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Fate/Zero is pretty dope. Originally a six-volume light novel series written by Urobuchi Gen, Fate/Zero is a prequel to popular and fairly complicated Fate series which began with the visual novel Fate/Stay Night by TYPE-MOON. You don’t have to know anything about the Fate saga to understand and appreciate Fate/Zero though, and in fact in some ways it’s better to go in with no information, because if you already know the story of Fate/Stay Night, then you’ll more or less know the ending of Fate/Zero.
This series is among the most brutally nihilistic, dark and violent shows of the past five years, comparable to the likes of Shiki and Texhnolyze or perhaps even more strongly, to the live-action Game of Thrones series. If you enjoy that kind of show, or if you generally enjoy high-concept, psychologically-driven stories like Madoka Magica and Psycho-Pass which are from the same writer, then you’re most likely going to enjoy Fate/Zero. I’m giving this recommendation now because I’m about to spoil the living shit out of the entire series, so if it sounds like something you’d enjoy and don’t want to be spoiled for, TURN BACK NOW.
Before I get into the bones of this show, let me say now that I think Fate/Zero is very, very good. It’s memorable, looks gorgeous, has a few of my favorite scenes in anime, and generally kept me entertained consistently for twenty-five episodes. Having said that, a lot of this review will be dedicated to talking about the things which bothered me while watching this show. Please understand that just because I spend a lot of time criticising a show, it doesn’t mean that I think it’s bad–if anything, I’m talking about the things that take it down from being a classic to being just very good. There seems to be common sentiment in response to my reviews that if I didn’t think a show was the best thing ever, then it means I didn’t like it, which simply isn’t true. If a numbered score would help, I’ll tell you now that Fate/Zero gets a strong eight to a light nine from me.
Anyways, my problem with Fate/Zero is the opposite of my problem with Urobuchi Gen’s previous work, Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica. Whereas that show had an interesting plot, but I didn’t really get involved in the characters, Fate/Zero has a bunch of interesting characters, but kind of a half-baked story. Looking at the structure of both series reveals how this happened–in Madoka Magica, each of the characters was unwillingly involved in the story, and thus were not able to act with much agency, basically being strung along to an inevitable conclusion. Meanwhile, in Fate/Zero all of the characters are actively trying to achieve their own goals for their own reasons, but the framework within they go about it doesn’t hold up very well.
If Fate/Zero could be considered a “death game” series, then it’s rules are very loosely designed. Most of the rules that are established end up getting broken or twisted in some way, to the point that the whole framework is largely inconsequential–what drives the story is the will of its characters, and how they clash with one-another. All of of that would be fine in itself, but because the structure is so loose, the characters end up having very little to do, and it’s not easy for them to trick one-another or act out intricate and spectacular plans, because the series feels more like a free-for-all than a proper game. Allow me to explain:
Every single one of the seven heroic spirits are incredibly strong. All of the different teams basically know what everyone else is doing at any given time, through extensive use of spies and familiars. Because everyone knows what’s going on, and no one can easily make a move on anyone else, it’s really difficult for any major twists to take shape. Early into the story, Kotomine purposely sacrifices one of his assassins in order to make everyone think that Assassin is out of the game. However, pretty much everyone ends up figuring out that there are still Assassins around before this trick gets used for anything, and then the rest of the Assassins are wiped out by the end of season one. So what was even the point of that whole gambit in the first place?
Fate/Zero ends up spreading itself too thin across both seasons. The major battles in season one have little consequence for most of their combatants, or at least don’t justify the amount of fighting that happens with the amount of results from the battle. What’s the point of Kiritsugu blowing up the building that Kayneth was supposed to be in, only for Keyneth to not be there, if he was just going to royally fuck Kayneth immediately afterwards? It felt to me like up until the gigantic battle with Caster, most of the fighting existed only as a way to have big, flashy battles to break up all the exposition and dialog. This stops being an issue in the second half of the show, wherein characters start dropping like flies, but it made me wonder why the deaths and important scenes weren’t better distributed throughout the series.
I also felt that whereas the action scenes in the first half were inconsequential compared to those in the second half, a lot of the character development in the second half was just reiterating the information we already had from the first. Was there really any need to dedicate two whole episodes to Kiritsugu’s backstory so that we’d know how he came to hold the ideals that he has, if we already understand those ideals? Why does no one else get this kind of backstory?
That brings me to my last issue with the series. It’s made abundantly clear right from the beginning that Kiritsugu and Kotomine are the only fighters worth backing in this war. Lancer’s team and Caster’s team basically get treated like pawns in their game, whereas Rider’s team is always just kind of on the sidelines. Tohsaka is so obviously going to get wasted by Kotomine that it’s pretty much silly. The only person who seems like a reasonable chaos factor worthy of concern is Kariya, but he ends up accomplishing little in the end. That’s not to say that any of these characters aren’t interesting, or that they don’t serve a symbolic meaning in the storyline, but it feels weird to take what is ostensibly a game of death, and make it obvious who the winners are going to be right from the start.
