Re: Zero and the White Knight Complex

reinhardEpisode 3 of Re: Zero introduces a character who is, quite literally, a white knight. Reinhard van Astrea is a member of the Royal Guard and is apparently so powerful and righteous that he’s known as the Sword Saint. He is also, incidentally, a minor character.

As anyone watching Re: Zero would be aware, the character with the white knight complex is actually Subaru, a hikikomori who is summoned from modern Japan, armed with only a cell phone and his wits. If Reinhard is supposed to represent the unattainable white knight ideal, then Subaru is the white knight whom the audience can relate to, a hapless young man who struggles through life (and multiple deaths) in the best way he can manage. So far in the story, he is motivated almost exclusively by his desire to save the girls he meets from death: initially the heroine Emilia, and later the twin maids Rem and Ram.

We’re not told much else about Subaru (to the detriment of the storytelling, frankly), but we’re expected to immediately understand and accept his obsessive desire to save these girls he barely knows. Why?

re zeroAt its core, Re: Zero reflects the gender politics that permeate so much of otaku media: our nice guy hero, who is far from macho in the stereotypical sense, nevertheless manages to assert his masculinity by “saving” girls from physical danger and/or their emotional problems. While Train Man is undoubtedly the representative example of otaku masculinity in popular imagination, this trope is common in romances marketed at men, and it is frequently associated with the harem genre in particular.

Subaru is yet another example in the growing list of otaku men who manage to become heroes of their own stories despite failing to live up to the salaryman ideal of masculinity. Not only is Subaru an otaku, he’s a shut-in who doesn’t even go to school. In capitalist Japan, he’s nothing but a leech on society. How can he “save” anyone when he’s completely dependent on others for his own survival?

The answer: By finding a woman he can project his insecurities onto.

The white knight complex is one of the reasons why I personally find harems so endlessly fascinating in spite of (or maybe because of?) their generally poor writing: they might say very little about how women are actually like, but they do say a whole lot about male anxieties. This is sort of related to what I was saying about all those otaku power fantasies in an earlier post, about how they offer a way for a disenfranchised male to depict himself as the top dog. If the male otaku in these stories can’t live up to the impossible ideals of heteronormative masculinity, his answer is not to reject those ideals altogether, but rather to create a world where he can cheat his way to the top. In this scenario, women are relegated to trophy status; by loving the protagonist, they affirm his manhood to the eyes of the world.

2fLqGDxI wouldn’t cast such works in an entirely negative light, though. At the very least, I sympathise with their frustrations against traditional masculine ideals, and some of the male characters in anime do resonate quite strongly with their audiences. Think of characters like Ryuuji from Toradora and Okabe from Steins;Gate.

Plus, it’s not like the white knight complex is inherently a bad thing. The term “white knight complex” might be gendered, but more broadly I see it as a desire to save others… in an attempt to save oneself. One of the reasons I really like Code Geass is because it revealed Suzaku’s chivalry as self-serving hypocrisy. Suzaku wanted to save others because he saw his own life as worthless, because it was a meager way to assuage his guilt. More recently, Concrete Revolutio has devoted itself to exploring all aspects of heroism, warts and all. Anime is full of stories that explore the selfish aspects of the “white knight” or “hero” complex in interesting ways, while never condemning the fundamental urge to stand up for those in need.

This rather empathetic interpretation of the white knight complex is also emphasised in the story of Re: Zero. It’s made particularly explicit in episode 8, when Subaru breaks down in tears and admits to Emilia that he’s scared and feels powerless. It turns out that this admission of his own vulnerability is key to consolidating the trust of those around him and, eventually, saving their lives.

