EDIT: Check out the review for Fate/Zero Part 2 here!
This week I’ll be reviewing what I can pretty safely say was the best anime this year. Not safely because it’s not arguable, but safely because the year is pretty much out. Anyway, the anime I’m talking about is Fate/Zero. Based in Nasu’s popular Type-Moon universe, this work was initially a light novel by Urobuchi Gen (wrote for the VN Saya no Uta, and the anime Puella Magi Madoka Magica) and has recently become an anime for the fall season. I’m reviewing the first thirteen episodes of this show since it’s going on hiatus until the spring season of next year, and there’s been enough material that I feel I can give at least the first half a good once-over in review.
Besides the pretty big name in writing the series (I haven’t seen Madoka or read Saya no Uta but most people say they’re pretty good), ufotable is the studio animating it, and they also animated the Kara no Kyoukai series of movies. You can kind of tell looking at Fate/Zero if you’ve seen Kara no Kyoukai, since they look pretty similar. ufotable has also done Mobile Suit Gundam SEED and the Tales of Symphonia OVAs, which surprised me a little bit, but I’m glad Fate/Zero is more along the lines of the excellent Kara no Kyoukai series.
And of course, doing the music is an excellent composer for anime and videogames, Kajiura Yuki. She’s done work on a lot of really excellent series (and several not so excellent, but her music was always the highlight of the series) the least of which would be Madoka and the Kara no Kyoukai movies. Curiously, all of these all-star talents have overlapped on projects before, which is nice going into the series. So obviously Fate/Zero has an excellent pretty much everything going into the series, it’s impossible for it to fail. And it’s really good because of all the awesome talent going into it.
So, starting with the plot… I don’t know how much the show expects you to know about Fate/Stay Night or the general story behind the series and events here before going into Fate/Zero. It does an alright job at explaining the situation, though it seems like it would be quite boring if you were watching the first time without knowing anything. The basic plot is that there’s this thing that happens every once in a while (more or less every generation, I guess?) called the Holy Grail war. The Holy Grail picks 7 people, who are generally magi or capable of magic, and allows them the ability to summon a Servant.
A Servant is some sort of mythical figure from history that has been granted a form of eternal life by virtue of their deeds in life and can be summoned via a link to the magus and the power of the Holy Grail. The Servants can be summoned into one of seven classes, Saber, Lancer, Archer, Rider, Berserker, Caster, and Assassin. Then the Masters (the magi) and their Servants battle each other (generally to the death) and the winning pair at the end gets to use the Holy Grail and its infinite magic power to grant one wish.
That’s the setting for Fate/Zero. It’s a simple enough premise, but there are a lot of twists and turns in the characters and their relationships and their ideals that really strain and warp the Holy Grail War into something that’s not quite so simple anymore. Fate/Zero presents the war from the viewpoints from every Master and Servant pair, and it’s quite interesting to see them interact even though they should be killing each other. That’s pretty much the plot in a nutshell.
I will say that it’s really interesting to compare Fate/Zero and Fate/Stay Night, because with Urobuchi Gen at the helm it’s easy to see that the tone of Fate/Zero is a good bit darker than Fate/Stay Night, which is really refreshing to see considering the situation. That’s not to say Fate/Stay Night doesn’t have its share of dark moments, but Fate/Zero has constant serious tone that the other series lacks and I think it really works out well. I would say the core plot and premise behind it for Fate/Zero is pretty weak, but it’s presented very effectively if you know the setting beforehand (and slightly boring and then very effectively if you don’t), so I really like it.
The characters are a total treat to watch in Fate/Zero. I think you’d be able to appreciate them more if you had experience with the Fate series, because although Fate/Zero is a prequel, there are several characters in it that are also in Fate/Stay Night. That being said, there’s a lot of interesting new characters as well. I guess I’ll start by listing all the Masters and their Servants, and then talking a little bit about each. Emiya Kiritsugu is the Master for the servant of the Saber class. Tohsaka Tokiomi is the Master for Archer, and Kotomine Kirei is the Master of Assassin. Waver Velvet is the Master of Rider, and Kayneth El-Melloi Archibald is the Master of Lancer. Uryuu Ryuunosuke is the Master of Caster and lastly Matou Kariya is the Master of Berserker. They’re all fairly interesting characters in their own rights, both the Masters and their Servants. Each has their own motivations and values and belief systems and a lot of the enjoyment in the show is to see them interact and fight not only with their weapons and powers but their values and beliefs.
It would be boring and long-winded to go into each character and each servant and their own motivations, so I’ll just cover three or four of the most prominent ones for the first thirteen episodes. Emiya Kiritsugu and Saber are arguably the main characters. Kiritsugu is a cold and focused man, contracted by the waning Einzbern family (one of the 3 great families of magi in the area) to enter the Holy Grail War in their place. He’s made a living for years as a highly effective mage-killer and his skills certainly reflect as such.
As an aside, there are two ways to win a battle in the Holy Grail War against an enemy Master-Servant combo. The most obvious way would be to just kill the Servant. Servants are vastly more powerful than their Master and thus a more immediate threat. However, if you kill the Master, the Servant will vanish not too long afterwards. As Kiritsugu is a mage-killer, he tries to focus on killing enemy Masters, generally by any means necessary. Via tricks or traps or stealth, anything goes for him.
