Fate/Zero (TV)

There are very few writers working in anime fields that get any real attention. It's almost always about the director, never the writer. However, a major exception exists in the form of Gen Urobuchi. He's found surprising popularity and prominence as the writer of Madoka Magica and the first season of Psycho-Pass, two shows widely seen as instant modern day classics, and mainly because of his ability to tap into the minds of "evil" characters and deal with dark subject matter in creative and skillful ways. He's also famous for writing the Fate/Zero light novel series, later adapted into an anime by Ufotable, which has been widely seen as one of the best works in the Type-Moon canon, even greater than the series it acts as a prequel to, the insanely popular Fate/Stay Night. There's good reason for this. I can say, without the shadow of a doubt, that Fate/Zero is one of the best fantasy anime made in the past decade.

The series takes place during the forth Holy Grail war (sometime in the 1990s, during Clinton's presidency), where seven magic users have taken arms to decide who gets a wish from the grail, each summoning their own heroic spirit as a servant to fight for and along side them. The war takes place entirely in Kotori city, Japan, and the last servant remaining wins the grail for their master. The two most notable masters this war, Kiritsugu Emiya and Kirei Kotomine, are polar opposites on paper. One is a legendary "mage killer" of an assassin, while the other is a devoted priest and assassin for the church, working for a greater good. However, the two share a similar coldhearted nature, Emiya embracing it and Kirei troubled by it. Kirei thinks he's found someone like himself, while Emiya sees Kirei as his only real challenge. The two end up becoming the central figures in a grand tragedy, and their actions will change the fate of the magical world.

The cool thing about Fate/Zero is that it can stand on its own without knowledge of the events of Fate/Stay Night. It manages what most prequels fail at by focusing mostly on characters who had small roles in the original work, while acting as a start of darkness story for two major villains as well. No knowledge of the original Fate visual novel is necessary here, though it certainly adds for those familiar with the characters of Kirei, Gilgamesh, Saber and a few others (a few major concepts are also mentioned in passing, like Heaven's Feel). The real accomplishment here is the fleshing out of a previous minor character into something completely unexpected with Kiritsugu.

Kiritsugu's original role was as Shirou's adoptive father in Stay Night, with a minor mention to his true ruthless personality. Fate/Zero takes that line of dialog and expands on it greatly, showing us a Kiritsugu whom works as a killer of mages and incredibly world weary. Despite being the main character, Kiritsugu mainly stays off screen and to the side while other characters handle more emotional scenes and action, which makes sense. Kiritsugu's entire strategy is based around observation and dirty planning, performing some truly horrific acts in order to win the war. It also keeps him very mysterious and fascinating early on, as all we know for sure about him is that he wants to make a wish that will bring world peace. His motivations and methods clash at every moment, and it causes him to clash with the emotionally charged and honorable servants. His past, finally revealed late in the series, makes for two of the series big emotional moments (and there's a lot of them as it goes) and does a fantastic job in showing what type of world could possibly make such a broken contradiction of a man.

Kirei is similar, though only in the sense that he's a contradiction. Unlike Kiritsugu, Kirei works for the church and has a high ethical standard for himself (despite working as an assassin). He's also a very cold and divided man who's trying to figure out what he really wants and not what he's ordered to do. What he actually wants, and what he's trying to suppress, is the suffering of other people. His interactions with Gilgamesh slowly awaken him to his true nature, and there's an equal amount of tragedy to him as with Kiritsugu. He's a man honestly trying to live by his teachings and be a proper person, but his very nature compels him to do monstrous things that go against everything he stands for. He and Kiritsugu make the core of the series and everything wraps around back towards them, with the exception of the team of Waver and Rider.

Waver and Rider make for the actual protagonists of the series, with Kiritsugu and Kirei treated more as villainous forces. Waver and Rider's motivations are pure and simple, and they commonly help bring together the other servants when necessary to take down greater threats. They also have the most lively relationship, as Waver is an easily panicked bookworm, while Rider is Alexander the Great, a conquer interested in bringing strong and interesting people to his side and seeing as much of the world as possible to appease his own desires. Rider steals every single scene he appears in with his loud voice and reckless tactics, going as far to loudly introduce himself to at least three different servants and asking them all to join his army in the process. He's the life of the party and has a surprisingly positive view on being a king and living one's life that is normally absent from the Fate series, due mainly to all the tragedy surrounding every character. Waver's more fragile ego makes for some fun comedy between the two, but they also end up having the strongest arc of the entire series, even more so than Kirei.

