I was promised an epic character arc. What I got was so much more: humor, charm, and a visceral depiction of spiritual warfare—of the battlefield of the mind, the cunning strategies of the enemy, and the agape love that interrupts the downward spiral of shame and self-condemnation. Yep, I’m talking about Season 1 of Re:Zero, Starting Life in Another World—probably one of the most spiritual anime series out there. Here’s why…
By episode ten of the Director’s Cut, Natsuki Subaru has become the very embodiment of the suffering hero. His special ability in the fantasy world of Lugnica may essentially be immortality, but “Return by Death” only activates after he dies—usually an excruciatingly painful death. His dogged attempts to cling to his chipper Saturday Night Fever persona flag as the series progresses and eventually give way to despair when his quest to protect his loved ones is met with failure over and over again. Worst of all, Subaru is isolated in his struggle. He cannot speak to anyone about what is happening to him. When he tries, a mysterious force—the Witch—takes hold of his heart (or that of his beloved Emilia), and squeezes him into submission. The pain in his heart literally silences him. Herein lies the evil genius of the Witch—and the allegorical power of this isekai tale.
The cost of this isolation comes to a head as Subaru confronts the White Whale, the Witch’s Cult and possibly the most off-putting villain of all time, the Sin Archbishop of Sloth, Betelgeuse, whose speech pattern is the vocal equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. As desperation sets in, Subaru’s increasingly reckless behavior alienates him even further from Emilia and the others. Exhausted, he slips into self-pity and depression, and eventually—most worryingly of all—a calm acceptance of the hopelessness of his situation. In this state, Subaru turns his anger inward and embraces self-derision, or what he believes is “the truth”.
It’s a truth that he claims everyone has been telling him, and that his circumstances have been confirming: the truth that he is a failure, he is weak, selfish, incapable, useless… the list goes on and on—and so does Subaru—for several uncomfortable minutes. Because it is uncomfortable, listening to Subaru’s “truth” as he explains to Rem why he has given up on everything and everyone. In the face of this “truth”, he has given up on himself.
But this isn’t the truth. Far from it. And the clue lies in what exactly Subaru is saying about himself. Every one of his accusations against himself is—in one form or another—related to slothfulness. He accuses himself of wastefulness in squandering his life and freedom. He derides himself for “wanting to accomplish something when I’ve never done anything,” neither in his previous life, nor this new life. Subaru even goes so far as to claim that he was only fronting whenever he put in any effort, like when he was training with Wilhelm or studying with Rem.
None of this rings true—it is far too convoluted, like the bizarre contradictions Betelgeuse spouts. Subaru has allowed Sloth’s accusations to twist and contort his whole life story, and he has accepted this ugly mess as his “truth”.
It’s not that he’s quoting Betelgeuse exactly. The Sin Archbishop isn’t articulate enough to come up with the specific accusations and “proofs” that Subaru offers. But Subaru has been affected by his enemy’s way of thinking and seeing the world, and most importantly, his enemy’s way of seeing him. Subaru has been listening to his enemy and it’s changed how he views himself—and not for the better.
This is all too familiar.
How often do we lead the charge against ourselves just like Subaru does? Firing phrases of self-accusation off thick and fast and doing the enemy’s work for him. (After all, “satan” means “accuser, adversary”.) And when we do this, we end up isolating ourselves, either for fear of others finding out the so-called “truth” of our hidden shame or because we can only speak in the language of self-recrimination, like Subaru here, making it mighty unpleasant for others to be around. These are the enemy’s tactics: accuse, isolate, then sit back and watch us self-destruct under the grip of shame—that cold, cruel hand that squeezes our hearts into silence. This is exactly what the Witch and her Cultists do to Subaru.
What can save Subaru from this painful downward spiral?
Rem stands in the light, while Subaru is lost in darkness.
She takes all of his anger, the overflow of his self-hatred, his violent outbursts, and she waits, letting him get it all out. She does not interrupt him or correct him. She does not silence him, even though what he is saying is complete rubbish. She waits.
And then she tells him who he is. She tells him that he is in fact already the hero he’s been desperate to become. She tells him why she loves him, and who he is to her. She speaks a radically different identity over him than that spoken by Sloth or Subaru himself. Rem speaks an identity forged in love and not the identity perverted by an enemy’s hateful eye and sharp tongue.
She may not solve the problem, or even address it. But she arms Subaru with the real truth, a deeper truth, a hope-filled, promising truth that looks to the future. It’s a truth that sees the fruit of failure as the seeds of future growth. She presents him with a different narrative, and one that enables him to stand up again and face his enemies, this time, not quite so alone. She breathes hope into him.
