Haven’t finished too many new single-player games recently so I figured I’ll go with a change of pace and instead do a review of an anime show I watched as of late. As a disclaimer, I do enjoy watching anime from time to time but I would not consider myself a die-hard fan that watches all the hot new shows that come out each season; in general I’ll watch something if one of my more hardcore friends highly recommends it, and Fate/Zero just so happens to be one of those shows. After watching the show to the end, it’s not hard to understand why, and it instantly became one of my all-time favorite shows in both anime and western media. Just as a heads-up, this show isn’t a new release; it actually came out almost eight years ago, though if anything that simply means it has withstood the test of time and holds up very well today.
Fate/Zero, written primarily by Gen Urobuchi (the writer behind Madoka Magica and Psycho-Pass) is just one of the many entries in the Fate franchise, and is advertised as a prequel to the Fate/Stay Night visual novel (that is also getting its own anime adaptations). There’s a massive debate on what the correct watch order is, but it essentially boils down to a question of whether you feel like dropping 50+ hours into a visual novel. If you’re up for it, experience the Fate/Stay Night visual novel first, then watch Fate/Zero. If not, then Fate/Zero is a fine starting place (mainly due to Fate/Stay Night not being completely adapted into show form as well as inherent issues with translating across mediums). The show does stand on its own very well, and I’m of the opinion that you can watch this particular piece and never bother with any of the other Fate franchise works and still enjoy it, but having knowledge of the franchise does help with understanding some of the events and character backstories better.
The premise of the show is basically a battle royale fought by seven participants by proxy. Every set amount of years, an omnipotent wish-granting device known as the Holy Grail appears in Fuyuki, Japan, and seven mages, referred to as “masters,” are selected to participate in a battle to win the Grail (known as the Grail War), with each summoning a “servant” to fight for them. The servants are known as “heroic spirits” and are basically famous figures from legend/history, and each servant has his/her own set of unique capabilities that distinguish them from the others, with each taking a “class” not unlike systems found in video games (Lancer, Saber, Rider, Caster, Archer, Assassin, Berserker). It’s essentially a fusion of magic/fantasy, battle royale, and a little bit of (altered) history in one. As another heads-up, partially due to the battle royale nature of its story (there are going to be a lot of dead people), this show is dark and pulls no punches, so if you’re not a fan of the more grim shows then be warned as this show is not for the faint of heart.
As far as actually getting into the show, this is actually one of the biggest viewer challenges and in my opinion one of the show’s biggest flaws. The pilot episode is double-length (being around 45 minutes), and is largely an exposition dump. On one hand, it’s understandable as the pilot episode has to set up the characters and also let the viewer understand exactly what’s going on and why (especially for people unfamiliar to the Fate series). That said, it is still a lot and I can certainly see people having some difficulty sitting through the entire episode, and the pilot episode is important for being the hook that draws viewers in. However, the rest of the show improves immensely from that episode so it is definitely worth sitting through it, and at the very least you’ll have a better idea of why the characters are doing what they’re doing.
One of Fate/Zero’s biggest strengths as a show is in its characters. Personally, the biggest factor of enjoyment in any show/movie I watch is the characters and how they interact with each other. Do I have strong reason to care about/root for them? What do they believe in? What struggles do they go through? How do they grow and change as the story progresses? Strong characters carry the narrative, and if the characters aren’t interesting then I’ll usually struggle to finish watching the show, despite how visually gorgeous it may be. Fate/Zero features an ensemble cast of at least 14 important figures, seven masters and seven servants, and that’s just the Grail War participants (there are other important characters too). Being able to flesh out 14+ characters and make them all interesting in the span of the show is a difficult challenge, and for the most part Fate/Zero manages to juggle that task very well. While Fate/Zero does have a protagonist and antagonist that get more screen time than the other characters (but not by a significant margin), due to the nature of the Grail War, one can make the argument that each character is their own protagonist, with their villains being the other mages/servants they’re forced to fight against. Another interesting thing to note is that Fate/Zero avoids the common anime trope of having the primary characters be teenagers; with the exception of one (sort of), every participant in the Grail War is an adult with clear ideologies and goals for wanting the Grail, which indirectly raises the stakes of what’s going on as it indicates the Grail War is serious business involving serious-minded individuals.
