No Fate/Stay Night post this week, unfortunately, but I can offer you a dip into Daddy Issues: Origins… er, the prequel, Fate/Zero, instead.
The proverbial curtain rises on a man in black, smoking indoors (so we already know he’s the preoccupied, broody and irresponsible type), who gets up from his scruffy repose when he’s informed that his daughter has just been born. He doesn’t immediately strike you as the fatherly type, let alone the type to have his establishing character moment be one of new fatherhood, but the baby’s mother has other ideas. She seems to be a well of sweetness and softly-spoken optimism, even in the face of Mr. Man In Black telling her that he’ll be the cause of her death.
If you know anything about Fate/Stay Night, you’ll recognise this conflicted fellow as Our Hero Shirou’s adoptive father and role model Kiritsugu, who is also evidently the biological parent of Ilyasveil von Einzbern, pictured here in decidedly innocent infant form, and will be intrigued by this dive into their backstory. If you don’t, you’ll still be intrigued by the curtain unfurling on this dramatic stage (panning out to a blizzard-locked castle with an orchestra playing will do that to you) and the immediately emotionally-charged characters and dynamics within. Either way, back to zero we go.
This episode is notorious for boring people to tears. The creators were stuck between knowing that Fate fans were going to be interested in the characters rather than what was going on and having to explain the mechanics of the world to new viewers, and it landed everyone in a sea of movement-less exposition. We are introduced to our main players, however, and for the purposes of this, a genuine ensemble piece, that is very important.
So who is on this great magical chessboard, preparing for a battle for unlimited power?
Emiya Kiritsugu, Mage Killer: Our dark and broody family man. Don’t seem like two traits that would immediately go together, do they? Well, he’s a man of dichotomies and contradictions, but that’s something we’ll be able to discuss at length later. For now, we learn that he’s a very unconventional figure in the mage world, using the magic passed down through his family purely as a tool in his work as an international assassin. He’s apparently ruthless, focussed on an ends rather than a means, to the point where he’s bombed public buildings and taken entire jets out of the sky just because his target was in them, hangers-around be damned. He’s also openly described (from an onlooker, anyway) as suicidal, due to his behaviour in battlefields across the world, reportedly chasing death and destruction wherever it was present.
However, that was nine years ago, and nowadays he’s retired from mercenary work and has been living with the great mage family the Einzberns up in the mountains of Germany, where he’s been adopted as their player for the Grail War. Whether or not these things are connected is not explicitly stated, but he’s also fallen in love with one of their ‘daughters’ (though we’ll learn more about what that means later), Irisveil, and as we know somewhere in there they’ve had a baby. Can you imagine the look on the family head’s face when that was proposed? Damn roguish bad boys, they come into your house to help you shoot your way to a wish-granting power-sink, and before you know it they’ve run off with your daughter.
They seem to be working as team, though, so one can only hope we’ll see some battle couple action. They plan meticulously to summon Saber, the strongest Servant, with a sheath found in Cornwall that supposedly belonged to the mythical King Arthur. Nothing about that could come with any surprises, right?
Kotomine Kirei, Brick Wall: You know something’s up when characters start muttering each other’s names while peering thoughtfully out windows. Straight off the bat, it’s clear that Kirei and Kiritsugu are going to be two sides of a symbolic, mage-killing coin, at the very least with Kirei’s history as an Executioner for the Holy Church, basically someone who hunts down mages behaving badly and sticks a pointy sharp thing in them. All for the greater good, obviously, but Kirei’s moral compass doesn’t seem to be pointing in any particular direction. Everyone’s actually very confused as to why Command Spells appeared on him in the first place, but his father, Risei, reckons it’s going to be a good chance to get a guy on their side in to make sure the Grail War runs smoothly.
Kirei’s going to roll with it, because as is evident he has no personal motivations of his own, and has apparently picked up, almost mastered, then dropped, several different types of magic in his training under Tohsaka Tokiomi. Is there anything more eerie than someone who doesn’t want anything? Surely that’s the human condition. He doesn’t even seem particularly nonplussed that his wife has apparently just died, which is never mentioned again. He’s more interested in glaring at Kiritsugu’s files.
