Like any fan, I have my share of likes and dislikes when it comes to the burgeoning world of anime. While some may enjoy their mecha, mystery, and slice-of-life series, I prefer dark fantasy, magical girls, and rom-coms. Some may be devoted to a single genre while others seek a mixed bag of entertainment. And some make it their business to avoid certain titles at all costs for the sake of preserving their love for the medium.
I happen to be one of those people.
I, for one, cannot stand harem anime.
It seems that more so than ever, the genre is making itself dependent on fanservice and lowbrow humor. Ecchi aside, both harem and reverse harem anime have a tendency to strip their protagonists of any characteristics that might make them interesting – a decision that ultimately limits the supporting cast as well. However, there are definitely exceptions to my claim, and the new series I’m about to share stands beside if not above the rest.
Re:Zero – Starting Life In Another World is a prime example of why you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Even if said cover is brimming with Loli girls.
MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD!
Re:Zero is an action/fantasy anime that premiered earlier in the spring alongside other anticipated series such as the third season of Sailor Moon Crystal. Needless to say, this particular debut was low on my radar. But upon recommendation, I decided to give the show a try and was rewarded with an engaging story about a boy transported to a different world and his struggle to piece together a political conflict at the cost of his own life. Or to put it more accurately, lives.
In a similar vein to Log Horizon and Overlord, Re:Zero acknowledges its own tropes while not giving away the exact nature of the world our hero – Subaru – has found himself in. The show’s more comedic moments stem from assumption, from him waiting for certain events to take place as per usual with virtual reality anime. In the first episode, he attempts to take on a gang with the “powers” he has to have been granted with as well as meet the “beautiful girl” who’s surely summoned him in the first place. But what makes Subaru a hero to root for rather than brush aside is his tremendous growth throughout the first half of the season.
It is this determination coupled with the four leading ladies that not only make this series stand out, but challenge the genre at every turn.
If I had to pick one harem-based anime as a point of comparison, I’d recommend Oh My Goddess! I understand that the setup for most shows within this genre relies on harmless wish fulfillment, but I’d take solid storytelling over fanservice any day. So what exactly does this show have in common with Re:Zero? For starters, you get a sense of who the protagonist is before any goddesses come into his life. You know that Keichi has his own life, albeit a lackluster one. Even when supernatural elements are introduced, he doesn’t simply stay to the sidelines. He acknowledges his own normalcy all the while working to help those around him to the best of his ability. And most importantly, I could understand why multiple female characters would be attracted to him even if the main love interest was indisputable. The “love triangles” that occur never feel forced or out of the blue.
Like Keichi, Subaru is inherently good-natured. He starts off as your typical shut-in shonen hero, but after his first death, he quickly wizens up, strategizes, and uses humor as more of a coping mechanism than anything else. These aren’t traits I often see in male characters, especially in the harem genre. I also appreciate how he isn’t all-powerful to begin with. Several of the humans in the world of Re:Zero are born with a certain attribute of magic – and Subaru happens to be in possession of a rare, but unglamorous ability to, in his words, “create debuffs.” Though his powers and perspective may be limited, this is the true beauty of the show. In terms of narrative, the series hasn’t progressed much due to Subaru reliving the day of his death over and over again. But the show is clever in that it builds up of dread and suspense with each passing episode. Any progress made just emphasizes how alone Subaru is in this Groundhog Day-esque routine – and how easily it can all slip through his fingers.
At this point, you might be asking how any of this relates to Re:Zero’s status as an anti-harem anime. Well, breaking the mold of the plain, “nice guy” protagonist upon which the target heterosexual male audience can project themselves is a good start. If I am to become invested in a character, I wouldn’t want them to be boring or generic – and Subaru is far from. He doesn’t wait for things to happen to him; he takes initiative. But what of the female characters? Do they also hold up? For the most part, yes.
By the fourth episode, the series has established the perfect set-up for a typical harem anime, but instead chooses not to stray from the course of the plot. It’s very clear who Subaru is interested in, and the other characters do well to pull their own weight and have their own stories told. Now stuck in a mansion owned by the main heroine’s sponsor, Subaru has no choice but to get to know the other characters through a series of first meetings.
Enter Emilia – a half-elf royal candidate and Subaru’s love interest. During their first meeting, Emilia introduces herself to the protagonist as the infamous witch “Satella.” We later learn that this was done as a political move – one that both Subaru and viewers are piecing together as we speak. While she seems cold in the beginning, Emilia proves to be kind, compassionate, and insightful as well as (SIGH) clumsy. I was admittedly more intrigued by the character at the start of the season than I am now, but there are clearly things about her we have yet to learn. As far as we know, her persona may very well be an act. As mentioned earlier, she is in fact a royal candidate, one of a select few chosen to potentially rule the land in the king’s absence. Her holding such a title hints at strength that may not be as obvious from the surface. Furthermore, her and Subaru’s relationship is one of great importance. What sets this dynamic apart from those of other harem anime is that the pair’s friendship is established long before any attraction on Emilia’s part.
Three cheers for well-written chemistry!
The ladies we next encounter are Rem and Ram, twin demons who serve as the mansion’s guards and maids. At a first glance, the two seem to border on many a twin trope. Subaru and the twins even address the maid/twincest fetishes in a comical stare-down during their first meeting. But while the two are often difficult to distinguish from each other, Rem has a protective older sister vibe going for her (despite being the younger twin) – seeing as she’s the only one still in possession of her power. The show does well to have Subaru spend time with each sister one-on-one, resulting in a set of unique experiences that help explain why they operate the way they do. Like Emilia, there’s a lot we don’t yet know about Rem and Ram, but it’s clear that their backstory is not the happiest. Perhaps, their true motives will emerge through their newfound friendship with Subaru. Yes, friendship. There is no tension that ends up degrading or forcing them out of character.
And last but certainly not least is Beatrice, my favorite character by far. Not only is her voice on point, but this tsundere mage is actually consistent in her snarkiness. She never blushes, cracks jokes, or tolerates Subaru’s nonsense for a second. Nonetheless, she is just as likeable as the other female characters and possibly the most skilled. Regarding each character’s story arc, the plot often “avoids” Beatrice unless Subaru decides to go to her for magical advice. However, this quickly changes once we reach the seventh episode. I won’t spoil anything major, but rest assured that we see a whole different side to the character. Overall, she and the rest of the cast stand strong as both a whole and individuals, working together to deliver a unique story through self-contained interweaving threads.
Threads that don’t rely on multiple characters throwing themselves on an unremarkable protagonist.