Going into more specific details about the Grail War participants (light to moderate spoilers regarding characters and their motivations), Kiritsugu Emiya is the closest thing to the protagonist of the show, and is essentially an “ends justify the means” assassin of rogue magi who wishes to use the Grail’s power to save the world, while his servant Saber, the King of Knights (a gender-bent version of King Arthur, gender-bent due to the original Fate/Stay Night visual novel), is an honorable warrior who wishes to use the Grail to change the past and avert her country’s fated destruction. Kayneth El-Melloi Archibald is a mage of high status who wants to win the Grail War to further his own reputation, and his servant Lancer (real name Diarmuid Ua Duibhne, a figure in Irish mythology) seeks to prove his loyalty and honor after the tragic way his original life played out. Tokiomi Tohsaka is another mage of elite status who seeks the Grail to unlock the path to basically the in-universe’s version of heaven, and his servant Archer is Gilgamesh, the King of Heroes who ruled over Sumer, who himself doesn’t have any particular desire for the Grail other than his justification that it’s in his possession by right. Kariya Matou participates in the Grail War to spare his niece from having to participate in future Holy Grail wars, and is aided by his servant Berserker (whose identity is actually a major plot point so I will not spoil this). Ryuunosuke Uryuu and his servant Caster (Gilles de Rais, a figure in Joan of Arc’s legend) don’t particularly care about the Grail much and simply want to fulfill their desires of being serial killers of children. Waver Velvet is the only “non-adult” participant, being a college student, and not unlike Kayneth, joins the Grail War as a way to prove his own worth as a magus despite his insignificant family bloodline. His servant Rider, known as Iskandar, King of Conquerors (more famously referred to as Alexander the Great), is intrigued by the new world he’s summoned to, and befitting of the actual Alexander, seeks to conquer the modern world just like he did with the ancient world over 2000 years ago. The final master-servant pair is Kirei Kotomine and Assassin (whom I believe is Hassan-i-Sabbah, “Old Man of the Mountain”), and Kirei joins the war initially to support Tokiomi through a secret alliance, though throughout the course of the series develops his own goals and motivations for winning the Grail. Character interactions in this show are bolstered by the generally high quality of its dialogue, and very few conversations are “wasted,” leading to a lot of memorable quotes throughout the narrative.
Fate/Zero does a solid job with its cast of characters, though there are a few individuals who do stand out to me in particular, and those are Kiritsugu, Kirei, Saber, Archer, and Rider. Kiritsugu is interesting because he wishes to use the Grail to save humanity, which seems strange as his claim to fame is basically being a hit man. Due to his status as the show’s protagonist, he gets some extra screen time for us to figure out how he became the way he is and why he holds his particular set of ideals. Saber’s (King Arturia) character arc is fascinating as she possesses some of the strongest ideals of the servants, and how she tries to stick to them in the face of challenges and obstacles that are thrown her way. Her chivalrous attitude directly clashes with Kiritsugu’s more goal-driven methods, and their conflicting personalities makes their coupling one of the more intriguing master-servant relationships in the show. Kirei starts out basically as a sociopath who struggles to find his passion in life, and his character development throughout the course of the story is definitely one of the more intriguing arcs as he tries to figure out who he really is. Archer (Gilgamesh) is interesting because he’s initially portrayed as an arrogant king who is aware of his own extreme power and thinks of everyone as beneath him, but as the show progresses and he interacts with the other characters more frequently it becomes clear that there’s more to him than just that; he has his own set of beliefs and values and respects those who share some of those ideals. Rider (Iskandar) is my personal favorite as he more or less steals the spotlight every time he shows up. He is basically an idealistic portrayal of Alexander the Great, an individual who awed the people around him with his ambitious and charismatic personality, not unlike the actual historical figure. He was a conqueror king who left his mark on history as a brutal warmonger by today’s standards who waged battle for his own selfish, impossibly large ambitions, yet he was also someone who was intelligent and thoughtful towards others, and inspired his retainers to follow his vision. His relationship with his master Waver have a lot of chemistry and add a necessary spark of lightheartedness in an otherwise dark and depressing show, and ultimately they became my master-servant pair to actually root for.
So Fate/Zero checks off my most important factor in enjoying a show by having great characters, so how do its other aspects fare? As far as visuals go, the show looks gorgeous, though I don’t claim to be an expert on animation so take this opinion with a grain of salt. I enjoy the art style, the various battles all look incredibly sick to watch, and the characters look and move very fluidly. There are a lot of excellent shows produced in the past, but some of them tend to look dated due to the constant advancements in animation technology, but Fate/Zero honestly looks like it could have been made today. The soundtrack is also really good; the second season opening (“To the Beginning” by Kalafina) is one of my favorite anime openings of all time, and both seasons’ ending songs (“Memoria” by Eir Aoi and “Sora wa Takaku Kaze wa Utau” by Luna Haruna) are incredible as well. The soundtrack in the show itself is also pretty strong, while overall probably not composer Yuki Kajiura’s greatest work (I think her work in Madoka Magica is better on average), it does have its own stand-out tracks.
Despite all the praise I have given it so far, Fate/Zero is not a perfect show (no show is though), and I already highlighted one of its flaws in the form of the pilot episode. Another particular criticism I have of the show is that the pacing between the first and second seasons can definitely be improved; the first season’s events are primarily “set-up” events for the next season so it might feel like there isn’t much pay-off in the first season, and the stakes only really start to become apparent to the viewer towards the end of the season and onwards. However, basically from the second season onward, the action is non-stop and the consequences really begin to hit as the battle royale nature of the Grail War really begins to manifest itself. It is definitely a show that rewards patience, and if you’re willing to sit through the first, somewhat slow episodes, you certainly will not regret it. Who knows, maybe after finishing Fate/Zero you’ll be intrigued enough to dive into the rabbit hole that is the Fate franchise, starting with the 50+ hour visual novel that is Fate/Stay Night (though honestly that’s actually a lot of work and I applaud anybody with the patience to do it).