However, due to the artifact given to him by the Einzberns, he ends up summoning the servant Saber, who is quite chivalric and honorable. As a result, their personalities are often at odds. In fact, Kiritsugu almost never speaks to Saber at all. Instead, he has Irisviel, the heir to the Einzberns parade around as Saber’s Master while he looks over from the shadows. As I mentioned earlier, Saber’s personality contrasts greatly with his. She is a chivalrous knight, serious but adamant in honorable combat between herself and an enemy Servant. Due to Kiritsugu’s own method of handling the war, they cannot agree on a great number of things.
I think it’s really interesting to watch Saber and Kiritsugu act independently of one another though. Knowing Saber from Fate/Stay Night, her personality is a little different due to the nature of Fate/Zero, and it’s interesting seeing the more serious aspects of her personality come to the forefront in Fate/Zero (not that it didn’t in Fate/Stay Night though). Kiritsugu on the other hand is interesting to see act because of how often he was mentioned in Fate/Stay Night, but never really seen. For someone that doesn’t know about Fate/Stay Night going into these characters though, while their differing ideals are interesting to watch, I will admit Kiritsugu and Saber are not the most interesting of characters to watch. Luckily there are others.
The next Master-Servant pair I’ll cover is Waver Velvet and his servant, Rider. The two of them can be seen as comedic relief in this show (not to detract from the seriousness of the situation or of these two individuals, however). Waver Velvet is a young mage who is apparently something of a prodigy. He ends up stealing the artifact that Lord El-Melloi was going to use to summon a Servant to participate in the Holy Grail War himself. As Waver was a student at the start of Fate/Zero, understandably his experience is lacking. It shows over the course of the series, as Waver is constantly shown as being inexperienced as a full-fledged mage.
However, he ends up summoning a very powerful servant, Rider, who is a huge and boisterous man. Due to Waver’s inexperience he often ends gets caught up at Rider’s pace and it’s usually pretty funny. I like Waver and Rider’s dynamic as a Master-Servant pair. Unlike all of the other pairs, they’re the only two that actually seem like friends, which is refreshing to see. There’s a lot of serious business in Fate/Zero, so I think Waver and Rider offer a very nice change of pace. However, when the situation calls for it, they can be serious, so they never seem out of place.
The last character I’ll cover is the Master Kotomine Kirei. His servant is Assassin, but that’s not very important. Kirei has not done too much besides be introspective and attack Irisviel and Maiya, but he is being hyped up as a foil to Kiritsugu’s character. While Kiritsugu is cold and focused on his goal (whatever that may be), Kirei is seen as a lost character with no personal ambitions. Of course, his father is the overseer for the Holy Grail War, and from the beginning of the series he was seen to have an alliance with the Master of Archer, Tohsaka Tokiomi.
However, as the episodes go on and he’s prompted by Archer to consider his own motivations, it seems as if Kirei may rethink the alliance and what exactly he stands for in this war. It will be very interesting to see how he and Kiritsugu come to a head, as they both acknowledge each other as dangerous opponents, but haven’t really made too much of it yet. That’ll definitely be something to watch for when the next half starts in the spring.
Okay, moving on to the art, it looks nice and crisp. ufotable has done some excellent work here, it looks pretty similar to their Kara no Kyoukai movies. A regular anime having movie-style art quality is pretty impressive, so I was quite pleased to see it. Insofar as character designs go, well, some of them have definitely existed prior to Fate/Zero (such as Saber and Matou Zouken). However, Saber’s professional suit look is really quite nice looking. I don’t know exactly how to explain it, but it makes her look dignified and cool, but also just a little sexy. I’m a pretty big fan of that design.
Other than that the outfits aren’t too impressive, not that this show is about that. All of the servants look pretty cool. I love how Rider orders his own shirt and wears that around when he’s not fighting, I think it’s pretty cool. And his battle outfit is pretty sweet too, quite regal-looking. This is one of those few cases where while I’m not totally blown away by all the character designs, the art itself is so nice that I don’t really care.
Moving on to animation, surprisingly, this is one of my favorite parts of Fate/Zero. Usually I don’t have much to say for animation, but the animation quality in Fate/Zero is simply stellar. While the first few episodes aren’t that exciting on the animation front, by episode 4 the animation just totally blew me away. The fight between Lancer and Saber was beautifully animated, I really loved it. There’s not much else to say here other than holy crap this animation is great. I can’t wait until the second season when there are some more awesome fights.
The music this time around is a little different. I mentioned how Kajiura Yuki was doing the music for Fate/Zero. I love her music, and consequently I found the BGM to Fate/Zero really good. The tracks are a bit more somber and action-y instead of light-hearted and cute, which fits Fate/Zero well obviously. The tracks themselves are pretty good too, though I haven’t gotten my hands on the OST yet. As for the opening and ending themes… Honestly, they’re pretty mediocre. I think the video for the ending is really neat, especially early on when you try to use them to kind of figure out each Servant’s true name (as in, who they were in history). Other than that, I have to say that the vocal songs aren’t that great, though hopefully that’ll change for the better in the spring part.
Director: Ei Aoki
Writer: Gen Urobuchi
Character design: Atsushi Ikariya, Tomonori Sudou
Music: Yuki Kajiura
Original creator: Gen Urobuchi (author), Takashi Takeuchi (artist)
Original run: October 1 2011 – December 24, 2011
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