Spoilers for Re:Zero seasons one and two
The “Nice Guy” is a stereotype with a double edge. On one side, it can be seen as the embodiment of the accepted masculine way to be caring, respectful, and openly emotional, a model of the ideal romantic partner. The other edge is insidious. Those good deeds are motivated by the manipulative, entitled, and often controlling desire for a romantic relationship with the object of their affection–and if they don’t get their way, it’s the fault of the world or the person they were courting. “Nice Guy” here becomes ironic, that “niceness” used as currency rather than genuine kindness or compassion.
In Re:Zero — Starting Life in another World, both of these contradicting sides are embodied by the protagonist Subaru in his relationship with would-be queen Emilia. Though often shown empathizing with and caring for Emilia, he is also manipulative and controlling towards her. Re:Zero highlights these contradictions to create a portrayal of what is often the actual problem with Nice Guys: the assumption of commodifying good behavior for the return of love or sex, and the sense of entitlement or control over the person they like that often stems from it.
Tappei Nagatsuki, the show’s creator, writes Subaru to be as relatable as possible to the intended audience. Subaru is a lonely and depressed teenager who feels overshadowed by his parents’ successes and the pressures of school and looming adulthood. One night, he is transported to a fantasy world and given the ability to rewind time. This power is much like infinite lives mode in a video game, with the ability to restart at the beginning of a level after death. However, unlike in a game, Subaru feels every death he experiences and retains the memory of that timeline when he snaps back to a starting point.
These numerous and horrifying deaths–of companions, civilians, and himself–build into a mountain of trauma that he is unable to speak upon. At first he sees this ability as a gift, a way of changing his life for the better; but it soon becomes more and more unbearable. That is, until he decides to dedicate his time and power to helping the would-be queen Emilia.
Subaru’s relationship with Emilia is one built on a memory of safety and comfort. She’s first introduced healing a wounded Subaru not long after he arrives in the fantasy world. For Subaru, Emilia is an angel that shows him kindness; but for Emilia, this was only a good deed that cost her the chance to capture the thief who stole her pendant. Subaru pledges to help her find it, but in doing so leads them both to their deaths. After this pivotal moment, he dedicates his life to keeping her safe and making sure she can reach her dream of becoming queen.
The show portrays their relationship as a courtship, but it is often only shown through Subaru’s point of view. Subaru constantly compliments and flirts with Emilia even though she often assumes he’s only teasing her. Subaru’s undivided devotion is often seen as the testament of his love for Emilia, but is truly him feeding on his desire to be seen as a savior or hero. Subaru’s heroics often come at the cost of thinking less of Emilia’s companions or reducing her to a damsel. He works for her but not with her toward her goals, leading him to sacrifice his life time and time again without considering whether that’s something she wants.
This culminates in Subaru literally self-proclaiming himself a knight in service of Emilia. Through the grand gestures, compliments and heroic triumphs, Emilia slowly begins to show reciprocated feelings towards Subaru through each timeline. Her affection allows him to frame his pain and countless deaths as worthy sacrifices for her love, and her romantic gestures become almost addictive for him. For him, it’s been weeks, months and possibly years since he fell in love with Emilia; but for her, only a year has passed.
This twisted view of sacrifice as an expression of love reinforces Subaru’s resolve to push through any pain for Emilia’s sake. When he becomes a butler for the Mildred Manor, the house that is endorsing her bid to become Queen, Subaru becomes sick and exhausted from the workload; but whenever Emilia sees him, he hides it under his smile until he eventually collapses. Subaru uses the opportunity to push for a date with her, using a moment when she feels guilty and indebted to him in order to increase his odds of success. Her saying “no” would no longer be about not being interested in him, which is all a date should be about. It would be ungrateful after all he did for her.
He often pushes her boundaries through grand gestures: constantly inserting himself into her problems, giving compliments, telling her how much he loves her and that she’s the number one woman in his life. Emilia, meanwhile, is often portrayed as uncomfortable or flustered by the praise. Subaru never notices or listens to her when she is uncomfortable. Subaru sees himself as the hero, and the hero always gets the girl. This fundamental miscommunication leads to the strongest moment of the show, as it finally condemns Subaru’s actions.
In “Return to the Capital” and “Self-Proclaimed Knight,” Subaru asks Emilia if he can go with her to the capital to assist her in the battle for the kingdom. Emilia agrees,l as long as he doesn’t overexert himself and stays in the hotel room. If Subaru truly cared about making Emilia happy above his own desires, this would be a more than fair request to follow.