He’s the Master of Assassin, who so far is equally obedient and (literally) faceless. I’m sure they’ll get along nicely.
Tohsaka Tokiomi, Purveyor of Fine Wine: Tokiomi is the conventional mage to Kiritsugu’s wild card. He’s even got an archaic dress sense and a devil beard! Though he’s clearly not averse to the idea of sneaky tactics (despite how offended he is just talking about Kiritsugu’s magic use) as he’s allied with the judge of the Grail War and is quite happily training his son to be his secret partner.
It’s all about getting to the Root, he explains, an endless sink of power that would, even beyond the wish the Grail itself is supposed to be able to grant, give its captor unlimited mana. You could rule the world with that! Not that we get the sense that domination is on Tokiomi’s mind; it’s simply what the family has been trying to get to for generations, thus the task has fallen to him and he’s going to try his darndest.
He’s got the oldest and fanciest catalyst (to summon Archer), the nicest house, and the most money. He’s even got his own itty-bitty heir and doting wife, the latter of whom is much more impressed with Kirei than the former. Whether he has a relationship with them akin to Kiritsugu and his family is a matter not so much touched on. Tokiomi’s all business at this point, and looks from all theoretical vantage points like a strong contender for the winner. Which means, story-wise, that it would be the most fun if he lost, but let’s just wait and see.
Matou Kaiya, Human Disaster: Where Tokiomi’s content to take on his heir-ly duties, clearly not everyone born into mage families is so keen. Kariya, we learn, left the Matou family to do his own thing despite having magical potential, and really only comes back to Fuyuki to visit his childhood friend Tohsaka Aoi and her children, who again, Fate/Stay Nighters will recognise as adorable shrunken versions of Rin and Sakura. Things go pear-shaped when he discovers there is only one sister remaining, and the younger has been adopted into the Matou family to take the place that he left. Oops.
Surely Tokiomi would only hand over his child to good hands, you think, until you learn that not only is little Sakura encouraged to forget her biological relatives ever existed, but her ‘training’ involves being thrown into a magical bug pit. And you guys wonder why people want to leave the household?? Kariya, though, promises to come back and be the Matou champion, in exchange for Sakura’s freedom. At last, an everyman good guy we can believe in! He’s even wearing a hoodie.
A year later, looking rather worse for wear, he’s tasked with summoning Berserker. Because hanging onto the leash of an enchantedly insane powerful spirit while you’re crippled and ill could not go wrong at all. You know, I have the slightest suspicion that our friend Matou Zouken is playing him for chumps.
Waver Velvet, Boy Wizard: Meanwhile, in England, we’re treated to a nice little bit of world-building about the structure of mage society: namely, by laughing at a student who suggests it could be changed. Don’t be silly, floppy-haired lad with a silly name, power and status will always come from the older mage families! New ones have no chance of breaking in. It serves as a kind of magical aristocracy, and poor Waver, who is only a third-generation mage, is merely a pleb.
However, what he does have on his side is resilience and bitterness, and apparently the funds to scoot off to Japan after stealing a package addressed to his lecturer and large-foreheaded elitist Kayneth Archibald, which contains a catalyst for summoning a Servant. Waver does some speedy research (thanks, Waver, now we understand the Grail War too) and casually hypnotises an ex-pat couple into thinking he’s their grandson and takes up residence in their house. He’s a sharp little bugger, is this sweater-clad nerd, and doesn’t even look too ridiculous summoning Rider among the montage of greater mages (man, that scene is awesome).
So, we have (at least) five very different people facing off in a fight for unlimited power—there’s magic humming under the surface, the scenery is lush and detailed, the music and atmosphere serves to bring the whole episode to a crescendo… and here we lie. The Fourth Grail War has begun, and now that we know what and who we’re watching, we’re strapped in for the ride.