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.


  1. As flawed as Subaru is, it’s his flaws which make him human and relatable. I actually like seeing a flawed protagonist like Subaru or Kazuma from Konosuba done well like this once in a while cause it provides a nice contrast to your average shounen protagonist.

  2. I find Subaru’s flaws and virtues flowing into each other. Subaru’s determination keeps him going and besting enemies, yet it also makes him act like a fool, on the assumption that he’ll somehow wing it on the guts alone and avoid getting help he desperately needs. I like how this story examines what it takes for a protagonist to keep fighting again and again. With Subaru’s death out of equation, the focus really comes to whether he uses his abilities for good and finds strength to go on, despite all the pain and suffering.

  3. The only thing that separates this from a tragedy is that a tragedy isn’t something that can be taken back, only built upon. When you’re able to go back in time, what could’ve been a “tragic event” just turns into a “sad memory”.

      1. Okabe would much more easily qualify as a tragic hero given how he’s completely incapable of preventing tragedies despite knowing they’re gonna happen, which is actually worse. Kind of like the Cassandra Syndrome. Now, I’m not sure if the ending just negates all of that, but it’s still a lot more of a tragedy than Re-Zero.

      2. Okabe put a lot of walls up to create his mad scientist persona. I liked when his walls came crumbling down and the regular, kind, caring Okabe that would do anything for his friends came out. I think he could be a tragic hero, but his determination to change fate and achieve a happy ending caused him to put himself through a living hell to make it a reality.

        However, had he just given up he probably wouldn’t be a tragic hero, he’d just be a nice guy who lost people important to him in a such a sad way.

        Could you compare him to Subaru? I don’t know. I mean Okabe put himself through his ordeal through choice.

  4. Agreed on the categorization. Probably the big definer for me is the “permanence” of tragedy. Oedipus cannot take back murdering his father, screwing his mother, and bearing an incestuous child as much as Deianeira cannot eliminate the mistake of trusting Nessus. The lasting effect from the consequences of the tragedy put heavy emphasis on emotions, which is why you often get larger than life characters with one serious flaw–the show is designed to punch you in the gut and get you feeling something, nothing done better than with a character providing quixotic soliloquies. There’s a reason tragedy is treated as cathartic after all.

    Subaru, however, technically has no permanence to his actions (he can always take them back, at least before the next save point) so Re:Zero can never be a true tragedy. Although I’d argue Subaru’s character is simpler than many make out (specifically in regards to flaw(s)), that is unimportant for the classification here. The bigger reason is as you mention Passerby is Subaru’s plebian origins. There is no heroic past, no grand importance beyond an ability he was graced/cursed with for no apparent reason.

    If anything I’d argue Re:Zero is actually a perversion (in the good sense) of the ubiquitous fantasy story of the hero of humble origins destined to save the world. Subaru is a hero in the sense of being the only one who can “save” the world, but with the traditionally optimistic nature replaced by a distinctively nihilistic one (also substituting Emilia for the world). Furthermore considering the LN is still ongoing it’s unlikely we will know if there is something beyond Emilia for a while yet, limiting any real sense of understanding and completion you can get at the end of an actual tragedy. Re: Zero, however, is not focused on that grander picture right now; the show, without a doubt, is all about the suffering and its impact on Subaru’s psychology. It is in this regard that Re:Zero should be judged, and so far (at least for me), the exploration of Subaru’s character has been the defining feature of the series overall.

  5. “if some old Greek guy says so”

    But what does the old Greek guy say really about Tragedy? Are we mistaking it with our current understanding of the genre? Let’s see what good old Aristotle has to say about Tragedy in his Poetics, comparing it to Re:Zero:
    Show Spoiler ▼

    TL;DR: Aristotle would have considered Re: Zero a tragedy, although a “second rank” one; it’s just that his notion of tragedy is not the commonly accepted today.

