Reaper's Reviews: 'Fate/Zero'
Format: 25 episodes
Release: October 2, 2011 - June 24, 2012
Source: Light novel
Anime, and animation in general, is a medium that more often than not is disregarded by mainstream outlets and audiences as a format that allows for serious and mature techniques of storytelling. There is a long-standing stigma that animation simply can’t tells its viewers a dark and intelligent story no matter what it does. People prefer live-action dramas such as Breaking Bad and Mr. Robot because of the belief that only flesh and bone productions can convey the realistic emotions and gravity of the story. And unless you’re Game of Thrones, don’t expect your supernatural fantasy show to gain as much as acclaim as you’d expected it to gain.
Western animation often boils down to adult comedies like South Park and Family Guy, or children’s shows with washed down humor like Spongebob. Anime, meanwhile, often succumbs to lustful harem tropes, bombastic and over the top execution or mundane situations with girls designed to sell as much as merchandise as possible. Hell, even today’s topic’s franchise is not an exception to this. Quality, mature series like Monster, Berserk and Gungrave tend to get buried under an avalanche of immature and money-driven content.
And then enter Gen Urobuchi. Over a decade ago, Urobuchi was given the opportunity to work in the fictional universe planned by his good friend Kinoko Nasu and create a prequel novel series to Nasu’s popular Fate/Stay Night (review) visual novel. A few years later, the series was to be adapted into an anime by the same studio behind Nasu’s earlier work, Kara no Kyokai.
This series is Fate/Zero, and there is a very good reason why it’s regarded as one of the best anime productions of the decade.
WARNING: Long review is very long.
Story & Setting
Welcome once more to the Holy Grail War, the epic seven-way mage battle royale. This time around, however, we are taken back ten years before the Fifth Holy Grail War in Stay Night to witness the infamous Forth War, as Zero is a prequel that chronicles what led to the catastrophic conclusion that launched the setting of the Stay Night storyline.
The general premise and concept are more or less the same as its predecessor; you have seven mages known as Masters who battle each with magical versions of historical or mythical figures called Servants. This battle royale is fought for the goal of obtaining the Holy Grail, a mysterious object said to fulfill any wish requested by the winner.
Although I really explained all of this in my review of Fate/Stay Night, so if you want to know more, be sure to check it as well, as it informs of the basics of the Fate franchise’s formula in slightly more detailed manner. What Zero does with this concept, however, deserves to be talked about in full detail.
Zero ditches the clunky “Servant of the Week” formula of its predecessor to focus on a true seven-way battle royale type of tournament. While some sacrifices had to be made due to its fairly large cast, one can’t deny that Zero’s supernatural and mythical take on death tournaments is executed rather brilliantly.
The story is filled to the brim with secret alliances, betrayals, chilling suspense, a touch of horror, heart-wrenching tragedy and slick tactics. Even as the War draws near its inevitable and destructive conclusion, it continues to up itself with smart plot twists and jaw-dropping revelations that keep viewers on the edge; even to people who are already familiar with the Fate series will be surprised by how cunning and deceptive Zero can be.
This is empowered by what is undoubtedly Zero’s strongest aspect: its level-headed and mature writing. Fate/Zero is essentially the anime equivalent of an American showtime drama, one of the few true titans of serious and no-nonsense anime series that appeals to older viewers like 2004’s absolutely phenomenal Monster and Gankutsuou, or even a previous Type-Moon work, The Garden of Sinners.
This is a thinking man’s action series. The script is logical, sophisticated, cold and calculating, but counters potential collapse to sheer apathy territory thanks to the emotions and motives injected into its main characters, who in return fuel Zero’s themes and messages into meaningful and thoughtful conversations. Amusing yet subtle comedic moments add flavor and necessary balance to the overall dark atmosphere of Zero.
There is very little interruption with exaggerated and out-of-place comedy, and when it happens, it avoids the normal over the top style we’re so used and instead makes up with a more subdued tone that also helps in establishing new aspects of the cast’s varied personalities. And of course at times they go to the black comedy territory. Ain’t that right, Caster?
Another area where Zero blows Stay Night out the water is in the exploration of its main themes, of heroism, honor, morality and chivalry. While the 2006 series had its brilliant moments, its idealistic look on these ideals is torn into shreds by Zero’s more cynical and critical eye.
What does it really take to be a hero? Can you really strive to be a hero by keeping your ideals? How much you have to sacrifice for that? Fate/Zero doesn’t shy away from discussing the truths about what it views as unrealistic and overly optimistic morals and ideologies, and many of its best moments occur when two factions clash over said themes. It makes the viewer question in common heroic tropes seen in most media.