A few other things are worth noting here:

  • Subaru is the weakest character in the story so far. He might be implausibly strong for a hikikomori, but it ultimately does not amount to much in the context of a fantasy world where people have magical powers. In practice, he ends up relying on the strengths of others just to stay alive (Reinhard in the first arc, Beatrice in the second half, Emilia throughout).
  • Subaru is aware that he doesn’t know squat about the people he’s trying to save. In episode 7, he admits that he doesn’t know anything about Rem and Ram, but wants to know more. He regrets dying because he knows that he loses their friendship every time he resets.
  • It’s implied that Subaru’s relationship with Emilia et al. are the only meaningful friendships he’s ever had. This might explain why he is in no hurry to return to his home world and why he’s so desperate to hold onto these friendships.

Taken together, these factors suggest that at its core, Re: Zero values emotional honesty more than the mere act of saving girls. If Subaru wants to save other people, he must first acknowledge his weaknesses and vulnerabilities. He also has to admit, to himself and to others, that he’s really out to save himself from his fear and loneliness.

To be clear, I don’t want to suggest that Re: Zero rejects the sexist nonsense peddled by otaku narratives. The audience is not really being asked to question the core of Subaru’s motivations here. While I’m sure that he would be willing to stick out his neck to save another guy, the narrative only throws him girls to protect. Thus, you could say that the narrative itself is structured around the white knight complex, regardless of the protagonist’s personal attitude.

Reinhard_van_Astrea_Anime_4

That said, Reinhard doesn’t gender-discriminate when it comes to saving people.

Also, just because Subaru has a rougher time than most in the fantasy world doesn’t mean that he’s going to question his worldview. Many of the dramatic scenes are presented as game-changers as far as Subaru is concerned, but in the very next scene he just goes back to his goofball persona. Sometimes, it’s made clear that he’s deliberately putting on a cheerful face and that he’s hurting on the inside (as in episode 8), but on the whole his character development is not consistent.

And finally, I just don’t buy the relationships in this story. I can buy the idea that Emilia is a Good Samaritan, but I find it hard to swallow that she would trust Subaru so quickly, especially when he seems to know an awful lot about her for a stranger. (Why on earth did she choose to trust him over her own maid in episode 7?) Also, while I can figure out why Subaru would become so attached to Emilia and the maids so quickly, the anime doesn’t do nearly enough to convince me of it on an emotional level. As a result, it’s tempting to dismiss his motives for saving them as simply because they’re cute girls.

So overall… Re: Zero is far from perfect, but hey I still like it. It’s nice to see a story where a boy cries and isn’t blamed for it, and where male strength doesn’t just revolve around brawn or video game skills. Whatever else you can say about it, the show does have a strong emotional core. It’s the last thing I expected from a show that goes out of its way to “gamify” its setting and premise.Re Zero Kara Hajimeru Isekai Seikatsu - 08 - Large 28


Addendum (9/7/2016)This post was written just after episode 8. After the events of episode 13, the narrative has become explicit about showing the downsides of Subaru’s white knight complex. However, I won’t update the body of this post to respond to the later story developments since I think that this post is more useful as an analysis of the early episodes. One has to give this series some credit – Re:Zero was earnestly exploring Subaru’s white knight complex all along.

Posted on May 27, 2016, in Anime Analysis and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 31 Comments.

  1. “If the male otaku in these stories can’t live up to the impossible ideals of heteronormative masculinity, his answer is not to reject those ideals altogether, but rather to create a world where he can cheat his way to the top.”

    This is probably my favorite sentence in this entire post. As I was reading, I was getting flashbacks of all of the “magic high school romantic comedy harem” content or “transported to a different world” novels, thinking about the behaviors of the different protagonists.

    To be honest, I don’t really mind these type stories all that much, despite my personality and status being the complete opposite. In fact, I feel a bit entertained by watching/reading them and now having read your other linked post in addition to this one, I’m a bit more intrigued now…

    • It’s very interesting, right?

      Sometimes, the protagonist himself is very good at bending the rules (e.g. Sora from No Game No Life). Other times, the setting is just conveniently shaped in a way that makes the MC’s best qualities shine (e.g. Sword Art Online). It depends! And by no means is it unique to web novels or light novels.