    1. There’s a reason why I talk mostly about Shakespearean tragedy, being an area of familiarity to me and a more modern (relatively speaking) formulation of tragedy. Still from the Greek tradition, of course, but also, in ways, its own beast. Also, Aristotle was wrong about everything 😉

      Let’s talk about death, because I really do consider it the big one. As others in these comments have noted, death is about permanence. Like bob memanus says below, even Oedipus (who, of course, doesn’t die) can have a ‘happy ending’ depending on where one chooses to stop. But it must end, and there is no greater finality than death. A character who cannot die, then, is able to escape the natural consequences of his actions, but in return never experiences that finality.

      1. Ha! Yes, indeed, Aristotle makes recommendations that now would sound stupid. But he was right in something about the plot that ties with what you say about death and finality:

        “Unity of plot does not, as some persons think, consist in the Unity of the hero. For infinitely various are the incidents in one man’s life which cannot be reduced to unity; and so, too, there are many actions of one man out of which we cannot make one action. Hence, the error, as it appears, of all poets who have composed a Heracleid, a Theseid, or other poems of the kind. They imagine that as Heracles was one man, the story of Heracles must also be a unity.”

        I’m with Aristotle here: death being the finality of a person doesn’t mean it has to be the finality of the plot, and a tragedy (or better said, any story) is a plot, not a biography. Depending on the situation, is death really the ultimate suffering? What about plots where death can be a liberation, a way for the character to escape either suffering or paying the consequences? The way of dying also matters: In Tirso’s version, Don Juan dies as a sinner and goes to Hell, while in Zorrilla’s he repents through love and goes to Heaven.

        In this regard, Subaru’s tragedy is classic: he can’t die. Death can’t liberate him from his own hamartia.

    2. Without delving too deep into the academic aspect of things which I would be sadly lacking to adequately discuss. But, isn’t this a trademark case of an Anti-Tragedy in the Greek sense of literature?

      In most, if not all Greek Tragedies, the hero discovers his tragic fate and by his moves or of those around them they attempt to avoid this tragedy only for those same moves to be the cause of the tragedy to happen. Case in point In Oidepus Rex, it was foretold that he would kill his father and marry his mother. So the king decides to have the young Oidepus killed. Of course the would be killer takes pitty on the young child and raises him in some far away country where he learns of his fate of killing his father. Thinking that it is his adoptive father he decides to leave the country and encounters his real father and in a “traffic altercation” murders him and later saves his original country (where he ran off to to “not kill his father”) and ends up marrying his mother who is his “prize” for saving the country.

      Re:Zero is actually the opposite of this. Instead of Fate happening regardless of the actions taken by the protagonists, hence making them unavoidable. Subaru’s actions actually bring about a “way out” so to speak.

      1. Although that kind of Fatalism is known in several Greek tragedies, it’s not part of all of them. Euripides wasn’t a fan, it seems. And even then, it still plays under Aristotle’s concept ot hamartia, that which the protagonists seeks or wants to avoid and drives the plot of the tragedy.

        In Oedipus Rex, the tragedy is caused not by the prophecy, but by the characters trying to avoid the prophecy and causing it. The irony of the self-fulfilling prophecy is not on the supernatural elements, but on the actions of the characters.

        The same a prophecy alone doesn’t make the plot of Oedipus Rex a tragedy, the ability to change the past doesn’t make Re:Zero a not-tragedy, according to the Poetics. Subaru could actually live a more tranquil life even with his power. But why doesn’t he? Because he has this hero complex and, above all, wants to help Emilia, the person he loves. He’s doomed to suffer and relive his failures time and again because he can’t let it go. For Aristotle, that would be Subaru’s hamartia, the source of his tragedy.

      2. @Mistic
        My impression is that the ancient Greeks were a fairly fatalistic bunch in general. One of the takeaways of the self-fulfilling prophecy in Oedipus, in my opinion, is that prophecy cannot be avoided. Everyone is the architect of their own demise, but only because they are doomed to be so.