…or is it? While I was watching Fate/Zero I harbored a lot of these issues with it, but in the last couple of episodes, I suddenly saw it all turned on its head. In reality, Fate/Zero did all of this because it is a prequel. Anyone who knows about Fate would already know about the way this story ends, so instead of presenting us with an engaging death game story, Fate/Zero is deliberately presenting us with a farce. We are meant to know from the very beginning that this story is ultimately a tragedy–that all of these characters are fighting for nothing in a battle that they don’t understand. It was never really a story about who might win–it was always a story about how each of these characters loses. In this battle of fourteen clashing and colliding ideals, we are meant to see the chaos and nihilism inherent in war. This doesn’t completely diminish the fact that dramatically, the series could’ve been structured better by tightening up some of the early parts, but when you view it through the lense of a story about why nothing matters, then it starts to make more sense.
Fate/Zero is all about the competition of personalities and ideals. Every character has or finds a unique reason for fighting, and none of these reasons are presented as better or worse than one-another by the narrative. There is no real main character, and each of them believes themselves to be morally or methodically righteous. All of their outlooks are presented with certain positives and negatives, and it’s up to the viewer to decide which outlooks they can relate to or agree with. When all is said and done, it turns out that the nature of the holy grail isn’t really what anyone expected, and no one’s ideals prevail. All that is left is what each characters’ ideals has left them with.
Caster and Ryuunosuke have a fundamentally twisted worldview compared to what’s considered normal, yet both of them find solace in their vision. Each dies with a smile on their face, believing that death itself was the absolution that they sought. Rider dies with the realization that he was always more concerned with the journey and perseverance of living and dreaming than he ever was with the destination of his dreams, and thus was always going to die while still taking that journey. Waver is one of the few characters who gets to live on, and to pursue a journey of his own, living happily along the way.
Lancer tries to live with chivalry and is happy with his own decision, but can’t come to grips with the idea that other people don’t see the world the same way that the does, and is ultimately killed because of it. Kayneth and Sola-Ui… well they were just kinda stupid. Tohsaka believes in the immortality of passing down a powerful bloodline for the rest of time, but fails to realize that just because he sees himself as being on top doesn’t mean that he necessarily is. Kariya is determined to save Sakura without really taking into account the full context of her situation or her own feelings, or asking himself if saving her is really possible. His entire story is a downward spiral into absolute madness, similar to what Sir Lancelot had experienced in becoming Berserker.
Kiritsugu believed that the needs of the many would always outweigh the needs of the few, and constantly sacrificed those close to him in order to protect the many. However, he never takes into account how the many will always be in new peril. He expects to use the holy grail in order to rewrite the world Madoka Magica style, but whereas Madoka was able to beat the system and do the impossible, Kiritsugu can’t, and in the end he realizes that all of his sacrifice would ultimately change nothing if there was no miracle awaiting him. Likewise, Saber realizes that even though she gave her life to save her people, she had never taught her people how to live and be happy, which left them only to madness. Meanwhile, Kotomine and Gilgamesh, who never believed in anything but serving their own twisted desires, don’t really care that the grail is gone, as they never wanted anything more than to be players in the game to begin with.
In a way, Fate/Zero can be considered an endorsement for nihilism. It suggests that those who don’t care about anything have the least to lose and will be happiest in the end. However, it also shows us how sometimes, dying with your convictions in tact can be just as satisfying. The endless flow of time dictates that without a miracle, no one can truly change the world, and with Kiritsugu’s failure to create a miracle, it is clear that the world will never change. People will always have different ideals, and those ideals will always continue to clash. If you want to be happy living by your ideals, you have to be ready to die happy seeing nothing change. At the end of the day, the character with the brightest future ahead of them is Waver Velvet–a boy who never had any strong convictions to live or die for, but has been inspired to begin the same endless journey of living and inspiring others to live that Rider took. Waver symbolises how no matter what happens, when the war is over, life simply goes on.
The structure of this review makes it a little confusing to get a sense of my feelings on Fate/Zero, and that’s because those very feelings are messy. I love the way this show presents all these different ideals in contest with one-another, and bases some truly legendary scenes, such as the Banquet of Kings, around debating ideals. And even though I think that the action scenes suffer a lot from the pratfalls of adapting novelized fights into animation, which I’ll tackle in another video, the show still looks really good and has some memorable fights and concepts all throughout. As I said before, while Fate/Zero isn’t a classic, it’s still really, really good, and entertaining all the way through. It’s as chaotic as something called the “holy grail war” probably should be, and definitely contributes to my fandom of Urobuchi Gen.
And hey, whaddya know! I got this review out JUST before the start of the new Fate/Stay Night Unlimited Blade Works anime! I WONDER WHAT I’LL BE WATCHING THIS SEASON? On that note, if you haven’t subscribed to my anime vlogging channel, Digi Does Anime, I recommend doing so, as I’ll be following a lot of upcoming shows this fall season!