That doesn’t mean it always tries to be pessimistic, because at the same time Zero offers ideas about self-confidence, redemption and hope. Some of its characters finally manage to find out more about themselves, and few even accept their flaws. Others, after so many hardships and trials, are finally allowed some peace and hope after the long and sorrowful journeys they went through. Zero makes its characters work hard for their happy endings, and the few we receive feel strangely sweet.
For the most the pacing of Fate/Zero is great, and the series often makes the most of its running time, but there are a few minor issues here and there. Most notably, the 3/4 point of the series feels more like a checklist than the organic unfolding the preceding chapters were.
Over the three or four episodes, Zero gets rid of at least two or three major players of the Holy Grail War, and while it’s understandable to dwindle the numbers of your cast towards the endgame, the execution leaves something to be desired. It felt sudden, abrupt, but the relative closeness of the episodes made it feel more like cleaning the slate than carefully orchestrating a conclusion to these players’ roles.
Thankfully Zero picks itself up quick enough for its final stretch in some of the most shocking, breathtaking episodes that I’ve ever watched. The final six or so episodes of Fate/Zero are its best, filling the series’ marvelous scenery with intelligent, enthralling and horror-aspiring writing that brings everything that came before - the premise, the characters, the themes - into importance and a shocking, heart-tearing reveal.
The finale is an interesting case. Being a prequel, it is forced to pave the way to Stay Night rather than having its own bombastic climax, but I feel like the ending we got was eerily fitting.
This is a tragedy through and through, and while a truly happy ending might have been a lovely reward to the pain and grief stored throughout the preceding 24 episodes, the more bittersweet and melancholic conclusion feels at home with the way Zero was going. There were massive losses and terrible realizations, but it is aligned with what shown previously, and Fate/Zero at the very least does ends its run on a hopeful note that its chronological successors will achieve some of the impossible tasks the former so heavily criticized. And to me, this ending was mesmerizing.
One of the defining aspects of Fate/Zero is the way it handles its cast. Namely, it starts off by refusing to acknowledge a specific main character for its story. By the time the series draws its final breaths you will know who the true lead characters are, but it initially presents itself in a way that most of the major players can be thought as the story’s protagonist, with nearly equal chances to win, and people who are with no prior knowledge of the Fate series will have a blast guessing who will eventually bite it.
Each one of the Holy Grail War’s Masters possess their own reasons for wanting the Grail, in ways that both parallel and contrast each other; the arrogant mage Kayneth El-Melloi seeks the Grail for glory, same as his one-time student Waver Velvet, who after being humiliated by the former wishes to prove himself and get back at Kayneth.
Meanwhile you Kariya Matou, the former heir to a vicious mage family who fights in the war to save his honorary niece, a young girl by the name of Sakura. Rings any bells? Opposing him is Tokiomi Tohsaka, head of the powerful Tohsaka who wishes to complete the goal of all mages through the Grail: reach an aspect in the Fate series known as the Root. Another Master is Ryuunosuke Uryuu, a deranged serial killer who unlike the other Masters, has no idea what he signed up to.
And finally you have the war’s two most interesting Masters; the first one is Kirei Kotomine, a deadly priest who works under Tokiomi as a trump card, but his emotionless self strives for purpose he believes he might find with the Grail. And the second one is the notorious mage killer Kiritsugu Emiya, a shady and unpredictable assassin who joined the Holy Grail War to realize his own ideals, even if his actions would make you question that.
Each one of the Masters is paired with a Servant that, in one way or another, mirrors or contrasts them. Kayneth - who underneath his formal tone is a very hot-headed and arrogant nobleman - summons the genuinely honorable and loyal Lancer, who gets off-put by his Master’s attitude. And you have the physically disabled Kariya that summons the madman Berserker, who suffers from severe mental issues due to his class. Waver summons the bombastic Rider, who in a way is everything Waver wants to be: a legendary man with literal conquests of success. Tokiomi ends up successfully summoning the powerful Archer who shows no concern for Tokiomi’s ambitious desires as he believes he already had everything he wished back when he was alive, and either way the Grail belongs to him. Ryuunosuke summons Caster who proves to be just as deranged as him, while Kirei summons the widely unpopular and notoriously weak Assassin, which signifies his seeming irrelevance to the War. And of course you have Kiritsugu, who ends summoning the heroic and noble Saber whose mindset constantly clashes with the former’s ideology.