      Personally, I don’t mind those stories either. They have good entertainment value, although admittedly I wouldn’t want to watch them all the time…

  2. I’m still at episode 4 of Re:Zero but I have to say that the problems I see with it are more due to its general not stellar writing than with its fundamental message. I think the characters aren’t very well described because, well, the writer probably doesn’t know any better, and for similar reasons this is merely a derivative LN so *of course* there have to be cute girls in droves.

    Is the fact that disenfranchised men’s fantasies involve first and foremost success with women inherently sexist though? I don’t know, after all society sometimes really seems nothing more than an incredibly sophisticated form of mating ritual, where people plays roles and struggles for success in an endless quest to obtain some form of recognition that, in its basest form, is of sexual nature. Anything else – power, fame, money – is often a sublimation of that basic instinct for hoarding resources. And yet, these things also push us to altruistic acts, in the sense that we know that these acts will gain us approval, but even when they just makes us feel better about ourselves, the very reason why we even HAVE something in our brain that releases endorphins when we help others and see them happy is that it’s something that ends up being good for mutual trust, social cohesion, and ultimately survival of the species. I am not sure it would be right to only acknowledge “truly selfless” altruism, if it even exists. I don’t even know if it would be at all *healthy* (hello, Shirou Emiya!).

    From this point of view, when your problem is feeling like you’re being punished for not conforming to the society’s views on masculinity, it’s not surprising that you may end up seeing women as the enemy – after all, women who DO buy into those views (by definition, a relative majority, or those wouldn’t be the socially accepted views at all) will end up being the harshest judges of your own lack of conformity; they will be the face of that society oppressing you. Of course it’s a superficial view that doesn’t go deeper to undercut the root of the problem – the worst aspect of it is that it pits disenfranchised men and women against each other, making “feminists” and this kind of men sworn enemies when they actually have one fundamental objective in common, to deconstruct society’s expectations on gender roles, be them subservience for women or power and strength and confidence for men.

    Personally I appreciated that Subaru never once (for now) did anything really perverted or demeaning, despite the many occasions. Every time he’s been given occasion the show seems to stress how when asked stuff like “you may ask anything” – which inevitably will trigger dirty thoughts – he invariably answers with some silly fluffy request. It’s a small thing as the story doesn’t really seem to have it in itself to actually seriously subvert its own genre dynamics, merely occasionally nudge against it, but I mean, by this time the guy from Konosuba was already stealing panties left and right. With Re:Zero at times it feels like the author is sort of occasionally whacking the viewer in the head. The extreme suffering that Subaru goes through multiple times also makes him not the most desirable self-insert character. I think the core idea here is to stress that yeah, protecting girls might be a noble endeavour and surely whatever your reasons doing good is better than not doing it, but do not delude yourself it comes for *free*. In general, I get a “has the heart in the right place” vibe from this show.

    • arbitrary_greay

      Revolutionary Girl Utena pretty deeply explores these questions, and the variations “saving” harem protagonist, all trying to become Prince Dios, are quite well represented within the likes of Miki, Touga, Saionji, Mikage, Tsuwabuki, Ruuka, and Akio.

      There are plenty of “gentlemen” within those ranks. There’s that famous line of Touga self-identifying as a feminist.

      • Yes, but RGU was born years before the kind of culture Re:Zero spawns from. The seeds were there and of course saving damsels in distress is a trope as old as dust, but I think there’s some very current implications in THIS specific iteration of the trope, a fundamental clash between Japan’s culture of glorification of achievement and conformity and the modern world’s turmoil and economic crisis. Gender roles cut both ways. Women might feel like they don’t want to be only the ones who tend to their husbands and care for the children, but so can men not feel like they want to bear all the responsibility of being the bread-earners, especially in a world in which bread-earning has become so maddeningly difficult. That disenfranchisement might lead to bitterness and poisonous attitudes isn’t a new discovery at all, but I think that addressing the root cause of disenfranchisement is still the most important thing.

