The Anxiety of Choice
Zero took the anime world by storm, progressively becoming one of the most widely viewed and talked about anime during its time airing. There are a lot of obvious reasons why this anime would appeal to so many people. For example, the choice to have it set in a fantasy world resembling any given MMORPG – especially given the success of other popular anime to do this such as KonoSuba, Sword Art Online and Log Horizon.
The other element of the show, and the one we will be focusing on and which I believe is even more essential to Re:Zero’s success, are the “resets”. Much like save points in video games, the main character Natsuki Subaru is able to start over his journey from a certain point in the story after he has been killed. Although this power is shrouded in mystery within the series itself we know that it is somehow connected with an entity simply known as “The Witch”. It is through this reset feature that the audience is able to closely connect with our main character, not only because much of the audience are probably gamers and know the pain of having to replay a certain portion of the game, but also because it highlights the anxiety that is created when you know that your choices truly matter and have an impact on you and the people around you.
To explain this idea with more clarity I will be relying on the lens of existential philosophy. What exactly is existential philosophy though? What sets it apart from other schools of philosophy, and most importantly, what does this have to do with Re:Zero? Existentialism started to arise in the late 19th century and as the name would suggest it is the analysis of existence and of the way humans find themselves existing in the world. What differentiates existentialism from other branches of philosophy is its focus on the individual, free will, and personal responsibility. This is in contrast to other schools of philosophy that will look at things from a much larger societal context. Some of the prominent philosophers that have contributed to existentialism are Søren Kierkegaard, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger, and my personal favorite philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche.
So hopefully the pieces have started to fall into place as to why the existentialist lens fits so well for discussing this show. There are many concepts in existential philosophy, but the ones are that most applicable here are no doubt the freedom of choice, the weight of personal responsibility and the anxiousness that follows it. If there is one show that highlights that your choices do matter and that you as an individual define your own fate through your actions it is Re:Zero. We are shown time and time again that Subaru always has a choice. It bucks the trend of fatalistic and deterministic thought that nothing could have been done and it wasn’t your fault. It instead embraces your responsibility. That when character like Rem or Ram or Emilia died, it was a direct result of Subaru’s actions or often inaction.
It is certainly an empowering and fulfilling feeling when you know that you are in control of your own life. That there is nothing holding you back but yourself – but what about when things go wrong? What if you can’t protect the ones you care about? What if you’re never able to achieve your dreams? What if you keep failing? It would be easy to blame someone else, blame the system or society; to give up and say nothing can be done. This is not the way of the existentialist though, and certainly not the way of Natsuki Subaru. He has to continually relive and experience these moments of failure, until he can finally get it right.
We all make mistakes, but we often don’t think about how we could have improved or what we could have done differently. It’s easier to just blame others and society. It’s much harder to blame yourself, recognize your faults and take personal responsibility. Freedom of choice is a double edged sword; when things go well or if things fall apart it is your responsibility to bear. Unlike in video games or Re:Zero there is no “reset point” What if you mess up? What if you fail? You have only yourself to blame.