What happens when you read a story that cares more about its characters than its narrative, but YOU end up caring more for its narrative than its characters? Well, for me, that’s how I feel with the immensely popular and subversive Re:ZERO -Starting Life in Another World-, published in English by Yen Press. Even after eleven volumes, I am just at odds with this.
As much as I enjoy the story, I must preface this by vehemently saying that this is NO Steins;Gate. Steins;Gate was- and still is- a brilliant sci-fi thriller with weird characters, fascinating mechanics and powerful tension building. Why did I mention Steins;Gate? Well, that’s because our protagonist, Subaru Natsuki, is sent to an alternate world. But instead of being overpowered, all he can do is repeat events within a set time frame by dying and respawning, with a power called Return by Death. His incentive to actually use it is to help a cute waifu named Emilia (Oh Emilia…). Hence, the Steins;Gate comparison that I’m pretty sure EVERYONE’S made.
Anyhow, with a premise like this, there is plenty of time for the amazing and mature (and not at all try-hard) sensations of torture and despair, since- after all- our boy Subaru must retry the same events several times. Back when I had started this series, a year before I got into the superior Steins;Gate, I thought that this was a brilliant idea.
In execution, there is a rather big flaw. It’s not so much at the beginning, but the Return by Death premise has more and more come off as a devious plot to pad out the narrative to me. Not that there aren’t arcs where we gain valuable information about the world (such as the agonizingly long one that spans volumes 5-9), but a lot of times, the deaths of Subaru are really cheap. Oh, you didn’t know about this serial killer running around town? Sorry, die and try again. At least in Steins;Gate, it was obvious what points in the story caused the conflict to fester, but here it’s basically like playing an old-time videogame: Keep dying over and over again until you have the whole thing memorized.
I guess I’m not being fair because the two series’ have vastly different plot structure, but it’s just that Re:ZERO does seriously drag on. The worst example so far is having an entire mid-boss fight across ALL of volume 7, then when you think everything is resolved in volume 8, suddenly it throws in an extra wrench just to kill Subaru again and drag the arc a whole extra volume.
But when Re:ZERO actually feels like firing on all cylinders, it is a real pleasure to read. Well, at least in terms of the overarching plot. The first nine volumes are very psychological, and cover a theme that’s very unconventional for isekai. After that… well, I’ve only read two volumes of what I call the “season 2 material”, but it’s definitely a LOT different (but still really slow).
But as great as a plot can be, the cast ends up having a more lasting impression in most cases, especially in a character study like this. The characters of Re:ZERO are often a subject of very long and very heated debates. For me, I’m either in the middle with them or I don’t care about them whatsoever.
Subaru is okay. Sometimes. He has great character development (though it’s slow, like everything else), and there are times when he exudes some genuine badassery. But for the most part, he’s naive and annoying. The others don’t fare much better. Emilia is the textbook “perfect girl”, and like the textbook “perfect girl”, she has the fatal flaw of no substance whatsoever. She SOMETIMES has interesting interactions with Subaru, but those are few and far between.
Besterestereresteresteresterest Girl Rem is… well… not the best. She is the best, relatively speaking (within Re:ZERO itself), but I feel like she gets too much credit. To make another Steins;Gate comparison, she’s basically an inferior Kurisu but with a morning star.
The others aren’t worth discussing in depth. Ram only exists to mispronounce Subaru’s name, at least for the first couple of arcs, which stops being funny after a while. Roswall is cool, but he goes out of his way to contribute as little to the plot as possible, and even consistently manages to mar its progress. There are many other characters, but I won’t mention them due to spoilers. I will say that the antagonists have been interesting so far, though. In fact, I’ve basically been continuing this series just to behold the main antagonist whom they’ve been building up to since volume 1. But in all honesty, it’s a BIG problem when a primarily character-driven story has such forgettable characters. It’s one thing if you can give all their motivations the proper context so that it actually makes sense in some way, but if your reader is so bored that they won’t be able to appreciate it because they’ll probably have drifted off to sleep, then it kind ends up preaching to the choir. I even have notes that I always use for reference in any non-manga material I read, and I’ve rarely had to refer back to them as often as I had to for Re:ZERO. You gotta be REALLY sensitive in order to grow as attached to them as you’re expected to.
The art is very visually pleasing. The girls are all drawn in this cutesy-wutesy style, with very unique eyes and facial proportions compared to most anime girls, that likely serves to lure readers into a false sense of security before the sh** hits the fan (kinda doesn’t work anymore now that the series has gotten so notorious). The illustrations convey a lot of emotion in each given scene, whether it’s just a girl being cute or someone (namely Subaru) breaking down in despair.
Overall, Re:ZERO is nonetheless a great LN. Better than most on the market, at least. It’s slow in terms of plot progress, but it’s at least THERE as opposed to something like Overlord. I’ll definitely try to finish Re:ZERO for now. As far as recommendations go, while there are still a number of superior isekai series, Re:ZERO is still a great psychological drama with plenty of waifus.