        In RGU, Touga isn’t bad because he saves girls. He’s bad because he’s a total asshole, no matter what he says or thinks about himself. And even he gets some character development and closure at the end – RGU is a show that does a lot of that, characters these complex can’t just be put in boxes labelled as “BAD” and “GOOD”, and Utena through her actions changes and “saves” nearly everyone. While in Re:Zero characters lack such nuance, Subaru hasn’t done anything that would qualify as bad. In fact he’s gone out of his way to do good, even at his own detriment. Even questioning his motivations – supposing he’s doing it for selfish reasons – it still stands that he did good things. We admire saints and benefactors that for all we know might have been only in it for the attention. What difference does it make? And if his selfish motivation is just that he wants to conquer Emilia’s affections – well, is it that bad? Don’t people go regularly out of their ways to be extra nice to someone they’re smitten with, isn’t the whole *point* of caring for someone that you’re going to be more inclined to do good for them than for someone else? Even if it’s just the kind of crush that a teen or a young man who’s never really talked to a girl can have when one is nice to him for the first time, it’s perfectly understandable. I understand the problems with the “Nice Guy” syndrome, but sometime it seems to me it gets conflated with something that’s simply called “being an inexperienced teenager”. Not every guy who mistakes being nice with attraction is also an unrepentant asshole who will turn abusive when he’s turned down – most of them will just do what turned down people usually do, namely go in a corner and cry their hearts out.

        • arbitrary_greay

          I think the specific RGU character that applies here is Miki. He’s chasing after a nostalgic time of “equality,” (playing a duet with his sister) and seeks to “save” Anthy, planning on treating her well in his victory.
          As you point out, Utena falls into a similar motivational trap. The entire show criticizes the concept of “saving” itself, for even the characters who haven’t really done anything “bad,” like Miki and Utena, outside that desire to save.

          RGU interrogates what it actually means to save someone, as opposed to supporting someone to save themselves. A result that may appear to be beneficial (Anthy not being abused by belonging to a non-abusive victor) may not be a true saving. (Anthy making her own choice to reject the Rose Bride system)

          Now, I won’t say if this makes saving desires inherently sexist or not. (Not really interested in that question) But despite pre-dating the modern LN fantasy, I do think RGU’s thematic exploration very relevant, arguably even moreso by pointing out that the white knight complex isn’t gender-specific, or about a single approach or motivation to it. RGU’s ultimately conclusion is ultimately that everyone should seek to rise above looking at one’s own motivations and the results of one’s own actions, but instead to see the person they’re supposedly working for as their own person, to go beyond sympathy and reach for empathy, instead.

          • Yeah, as you mention, RGU explores the power dynamics of “saving” in a very universal way. After all, it mostly deals with traditional motifs lifted from folk European fairytales that are extremely ancient (some recent studies say possibly with a nucleus as ancient as human’s colonisation of Europe itself). On the other hand, I think the modern isekai LN craze has a lot of roots in its socio-economic context. The question is not the escapist fantasy in itself which is pretty transparent (and deconstructed by RGU) but the *reasons* for the escapist fantasy in the first place, and how they inform its details. These are the things that I believe are more interesting. There’s no doubt Re:Zero is no masterpiece for the ages, but within the trappings of its own genre it seems to tell a story that is fundamentally different from, say, SAO or Mahouka.

            • arbitrary_greay

              Well, the key point in both RGU and Monogatari (and Madoka Magica, for that matter), is that the fantasy of saving comes from not seeing the person to be saved as who they are, as their own person. So what is it about the socio-economic context that drives the disenfranchised to find this kind of objectification desirable?

              RGU posits that nostalgia and unreliable memory can play a large role, with the narrative that the old security in masculinity was lost (Dios), and so Akio and the Counsel seek to get it back, to break through the gate by proving their own forms of masculinity (defined by how they treat the women around them) as the most powerful.
              In Nanami, RGU also examines how social pressure and mechanisms of alienation drive a desire for fantasy, in her latching on to Touga, despite not actually being into incest. Nanami pursues the image, out of fear of loss. She projects a pure image upon Touga, and believes that he must be rescued from the impure girls pursuing him.

