologizes, tries to make amends, and offers to rebuild and reinforce his crossings. Like Rem, Subaru’s also been subjected to horrible deaths and tremendous suffering in turn. So while an argument can be made about the show’s violence being too extreme, the same cannot be said about that violence having no purpose.
Except in the case of the spoiler-filled cliffhanger. Anyone reading on this should be aware that what I am about to discuss in the following paragraphs haven’t been explictly illustrated yet in the show. There’s a hint of it in the plot, but it’s perhaps too subtle, and its nature isn’t speculated about by the characters.
The development of this cliffhanger development inflicts such violence to Subaru and especially Rem that, without a further reason for it, would make any defense of the show’s violence as untenable. The development would be needlessly cruel and unabashedly exploitationist. As was too subtly hinted with the letter sent to Emilia to inform her of Subaru and Co.’s arrival into her territory, something happened to Rem related to the gluttony powers possessed by beings such as the White Whale. Rem wrote that letter to Emilia, and yet that letter was blank. Assuming Rem had no reason to write nothing in that letter, we can reasonably assume that Rem was affected by the powers associated with gluttony.
In the original source material, that assumption is what happens. Evidence and memory of Rem’s interactions with everyone except Subaru (who is a special being) has been erased from reality. Additionally, Rem is put into an unwakeable coma, a vegetative state. Again, only Subaru knows (and by default cares) about Rem being in this state.
What was even the point of writing something in like this? I spoiled myself on this development in Re: Zero’s future plot in the original source material. I had to wrack my mind around reasons for how it fits within the grander narrative the Re:Zero creator was trying to craft, because it would be cheap emotional schlock otherwise. I was willing to be generous with the Re: Zero creator, given that’s demonstrated a fine enough capacity for self-awareness and self-realization in his story. I kept thinking, and sure enough, the probable reason, at least in my mind, eventually hit me. This reason combines my concerns with fridge stuffing and harem set-ups, and complements the themes of self-projection and affection so well.
Despite indicating his preference for Emilia over Rem, Subaru hasn’t fully come to terms with whether or not his “love” for Emilia is really affection for her actual person over a self-projection of what he believes Emilia happens to be. He’s not fully self-conscious of this dilemma, however, and all the while, he’s toying with the contents of Rem’s request for her to be his mistress. Bear in mind that, at this point in the story, Subaru’s know more personal details about Rem and had more intimate interactions with Rem than Emilia. The contours of Emilia’s character are still quite blurry. Subaru gives his love confession. He then gets word about Rem. He pieces together the full extent of what’s happened to Rem, and it throws him into a deep and terrible state of anguish. And in this deep and terrible anguish, his character deconstructed by the show once more, he unevenly begins to reevaluate how he feels about both Rem and especially Emilia. In this twist of events, however cruel, Subaru’s character is developed in newer directions. The toxic elements of the otaku subculture are commented on and even criticized.
All this narrative work, all this thematic unity (present in the original source material) is all for naught, is left unappreciated by the show-only audience in the anime adaptation. The anime adaptation also omits the explicit offer by Rem to be Subaru’s mistress, sanitizing Re: Zero’s narrative for the worse instead of the better. Rem’s #2/subordinate harem-ette status is given no hint of being subject to commentary and criticism later on because the adapters thought this problematic set-up was a non-issue. Additionally, there’s now no compelling reason for Rem to be treated so horribly by the narrative outside of emotional exploitation.
The show shouldn’t to be only fair to Subaru. It also should to be fair to Rem as well. I don’t really ship, so I don’t mind Subaru ending up with Rem or Emilia. I do mind him ending up with Rem and Emilia. And furthermore, towards the end, I don’t like how the anime adaptation has treated Rem.
The toxic tropes of harem set-ups and fridge stuffing are reaffirmed to the anime-only audience, with the anime ending on Subaru’s love confession to Emilia. This is despite the fact that said tropes were commented on and arguably averted in the original source material. This might just be a case of the anime adaptation, its obviously visible and admittedly admirable passion, not thinking too deeply about what they decided to put on people’s screens. I especially understand their reason for excluding adding this spoiler-ridden Rem cliffhanger. They probably wanted to end the show on a happy and sparkly note. That being said, they, at least, shouldn’t have left that off explicit development for the next season. The ending sacrificed self-improvement for happiness, and I find that problematic.