Management: Originally an idea for a Crunchyroll post, I ended up translating it into a piece for my personal blog.
A part of me has always struggled with the idea of shipping characters, especially if that shipping involves a non-canon pairing. There’s this half part of me that wants to refrain from projecting myself onto a story, especially if it’s by a creator I respect. The other half of me can’t help mentally picturing characters as perfect together, even when I refrain from stating those hopes aloud. I usually end up rationalizing that tendency by shipping characters whose relationships seem all but certain to form based on narrative trajectory: Hikigaya Hachiman and Yukino Yukinoshita from My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU, Aki Tomoya and Megumi Kato from Saekano, Ryuuji Takasu and Taiga Aisaka from Toradora!, and many more.
But then there are those stories in anime where one potential couple is all but initially certain, another is expressly spurned at a pivotal moment, and one where the romantic match is something that will never be officially recognized: Naruto Uzumaki and Hinata Hyuuga in Naruto, Subaru Natsuki and Rem in Re:Zero, and Nanoha Takamichi and Fate Testarossa from the Nanoha franchise.
To an extent, I think fan shipping and fan fiction writing share a lot of things in common, and as someone who has caught the shipping bug and has written fan fiction in the past, I have one theory to explain why some people ship non-canon relationships. To put it simply, sometimes we as fans aren’t completely satisfied with everything the canon story gives us. We might find holes or loose ends in the stories that we otherwise enjoy. Writing fanfiction or shipping characters is a way for us to address the issues we have with stories, adding in our own own ideas of how things maybe should be.
Management: This essay is meant to be less of a review and more of analysis of the show being examined. It contains plot spoilers for the Re:Zero anime.
So there’s a number of games floating out there that market themselves on their permadeath mechanics or ironman modes. A member of your team or party dies, you make a misjudgment that locks you into an end you didn’t want, or something otherwise unfortunate happens during your run. If they don’t want to start a new game, all the player can do in response is suck it up and plow forward. The appeal of these punishing features is a sense of engagement, a sense of challenge that’s absent in a system that would allow you to re-do a serious mistake. If death gives life meaning, then its threat despite your best efforts at the time makes the lives of protagonists and friendly NPCs that much more precious, when combined with a narrative that makes them likeable, relatable. Of course, permadeath mechanics and ironman modes aren’t appealing to everyone. Not everyone sits down to play a game so they can get stressed from harsh challenges. Some of them want to relax. Some of them want to feel heroic.
My excuse was story. I’m not going to make a game unnecessarily hard on myself, I says. It’ll get in the way of me enjoying the narrative, I says. There are those games though, like Dark Souls, where the difficulty of the challenge and the appreciation of the story is intended to be inseparable from each other. Every normal playthrough of Dark Souls functions as an ironman-style run, and in the process of dying and reviving over and over during one of them, I began to scrutinize why I played like a save scummer. I would characterize myself as one. I often returned back to moments in games just before I made what I perceived to be a grave error. Thing was, though, the mistakes I made in Dark Souls never ended with a “Game Over” screen. The game would acknowledge where you perceived that you failed, resurrect you somewhere, and carry on — with all the consequences your failure would realistically entail. I wasn’t so much being locked out of the game’s narrative as I was stumbling into a new narrative branch, one where, for example, I did let someone die. Out of multiple narrative possibilities, that possibility became my narrative. Those kinds of narratives always troubled me though, and as I sought to reset the run, it occurred to me that, like Re:Zero’s Subaru Natsuki, I also tend to roleplay.
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.
Management: While my opinion of the show is generally positive overall, this essay, by no means, is meant to serve as a comprehensive review, but rather, as an articulation and analysis of some of what I feel is this series’ most integral and interesting themes.
Of the numerous tangential things an anime could inspire me to write something extensive, Re: Zero’s possible showcase of environmental storytelling is one thing that has. I don’t know whether or not the creator of Re: Zero -Starting Life in Another World- actually intended to comment on this obscure point of political economy theory in his narrative, but hell. As much as it may irk the political leftists I know online, I’m not going to pass up the excuse for talking about a positive about capitalism and meritocracies, by extension.
It’s a theoretical positive, mind you. I’m fully cognizant of the blurring that tends to occur between free markets and free-for-all markets in the absence of government regulation. To quote Alexander Hamilton, men are not angels. To quote myself, men don’t always act as rational actors. The people who’ve first acquire a disproportionate amount of power to distort the market and media to suit their own profit and prejudice. They can engage in monopolistic practices to crowd out competition from small business outsiders in the workforce by threatening price wars, and set up normative barriers to crowd out competition from minority outsiders in the workplace by enabling the continued propagation of toxic stereotypes. I’ve already spent some time and type making the case for Railgun’s critical attitude towards meritocracies in practice. So in using a narrative element of Re: Zero as a springboard, I want to talk about how capitalism (via the precursor merchant form of it in this medieval fantasy) was theorized to function in the ideal. And it starts with the Fang of Steel, Anastasia Hoshin’s merry band of demihuman mercenaries.