              The comparisons to the ways gender roles have been destabilized in the lives of isekai fans still fits.

              As for Re:Zero, the main points of comparison should be Steins;Gate and Monogatari, where their ability to rise above indulgence comes from giving full weight, depth, and respect to the female characters’ motivations, putting the protagonist’s in perspective, and letting them influence each other in their interactions. So that’s where we’ll see if Re:Zero sets itself apart from the pack, goes beyond just self-awareness.

    • I’m still at episode 4 of Re:Zero but I have to say that the problems I see with it are more due to its general not stellar writing than with its fundamental message.

      I’m with you on this. I don’t know if my post made it sound like I was just criticising the message, but if I had to sum up my view it would be “I like what the show is trying to do, but it doesn’t necessarily succeed at what it’s trying to do.” It’s nice that Subaru is an emotionally honest person and that he gets things done by relying on other people and being able to acknowledge his limitations, but it doesn’t fully succeed because none of the characters or their relationships are particularly well-realised. As a result, it ends up falling into those same tired harem tropes even though it has the potential to do something interesting with them.

      I also don’t think that the desire to be seen as sexually/romantically attractive is inherently sexist. Honestly, it’s hard to define what is “inherently” sexist anyway. You’d need context to decide how something reflects/responds to the overall power dynamics at play. I’d say we know enough about otaku culture to fairly criticise harem tropes for catering to a sexist fantasy, but in another context they might serve a completely different purpose.

      Your point about altruism is a good one. If we boil the “white knight complex” down to just “helping women just because they’re women”, then you’d miss the larger point about helping people in need. And it’s not like helping women is a bad thing either, especially when they are in genuine need of assistance. Again, context! Reminds me of when reactionaries call people “white knights” or “beta cucks” simply for wanting to help minorities. Yes, the selfish aspects of the white knight complex are worth criticising, and yes, good intentions don’t always translate into good results, but it’s not a bad thing to want to help others.

      By the way, I’m not an expert on Type Moon, but it didn’t feel like the franchise was holding up Shirou as the paragon of selfless altruism. There were definitely selfish and short-sighted elements to his heroics, like when he tries to “protect” Saber and Rin even when he’s dead weight in combat, or when he selfishly assumes that he knows what’s best for them.

      Finally, it’s worth noting that harem protagonists are rarely motivated by an explicit desire to attract women through being a nice guy, but they do get rewarded by the narrative simply for being nice. That leads to a kind of paradox where the viewers are told that nice guys “deserve” to get the girl, but it’s not a good idea to explicitly think about romantic success as a trophy. It’s the paradox of selfish vs selfless altruism all over again, just with gender politics thrown in for good measure. As much as I decry the “Nice Guy” syndrome, I don’t think that there’s an easy, clear-cut solution to this paradox.

      • I mentioned Shirou because he’s exactly meant to be a *criticism* to the ills of completely selfless altruism, and how it has potential to become in fact a self-destructive quest itself with questionable motivations and most definitely not very compatible with personal mental well-being. We sort of need a balance between egoism and altruism in our lives if we’re to keep our sanity. The trick lies in knowing when to indulge in the first in ways that are the least harmful, or how to actually exploit it as a drive towards fundamentally altruistic enterprises. Though of course it’s far too easy to CONVINCE yourself you’re doing good while no one else really thinks so and become an overall egocentric bastard.

        As for otaku culture, yes, there’s clearly a set of codified tropes, and within these swim a lot of different works that of course will always be 90% derivative of each other or they wouldn’t resonate with such a niche audience at all. But within this bunch of course you can see nudges in different directions. The way, say, something like Oregairu still has all the marks of an otaku LN but also an implicit criticism of the glorification of self-isolation (at least from what I’ve seen. I dropped Oregairu because it bored me XD). It’s a subtle thing but some of these works centred on hikikomori “living the dream” look like simple wish fulfilment (SAO), others like proud declarations of identity (No Game No Life), and others like cries for help (Oregairu, and possibly this one). That’s I guess what gets me about Re:Zero, in the end I think it’s as close to a criticism to the standard model as you can have without breaking genre conventions and going into outright deconstruction.

