The Real Entrapment of Re:Zero

It’s hard to watch anime without having watched something set in a video game. Sword Art Online may have started a ‘craze’, or just confirmed and satisfied the preexisting desire of the market. Either way, because of the poor quality of many of its iterations, some people have become certain that the ‘trapped in an MMO’ setting/genre is dead and devoid of potential.

But the genre’s progress is being marked in its destabilization. Re:Zero, now in its second cour, is taking anime communities by storm in its outcry against escapist, wish-fulfilling stories and the people indoctrinated through them. In fact, Subaru’s suffering is in keeping with the history of every popular fad of genre and setting based on social convention, as those social conventions, through the settings they manifested into, came under attack by the critics of their time.

Let’s go back; quite a while back. The 19th century, Victorian England. The popular theater was booming, and fans would go for a programme full of plays to suit all dispositions. The melodrama was one common, predictable genre that we could translate today into any  over-the-top action shows full of special effects. And the special effects in the theater back then were rather incredible. Wanted a mob of hundreds of people on stage? Sure. Set fire to the set, bring on a fire engine? No problem. But another popular genre was the ‘drawing room play’. Quite simply, a play set in a drawing room, where drawing room stuff happens. Comedy, drama, social angst. You had ones that embraced it and ones that ‘deconstructed’ it.

Today, no-one with any consideration for the Victorian period calls out this ‘drawing room’ genre, this cliche of a setting, as a problem in itself, like people are nowadays with the MMO setting. There were good and bad versions of it, and the more it endured onstage, the more theater evolved. Later plays were far more often ‘deconstructions’ of the type – see Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and her suicide as the crux of that – and then they morphed into all sorts of other things and stopped being called ‘drawing room plays’ at all, particularly once the theater-going public stopped having drawing rooms to relate the setting to.

Fast-forward to today, and one of the world’s popular theaters, anime, has its own ‘drawing room play’ – the ‘trapped in an MMO’ story. Why link the two so completely? Because they’re the same thing, essentially. Both are, sociologically, set in ‘third places’ – accessible places we go to that let us socialize freely and relatively cheaply – that also feel like part of the home while also separate from it: the drawing room is literally part of it but is its own sphere of social rules and dynamics, while an MMO is played in the home and likewise involves a different ‘self’ to the one you’d perform to your mum as she walked in.

They’re comfortable locations that the viewing public, as a whole, are going to connect with, and the familiarity of the setting allows for humour and themes using the setting to be more succinctly delivered. They also both involve some extent of ‘performance’ as separate from your ‘real’ self. The way Nishimura meets his friends online in Netoge is tantamount to how the middle and upper class of Victorian England used to meet their friends in each other’s drawing rooms. In short, they’re born from our habits as an audience, and will die with them too. Especially once those habits themselves start being scrutinized under the microscope of fiction.

As with the ‘drawing room play’, shifts are noticeable. World of Warcraft once had its day, but now the most popular collaborative online games are more confined multiplayer arenas – MOBAs, multiplayer shooters and card games – or far more player-constructed settings like Minecraft. With the MMO cliche attracting more and more criticism, and MMOs themselves fading away from the playerbase like the drawing rooms of Victorian England no longer became a thing, the genre can be said to be moving on through the same pattern every popular theater goes through.

More and more MMO shows involve self-aware commentary, good or bad, displaying an attempt to pull apart at the trope. The genre is just like any popular fad based on what ‘third place’ the public associate with the most, and it’s noticeably starting to fade. KonoSuba, for instance, was a stab at many traditional RPG, Dragon Quest-esque cliche. Rather than pan the whole genre as an irritating, over-abundant cliche, it’s worth looking carefully at how it’s changing and evolving in such a short space of time, and how more and more works are tired of just accepting the cliches and the perspectives that come with them. We ought to be getting more and more interesting commentary on it in its future iterations.

Some might argue Re:Zero is already championing that shift, as Subaru has become a critique of not video games, but the way otaku are indoctrinated into thinking they’re the Main Character of everything. He begins as a ‘self-aware’ MC but eventually the show starts picking on him for that very faculty, because what he thinks he’s aware of is in fact a bunch of delusions. He may be the main character of this story, but he is not the main character of this world. Emilia is not his ‘waifu’ who always needs him; the Emilia in his head is so far removed from the Emilia in the fantasy world’s realityHe does not just get super-powers whenever it’s convenient; he’s severely underpowered and in way over his head at this point in the story.

Part of Re:Zero’s appeal is it takes the assumption we’ve seen that an otaku would get transported into a big wide world and suddenly have the people skills they never had with real people, and says ‘nah, I’m pretty sure he’d become a narcissist instead’. Subaru thinks he’s in a ‘third place’ of a MMO world where he’s just there to have a pleasurable experience, but instead he suffers. He only gets more uncomfortable the more he tries to pretend he’s still in the comfort zone he’s been pulled away from.