The series is a character focused work, so everyone is well developed and given their own strong arc, both master and servant (minus assassin, who's simply a means to an end). Urobuchi's ability to give every single character depth, no matter how cliché their arctype, is absolutely masterful, particularly in how he forces all these different people and their conflicting philosophies and beliefs to clash against each other. Tokiomi's inability to understand how to talk with Gilgamesh, Kariya's deep-seeded hatred of Tokiomi and his treatment of his daughter Sakura, Ryuunosuke and Caster's different views on god and how it relates to their murderous ways, Saber and Kiritsugu's growing contempt for each other, Rider's criticism of Saber's philosophy of being a king for one's people, Lancer's poor treatment by a man he wants to simply honor a pact with, and so on and so forth. No matter the character (except Assassin), there's something about them that causes them to clash with another and brings out new sides to them. Pure characters are arguably the most morally vile of them all, complex characters fall by the weight of their philosophical contractions and emotions, and the line between good and evil is darkened so much that almost nothing that can be called truly good is left. Urobuchi weaves one of the finest tragedies I've ever seen, with no one character wasted.

However, when compared to Fate/Stay Night, Zero shines even more. The running themes of what it costs to be a "hero" for others, the strength of beliefs, and sacrificing yourself for the greater good are all the major themes that are explored in each of the three major Stay Night routes of Unlimited Blade Works, Heaven's Feel, and Fate. Zero contrasts and compliments each of these routes and their ultimate ends near perfectly with the view scenes we get with the eventual protagonists of each of those routes, Shirou, Rin and Sakura, along with Saber's heavy development. Their parents and caregivers have fates that take the endings of each of these routes and twist them around completely in grim, vile ways, especially in the case of Kiritsugu. Urobuchi really gets at the core of all these concepts, central to the idea of being a "hero," and then proceeds to critique and eviscerate all the positive views in each with pinpoint accuracy. His playing with religion with the Caster team is especially powerful, as he manages to get a serial killer to say something both vile and frighteningly true. It makes Waver and Rider's presence all the stronger, as they are the only truly positive people in the whole series, making good counter points through their very existence and many of their conversations. They show there is still something left to cherish in the world, no matter how cruel it appears to be (and is).

The ending couldn't possibly be more perfect, using every single major remaining character, plot point and idea to create an absolutely crushing and exciting series of final battles. Every character gets exactly what they deserve or are able to earn in their state at the time, and the dominoes tumble over everywhere as the series comes to a huge crash of a finish. It's easily one of the best endings I've ever seen, satisfying on every level and it left me with all sorts of conflicting feelings of sorrow, disgust, joy and melancholy. It's the reward to a tight plot and gripping story, filled with memorable moments and chaos. The pacing is just perfect, as I marathoned the series, all twenty-five episodes, in just a matter of days. I haven't been this hooked into a show since Baccano!, and I do not bring up Baccano as a comparison often. That show is a masterpiece in sheer entertainment value per second, and Fate/Zero keeps up with its manic pace with ease.

A lot must be said for the production work from Ufotable. The show simply looks incredible, with a masterful use of shadows and light to make very alive environments. Every shot is shrouded in atmosphere, from foggy forests and lakes, to buildings of wildly different lighting, and even amazing otherworldly sequences. The animation is flowing and well structured, with every action scene grabbing your attention simply through sheer spectacle and flow of the moves used. Saber and Lancer's first fight is particularly strong, showing off the two countering each other's weapons and planning around their current positions. It's all so detailed and thought out, with several moments of pure indulgence as a treat (Berserker gets one of the most memorable scenes in the entire series come the final battle with Caster). The strong music and voice acting in both sub and dub just cements Fate/Zero as one of the strongest productions in recent anime history.

I really can't stress how much I adore Fate/Zero. Weeks after finishing it, I can still remember every scene and conversation like it was just yesterday. Few series have ever gripped me like this before, and it's refreshing to experience something this wonderful again. If you want a tragedy, and you want to get into the Fate series, this is the perfect show for you. I can't recommend it highly enough.


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