  3. I sometimes wonder whether Re:Zero is smarter than it looks, or whether it looks smarter than it is, or both depending on how you look at it. Subaru is, as you say, a non-character, but I can’t tell whether that’s because we don’t have enough information, or whether it is because the story doesn’t have that information. Subaru’s affection towards Emilia makes sense to me; it’s a sort of imprinting: the first kind person in a strange world. His affection towards the twin maids felt overplayed for me, though, and I have no idea where that comes from.

    Emilia’s affection towards Subaru? In the first iteration it stems from a lack of in-world prejudice. From then on it becomes less and less tenable, because he acts more and more strange. She does have Puck, as a sort of malice-detector, so maybe that’s a factor (and I sometimes wonder whether Puck is some sort of secret engineer behind the scenes?).

    Emilia’s trust? I sometimes wonder whether the show is setting up a co-dependent relationship, here. You say that the scene where Subaru breaks down is one of emotional honesty from Subaru. Yes, it is. But what about Emilia’s reaction? Isn’t that – maybe – some sort of White Knighting, too? She’s a silver-haired half-elf, and has used – at first – the name “Satella” for herself. Nobody loves her. She can’t fulfill the feminine role of emotional support, but here she gets her opportunity. She’s kind to everyone, right? Emilia and Subaru have complentary personalities: they like to help people. What if their reasons for helping others stem from the same sort of uncertainty? What if they’re entering into a co-dependent relationship? Emilia’s trust would then be flipside of Subaru’s white-knighting; the female variant. If I protect this woman, she will always like me. If I fully believe in this man, he will always like me.

    One of the things that has drawn me towards this way of thinking is that someone pointed out a translation mistake: they call Satella the “jealous Witch”, but they should be calling her the “envious Witch”. I can’t really verify this myself, but if it’s true, envy is woven deeply into the fabric of the story, and what’s more, it’s somehow connected to Emilia (who identified with Satella in epiosde 1). The outsider seeing others get with ease what they themselves don’t get as easily.

    Under that view, the twins’ characterisation function would be as foil to Emilia’s blind trust. (A word about myself: I tend to overthink things, and usually it turns out I’m wrong.)

    • I sometimes wonder whether Re:Zero is smarter than it looks, or whether it looks smarter than it is, or both depending on how you look at it.

      If I had to guess, it would be that it looks smarter than it is. But it really depends on what sort of expectations the viewer brings to the show. It does strike me as one of the more thoughtful examples of its genre, at the very least.

      My interpretation of Subaru is that he’s desperate for the approval of others. Seems par the course for a guy who willingly plays the goofball and turns himself into the butt of jokes. The maids might be cold to him overall, but he latches onto their rare displays of affection because he has decided that he really, really wants them to like him.

      (Of course, because I interpret Subaru this way, it’s hard for me to emotionally buy into his declaration of love/friendship. It never came across to me as a healthy dynamic.)

      Emilia is a cipher at the moment. She had decent chemistry with Subaru in the first episode, but lately it’s been hard to grasp what she’s thinking. Especially considering that she trusts Subaru so readily despite him acting so strangely, as you point out. Clearly she has some kind of connection with Satella, but I have no idea how it influences her attitude towards Subaru, if it does at all.

      As for the name of the witch… In Japanese, it’s 嫉妬の魔女. To be honest, 嫉妬 could mean jealousy or envy, and at this point of the story, I can’t tell which translation is more appropriate. Perhaps envy is more important to the theme of the story overall, rather than jealousy, which seems to have more romantic/possessive connotations than envy does? iirc the story of the red and blue oni also had overtones of envy (the red oni envied humans, while Subaru envied the devotion the blue oni had for the red oni). So you might be onto something there.

