Fate/Zero - 8/10
Fate/Zero is a character-driven dark modern fantasy. Centered on the 4th Holy Grail War, an event in which seven mages are summoned to compete for the ultimate prize of having their wish granted by the grail (no relation to the Christian version). In their scramble for supremacy, each mage summons a servant from the annals of history to act as his or her champion. Despite sounding like one long tournament arc, what makes Fate/Zero is not action but the diverse personalities and forces that vie for this power.
My recommendation going into this series is to forget any semblance of historicity. At first I engaged the series critically, constantly begrudging the discrepancies, but found that I was only hurting myself. The heroes are only loosely based on their real life counterparts, and should be appreciated for how they are written in the here and now. Wanting anything more will only lead to disappointment.
Speaking of wanting more: Fate/Zero is part of an expansive universe with multiple series. Which to watch first? My harsh opinion is, "Only Fate/Zero." The other series offer little in the way of the explanations Fate/Zero is lacking and range in quality from mediocre to bad to risking jail time. The "Fate" tag does not guarantee the same experience that Zero offers.
|I won't be talking about these two, but they provide much-needed relief.|
The cast of Fate/Zero is its strongest asset, with each of the master/servant pairs being unique. They range from genuine friendships, to ideological opposites, to the devil and his pawn. The varied interactions between these characters is what animates the series. While the majority of the cast is worthy of mention I will be concentrating on just two and their relationship.
At the center of the maelstrom is Kiritsugu Emiya, an errant mercenary who has now turned his attention toward a bid at world peace. He remains one of my favorite protagonists in anime. Kiritsugu is a Utopian pragmatist, one of the most dangerous mindsets in existence. He is a deeply driven revolutionary, a man who has a dramatic vision of the future. There is an earnestness to his quest, fueled by his life-long dreams of heroism and reinforced by his years on the battlefield. Kiritsugu is the real deal: he truly believes in what he is doing.
However, his utilitarian morality is completely uncompromising and merciless. Early in his life he demonstrated an aptitude for disconnecting his feelings from his actions. As he developed through the years, he refined his theory: the sacrifice of the few is always worth the good of the many. There is nothing more to morality than adding up benefits and subtracting costs. This ethical calculus is unbelievably dangerous when combined with the Utopian ideal: if what one is striving for is the ultimate good then ANY evils are justifiable in its pursuit. Many revolutions of the 20th century bear witness to the horrors such reasoning births.
|Magic can be...unkind in this universe.|
The series adroitly suspends judgement, neither supporting or condemning him. He may not be a saint, but one cannot accuse him of cowardice or hypocrisy. The ultimate resolution, when his position is taken to the logical extreme by the grail, offering to fulfill his "wish" by slaughtering most of humanity for the benefit of the remainder, is what finally arrests him. Hollowed out by the realization that there was no singular fix for the world, and recognizing with deep regret all the damage he had done, he concludes his days tending his own garden.
His character is further enhanced by the contrast to his servant, Saber, the gender-swapped King Arthur (Arturia, because anime). She represents the epitome of the chivalric ideal: she believes in the just war, the good fight, and respect given to one's foes. Honor is the highest ideal and should never be sacrificed, even unto one's dying breath. In life she was "perfect," the very avatar of her own beliefs. Taking the entire kingdom on her shoulders, she sacrificed everything of herself to enact the vision of a perfect king and a just society. Her failure, that she was too driven, too inhuman, haunts her. She stands as Kiritsugu's medieval mirror, at once his opposite and eerie familiar at heart.
|She even looks good in a suit.|
Their disagreements beget one of my favorite exchanges in anime: the judgement of honor. It is engrossing because neither side occupies a clear high ground. Arturia may cling to outmoded ideals, but they serve as a valuable reminder and warning that one's humanity should not be abandoned lightly. Her own disastrous lack of empathy in life only sharpens her disgust with Kiritsugu's flagrant disregard for sympathetic morality. However, Kiritsugu's accusation is not without merit. Honor and glory appear puerile in the face of modern warfare, a flimsy rationale, a fairy tale told to disguise violence in all its grotesque forms. Better to be unambiguous: the business of war is killing. There remains no easy answer, the scene concluding with a pointed view of the deceased as Kiritsugu expounds the permissibility of evil for a greater good.
These two are not alone. They are embedded in a multifaceted plot, with many others striving with equal vigor for the prize. While the ultimate goal is clear, the paths leading to it are not. Alliances form and dissolve, schemes unfold and fail, ancient feuds intrude on the conflict. It is not the strongest or the most righteous who carry the day, but the most cunning and, perhaps, luckiest. Such a message is befitting the ethos of the series. Despite the initial appearances, it is not a contest between heroes.
As a cherry on top, all of this is animated well by Ufotable, making the most out of its expansive budget. The designs are great and the surprisingly infrequent fights are frenetic and smooth.
|The King's Banquet is also a magnificent scene.|
The most frustrating part of watching Fate/Zero is the near-absence of world-building explanation. The greater and lesser grail, the need to implant the grail in a living vessel, previous wars, the choice of Fuyuki, the nature and relationships of the mage families.... I guess we're just supposed to divine it all? It is conceptual in media res but without the requisite followup.
This paucity of explanation unfortunately extends to the resolution. It is a perplexing jumble of events, incomprehensible without outside knowledge. That the grail was corrupted is never indicated in any fashion, only spontaneously thrust on us with obtuse references to Angra Mainyu. Kiritsugu's vision is powerful and disturbing, but difficult to follow at times. However, the resurrection of Kirei and revivification of Gilgamesh, accompanied by the destruction of the town, are completely intractable. The series itself offers nothing more than a verbal shrug, forcing further research. It still leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
My other primary concern is the excessive cruelty shown to children, especially by Ryuunosuke and Caster. It is made monumentally clear that Ryuunosuke is a psychopathic killer from the moment we first meet him, casually scrawling shapes on the floor with the blood of his victims. Caster, on being summoned, immediately proceeds to "tutor" him in superior methods of torment. No more brutality was necessary to establish these characters, yet they received a shocking amount of screentime, with glimpses of their "hobby." Crunchyroll apparently edited the series, sparing me the worst, but what was left in was more than enough. Their gruesome depictions crossed the line from atmospheric to simply vulgar.
Finally, there are a few minor wrinkles, such as tangential references to "stats" and "S-class," which belie its digital origins. They are out of place, but so brief as to not be intrusive.
Ultimately, Fate/Zero is worth the time. Sometimes grandiloquent, predominantly sincere, it is a well-constructed and engrossing experience, even if one must locate a local Fate expert to truly appreciate it.
UntilDawnCreeps Trailer: An excellent fan-made preview with no (obvious) spoilers. Gives a good feeling for the series.
Salvation of Kiritsugu: One of the best anime videos I have ever encountered, this work is laden with spoilers. The slow beginning, the mounting energy, the explosion of tumultuous violence followed by regret...it is a perfect representation of the series.