To continue the terminology of sociologist Ray Oldenburg I’ve used in this discussion, Subaru’s character is a result of never having a ‘first place’, the sociological home, and seemingly never being used to having a ‘second place’, work, either. The only flash we get of his normal life is at a convenience store, and his whole life is just convenience. As a shut-in, his reality is a bunch of fantasies, and this is quickly signaled by his rapid acceptance of the fantasy world. He doesn’t treat it as abnormal because normality is abnormal to him.

His personality and all his failings from that point on are the result of being part of a generation growing up without first or second ‘places’; people who want to escape permanently from such places, and may have even succeeded. People who want their only responsibilities to be things the world has coded to be manageable. The realization that these people don’t actually deserve to do well when they get stuck in a ‘real’ MMO. They deserve to have the shit kicked out of them, become mentally unstable, and ruin all the relationships they’re ever offered and manage to make any progress in.

I therefore want to see Re:Zero, at least so far, as a really good step forward for the ‘trapped in a fantasy world’ genre. Rather than a character being mundanely aware of their surroundings, its us the show makes aware of just how problematic an addiction to White Knight narratives and ‘virtual third places’ can make a person. The more elliptical Subaru’s past is, the more it seems to have no place in his mind, and the more we question if he ever lived any life other than a fantasy at all, and come to think that Subaru isn’t trapped in this world. No; he’s trapped in his own social non-existence before coming here, and how much he’s ruined his ability to relate to anyone. He only knows how to self-insert into himself, with disastrous consequences.

The ‘Zero’ in Re:Zero’s title isn’t just a reference to Subaru having nothing in the new world; in fact, he has his phone, and great strength, which help him a lot early in the story. The ‘Zero’ repeats to the viewer, every time Subaru makes another mistake, and goes deeper into his hole, that a life lived in fantasies isn’t a life at all.


Bananya has better characterization than Rewrite

It’s easy to default to thinking that a longer show will have more value for its characters simply because it has more time to develop them. But Bananya – a highlight of this season – and Key’s adaptation of Rewrite have proven that it’s what you do with your time, not how much time you have, that counts.

Continue reading Bananya has better characterization than Rewrite

Anime Authorship: All for One, not One for All

There is too much iconography being spread around for a select few names in the anime industry. It’s like people can’t see these names without slinging a bag of worries on their back before they watch, to burden the writer’s every chance of developing their story and their own image; a statuesque meta-narrative of their past work and what they think of it, claiming everything falls in line with it only because they make it fall in line. Continue reading Anime Authorship: All for One, not One for All

Impressions! Spring 2016, Week Eleven

Damn this post is late, but at least my first year of university is over now! Exams out of the way, all that remains to test is the quality of this season as it draws to a close.

Continue reading Impressions! Spring 2016, Week Eleven

Misundersandings of the Irrational Fortress

Of all the prejudices being thrown around this season, I’ve never been able to understand why many have rendered Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress as ‘dumb’. An easy criticism keeps coming up, that when we’ve got zombies and characters acting irrationally, we’re got a poorly-written show. Not only does this miss the point of how irrationality is used in fiction; it ignores the context of every ‘irrational’ event that happens. Foolishness is in fact a massive part of what makes Kabaneri such a potentially engaging show.

Continue reading Misundersandings of the Irrational Fortress

Impressions! Spring 2016, Week Ten

Realizations of how little I’ve prepared for my exams are piling in faster than a bloodthirsty horde of Kabane. But on the plus side, even if I forget how to talk about Beowulf, some of the shows coming to an end this season are proving to be unforgettable.

Continue reading Impressions! Spring 2016, Week Ten

Impressions! Spring 2016, Week Seven

Halfway through this season, and I’m halfway doing 10% of the revision I should be doing for my prelims. But hey, anime’s always calling. If only I could write my essays on it.

Continue reading Impressions! Spring 2016, Week Seven

Why I’m Not on MyAnimeList

On the front page of r/anime today, filling the slot of the subreddit’s Daily Salt Thread, is a discussion titled ‘What scores on your MAL would make /r/anime question your taste the most?‘. I could stop here and let that post speak for itself, for why I think MAL and the community it facilitates is what drags down the potential for good, interesting discussions about anime online. But I might as well blog about it too.

Continue reading Why I’m Not on MyAnimeList

Boring Ways of Talking About Interesting Anime

So I sat down recently to watch Glass Reflection’s ‘Should You Watch’ for Kiznaiver, one of the more bizarre and experimental shows we have this season, which I’ve had a lot of fun writing my weekly seasonal Impressions for. It’s a show all about characters connecting to each other, which is what stories are all about in the first place, and so every beat of its disarray of character developments reeks of a kind of meta commentary too.

And I think it’s fundamental to notice that, or at least that it’s doing something that’s conscious of itself. Which is why I found GR’s approach to it extremely underwhelming.

GR deserves a lot of praise for how polished and well-paced his videos are. He hooks viewers into his opinion better than 80% of shows airing in any given season. But once we get onto the views themselves, things start to get hairy. You may agree or disagree with his opinion of the show, but the first issue is: what is there to do beyond that? He calls certain characters bland and the plot aimless without any unpacking of his viewpoint, without any traceable reading of the show that could persuade you that his view is correct.

