Tragic hero time!
As Summer 2016 marches towards its close, this may be the last good opportunity I will get to talk about one of the more popular shows of the season, carrying over from Spring: Re:Zero Kara Hajimeru Isekai Seikatsu. In keeping with Miscellaneous Whimsey’s charter to talk only about the least important nothings, this is not going to be a long essay, well-thought-out thesis, or even any kind of review. It’s some going to be a random musing that have been bouncing around my head for some time. So, perhaps low on substance, and definitely low on pictures, but the good news is that this piece will be entirely spoiler-free! So if you’ve been waiting to marathon the entire series, or are only up to episode 12, or weren’t watching it but just wanted to read this article so Passerby won’t feel lonely (bless your heart), you will be in no danger of ruining all those twists and turns that you really want to surprise you. That’s right, you call it vague nonsense, I call it pleasantly spoiler-free.
What we should do, though, is at least set out the general premise of Re:Zero first so that all of us will be on generally the same page, even those who have not watched the series. So there’s this guy, whom we’ll call the protagonist, who dies a lot. Every time he dies, his conciousness is sent back into the past to relive, where he will try to avoid his doom. That’s about it; there’s a fantasy setting, some fish-out-of-water stuff, but the main conceit of story is that the protagonist experiences looping time. So he experiences death a lot, experiences the death of his friends a lot, and generally suffers a lot. You’d think a good deal of gut-wrenching drama, a a good deal does, but despite the old-timey setting and the grand struggles of the protagonist, Re:Zero is strangely not tragic. It can get sad, sure, but not actually tragic. In fact, I would say—and make the central argument of this article—that Re:Zero is an anti-tragedy, inverting many of the conventions of classical theatre. That, and when it meets Hamlet the two will annihilate and create energy.
What is tragedy, though? It used to be that all stories were classified under one of free forms—tragedies, comedies or epics—in the same way that there were five classifications of senses. Both systems are equally untrue, but apparently if some old Greek guy says so we just run with it. These days, the layperson recognises Tragedy (with capital ‘T’ for extra, meaningless snobbishness) from theatre, mostly because we still insist on teaching Shakespeare at school. Shakespeare’s tragedies are certainly the most famous works of the Bard (again, of snobbish capitalisation), but even within his portfolio they are not monolithic. Othello, Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, and more—each has a slightly different but still tragic flavour. To put it in the most concise terms, tragedies are the stories of doomed heroes. They go like this: once upon a time, there was a great man (and it was pretty much always a man; women weren’t allowed to act anyway). This great man did great things, but had a fatal flaw. This fatal flaw brings about his fall, and he dies! Take Macbeth. The titular Macbeth is a great man (All hail, Thane of Glamis, yada yada). His fatal flaw is his overambition, so he murders his own king to take the throne. Oh no, that’s regicide, and broke the rules of hospitality! Now he’s doomed to die. And he does. Big cathartic moment. compare that to the story of the protagonist of Re:Zero, Subaru, and we see almost the complete opposite.
- Subaru is not ‘great’: Subaru is no great hero of yore, no accomplished general, no conquering king. He’s just some unemployed bloke. If it wasn’t for his penchant for defying death and causality he wouldn’t be the protagonist of anything. So while the classical tragedy is about heroes above and beyond mere mortals like us, Subaru is a stand in for the everyman without much in the way of manifest destiny except that which the narrative thrusts upon him beyond his control.
- Subaru is a mess of character flaws: Following on the previous point, a tragedy has a great hero undermined by a fatal flaw. Instead, Subaru is not really great, and has character flaws aplenty. I know there’s some contention over Subaru’s character here on the grand old internets, but no matter what you think of Subaru, it’s hard to deny that he has many failings. And that’s okay! Humans in general have a lot of failings. It’s how we deal with them that makes the story. And for Subaru, his is less the story of a hero brought down by his fatal flaw, and more the story of a very flawed man who is occassionally called on to do something arguably heroic.
- Subaru doesn’t die: This is probably the big one. Death is a release. Death is catharsis. The hero, having destroyed his life and fallen from grace, is allowed reprieve only in death. And the audience, frozen between horror and pity, is also allowed to breathe out. With death, it’s over. Not for Subaru, though. Sure, he dies a lot, but then gets better. As one does.
Putting it all together, where a tragedy is the story of a great hero who, by a fatal flaw, is fated to fall, Re:Zero is the story of a thoroughly unimpressive man who, by a power beyond his own, manages to cheat his fate over and over. I may be reading too much into it, but reading into it is much more interesting than just chalking up the contrast to coincidence. Re:Zero is the nega-tragedy, an inversion of old storytelling conventions. To what end? Well, this Shakespearean tragedy is a creature of a past age, as is the classical conception of the hero. We call any old sad thing ‘tragic’. We have a different understanding of what is ‘heroic’. I’m sure there will be many a modern audience who will look at Macbeth and not see a tragic hero, just a Scottish politician who’s bad with women. And so, I think a question Re:Zero invites us to ask is: is Subaru a hero? He definitely tries to act like one, and sometimes even thinks he is one. But keeping in mind that heroes rarely end up very well, perhaps we should also ask whether we want him to actually be one.