        As for Subaru, even if I agreed with Aristotle about anything (and I don’t, out of principle), I would argue that he and his bag of flaws (of which his hero complex is only one) don’t really drive the plot. Rather, the plot drives around Subaru and occasionally runs him over. But he certainly wants to be a driving force. He is the pawn who must reach the end of the board to promote into a piece, but luckily for him somebody cheats and takes back moves every time he gets captured.

      3. @Mistic & Passerby :

        This basically calls into mind the Fate vs Destiny arguement. The Greeks in general were pretty much a Fate following bunch from what I can remember of the 6 or so stories I read back in school. As far as I understand, Fate is something inevitable. Something that whether you don’t do anything or event try to move heaven and earth will definitely come to pass.

        Destiny is a bit different in that it is something that has a high likelyhood of happening but if you don’t get off your ass and do something to further it, it will be wasted potential. I think Subaru falls under this category more than the first as previously mentioned.

        Like I said I’m no expert in Greek Litrature or anything close to it. All I have to base it on is the few that I’ve read and my faulty memory. But I always felt that Greeks stuck to the Fate idea a lot more than the Destiny bit. Probably because these stories weren’t just entertainment or art but rather they do actually have a religeous aspect to it and the Gods have to have sway over human lives.

      4. Forgot to add though, I don’t think “doing nothing” is actually an option for Subaru. Remember the arc in the mansion? Even when he decided to hide out and run away form everything he still ended up back at the restart point. So I’m guessing if he had run away with Rem to live a happy life something would have happened to kill him and bring him back.

        Thinking that way, perhaps I got it wrong and perhaps Subaru’s Fate is actually to succeed at some point and his own ridiculous character flaws are what’s making him take the “long route”. Hahaha an entertaining thought, like the authors are playing with us in making us think that Subaru is changing his Fate when he is actually the reason why it doesn’t fulfill itself. 😛

  6. Whether a story is comedy or tragedy often depends on where you lay the book down: Oedipus was ok fine for a while after marrying Jocasta; and IIRC was okay again after Colonus (Jocasta and the kids not so much.) Part of the reason I believe for the Aristotelian unities was to focus and limit the effect.

    As I understand it, what we are watching here aren’t dreams or fantasies or possibilities but alternate timelines:yes, Subaru and friends die before our eyes, horribly, multiple times. There are real, really happened (Ok, real in fiction). Each “failed” timeline is a tragedy. They only become parts of a comedy by our forgetting or devaluing those timelines in favor of the one that feels better, is extended farther. I can’t say that episode 15 was only a test or learning experience. It was a hell.

    I don’t claim to understand everything going on here, but to me an important, if not the most important theme is that Subaru triumphs by climbing a mountain of corpses, and what seems necessary is Subaru learning to forget or somehow use and handle that fact and feelings, not unique to Subaru or this story, but common to the survivors of every battle and every war.

    Well, “tragedy for the losers but comedy for the winners” may be part of what the author is trying to make us aware is our choice of the story that gets us by. We shouldn’t view the collateral damage as tools for our self-improvement.

    PS:Emilia freaking gets it. That’s why she is best girl.

    bob mcmanus
  7. Interesting topic. In a sense, Re-Zero isn’t truly a tragedy because all of the bad endings are reset and he eventually triumphs. You get to see many of his failures, yet the end result is none of that has any permanence except for what lies in Subaru’s own psyche.

    Re-Zero isn’t really a tragedy, but perhaps just an exploration of what happens to the psyche of a flawed human being when they undergo extreme stress and painful deaths, without having any means of escape. Being unable to die, but having to live another day and confront the same thing is scary, and Subaru’s growth as a character despite his powerlessness and flaws is what I feel the central purpose of the story.

    It’s interesting that from other character’s perspectives, Subaru might as well be considered a “hero”. The only timeline that has permanence is the one’s where Subaru succeeds to a certain degree and accomplishes things the average man would struggle to do.

    1. We don’t really know if he’ll ultimately triumph or not, and even if he does — at what cost? His sanity? Friends? His lifespan or his life?