      • Thanks for the details on the translation. Sometimes, when you translate something you have to be more precise in the target language than in the source language (because of what words exist, and because there’s no good workaround). Maybe that’s one of those cases? The info came from someone familiar with the novels, btw.

        I don’t have a good feeling for Subaru at all. I find the interpretation of him being “desparate for approval from others” plausible, but I don’t particularly feel it. I don’t really feel any rival interpretation either, though. He does seem prone to hyperbole, but that could also be over-acting born from a discomfort with being the focus of attention (unlikely since he’s prone to hyperbole even when no-one is around).

        One of the things I wonder about with regards to the writing is whether the author is trying to keep a secret about Subaru from the audience, while at the same time using Subaru as the point of view to access the new world. That’s an awfully hard balance to strike, as you have to keep the point of view distant enough to give away some of the most intimate thoughts of the character, or alternately you have to portray your character as completely in-the-moment, which may run counter to the actual traits you have in mind for him/her. Maybe Subaru’s characterisation falls victim to such a process?

  4. Martin Wisse

    I’d been thinking about this since you mentioned the topic on Twitter, but I’d argue that the average harem comedy is not so much about white knighting as it is about Nice Guyism, that idea that you deserve to get the girl because you were nice to her. Their niceness is after all about the only thing the average harem lead has going for them after all, with the fantasy element being that these guys really are that nice and don’t have ulterior motives. it’s sort of what every creep complaining on reddit about being friendzoned wants to think he is.

    • Don’t the two things go hand in hand, though? A person with a white knight complex protects the girl, not because he genuinely cares about the girl as a person, but for the sake of his own gratification, because it makes him feel empowered. Winning the girl’s approval is part of the fantasy.

      Of course, in real life, your average guy is usually not much stronger than the average girl, and is no position to “protect” her from much of anything. But those Nice Guys ™ would sure like to imagine themselves as being a lot stronger than girls, which is why they may find the white knight fantasy appealing. Hell, I find it appealing too at times!

      • Martin Wisse

        I’d say the main difference between the White Knight and the Nice Guy is that the former wants the girl he rescues to fall in love with him because of his deeds, while the Nice Guy expects to be loved for who he is even when there’s objectively neither anything worthwhile about him nor any effort on his part to become attractive to her other than some basic courtesy and perhaps a calculated effort to win enough points with her so she has to sleep with him.

        The former is more about behaviour and the latter about mindset, but yes they do go hand in hand, though that isn’t required. You can white knight without being a Nice Guy and vice versa.

        Coming back to harems, there are harem shows that have no or little white knighting going on but I can’t think of anyone that hasn’t the Nice Guy fantasy at the heart of it.

  5. Martin Wisse

    As for Re:Zero specifically, that is indeed more white knighting than Nice Guy syndrome and what sets it apart from other white knights is how much Subaru suffers for his impulses. Not just physically — no matter that you can come back from the death, dying still hurts — but psychologically. Every time he resets, his connections with Emilia and co are broken again, he’s the only one who remembers what happens while from the others’ point of view he must seem stranger and stranger in how he acts around them. That’s what I like the most about Re:Zero, this torturing of the otaku hero, that Subaru makes real sacrificies when it could’ve been much more sanitised.

    Incidently, people seem to take him for a hikkomori, but has it actually been established that he was one?

    • Yes, Subaru was a hikikomori in the real world. It’s explicitly mentioned in the web novel. However, it must be said that his reasons for becoming a hikikomori are atypical, which is why he doesn’t really act like a stereotypical shut-in.

      • Martin Wisse

        Ah. I’ve only seen the anime and that didn;t really make it clear, though I thought he was anyway because they always are in these shows…

        • I thought it was implied in the very first scene of episode one, and explicitly addressed when he was attacked by the thugs and could defend himself (the reasoning being that – as a hikkikomori – he has to be able to defend his precious home). I might misremember, or much of this might have been the way I interpreted those scenes.