However, once she leaves to go to the castle he follows her and ends up fighting Emilia’s friend Julius due to his own jealousy and insecurities. Emilia has finally had enough and calls him out for breaking his promise, rightly pointing out that his deeds for her are only for his own selfish desires. This leads to Subaru stating that he did all of this for her, and when she questions it he can’t explain–because he didn’t do those things for this Emilia.
Which brings us to Subaru’s toxic behavior and why it persists. Subaru is wrapped inside layers of PTSD from his many deaths, incapable of telling others about his rebirths because the malicious figure who gave him that power kills him when he tries, and unable to find any solace in it outside of saving the one person that showed him kindness: the Emilia that died in the first timeline.
Subaru hates that he was too afraid and too weak to save her and is constantly looking down on himself, just like he did when he was in his original world. He finds the self-esteem he never had through serving someone else and placing himself in the masculine role of “the hero”. But the moment Emilia tells him off, he’s confronted with his actions and how they affect both himself and others. His grand gestures toward Emilia and resentment at her for not understanding him come from the same source: seeing her as an outlet to fix his issues rather than a person in her own right.
After that moment, Subaru begins to start changing and confronting the part of himself that is always trying to save Emilia and invade her life; he gives her space and encourages her to face her own trials even when given the opportunity to do it for her. Subaru starts to see Emilia as a person who has her own abilities and agency, which allows him to start confronting the demons that he’s truly trying to run away from.
This change in character allows him to begin to succeed in overcoming the odds with the help of others rather than constantly embracing self-destructive behavior. The show drives the importance of this growth home using the second season’s villain, Roswaal, as Subaru’s direct foil.
Roswaal is a mage and Emilia’s sponsor in her bid to become queen. In the second season, it is revealed that Roswall has actually been possessed by his ancestor, Roswaal A. Mathers, since he was fourteen years old in hopes of one day resurrecting Roswaal’s mentor, Echidna.
Roswaal, like Subaru, has sacrificed everything for the love of someone that is long gone. This unyielding selfish drive leads to Roswaal viewing everyone as either a tool or an obstacle to his goal and to treat them as such.
Roswaal sees Subaru as someone who understands his point of view, and who understands that sacrifices have to be made. However, Roswaal underestimates how much Subaru has grown from his initial perspective and behavior, and this becomes his downfall. Rather than treating people as objects and placing himself on a path of noble self-sacrifice, Subaru learns how to communicate and how to accept help from others. He trusts in Emilia being able to be strong enough on her own to fight her demons without him, and in the end this is what leads to victory.
The Nice Guy archetype isn’t something to strive for, and Re:Zero tries to wrestle with this through the eyes of a person unable to face his own demons. There are plenty of Isekai that dabble with Nice Guy tropes as an actual power fantasy and never interrogate the story they could be telling of the protagonist growing to become a better person. Shows like Rising of the Shield Hero or Mushoku Tensei portray people who feel lost not only because of the society around them but often because of personal failings and issues they refuse to acknowledge.Rather than developing, they are rewarded for their faults with romantic partners who often have no other agency or personality outside of adoring the main character. The protagonist “earns” the love of these characters by virtue of being the hero, their “Nice Guy” attributes currency that is exchanged for attention and affection.
Too many people in the real world struggle with these same tendencies and are consuming media that reflect what they already feel, so it’s no surprise this assumption that they are owed affection is so pervasive. Media can shape, change, and even embolden political views, social change and consumer trends. It is crucial to examine what is being presented as “relatable” and “power fantasy” in popular media, and what mindsets they may be encouraging or emboldening, intentionally or otherwise. It’s important to look closely at characters like Subaru and what trends and ideologies he represents, rather than shrugging him off.
Unlike its contemporaries however, Re:Zero’s writing seems to be leading towards a more cold, hard look in the mirror for the people who relate so much to Subaru. Rather than uncritically repeating the pattern of Subaru “earning” what is “owed” to him by being Emilia’s knight in shining armor, the narrative makes space to call him out on his toxic behavior. This both grants Emilia some agency rather than reducing her to a prize to be won, and complicates the audience’s relationship with Subaru as a so-called power fantasy protagonist. Like Subaru dying for the Emilia he could not save while alienating the one that is real and present, viewers who identify with the “Nice Guys” ethos need to realize that you can’t treat others like that, even if you think you truly love them. You must see the other person not as an object for obsession or even salvation, that they are a person that deserves respect and autonomy.