One thing that Zero does good, better than most anime that I know, is chemistry. The interactions and dynamics between each cast member, be it a Master and his or another’s Servant, between two or more members of the same character classification, or just between the players and outsiders or associates, are all wonderfully done and push development. Every character has their own unique personality, mindset and particular list of ideals that always puts them at favor or odds with someone. Whenever two characters meet you can always expect either a meaty discussion about hopes, a scathing clash regarding morals or just a playful banter.
Some of my favorite examples include the heartfelt bonding between Saber and Kiritsugu’s wife (and decoy Master) Irisviel, the amusing yet endearing bromance between Saber and Lancer over their shared thoughts on knighthood, the intriguing discussions between Archer (better known as Gilgamesh) and Kirei, and of course, the entire pairing that is Waver and his Servant, Rider; the loud Macedonian hero Iskander who possesses an endless supply of charisma and charm and serves as the inspiration to Waver’s hopes that concurrently triggers the Master’s development. And you know I could seriously go all day describing each and every relationship, but trust me when I say that the vast majority of them are extremely well-executed.
The supporting cast consists of the aforementioned Irisviel “Iri”, Kiritsugu’s henchwoman Maiya and even Tokiomi's daughter, a certain hot-blooded girl called Rin. Iri is easily one of the most likable characters I’ve ever seen in an anime, with a gentle aura that hides a surprisingly plucky woman with a childish demeanor that is nonetheless adorable. Maiya may not get as much as screentime as she deserves, but she proves herself to be capable even against stronger opponents. And Rin? A 7 year old Rin gets an entire episode to herself that boldly marks her as a little miss badass.
Unfortunately not all characters - not even main characters - get the same treatment. With this being a death tournament it was obvious, but it doesn’t lessens the feel that some fellas like Assassin don’t really get that much of development or even characterization. Berserker also suffers this to a lesser extent, despite being such a big fan-favorite who is responsible for some of the series’ best fighting scenes. The Masters did get more balance between each other, thankfully, even if the series could do more with Kayneth, for example.
But the biggest issue comes from the series’ take on myths behind its Servant characters. I respect a series that actually does some research regarding the historical-domain names it borrows, but to fully appreciate everything it presents you need to at least browse some Wikipedia pages to get the idea behind some characters, their tragedies and their connections.
It’s far from a deal-breaker, obviously, but bits on signature stories and elements in backgrounds of characters such as Gilgamesh and King Arthur will help catching and understanding several character moments and seemingly irrelevant lines.
Animation & Art
Fate/Zero is, quite bluntly, one of the most beautiful animated works that were ever produced. Its level of quality and detail are more often found in theatrical films than in full-length 25-episode series. Sure, by now there are a fair amount of movies such Your Name, The Wind Rises and A Silent Voice that may very well surpassed it, but even seven years after its first episode aired, Zero is still one of the most meticulously animated and brilliantly designed anime series, and save for one series in particular, I do not believe an action anime series as good-looking as this came out since 2012.
After proving themselves with the Kara no Kyokai series (whose later installments are just as if not more beautiful), Ufotable brings its A-game to Fate/Zero in what would be their signature style with later works.
Character designs are attractive, very detailed with many little touches, and extremely distinguishable from one another. Type-Moon’s notorious character designs are appealing and both the animation and the lighting/shadow effects give each character a striking and slick presence in all of their scenes.
The best word to describe the artwork is crisp. Aside from characters, the backgrounds and various different settings are meticulously designed with a quite psychotic mastering of lighting and shadow effects that go hand to hand with the rich, dark and metallic colors Ufotable uses to create an eerily atmospheric environment that constantly oozes a very melancholic form of beauty and awe.
And of course, there is the actual animation, which is nothing short of amazing. There are dips here and there but they are not early as obvious or noticeable as one would think. There are plenty of fight scenes that range from sword clashes to monster slaying to even an actual dogfight between a possessed assault jet and a golden winged chariot and all look quite impressive thanks to top-notch digital animation and very creative and agile angles combined with the different abilities and tricks owned by every character.
There are also smaller, character animations that give scenes an additional depth like Archer’s earrings ringing as he turns away or Lancer’s hair waves in the wind.
To conclude this section, I would also want to talk about the inclusion of CGI, and how cleverly used and well-integrated it is. It is used to great effect in multiple action scenes, setting artworks and additional details but it generally compliments the series to make it look slick and grand in scale. And some bits of CGI, like Berserker or Caster’s monsters, tend to look like noticeable CGI at first, but additional effects make them look appropriately monstrous, alien and odd in a manner that enhances their presence rather than distracting from the actual plot.
