With the second and final season of Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works airing, it only felt appropriate to take a look back at its prequel, Fate/Zero.
As always, the review is provided in video format and transcribed directly below.
If you could wish for anything, what would it be? Money? Fame? Love? Maybe something more altruistic, like world peace? An end to poverty? Or perhaps you just don’t care, and life is already fun enough? Probably not. Wherever you’re coming from, I’m sure everyone has an answer. Everyone wants something, either for themselves or for someone else. But how far would you be willing to go for that wish? Could you fight? Could you kill? In a world of magic and murder, where such a fantastical feat may just be possible, who’s to say how far we’d all go to attain it?
Every sixty years, the Holy Grail, the omnipotent wish-granting cup itself, selects seven mages to be “Masters” and bestows onto each one “Servant”, a legendary figure from the past resurrected into modern day. The seven Masters, alongside their Servants, fall into an explosive deathmatch, as the last mage standing is rewarded with one wish from the Holy Grail.
Fate/Zero chronicles the fourth such “Holy Grail War”, centered in Fuyuki City, Japan. The Masters in this conflict range from students to priests to trained assassins, while the summoned Servants span a wide breadth of history, including the likes of King Arthur, Gilgamesh and Alexander the Great.
Let’s get the easy one out of the way first: Fate/Zero is produced by ufotable. The studio’s visuals have a well-earned reputation for being some of, if not the, best in the business, especially when it comes to TV series.
ufotable’s strength isn’t that their style is particularly outrageous or bombastic (in the same way that things like Redline or Gankutsuou are), but that everything is simply consistent and elegant. I would challenge you to find a single shot in the entire show that isn’t polished to a remarkable sheen.
The fight scenes in particular are a spectacle of sparks and spells, and remain utterly captivating under multiple repeat viewings. Even the CGI occasionally used throughout the show is integrated extraordinarily well, which I find to be a somewhat rare feat in anime.
It’s disappointingly rare to come across an anime (or visual novel, manga, etc.) where the main character isn’t either in their teens or early twenties. This is a trope that some of the best I’ve seen fall into, including Fate/Zero’s parent story Fate/stay night. Thankfully, Fate/Zero turns this expectation on its head. Practically every major character of the Holy Grail War is a full fledged adult, and a professional with more than just boundless passion to their name, as is so typical of many modern protagonists. Even the youngest Master, a boy by the name of Waver Velvet, is a college student. Nothing against the typical high school antics, but it’s very refreshing for a series to expand beyond that narrow character pool.
Another strength to Fate/Zero’s cast is its ensemble nature. Most characters throughout the conflict embody certain ideals, many of which are not inherently flawed or evil. Therefore, there is not a clear protagonist from the outset of the show. Several of the war’s players have sympathetic (or at least understandable) reasons for pursuing the Grail, and each is given a fairly equal amount of screen time. Of course, as contestants are violently eliminated and clearer lines form between the remaining Masters, this technique begins to go by the wayside, but it’s nice to have that initial level of ambiguity.
Although Fate/Zero is technically a prequel to the preexisting Fate/stay night, I have to give a moment to call out my appreciation for the initial concept and setting behind the Holy Grail War. It’s a creative stroke of genius to hit upon a scenario that allows one to incorporate so many of history’s memorable faces, and force them to fight to the death with inhuman abilities no less.
Plus, the world of Fate/Zero effectively mixes the relative nonsense of a magical world with the set-in-stone and static nature of reality in some interesting ways. It sounds strange to say that magic of all things is grounded in some realism, but certain characters make use of guns, knives and more traditional weaponry as frequently as magic and other supernatural items, which was an aspect to the show that I absolutely loved.
Fate/Zero is adapted from a light novel series written by Gen Urobuchi, the mind behind Madoka Magica and Psycho-Pass (the first season, thankfully). The man has a bit of notoriety in the anime community and is a personal favorite of mine. I’m not going to tell you that everything he touches is gold because it isn’t, but when he brings his A-game he’s responsible for some fairly iconic anime. Urobuchi pens stories that are almost invariably dark and tragic, with such a casual disregard for human life and happiness that he is oft nicknamed the Urobutcher.
However, death in Urobuchi’s stories rarely feels like a cheap way to shock the audience. Rather, to me, he excels at creating deaths with meaning, tragic situations that stay fresh in the viewer’s mind long after the episode itself has concluded. Some could argue that the tragedy toll starts to go a bit overboard in Fate/Zero’s final stages, but I never felt that to be the case. From the beginning, the Holy Grail War was never set up to have a joyous conclusion, and, well, it certainly doesn’t disappoint on that front.
