Let me tell you guys about the real subtext within Re:Zero that you’re not seeing.
Despite all the shit we’re going through in today’s world, we are actually living in one of the most peaceful times in Earth’s history. Sure cops are getting murdered left and right, that stupid Brexit decision happened, our two presidential candidates are dumb and dumber, and the less said about ISIS, the better. Still, at least nowadays, people can get charged for murdering gay folk and we’re not living through anything even close to the level of The Holocaust or the Rwandan massacre. Evolution is a bitch for sure, but things are always going to get worse before they get better. The Dark Knight said so, and that’s one of the greatest movies of all-time, so it must be true.
Re:Zero is definitely a big believer in that philosophy, and that’s what I find so fascinating about it. On the surface, it’s pretty much your standard “kid trapped in a fantasy world” story, which have a history of either being awful or even more awful with no in-between. However, over the last few months since airing – and quite a whiles before that given its source material’s reputation – it has amassed a fanbase so large that the fifteen episode of the show currently has more “perfect” ratings on MAL than the finale to Code Geass aka one of the greatest anime of all-time, and the forum discussions for each individual episode has more words in it than a Stephen King novel.
Why exactly has this seemingly generic light novel adaptation achieved such a task? Some people say it’s the new Madoka in terms of deconstructing fan expectations. Some people praise it because of White Fox, the studio that brought us the
second third-greatest anime of all-time and nothing in-between that and this that anyone with a brain in their head and working eyeballs wouldn’t call fucking terrible. But whilst I resisted the praise due to the first half showing me nothing but an unimaginative fantasy world filled with stock characters and conflicts with the only difference being that the main character is an anime nerd, this new (and presumably final) arc of the series has exponentially increased my opinion of the show due to its story direction casting everything that happened previously in a new light and I was too blind to see where it was going previously because I was distracted by all the nerd-isms.
For those of you watching the show, have you ever noticed how Subaru’s character design is distinctly ugly/plain compared to the other male characters in this show (the young ones I mean. Old people never count in anime unless they’re villains)? Hell, even generic thieves look better than him. That point stood out to me just as much as his
godawful sense of humor the first time we’re introduced to him, and I wasn’t quite sure why the artist didn’t make him bishonen like everyone else – let alone the usual male LN protagonist – until said other male characters started putting in more screen-time than an obligatory cameo including a feminine cat boy who gets more screen time in three episodes than the others have combined through the entire series as of this point amongst them. When you factor in everything related to the female characters in the show, it suddenly all came to me: Re:Zero is a deconstruction, but not of otaku trends like most people believe because they can’t see the forest for the trees. It’s actually a critical analysis of the current trend in Japan for masculinity to lean more towards the feminine side as well as a critical blow to those who try to resist said trend because they are sexist pigs still stuck in the pre-Meiji era.
But first, let’s talk about Japanese masculinity itself. I’m sure most of you guys know that up until the Meiji era when Japan took aspects from the West in regards to its modernization, men had all the power and women had to depend on them. I’m not qualified to give a history lesson on the gender politics (not to mention, this post is already long enough as is), but whilst feudalism and samurai law are all but abolished now, that sort of masculinity still exists in today’s world with its most common form being the salaryman.
Most prominent type of Japanese masculinity is the salaryman masculinity. Salarymen have to commit their lives to their jobs, while providing the material necessities of their families. It is exclusively men’s responsibility to work and earn money; this made men powerful as women had to depend on them for various things. Salarymen are an important part of the Japanese society as they are a key stakeholder in the rapid economic transformation of post-war Japan. The commitment, dedication and hard work of traditional salarymen have helped Japan to become one of the world‟s economic super powers. – Challenging the Tradition – Yasas Wickramasinghe
The salaryman isn’t exactly exclusive to Japan. Most of us Americans had him as our dad, and we all saw that sort of trope in the family sitcoms we grew up with. And although you have to be an adult to officially become a salaryman, you actually start at a very young age through the teachings of school and your parents. Work hard. Never send a woman to do a man’s job. Earn a living. Never catch the gay. All that good shit is taught to us as it comes time for us to actually be the salaryman so that when the time comes, we’ll already have memorized the entire handbook before it’s given to us.
But even though Hanzawa Naoki became the most successful live-action drama in Japan because of how much it appealed to this large demographic, there’s no denying that this sort of manliness isn’t quite in vogue as it used to be. It’s not quite as out of fashion as being a man by having sex with a lot of different women, but it faces numerous challenges, particularly in regards to the increasing rights for women and the growing trend for men to take on a few traits from those with an extra X chromosome.