Of course, he’s trying to be ‘spoiler-free’, but any demo you buy for a video game actually gives you some content from the video game; not stuff that will ‘spoil’ the overall experience for you if you choose to go the whole 19 yards and buy the thing, but stuff that makes you feel engaged with it. A recommendations video should likewise be able to let you sample some of the show in support of his thinking, to show how the reviewer has engaged with it. Especially since this is one show where an increased attention to detail renders many of GR’s comments almost completely beside the point.

GR complains that there’s no clear direction for Kiznaiver’s plot, but he takes this from a correct observation into a negative criticism without any explanation or treatment of why the show might be like that. Not knowing where Kiznaiver is going is in fact essential to our connections with the cast. The experiment these guys are stuck with requires them to not know it’s next step, and I hope everyone who has watched it has realized that since what we’re doing most of the show is empathizing with these characters and thus sharing in their ‘pain’ just as they share it with each other, we need to be kept on the side of the test subjects and not know where things are going either.

To call such a purposefully and necessarily obscured plot ‘poor’ as Glass Reflection does is being over-reliant on plots that are clear-cut. I’m sure we can all remember a story in the past that had us absolutely hooked despite the fact that, or because, we had no clue where anyone was going whatsoever. Not every plot is an understandable direction. Has anyone ever read anything by James Joyce?

Most of the other points GR makes similarly riff off a need for things to be simply definable/categorizable. He says the MC has no likeable trait, but what I love about the MC is that he has no likeable trait; that’s his trait. His whole character is about not being open about his character – about not feeling anything. And that emptiness becomes its own kind of substance because of the other characters’ interactions with him. Why is an experienced reviewer like GR doing the amateur thing of evaluating characters as individuals, especially in a show all about taking them out of the separate comfort zones? Moreover, to discount characters because they stand out with having just ‘two’ definable traits and wanting them to have already become so complicated in a meta show that’s all about breaking down these ‘seven deadly character types’ is more or less entirely missing the point of the story. It’s like complaining that a hero in a ‘zero to hero’ show out starts weak.

And you’d ask, but how does that change the fact that I can’t connect to 2D characters? Well, I have a reason to connect to every one of them; because they’re actively trying to connect to each other. And it’s fun, as GR notes. And what we connect to in storytelling is not individuals, but relationships between those individuals. So stop trying to connect to them as separate people if you are. You’ll get as far as they got with each other before the Kizna project began.

Glass Reflection’s first impressions of Kiznaiver don’t give us any more than the surface of his opinions, and it’s hard to think they’d be persuasive, regardless of whether they’re valid, to anyone but people who are already fans of his iconography. And he’s built good, engaging iconography. But the opinions themselves are incredibly contrived ways of approaching such an interesting show. His review of Otonashi’s character in Angel Beats! is filled with the same flaw; characterizing him as if, under the microscope of a review, he’s completely cut off from the rest of the cast and the story. This is not how any show is watched when you sit down with it, and not how one should be reviewed either. Especially not Kiznaiver.

I know why GR is popular, and power to him. But to me he often sounds like a talking comment section, and he could do far more with his fanbase than talk and perhaps even think in the kind of bolt-together, paint-by-numbers phrases that have become colloquialized into MAL-speak and push a review away from any engaging discourse. He moulds a show trying to break out of genre and generic expectations right back into such a fixed design. He automatically wants a character to be ‘relatable’, which is the common expectation Kiznaiver actively disrupts in its early episodes in order to make its cast more than just individually relatable, just like Kill la Kill worked against the expectation of leering at fanservice in its first three episodes. Katsuhira becomes a different kind of relatable; that distant person we all know or knew, who we connect to not because he gives us something, but because he doesn’t. He holds back. And we want to reach out to him because people around him do. And we fulfill the goal of the Kizna project in our own viewing experience.

We can have far more fun with shows like Kiznaiver if we drop these iron expectations of a clear plot and ‘relatable’ characters, and listen to what the show may be telling us about the need for those very things. And then we find a greater clarity and a greater relatability in the product of our intuition.

Impressions! Spring 2016, Week Six

Some great developments this week for everything I’m watching! Boku no Hero and Kiznaiver are rewarding viewers with a good memory for little plot points you’d think would have been forgotten, and Flying Witch reminds us of how important our imagination is as we watch our way through all these shows.

Continue reading Impressions! Spring 2016, Week Six

What’s in a Name? – On Titles and Other Tidbits

(this post contains spoilers – like this one right here, for this post and the fact it contains spoilers!)

The next time someone calls you out for ‘over-analysis’, throw them some Mother’s Basement. A critic who made his name picking apart the OPs of popular and influential shows, he won’t rest until he’s pointed out the significance of every detail and directorial choice he can spot. Continue reading What’s in a Name? – On Titles and Other Tidbits