But she also calls him out and refuses to become a scapegoat for him. Rem will not take his hand in order to journey down the easy road, to keep him company while he runs away and leaves his true self behind. But she will take his hand and stand by his side on the harder road—and the one that is less rewarding for her personally. Because that’s what Love does.
It’s not a sweet, simple process though. Subaru resists with all the passion that previously drove him to push through the pain of death to save Emilia, Rem and every other casualty in his first series of trials and returns. All his strength and determination is mobilized now in protest against Rem’s counter-narrative. He holds firmly to the “truth” of self-condemnation that he’s made a part of himself.
Three times, he asks Rem why she loves him. Each time, she answers, the third time even with dramatic lighting and a flock of white doves for emphasis. But it’s not enough. He is not convinced. Again three more times, Subaru reiterates his unworthiness, his isolation.
One might be tempted at this point to become a little impatient with Subaru and his insistent self-hatred. Isn’t it a bit much? Why can’t he just accept Rem’s love for him? And yet, this is exactly what shame does to us. “Shame,” writes researcher Brené Brown, “is the never good enough emotion. It can stalk us over time or wash over us in a second—either way, its power to make us feel we’re not worthy of connection, belonging, or even love is unmatched in the realm of emotion.” Subaru is haunted not simply by his failures, but by the conviction that he himself is a failure. As the saying goes: guilt says “I did something bad,” but shame says “I am bad.” In the echo chamber of his isolation and disappointment, Subaru can only hear the latter.
But three times more Rem responds, voicing her love. When he asks if she really doesn’t mind that it’s him she loves, Rem replies, “I want it to be you.” She opens her arms wide in a beam of sunshine and invites him to start from zero—she invites him to be born again.
Because the love that Rem is putting on display throughout these painful twenty minutes is not just eros, or romantic love. Yes, that’s there in the mix, especially at first. But it goes beyond that. Rem is offering Subaru agape love: pure, intentional, sacrificial love; the love of God for humanity.
It’s a love that sees from an eternal perspective: “How much do you know about the Subaru-kun that I see?!” she asks, before telling him she sees him already as the hero he had given up on being. She sees him as the fulfillment of his potential and his heart’s deepest aspirations, and not as the sum of his failures.
It’s a love that speaks identity to the lost, that never leaves or forsakes: “When no one else in the world believes in you, when you don’t even believe in yourself, I will believe,” she tells him, “I’m here. I’m here. I’ll listen to anything you have to say.”
It’s a love that, rather than taking what it can get for its own satisfaction, risks loss in order to restore wholeness to the one who is hurting: Rem rejects the Subaru who would run away with her, and instead confesses her love to remind him of who he really is, even though in doing so, she reminds Subaru of his love for Emilia. Her confession was not meant to be answered in kind, otherwise, she would have accepted his proposal to run. Instead, it was meant to awaken in him the capacity to love again. And so loving, to live again.
In other words, it’s a love that chooses the broken one, the weak and wounded one, the fearful one, and above all, the one who cannot respond with the same degree of love. It’s a divine love.
In the face of this love that is more than romance, Subaru returns to himself. Maybe for the first time. He stands up straight and lifts his head, his tone calm as he admits, “I can’t do anything alone. I lack in everything. I’m not confident that I can even keep walking straight. I’m weak, fragile and small.” The words are still centered on his shortcomings, but the edge of accusation is gone. Crucially, he doesn’t stop there, but keeps going: “So, to make sure I keep walking straight”—he reaches out his hand a second time to Rem—“to help me realize when I’m wrong,”—the focus of the shot shifts from Subaru’s hand to Rem—“Will you help me?” With this question, Subaru finally sees beyond himself, beyond his own limitations. His focus shifts beyond his own empty hand and he sees Rem, and not just as a way out. As he does, Subaru begins to grasp the rest of the story, which does not end with his limitations. Shame will always tell us that we’ve reached the end of our story when we fail, but love knows differently. Subaru begins to listen to what love has to say.
Now Subaru’s life can truly begin anew, from zero. His life in another world.
We too have this chance at a life lived in another world: the kingdom of heaven here on earth. It’s an eternal life that begins now. Not through our own efforts or accomplishments, and not because we’ve defeated enough foes. Not even because we know how to say the right thing or behave ourselves properly. But because in the midst of our failures, messes and shame, we’ve reached out a hand—no, not even that much, we’ve simply grasped the hand of love that is already extended to us. We’ve said “help me” to the eternal Rem, our heavenly Father, and accepted his offer of agape love, probably without understanding it completely and maybe even with other loves still top of our list, like Subaru. But that’s enough to get started. It’s enough for us to be able to return from death and start life in another world, here and now.
 Brené Brown, Dare to Lead, p. 127
 pp. 119-120, 128
Re:Zero, Starting Life in Another World – Season 1 Director’s Cut can be streamed on Crunchyroll.
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