      There’s gotta be a permanent penalty for all his do-overs – even if it’s something as simple as being cast back into the real world and never seeing all his new friends/lovers again.

  8. Though I doubt that in the end that this will become a true Tragedy, one twist in the story is that Subaru is able to succeed though the ability given to him by his antagonist (the Jealous Witch) or so it appears. Either he is a pawn that is creating a situation that she wants in spite of what appears to be his successes or she made a mistake in picking him. Given that we’ve just seen Subaru possessed by Sloth, it may be that JW wants Emilia on the throne, in spite of Emilia dying in previous cycles, so she can possess her and gain the crown.

    Here’s a modern take on plots from Robert Heinlein:

    There are three main human interest plot types:

    Boy meets girl
    The man who learned better.
    The Little Tailor (which I’ve also heard referred to as “Man Against”)

    Instead of my repeating it you can read the details here.

    Obviously Re: Zero covers all three. Boy meets girl (Emilia et all). The man who learned better, though it certainly took him long enough he’s finally starting to figure out what he’s been doing wrong. The Little Tailor though here the time rewind allows him to keep trying things until he succeeds so he appears to be more able than he actually is.

  9. I do envy Subaru’s power though. One who is suffering really bad would often think that death is final and is a release from suffering. Despite the suffering, wouldn’t you want to be able to change things in the past and fix those big mistakes and things that you regret doing?

    I guess the question is, is the tragedy of repeating the suffering “worth it”?

  10. Subaru is an interesting case study of deconstruction in the “magical world” genre protagonist. He even came out contiguous with another deconstruction in Kazuma (from KonoSuba). Whereas Subaru is a story of how a normal boy might react (ie going bugf*ck insane) and then triumphing over adversity, Kazuma is about a man true to his desires and playing the sheer ludicrousness of his situation for laughs.

    Evangelion’s Shinji did much the same thing for the mecha genre a long time ago, funnily Shinji is a deconstruction of what is normally the female character in the genre, and at the time most of us really hated him for it. Basically it just was not entertaining watching a sympathetic character lose his marbles and suffer tremendously. While I do think the darker aspects of Re:Zero do overstay their welcome a little too much, they are integral to the plot. Ironically Re:Zero is effectively not about a person being a hero but of a person becoming a hero. I think this speaks to us most of all.

  11. I liked that Subaru wasn’t a super strong, super powerful hero. I liked his general attitude at the start of the story, despite dying a whole bunch, he stuck with it and overcame his first ordeal. I think the regular guy qualities of him made it really easy to root for him to overcome whatever he faced. He makes statements when he really should keep his mouth shut, but that’s not him being a jerk, it’s more his naivety and not knowing his place. I’ve always felt that as a character, he kinda grows as the story goes along in such a believable way.

    I mean, who else would just blatantly throw themselves off a cliff edge because they felt really bad that Rem was dead and Ram was hurting, and that in general the situation was pretty crappy? Sure he knew he’d basically come back to life in the end, but to just do that without a care is remarkable.

    I did think that things did seem stacked against him and that he was fated to die a whole bunch. No one wants to die once, yet alone over and over and over and over again. It’d be easy for anyone to just give up. You can’t help but admire that he picked a goal to aspire too and stuck with that to overcome whatever he faced, regardless of if he died or not..

  12. I’m echoing what Geoff Thew has said about this show but it bears repeating: Re:Zero is a fantastic representation of the exhaustion, occasional futility and mental wearing down that is associated with the human experience that is ‘struggling’. Now, it’s not revolutionary, there’s plenty of fictional properties that have done this before… But it’s being done in a medium that really works with mechanics that certain individuals can interpret based on other mediums they’ve invested themselves in.

    I think -that- is a fair point to respect and appreciate the show when analyzing it. The other appeal is niche stuff, like the metaphysical fantasy elements and the political drama we’ve seen present in roughly 4-7 separate and spaced out episodes here and there.

