Warning: Spoilers for Re:Zero
Warning: A lot of Subarus were harmed in the making of this article.
A term used a lot to describe anime in 2016 is “time travel” – and for the most part, this isn’t incorrect. The show that kicked off the year was Erased, a show that did indeed seem to have time travel elements to it. There are other series and movies too, like Doraemon and Time Travel Girl, all explicitly tackling “time travel elements”.
One anime under this label is the recently released Re:Zero – Starting life in another world. On the surface, it does appear to be time-travel-based. Subaru goes from one point in time back to a previous point in time. He’s travelling to a point in time before the current time, so therefore, he’s time travelling? Yeah?
Time travelling is an incredibly complicated physics phenomenon that people are still theorizing about today, so take this article with a pinch of salt, but let’s try and crack down how Re:Zero is not time travel based.
Why isn’t it time travel?
This may be one of the most science-heavy articles I’ll ever write, so let’s break things down to the very basic principles.
In a normal, uninfluenced world such as the world we live in now, time moves in one direction at a fixed pace (assuming we’re all on earth, Einstein put this into question when speed is in the equation but that’s irrelevant right now)
By the basic definition, time travel means one person travelling from a present time to a time in the past or a time in the future. In other words, the movement is altered in some way. But there’s more to it than that. This definition of time travel implies that the motion of time happens within only one timeline.
To put this into more digestible terms, I have tapped into my inner artist to make these beautiful diagrams on MS paint.
Here, this is the standard timeline that Subaru is first seen in. The past is behind him, the future is in front of him, and he’s in the present. Okay.
Now, let’s say that Subaru dies. Nothing too new considering the suffer porn that the show thrives on.
He returns to a ‘save point’ back in time, and with the knowledge of future events, he continues on the same progression, engages in the same events, but tries things ever so subtly differently to avoid the outcome that he went through before.
Assuming classic time travel elements, it looks a little bit like this. Blue arrows represent the time travel of the show.
Subaru dies in the future, gets revived to a save point in the past, and then redoes the story all over again with the knowledge of the events that are going to happen.
Looking at this, it looks fine, right?
Well…I’m sorry for lying to you. This diagram is actually wrong. It’s simply not possible. And I don’t mean in the sense “oh travelling back in time isn’t possible in the modern world”. I mean that even if in theory he was resurrected into the same timeline, it wouldn’t be possible.
Because dead Subaru would be revived into the same timeline, that means that at some point in the place in which he was resurrected, there is still another past Subaru alive. To illustrate it better, here’s a more accurate diagram:
Do you notice what is going on? There are two Subarus moving together in the same world – one who hasn’t died yet and one who already has. This clearly isn’t the case in the show. We only ever see one Subaru in each revival, and never any more. So right off the bat, this means that Subaru isn’t time travelling. He can’t be – because if he were, he’d be interacting with…himself.
Also, there’s a red wall there. The red wall basically represents a complex time-travelling paradox that I don’t really have the knowledge to explain fully – but here’s the run down.
If the Subaru in the original timeline dies, and that death causes him to go back in time, in which he redoes the events and this time dosen’t die…then we have 1 dead Subaru and 1 alive Subaru.
If Subaru came from the past, changes events in that same timeline, and essentially changes the content of the events he came from, we’ve just made a paradox.
Subaru CAN’T be dead and alive at the same time in the same timeline. Subaru cannot be both working as a butler in Roswaal’s mansion and dead in the city square at the same time.
So, basically, no. Re:Zero isn’t a time travel anime.
So..what is Re:Zero?
Re:Zero is not about time travel. Subaru is not travelling through time. Instead, he is travelling to a different version of his universe. A different universe, a different timeline, and a new dimension.
Subaru dies in the original dimension, and then is resurrected. He isn’t resurrected into his original timeline, but a new timeline. Exactly the same as the one before it, with only minor differences – the major one being that the Subaru in this timeline, having done everything identical to the original, suddenly gains full consciousness of the past path that he took. Every time he dies, he creates a new timeline that allows him to start over.
Why isn’t this time travel? Subaru is technically NOT moving through time. The world around him percives time in a manner that is exactly the same.
The diagram above shows what time would look like to the universe around him. But that universe is young and created out of Subaru’s need to …well…exist.
To Subaru, each time he dies, the gap between his savepoint and his death remains in his consciousness. He dosesn’t suddenly forget everything that happened – no, that information carries along with him.
Think about it this way – if we cropped out Subaru’s bad endings and only took into account the good endings, let’s call this “timeline prime”, how short would Re:Zero be?
Subaru’s perception of time looks a little bit like this instead:
He dies, and keeps the knowledge he gained in the timeline where he failed. With this new knowledge, he comes into the next dimension more prepared each time he dies. For example, when he dies in Roswaal’s mansion, he died useless and talentless. But with each revival, each lesson from Ram and experience from Beatrice, he comes back more knowledgeable until he’s able to do his job dutifully. In the perspective of other characters, Subaru must have gained some surge of knowledge with every save point.