  6. I never really cared too much about the white knighting in this show, but with the kids in the latest episode, I think Re:Zero is officially trying too hard to make Subaru a kind-hearted martyr. I mean women AND children now? Without the proper context to his character, it makes the dude and most of the story too artificial to be relatable.

  7. It’s nice to see a story where a boy cries and isn’t blamed for it, and where male strength doesn’t just revolve around brawn or video game skills. Whatever else you can say about it, the show does have a strong emotional core. It’s the last thing I expected from a show that goes out of its way to “gamify” its setting and premise.

    So basically, you’re saying it at least manages to be mediocre (because this is what most books in the rest-of-the-world does) in a sea of gamified-trash that’s been coming out of Japan? =P

    Still, very interesting article and exploration. I never considered that much about why male anime fans liked the savior-complex-harem-protagonist so much.

    (the white knight) offer a way for a disenfranchised male to depict himself as the top dog. If the male otaku in these stories can’t live up to the impossible ideals of heteronormative masculinity, his answer is not to reject those ideals altogether, but rather to create a world where he can cheat his way to the top. In this scenario, women are relegated to trophy status; by loving the protagonist, they affirm his manhood to the eyes of the world.

    This is a glorious paragraph. You should put it on a wall-of-fame somewhere =P

    That being said, it’s still disturbing.

    • Well, having become intrigued enough by your post to watch the series, I must say — I do wish you wrote a piece on the final episode.

      There’s something to be said about using an entire series to build up to such an ending. To slam a protagonist back in the face that they’re actually the exact opposite of what they pretend to be. Whether the viewer agrees or disagrees with what Subaru has done over the course of the series, it really makes them think about themselves… the times when they were similarly propelled by ideals…

      I would say that it’s rather hard to accuse Subaru of being inconsistent though. On one hand, his greatest weakness seems to be his utterly lack of self-control; his lack of social contact shows as he is impulsive to an extreme, always running off on his ideal rather than facing reality head on. But at the same time… it’s hard to quantify just what kind of psychological effect dying has on someone, since trauma tends to twist personalities in weird directions in general.

      …or, as philosophy delves: if you just lived through a life-changing experience, then is the person coming out of it… still the same you?

      • Yes, I certainly feel now that I would like to revisit these themes when the anime is done. The latest episodes certainly amped up the intensity!

        I do maintain my stance about the inconsistency in the early episodes, though. Perhaps the inconsistency does not lie so much in Subaru’s own character as it does in the show itself, which seemed to constantly veer between silly otaku humour and (occasionally overwrought) suspense. I couldn’t take this narrative entirely seriously, even though I did find it charming and entertaining.

  8. Late jumping into this, but since I blame what small readings/ watchings I have done of the Re-Zero franchise on you (grin!) a recent twitter post on this makes me want to ask about the fine distinctions in harem “White Knight” -eries. What of the “save girls, make friends and meet interesting people” effect? I had no idea that Subaru was a Hikki, but he obviously feels an incredible needy-ness for friends. That they are all knockout babes (well we later get a few heroic guys too) is just in keeping with the fantasy setting. No ugly females in fantasy world rule. Reminds me a bit of Arraragi-kun. That worthy needed an entire arc to tell him to hang back and leave the high powered magical slaughtering to a proper “monster”. Dude, you have a girlfriend now, take care of yourself!

    I also have a fave Dark Knight with similar self-image/ guilt issues, but in keeping with the yuri-light vibe of the story, she will bend probability, endlessly die and reset and screw with the laws of the universe to save her one and only.

    What other purpose, indeed?

    The Maoyuu Maou Yuusha franchise seems to do something similar as well. Hero probably values his friends at least as much as his “contract” with the Demon urrrrr King? make that Queen, even if it is taking him forever to figure out that she also likes him “that way”.

    So then the question shapeshifts a bit. what is it about contemporary Japanese society that makes this kind of heroic friendship finding such a fantasy? And what the heck is wrong with riajuu Japanese friendships?

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