Every morning after Jiro showers, he spends over an hour on his daily beautification routine. Facial cleansers, moisturizers, toners, creams, hair gel and body sprays line the shelf just below the wall-mounted mirror in his single room apartment “unit bath” washroom. After this ritual, it is not uncommon for him to painstakingly compare shirt, pant and shoe combinations before deciding on today’s “look.”
While such a morning regimen would have been next to unthinkable for men to willingly adopt a decade ago, more and more, extensive attention to appearance using cosmetics and beauty products among men is becoming the standard rather than the exception. Nowhere is this phenomenon more pronounced, perhaps, than in Japan. – “Soushoku:” Men and the Changing Definition of Masculinity in Japan
You don’t even need to look
at how far gay people have progressed over the years to see at more than a few aspects of their pop culture and advertising to see what masculinity in Japan is turning into. Anime’s insistence on making all their male characters bishonen with the occasional cross-dressing, along with the fact that quite a few of said male characters are voiced by women, are all the average anime fan needs to indicate that something has gone a little fem-my being fem-my has become more of a rule in the island to the East. And if that’s not a good indicator, than the surge of popularity embraced by fujoshi-bait like Free, Haikyuu, and Osomatsu-san is. Other facets of Japan’s entertainment industry from the boy bands like FLOW to the male actors in dramas like Good Morning Call reveal that this country cares quite a bit about keeping good moral hygiene no matter what sex you are, especially when you compare it to the sexy roughness that composes a lot of American entertainment. And of course, with each new trend comes its haters, particularly those stuck in the old days. And with haters comes people who hate them, causing a nightmarish never-ending cycle that I refuse to link because I question what looking at these complaints will do to one’s sanity
Subaru and his “not at all bishonen” looks can be seen as the typical salaryman masculinity (trying to be a solider type and failing at it) during their teenage years under the guise of someone displaying otaku masculinity (which is a whole other concept that I’m not going to get into here). Sure the majority of the series has established him as the latter, but I think that’s just because the author was stuck with the crappy light novel format for conveying his messages despite his rumored hatred of the medium. Thus, he had to lure the otaku fanbase in with promises of what they wanted before clamping down hard regarding his true motivations without alienating them the way Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress did when Biba showed up. I’m also sure most of you have noticed that Subaru hasn’t spouted one anime joke since Emilia’s rejection of him – or indeed, the episode when said rejection happened. Now that the author has no reason to pretend otherwise, he can finally delve into the meat of what Re:Zero is actually about without fulfilling that Kadokawa/Dengeki Bunko/whatever checklist.
And you’ll notice that the old bait-and-switch worked, because the show increased in acclaim and attention as a result, and if you go to any anime forum about the show these days, there are at least ten people (amongst the hundreds of name-callers) saying they expected a typical light fantasy and got it for a few episodes, before getting sucked in with its unexpected plot twists. Not to mention, when you get past the anime-isms that littered that first half
(which is impossible because of how obnoxious they are), you start to really see just how much of the show’s story and conflicts rely on Subaru’s adherence to the salaryman masculinity and how they ultimately fail him because it’s the new wave masculinity that ends up saving his ass. Both arcs ended up with Subaru needing to get saved by one of the series’ pretty boys, and a large part of the buildup relies on Subaru exercising his increasingly outdated views on the girls from the very start. Every time he sees one, he instantly thinks she needs saving and goes out of his way to act like a hero, even though it always ends up with him being the damsel in distress because he can’t seem to overcome the outdated viewpoint that women need to depend on men like him.
Japanese hegemonic salaryman masculinity is being challenged in many fronts, where men and women act together to change the traditional forms of masculinity. The high levels of competition and stress in Japanese education and career system have prevented many men from leading a salaryman life. These men are trying to make their own masculinity that is different from salaryman masculinity within their social and financial limitations. – Yasas Wickramasinghe
Oh sure, he tries to accept the increasing role of women with his attempts to do house chores as thanks for saving him and whatnot, but that all gets flushed down the toilet sometime before the second arc even ends, let alone the third arc begins, so I’m not sure why people are complaining that he’s being out of character right now. After all, change doesn’t happen overnight. Just because the slaves were freed after the American Civil War didn’t mean they would suddenly be accepted as legitimate citizens of the United States. In fact, it can also be argued that the reason he did all those “feminine” things was to get under the girls’ skirts, but that’s a whole other topic entirely. The point is, his behavior in this latest arc is the same as it was previously, only the people he’s confronting this time won’t put up with his bullshit to the extent that Rem does. And ultimately, the story is the same as the last two arcs as well
which is a majority of the reason why it sucks in that it’s all about how increasingly out-of-place Subaru’s idea of masculinity is in a world where it’s all about wearing pink to become strong.