  13. In some ways this attempt at a process of identification and classification in pre-set literary frameworks and the rest may be all good and well, and helpful in articulating to ourselves, but when all is said and done the main crux comes around, and that is “Do you think what is being done is done WELL?” And to me this (admittedly highly subjective) is equally important in artistic criticism.

    There is quite a lot of buzz about the story itself, possible outcomes, etc., etc. – this does seem to be one of the more talked about series this season! But a lot of the discussion about the series is equally whether or no they think the story itself is “well told”, well executed, and so on. This area in particular seems riper in terms of “utilization of the classification of frameworks”.

    In other words: a particular work has an overall good or bad or mixed reaction from one. Why? What are some things that you feel were well done and what were not? Why do you feel that way? In what way does it enrich one, what do you find enjoyable, or what about it do you not like, or even how do you feel it conveys things you might even think harmful?

    This is not meant to be over simplified to “I like/do not like ____.” It is meant to be more an inquiry where the various ways of thinking about works of creativity in general and trying to understand more about oneself and others, etc.

    Of course not everyone is interested to think about things in this way, but I wanted to bring up a possible “use” for the literary framework you attempted to bring up and muse about the series in relation to it ….

    1. What you’re discussing would actually (in this instance) be the stage following this classification in proper argumentation. If Passerby had deigned this to be part one of a series of posts for example, part two would almost certainly be about how well Re:Zero showcases its various components in relation to the identified framework. Once something is classified, the next step is determining whether that classified framework is meeting expectations. Pretty much base deductive logic.

      In my experience this second stage (if you will) also happens to be the one most often used by people. Most people prefer starting with what they feel and giving it a tangible face–it’s the easiest target for fleshing out their opinion in group debate. Once those feelings are appellated and organized, it’s a straightforward move to questioning why those feelings initially arose: this is where classification, framework, and comparison come into play. Basically the other side of the logic coin: induction 😛

    2. @Flower, @Pancakes

      Quite so, quite so. Execution and form are functions of each other, and if I were to write more about Re:Zero I would probably enter proper reviewer territory. What I am, though, is easily distracted. I am content to merely fling some ideas around and hope that some stick. If that’s provoked any discussion at all, that’s great! I love reading everything everyone has to say. As for myself, though, I think I’ll leave the hard bits for Cherrie 😛

  14. Subaru was annoying for about 3 episodes… Those episode were he got all depressed and all.

    Now he’s back to normal… I don’t see him as anything special and I don’t the point of this articles. He’s just your regular main otaku character.

    1. By the way, the main character suffering is not special… C’mon, have you ever seen Saint Seiya? The rule for every fight in that show was: you’ll not will until you’re been beaten for several episodes and is almost dead.

      You knew the fight was almost over when the main characters were almost dead… Because from that part, they would suddenly get strong for no reason and kick ass. LOL.

  15. I have so far seen this story as very possibly a tragedy. In one way Suburu is in hell, cursed to be never be able to die and subjected to torture after torture that may well leave him a raving incurable madman in the end. These events inflict both massive mental and physical pain, that is a consequence for Suburu that the reset makes worse not better.

    Of course this story is no where close to finished so the nature of the story is what mental state is Suburu left in the end, if good not a tragedy, if destroyed the story is a tragedy, positive ending otherwise a tragedy mixed with a epic, if negative ending a total tragedy.

    I wish Tragedy not that popular in the west. Shakespeare though knew how to market a Tragedy, you spoil the ending in all your advertising and in the long version of the title. That way the audience does not expect a good end and thus is not disappointed.

    Now Comedy is harder than Tragedy so Shakespeare’s greatest work has to be one of his Comedies.

    1. Nah, Subaru life is not tragic as kiritsugu from fate zero, killing his own dad redeem his family honor, killing his first crush and his mentor(step mum) to stop zombie apocolypse,sacrifice his wife to stop holy grail to save humanity from curruption but in return his daughter brem taken away. Had continue living holding hero curse. This is complete hell. Compare to Subaru, he can “redo”


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