It’s been a long time since I did a review (is it nearly June already? Bloody ‘ell) and this is a show I can’t seem to shut up about, so it’s only fitting.
Fate/Zero drops you gently into the befuddling and intricate world of Nasu’s fictional universe; a prequel to the insanely popular Fate/Stay Night visual novel, which delves into the action of a magical war for a wish-granting device called the Holy Grail. It’s not actually the Holy Grail, but it’s certainly capable of making miracles—so naturally enough, when it materialises those in the know fall into a flap and start bickering over who should get their hands on it.
The Grail can only grant a wish to one party, however, thus the summoning of the omnipotent device quickly turned into a battle royale, where the mages at hand summon the spirits of legends as their champions. Seven teams, pairs of chosen mages, ‘Masters’, and their summoned heroes, ‘Servants’, going all out to eliminate the others for supremacy and a miracle all of their own—it’s a messy business, and in Fate/Stay Night there’s much muttering about the horrors of the previous Grail War, ten years beforehand. This is what Fate/Zero is about. A fun premise already!
Whether or not you do know the intricacies of the Fate story world or not, you can still enjoy it. Some background information is useful, but otherwise the series really can be watched as a standalone. I watched it before playing Fate, approaching the saga backwards but in chronological order. There are a few overlaps, but for the most part Zero offers up a brand new cast of characters to duel and zap each other’s brains out.
There are seven classes of Servant that the legendary figures can be slotted into, each one required for the battle to begin: Saber, a swordsman; Lancer, a spear-wielder; Archer, someone with ranged weaponry (that does not, in fact, have to be a literal bow and arrows… the special attack of the Archer in this war is flinging swords [and witty insults] at people); Caster, a magic user; Rider, a mounted fighter; Berserker, a warrior who has traded their sanity in for strength; and Assassin, a silent and sneaky shadow-skulking killer. Each is meant, theoretically, to be as strong as each other but in different ways, setting up an interesting and varied battlefield.
Paired up with each of these is a Master, sometimes a specially trained magic-user, sometimes an ordinary human that stumbled into the fray… in any case, are you keeping track? That already lands us with fourteen main characters to focus on, plus the judge of the Grail War, wives, girlfriends and assistants, children who grow up to be important characters in the next instalment, and an elderly couple one Master has ‘borrowed’ to be his guardians while he stays in Japan for the War by brainwashing them into thinking they’re his grandparents.
This massive cast is both a pro and a con to the series. On one hand, there’s a huge and diverse range of characters to flick between, and even if you grind your teeth every time a certain set is on screen you can rest assured that they won’t be there for too long and somewhere else in the fray you’re bound to find a favourite. However, it’s also a downside since one show simply cannot squeeze in full development for fourteen-plus individuals over the course of 25 episodes, especially when it’s meant to be circulating around particular sets that are supposedly the heroes and villains.
To its credit, though, Zero serves up a smorgasbord of interesting and three-dimensional characters, from tormented knights to artistic serial killers, brash conquering kings to weedy self-conscious magic students, egomaniacal anti-heroes to motherly figures… it goes on.
The Master and Servant duos are particularly interesting in the way they contrast and conflict with one another, the most obvious example being the supposed main characters Saber (King Arthur, who was really a girl the whole time… that’s breezed over a bit, so just roll with it) and her Master Kiritsugu; the awkward pairing of a knight obsessed with redeeming herself and saving her kingdom’s honour and a man world-famous for being a ruthless, pragmatic assassin. Of course, as their layers are peeled away we learn that they’re not as different as they would initially think, and are both equally tormented by their ideals and their delightfully tragic pasts.
Ideals are a concept toyed with throughout the series—Kiritsugu seeks to save the world, using the power of the Grail’s promised miracle to end all human conflict. As my friend rather neatly put it, he’s a hero in villain’s clothing, holding the best intentions to his heart but moving towards them rather sneakily and violently. The series raises the question of how far people will go for their ideals: are they willing to crush the dreams of others to fulfil their own? Is there any honour in killing, or is that just a fabricated concept? Is there any such thing as a truly heartless human being? Is the horrific mess of war really worth it?
Also brought up are philosophies on what defines morals and sins, what kind of qualities a ‘true’ king should possess, and whether it’s worth sacrificing the needs of the few over the many. But it’s not all brain-work, I promise. Balanced nicely with these themes, character dialogues and soul-probing mysteries are some really, really awesome action sequences.
After all, my theory still stands that the entire Fate verse was inspired by a conversation that must have started “So if Gilgamesh and King Arthur got into a fight, right, who would win?” The concept of pitting legendary warriors against one another is just so juicy and fun to play with, and that’s without all the magical bonuses they get from being summoned into the world as spirits. I won’t go on about the Servants because learning their identities is half the fun. Their duels of clashing steel and magically-reinforced weaponry are balanced off neatly by the fights picked between the Masters. The magic techniques are varied, creative and mesmerising to watch, especially in Kiritsugu’s case where he pairs his mage’s knowledge with something magic isn’t entirely prepared for: modern weaponry.
There’s lots of artistic fun overlapping the old and new, with ancient heroes walking alongside modern humans, fighter jets hijacked by insane magic leading to an impossible and breath-taking dogfight over the city, and the mages and Heroic Spirits alike pondering whether they really still have a place in a world that is swiftly leaving their archaic practices behind. Again, the series is a study in contrasts, and it’s fascinating to watch. There’s infinitely more to learn about the colliding worlds, but as I said, there simply wasn’t time to squeeze it all in.
The series doesn’t feel rushed, however, just a bit hollow in places. There were many relationships and motivations I wanted explored more in the show, characters we were only briefly allowed to become attached to, denied closure and depth. The show could have easily gone on for countless more episodes exploring all of these things, but it had to retain its snappy, urgent pace. There are lulls, yes, but for the most part it races along, tension high in the air between episodes.
And it certainly succeeds in creating emotional hooks in a short frame of time. Zero gets right to the business of being an all-out war where only one team can win, and a threshold is crossed somewhere in the middle of the series that there is no returning from: the first Servant gets knocked out of the picture in a reality-warping battle, and as if that character’s demise tripped a switch, from then on everyone starts dropping like flies. There are a lot of deaths, and as the themes of the series ring true, there is very little honour or glory in them.
Fate/Zero is beautiful fight choreography, stunning animation, rich, varied and fascinating characters, magic and mayhem and a resonating tone. Love Interest sincerely informs me it’s the best anime he’s ever watched, even if he hasn’t watched that many, and it’s certainly rocketed to the top of my favourites list to dance among the clouds with other animated series that have stolen, broken and lit up my heart and captured my imagination.