Audio & Sound
I personally feel that the soundtrack for Fate/Zero is easily the best work done by Yuki Kajiura since the beginning of the 2010s. I can’t deny that since anime such as Zero and Madoka, Kajiura’s works began to decline somewhat in terms of freshness and personality, but even mediocre Kajiura soundtracks are heads and shoulders above most composers, and thank goodness that Zero’s is far from being mediocre.
The score seems to enjoy wobbling from atmospheric, moody and melancholic tracks to what can only be described as grandiose and epic akin to the series’ large-scale action scenes. They are all marked by signature Kajiura elements such as synth, orchestra and string melodies.
Some stuff like “Point Zero”, “Sword of the Promised Victory” and “This Day and Never Again” are solid if merely serviceable tracks that I personally think are somewhat subpar, but you also have the ominous battle theme “The Battle is to the Strong”, the gentle “The Legend” that serves as Rider’s theme, the heroic and upbeat “Let the Stars Fall Down” and my favorite track, “The Beginning of the End”, that are nothing short of phenomenal.
The opening songs are an interesting case to me, as I seem to be the only who favor the first opening “Sign/Oath” by Lisa, over the second and more acclaimed “To the Beginning” which was produced by Kajiura’s group Kalafina. Sure, I appreciate the second opening for its gorgeous singing and almost dream-like melody, but what “Sign/Oath” does, better than ANY other opening I know, is hyping you for what’s to come. At first it might sound somewhat generic, but as it goes it becomes more and more intense and bombastic until all comes down in one hell of a chorus.
I guess that the same goes with the endings, because while I like “Sora wa Takaku Kaze wa Utau” (by Luna Haruna) for being about the character of Iri, "MEMORIA" by Eir Aoi resonates with me better thanks to its focus on the Servant characters and Aoi’s powerful vocals. There is also another ending theme used once called “Manten”, a piece by Kalafina that uses several bits from the score but accompanied by haunting vocals that talk about Kiritsugu’s crusade, and it’s phenomenal.
The English dub is pretty good, though I wouldn’t consider it top-notch and it does take a couple of episodes for the actors to really settle in their characters, most notably David Vincent as Gilgamesh who seems to somewhat struggle with Goldie’s hammy lines.
That said, you have the stern Matt Mercer as Kiritsugu, the upbeat Bridget Hoffman as Iri, the ever-dominating Jaimeson Price as Rider and they even have Crispin “Alucard” Freeman as Kirei. It’s overall a very strong cast list with even more names like Johnny Yong Bosch (who once more plays a psychotic killer), Marc Diraison (best known as Guts from Berserk) and even Liam O’Brien who previously voiced Archer in the 2006 Fate/stay night series.
I was a tad disappointed that Kate Higgins didn’t return for this series after her genuinely great work in the 2006 series as Saber, but I can’t deny that Kari Wahlgren’s performance is just as memorable and her voice is similar enough to Higgins’ Saber to succeed her.
And since this review went for far too long, let me just finish that the foley for Fate/Zero is superb, to the point that even the most irrelevant objects, like Gil’s earrings, get a slight wavy sound whenever he moves.
Fate/Zero is what so many action anime series strive and fail to be; it's an explosive epic about reality, destiny and human nature that almost never falls to common anime tropes and cliches. It is filled with smart characters and confident set-ups rather than incompetent protagonists or contrived plotlines that lead to nowhere. And it's production values are on par with theatrical films without losing their spark or regressing to brainless fanservice.
This is not a flawless work, and indeed both its story and characters suffer from several directional issues, but these are but minor annoyances in an otherwise superb anime. I still hold the belief that the 2006 Fate/stay night adaptation is the best starting point in the Fate series, but whether you ignore this mindset or struggle to complete it, it's safe to say that Fate/Zero is absolutely worth it. This is, without a doubt, a beautiful, shining gem for animation fans far and wide.
- Cleverly building upon its predecessor's concept and themes with sharp and mature writing without falling to the same pitfalls
- Engaging, multi-layered characters with plenty of development and intriguing interactions
- Excellent visuals and art direction that almost seamlessly blend digital animation and CGI
- Second cour starts oddly to check off several characters from the story
- Relies on one's cultural knowledge to appreciate historical/mythical characters' pasts and quirks
- Ending can feel a tad disappointing for some, especially Stay Night fans
& the Ugly:
- Every male character who cries in this show
As far as alternate recommendations go, why not try Madoka Magica? Aside from being by the same author, Madoka touches on several topics that Fate/Zero analyzed, with characters that share a fair amount of personality traits and journeys. Plus, like Zero, it's very easy on the eyes.
My second recommendation is a series I previously mentioned in the review: Monster. This is less because of shared themes and styles and more because to me Zero is a successor of Monster's mature writing and subdued execution.