In the perspective of other characters, Subaru must have gained some surge of knowledge with every save point. To the characters in ‘timeline prime’, Subaru’s savepoint must seem strange, because with each new revival, Subaru feels compelled to do things that the Subaru before the save point wouldn’t have even considered – in this sense, he must appear impulsive and even aggressive to some characters. He has knowledge from a timeline that they don’t exist in.
With this distinction, Subaru is untethered from the original timeline in which he died, and with the knowledge he gained from that timeline, he can attempt to avoid the end result as the timeline he originally came from. He can die over and over, and the original timeline would be uninfluenced. He’d just be hopping from one dimension to another, trying to correct the mistakes that he did.
To clarify, even though he is hopping to another universe, everything that happened in the original universe up to the point of his resurrection remains absolutely consistent. When he gets revived, it’s the merchant that sells him the apple, the same two maids that sit by his bed and the same hero who slew the white whale. The only difference is that the Subaru in the new timeline has knowledge that the original does not have.
The analogy that the light novel uses is a ‘save point’ – and it’s not wrong. Everything before you saved remains exactly as it is. No progress is undone, no memories are lost, it’s the same as it was before.
If I went to play Dark Souls and then died (a feeling I’m sure we are all familiar with), the game dosen’t shut down and break. We respawn as our same hero – but not as the same hero. We respawn playing a different hero, much like the last one, but now we have knowledge of that dead ending. Now we know the movements of the boss – and we can take them on even though in the canon of the game’s universe, it would be our first encounter.
What does this mean?
The fact that there are so many timelines means many things for Subaru and the cast – most of which have horrifying implications.
The first thing is something that was touched on earlier – Subaru must seem to perceive time MUCH slower than other characters. Other characters are oblivious to Subaru’s return by death ability, and as a result, they perceive time just like we do: in one direction. 24 hours in a day, and each day only happens once.
This isn’t the case for Subaru. Sometimes, he needs to go through the same day several times in order to find the happy ending (one in which he doesn’t die), so he mentally matures at a rate much faster than other characters. He knows what will work and what won’t through tedious trial and error.
Of course, this does have incredibly severe psychological effects, which is something that the show tackles brilliantly. What about a scenario where there appears to be no happy ending? How would you feel if you were brought back to try the same scenario again for the 8th time, having died 7 times where your efforts amounted to the same ending? Not to mention how much death hurts – it’s clear that Subaru doesn’t want to die. If it were that simple, he’d kill himself at every ill moment. Death is a last resort. When you keep trying and keep failing, your mental stability starts to collapse. Subaru was given the privilege to ‘start over’ from a save point, something that most of us humans would honestly dream of. If he can’t get it right after several tries, it’s only normal for him to have the mental breakdown that he did. A lot of the second half of the show was focused on this suffering – the pain and the mental collapse of someone who dies many times over. The fan affectionately dubbed this “suffer porn” – Subaru was in pain so often that we started to question if this was the point of the show.
Something else that this means is that when Subaru fails, the show plays it off as “It’s okay! He has a second chance to make everything right again!” The truth is – he fails every single time he dies.
When Subaru dies, the timeline in which he does doesn’t just go away. It still exists. Time still flows in that dimension as it would. When Subaru died at the hands of Elsa early in the show, although we don’t see it, it’s likely that Emlia walked in and got killed. When Subaru died at the hands of Puck later in the show, Puck does end the world – we just aren’t there to see it.
Every failed universe still exists. Time flows as it would normally in that dimension, and as much as it hurts to say, he’s failed Emilia and Rem far more times than he’s saved them.
Which brings up something else – Subaru’s dimension hopping creates an identical universe just like the one he came from but slightly rewound in time. So, there’s a distinction between this universe and the last. Do you know what else this means?
There’s a distinction between every character, too.
Yes, for each timeline abandoned, a whole new version of a character is created. Indeed, that character retains the same features, same characteristics and same memories (up to the save point) as the character before them, but regardless, the characters are not the same.
So each time Subaru is being revived back into another timeline, the Rem that he meets in the market over and over again in the second half of the show isn’t the same Rem. It’s a totally different Rem. The Rem that died in the old timeline didn’t suddenly get resurrected or rewound. A new Rem is created altogether. That Rem in the previous timeline did die. This Rem isn’t the same one.
The characters have died over and over and over, it’s just that because we see the show through Subaru’s dimension hopping perspective, it seems like all the bad memories are washed away with each reset. But no, they do die. The cast we see revived is a new cast entirely.
So, what does this mean? That Re:Zero embodies the essences of quantum physics and string theory? To some extent, yes, but the normal viewer wouldn’t be able to tell, let alone care.
From first glance, ‘time travel’ doesn’t seem so far from the truth. Travelling through time is a concept that’s been theorised about for who knows how long, but until we have a time machine ourselves, we can’t really see what’s really going to happen out there.
Well, time travel or quantum mechanics aside, the show is still incredibly enjoyable. I doubt that this will put many people off, although it might be disturbing to learn that Subaru’s constant dimension hopping leaves his old, abandoned dimensions with a crippled fate.
I’m not a master with quantum physics, but to be fair, this has been An Idiot’s Guide to Re:Zero and how it relates to Time Travel and Quantum Physics, so don’t take my word for it. I’m just an idiot.