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Re:ZERO vs Japan Sinks: anime for fans vs anime for everyone

A few weeks ago, I made a second attempt to watch Re:ZERO. It’s not exactly an unpopular show, so I figured that maybe the first time around it just caught me at the wrong time. People often speak about it with a sense of reverie, suggesting that it “may seem like just another isekai fantasy, but it’s actually a much deeper story than that!”. I’ve even seen it compared to Berserk, which to me is the highest praise one can laud upon an anime series, and from then on I was like, “Okay, I must’ve been wrong about this!”.

12 episodes later and…

…I dropped it, again!

At least I made it further than last time, which was half way through the first episode, but I think I’ve seen enough now to know that I’ll never get on with Re:ZERO.

Re:ZERO (Subaru and Rem)

My problems stem from the core aesthetic of the show: Re:ZERO is an anime made for anime fans, and it looks it. It’s about an avid gamer thrown into a fantasy world tasked with solving the problems of a conveyor belt of pretty anime girls. Sometimes they are elven princesses, other times they are maids, but one thing’s for sure, they are all cute, and they all need help. It’s knowingly iterating through a database of character types, giving them tragic backstories, and then tasking Subaru with helping them work through it all or die trying. Just like in a video game, if he dies, he has restore points from which he’s resurrected. He even comments on how it’s like a video game too, because he’s walking around using terms like NPC. I think a lot of people find this level of self awareness endearing, but it just feels artificial to me. This is transparently a story built around a series of tired anime stereotypes and drawn in a way to emphasise the innocence and daintiness of its female cast. Strong, charismatic men are a threat to Subaru’s total mediocrity, so there aren’t any. Which is to say, this isn’t like Berserk at all. But I’m not surprised that anime fans love Re:ZERO, that they have Rem for their desktop wallpapers, and figurines of Emilia. I’m also not surprised that it hasn’t garnered that same acclaim outside of anime fandom.

Japan Sinks: 2020 (image from opening)

Anyway, I wasn’t going to bother writing about Re:ZERO, but then I started watching Japan Sinks: 2020 and it’s helped me contextualise why I like Masaaki Yuasa’s anime so much, why he’s now one of the most popular anime creators out there, and why I really didn’t like Re:ZERO. The thing is, Japan Sinks: 2020 wasn’t made for anime fans. It hasn’t been created to sell merchandise. No one will have Ayumu figurines, because no one is cute in Japan Sinks: 2020, especially the teenagers. They are frustrating, annoying and hard to watch, but I’m gripped nonetheless, because Yuasa’s default style is to reach beyond the superficial, traditional anime styles, just as his storytelling avoids anime archetypes, to create a universal aesthetic that can cross cultures.

Japan Sinks: 2020 (Mari embraces her daughter, Ayumu)

My favourite character is Ayumu’s mother, Mari. She’s physically strong, strong enough to protect her family in the face of utter desolation, yet vulnerable enough to argue and cry with her brattish daughter. She’s an awesome person, basically, and she isn’t fetishised by the show at all. Yuasa’s aesthetic choices are somewhat restrained these days (compared to say, Kemonozume), but there’s still something of the chameleon about him and Science Saru: they build an aesthetic in service of a story as opposed to an industry, and an aesthetic that’s brave enough to be ugly if it means communicating authenticity. I’ve always loved that about Yuasa: he doesn’t make anime just for anime fans, he makes anime for everyone.


Video version of this post!!

6 replies on “Re:ZERO vs Japan Sinks: anime for fans vs anime for everyone”

Wonderful post indeed.
This is my first time commenting here (hopefully I’ll be able to write more in the future 😉 but your article seems to sum up my thoughts exactly.
I also tried watching re zero a couple of years ago when everyone was raving about it and how “dark” and “different” it was from other isekai shows… only to discover that it was basically the same old isekai crap meant to please the otaku fanbase who only care about having cute moe waifus in their shows. Also, I absolutely hate the way a lot of anime shows like this banalize the idea of a character dying. Really, if you are going to kill off a character in the most gruesome way only to have him/her revived a couple of episodes (or even minutes) later what is even the point of killing it in the first place? That’s why I have loved Japan Sinks soo much (for me, clearly the anime of the year unless there’s a major surprise). I don’t know if you have watched the whole thing yet so I don’t want to enter spoilers territory but I’ll just say episode 8 left me speechless and unable to continue watching until the next day… a feeling I sorely missed in the anime that has been made in the last 10 years or so… Japan Sinks not only is a series that anyone outside the otaku circles could enjoy as you very well put it. For me it felt like a kick in the nuts of all the bland shonen fluff, idiotic teasing rom coms and isekai trash we’ve been having non stop for the last few years. It made me feel in a way that very few series (we have to go back to stuff like Texhnolyze or Gilgamesh, truly dark and depressing series that make Re zero look like a freaking Disney joke) have managed to do in the last decade, and for that alone I’ll be eternally grateful to the people behind it.

