Episode 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?
At 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.
I 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.
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.
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.