It’s also why the author chose this fantasy world for his setting. After all, it’s been argued that Japan being an island that’s mostly cut off from outside influences is the reason why masculinity has been able to evolve the way it has – especially when you contrast it with the strict views China and its numerous outside connections still has about being a man. As such, a fantasy world (a setting that’s generally male-dominated I might add) far removed from outside influences
and anything to differentiate from any other fantasy world in general is a perfect world for that sort of femininity to grow. Definitely explains why all the powerful people in this kingdom are young females – and no you cannot convince me that this decision is nothing more than a shitty attempt at fan-pandering. Especially given his treatment at their hands and feet when he begged for a favor, whereas a normal fan-pandering girl would have relented after a little ecchi action. Yeah those old farts may regulate this kingdom, but we all know who’s really in charge.
Of course, change is still a work in progress for women in securing their rights and being equal to men. Both Emilia and Felt have their own issues to deal with, and the maid sisters are…well…maid sisters. Not to mention, whilst most young Japanese girls these days like their men to look like the cast of Ouran Host Club, there’s always going to be some exceptions to the rule (in this show’s case, Rem). Then of course there’s the fact that these girls
have no personality beyond a simplistic outlook on the world that the show never lets us understand because we spend too much time with Subaru’s repetitive humor and outlook that no one else gets a chance to shine come off more like corporate stooges rather than Joan of Arc in regards to how they want to rule this country. When women say they want a female president to run things, I don’t think Hillary Clinton is what they had in mind. A female version of Donald Trump is definitely not what they wanted either. Who the fuck would actually vote for Felt in this kinda-democratic succession besides perverts and whatever the fantasy version of a Republican is?
With the evolvement of media and information technology, Japanese population experience global trends related to gender issues,specially, from western world. With these new information, growing number of men and women are trying to explore alternatives for hegemonic salaryman masculinity. Moreover, the economic downturn in global and Japanese economies have decreased the popularity of salaryman careers as most favorable aspects are minimized or removed under the economic and cooperation restructuring in past recent years. These developing challenges for traditional gender roles in Japanese society are significant, as this will change the identity of Japan forever. – Yasas Wickramasinghe
There’s a lot more I can talk about regarding the underlying subtext within Re:Zero’s plot, but I think the big question we have to ask ourselves at the end of the day is what exactly the author intends to do with this prognosis of the Japanese male’s evolution. I mean it’s one thing to say it exists, but surely he’s not going to just leave it at that, especially considering it’s not really a problem that needs to be solved unless you’re as fucking psychotic as Subaru (in which case, fuck you). Saying something exists only works as acceptable substance if it’s something that needs urgent attention and the product explains why in a satisfactory manner so that someday, someone with answers will come. Well, the most I can draw regarding the author’s intended goals is that that through Subaru’s constant failures, he’s saying that there’s no place for the old masculinity anymore and that anyone who still tries to adhere to it will end up in a miserable state of existence. After all, the economy has not worked out in the salaryman’s favor over the years and quite a lot of homeless people in the country used to be salarymen themselves, only to lose their masculinity because they tried to hold onto it.
They still try to stick with it even when they’re homeless as well, but at the end of the day, you just can’t beat the moolah earned by the bishonen hosting side of things. And that’s pretty much what all the other (semi-important) male characters in Re:Zero are: a bunch of pretty boys trying to make some “girls who are steadily progressing to challenge the old masculinity in their own way” happy as long as they benefit from it. Hell, even Shun Akiyama got out of the slums after being thrown in ’em from his banker position because he got into the hosting business (and a lot of good luck), even if he’s not a host himself. Maybe if Subaru learns to embrace the bishonen and treat females like they’re equals, or at the very least understands the limitations of his ways in a new world where they don’t quite fly (he won’t), then not only will he become a better person for it, but maybe he’ll actually have more fun than he ever thought possible.
Or the author could just cruelly torture him again and again because that’s the only way those who haven’t converted will learn at this point. Either way, Subaru is wrong and the show wants you to know it.
- If you lean more towards the otaku masculinity mindset, Re:Zero is basically the written equivalent of one of those otaku hunts.
- Anyone who relates to Subaru needs help, because I’m pretty sure his views are the equivalent of a 50s gay-basher by this point.
- Watch the episode that comes out today debunk some of these arguments and me looking like even more of a fool than I already am.