Honestly, I completely agree with you. I finished Japan Sinks this week, so I know exactly what you’re talking about, and you’re right, that episode left me stunned and gutted, as did something that happens in episode 9 too. I ended up really liking it, yet it’s looking like a lot of anime fans really hated it: I may write a bit more about Japan Sinks, if just to provide a dissenting, positive voice.

Anyway, thank you for commenting. It’s looking like you and I have very similar tastes! I hope to see you around!!

Thanks for a great writeup. I’ve kinda meant to give Re:Zero at least a try as it’s been highly regarded unlike, say, SAO which is undeniably a polarising show albeit super hyped. I haven’t though, because I’ve sensed some miasma wafting around its fanbase so basically you confirmed that my hunch was spot on that I’m not in the target audience.

I can definitely relate to this post. Now a decade and a half or so after I first got into anime, I find myself increasingly less compelled toward what’s new, aside from a few slim pickings here and there. Most recently I’ve loved Made in Abyss enough to consider it top ten, and there have definitely been a few others that grabbed my attention.

I had really high hopes at the start of this decade because of one show in particular: From the New World. But when I look back on it now it almost felt like a sort of swan song in some sense to the period that I really fell in love with anime, being the late 90s through the 2000s. I haven’t watched every anime from the 2010s so you can correct me if I’ve missed some, but I think what made FtNW special in a way that more recent offerings haven’t been is that it is a very seriously minded, generally unflashy series that doesn’t feel like it was built around pandering to specific audiences. And that I think is the big difference between a lot of the series I fell in love then and a lot of why I’m turned off by what’s popular now. A lot of what I watched in the 2000s just didn’t seem obsessively pandered to particularly vocal subsets of anime fans, which I think made them more palatable to a wider range of Western audiences and helped to elevate series like Cowboy Bebop to prominence among both casual and artistically minded viewers outside of Japan. But for every commercial success like that there were shows like Haibane Renmei or Fantastic Children, among many others, that didn’t really seem to be made with any audience in mind at all, yet they still exist now and are still well worth watching today, in my opinion.

Having jumped from anime to film a lot this decade I find that I’m tending to fit into your second category more. I find that too much anime are high school dramas or MMORPG or just have too much flashy, fast paced animation. And don’t get me wrong, some or all of these qualities have made great anime in the past, but I think given how ubiquitous these traits are it suggests a lack of faith in your audience to enjoy things that are more meditative. And that’s not to say there aren’t more recent examples of the latter, but it just feels fewer and farther between than I remember from my golden years. Speaking to friends outside of the anime sphere, I think a lot of people who were casual fans of Adult Swim anime in the 2000s have been really put off by what’s coming out today, especially in terms of how young the characters look and act (female especially), and I don’t really think that’s going to change any time soon. Personally I find myself returning to old favorites or shows that I skipped over from years ago (like Gasaraki, Monster, and Texhnolyze) more than I watch new stuff, but even still there’s more than enough for me to dig into. But it would be nice to see a return of less pandering or more seriously minded series, as I think the medium has more to offer than a lot of what’s been put forth as of late.

And also bear in mind that I only speak of the anime I’ve personally watched at least a few episodes of from the last few years, which certainly is too limited a pool for these observations to be considered more than slightly informed opinions.

Thanks for your thoughts, they are very relatable. In the mid-late Nineties, early Noughties, more anime seemed to be creator-driven? That’s the only way I can see something like Texhnolyze, Haibane Renmei or Fantastic Children existing, simply because there was a desire within the industry to support those creators. Where did those creators come from? And where are the new talents today? For the former, I think the OVA boom and bust saw a generation of creators given the chance to experiment and hone their talents, a chance that simply doesn’t seem to exist any more? It’s really difficult to get away from how homogenized anime is now.

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