Fate/Zero’s soundtrack is composed by Yuki Kajiura, who has also worked on the likes of Sword Art Online, Kara no Kyoukai and, interestingly enough, Urobuchi’s Madoka Magica, as well as several others. Put simply, Kajiura specializes in epic soundtracks. Her songs are big and bombastic, throwing in strings and choirs to add to the spectacle of it all. Give her music only a moment, and you won’t be disappointed.
To briefly continue the musical conversation, I must give special attention to Fate/Zero’s second opening theme, “to the beginning” by Kalafina. I like this opening a lot, because it’s awesome. The song does a great job of capturing the intensity of the show’s latter half, in much the same way as Kajiura’s own work (no surprise, as Kalafina was originally formed by Kajiura), and the visuals are equally effective: dark and foreboding but not completely hopeless, as well as being beautiful in classic ufotable fashion.
Perhaps ironically, the large nature of Fate/Zero’s ensemble cast can be problematic. With the Servant-Master pairs alone, Fate/Zero has a cast of fourteen. Take the various side characters into account, and the total adds up to easily over twenty different names to keep track of. A large number of characters, certainly, and the show makes no attempt to introduce them gradually. Practically every major player of the Holy Grail War is introduced in the first couple episodes, and early on it can take a bit of mental footwork to keep everyone (and their web of relationships) straight.
Another consequence of a large cast is that the number of characters simply doesn’t lend itself to equal character development for all. While I would personally argue that nearly all of the conflict’s few survivors do undergo significant development by the time the credits roll, not everyone gets this treatment. Many casualties of the Holy Grail War meet an unfortunate demise before being afforded much time to change or grow, but part of that does comes with the territory of a show that is drenched in death.
I say “drenched in death”, but it frankly takes Fate/Zero a while to get to that point. For much of the show’s first season, there aren’t many lasting consequences to the interactions between Servant and Master.
Sure, it gives some time for the audience to get a better handle on who everyone is and where they’re coming from, but you can’t help being a little disappointed that not much really happens early on. There’s a lot of setup for the stellar second season, but not a lot of truly significant events in their own right.
Fate/Zero can have a bad habit of telling rather than showing. The entire (double-length) first episode is pretty much one big fifty minute exposition bomb, trying to shove as much information about the Holy Grail War and its contestants onto the audience as possible, so it doesn’t have to bother with such explanation later on… if only that were the case.
A considerable chunk of Fate/Zero (again, especially in the first season) is pretty much just talking heads. Even the amazing fight scenes are commonly punctuated by brief monologues or banter with the competition. Now, to be clear, I am not saying that exposition and talk is inherently bad, because of course it’s not. A show with no talk is hardly any better than a show plagued by it. However, Fate/Zero sometimes struggles to find that happy medium between action and dialogue, often to its detriment.
Visually and musically stellar, with an overall excellent plot (particularly in the latter half), a mature cast that frankly commanded my attention and, to top it all off, a heaping spoonful of tragedy, Fate/Zero is a superb anime. While it is not without flaw, especially when it comes to a balance in pacing, these issues felt minor at best.
Did I enjoy Fate/Zero? Yes. Very yes. Is it flawless? No, of course not. Nothing truly can be. However, the fact of the matter is that I would recommend Fate/Zero to practically anyone pretty much unconditionally. While it will not be loved by all, I think everyone deserves to at least give it a try. Thus, after taking everything into account (as well as my own subjective enjoyment), on a scale from F to S, I would ultimately give Fate/Zero an S rating.
Fate/Zero is currently available for legal streaming on Crunchyroll, Hulu and Netflix. It is worth noting that the dub is only available through Netflix, and that Fate/Zero’s voice acting is more than competent both subbed and dubbed. But, if you plan to watch other entries in the Fate series (such as Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works), I would recommend watching Fate/Zero subbed, chiefly because not all Fate media has yet been dubbed, and personally I hate having to switch from English to Japanese (or vice versa, if that’s ever happened).
For a second opinion, check out Rockmandash’s review:
You’re reading Ani-TAY, the anime-focused portion of Kotaku’s community-run blog, Talk Amongst Yourselves. Ani-TAY is a non-professional blog whose writers love everything anime related. Click here to check us out.