Anime Reviews: Fate/Zero
Intelligent, mature, and armed with an astronomical budget, Fate/Zero is a unique and satisfying anime that more than deserves its insane popularity.
Series Length: 25 episodes
Air Dates: 10/1/2011 to 12/24/2011 and 4/7/2012 to 6/23/2012
Age Rating: 13+ (some strong violence, dark or disturbing thematic elements)
Summary: In Fuyuki City, Japan, the 4th Holy Grail War is about to begin. Legend has it that the Holy Grail, the most famous relic of Christian myth, chooses a single worthy person and grants them any one wish they desire. Every 60 years since the Grail was found in Fuyuki City, seven champions have come forward to fight to the death to earn the right to make their wish, but they don't fight alone; the Grail also gives these competitors the ability to summon a hero of history or myth, such as Alexander the Great, King Arthur, or Diarmuid O'Dyna, to aid them. These heroes fall under the classes of Saber, Lancer, Rider, Archer, Assassin, Caster, and Berserker. Whether it be for the sake of changing the world or protecting family honor, seven new champions are chosen to do battle, and the 4th Holy Grail War begins.
The Good: Tremendous production values; smart story and concept; memorable characters and interactions
The Bad: First episode's an info-dump; last episode's an anticlimax; happily assumes you remember everything about the heroes from your history classes
The Ugly: Caster will make you feel unclean every time he appears
Before I begin to talk about the quality of Fate/Zero, I have to talk about where it came from. The Fate series is a line of visual novels by a company named Type-Moon, and are insanely popular in Japan, with the most popular one being Fate/Stay Night, which got its own anime adaptation in 2006. and if you want to know how that turned out, here's a handy button you can press! The animation was nice, but the characters were annoying and idiotic, and the story did not grab me whatsoever. So with expectations already in the toilet, I decided to avoid Fate/Zero for a while, but then I began to hear everyone and their mom saying good things about the series. So then I decided to check it out myself. And they were right.
So we begin in my typical fashion by talking about the series' aesthetics. Let's not mince words here--it's real purty. As you can see from the second opener, the artwork is quite appealing with wonderfully ambient background art and detailed character designs, while the animation is spectacularly smooth and nuanced. In most anime, the actual animation of the show never matches up to the opening, but here, it's a pretty accurate representation. The art is always that evocative and the animation is always fluid and exciting, especially during some of the more intense combat scenes later on. Without going on too long, Fate/Zero is just a damn good-looking anime, and you'll not be disappointed in that regard.
With that said, the music and voice acting are equally monumental, too! As far as the soundtrack goes, it's the work of Yuki Kajiura, so, much like Yoko Kanno, it's guaranteed to be legendary. But if you don't know who Yuki Kajiura is and you need to be convinced as to why she's legendary, Fate/Zero makes a compelling case! With such big and bombastic numbers like "Point Zero," "The Battle is To the Strong," "This Day and Never Again," and "Army of the King," along with a couple more somber tracks like "You are My King" and "If You Leave," you can get a sense of the compositional mastery behind it all, and that's really only to name a few! I just picked these out at random! And then there's the voice acting. It's awesome. From Ayako Kawasumi's bold, determined Saber, to the legendary Akio Ohtsuka's shouting and boasting Rider, and Satoshi Tsuruoka's manic and slimy Caster, there's a lot of variety and skill in this cast, and there is not a single dry performance. And the upcoming English dub promises greatness as well, with tremendous names like Kari Wahlgren, Bridget Hoffman, Patrick Seitz, Jamieson Price, Kyle Hebert, Liam O'Brien, Johnny Yong Bosch, and Crispin freakin' Freeman, there can only be good things to come out of this. It's going to be awesome.
But now, let's talk about the story a little bit. It's not often you find the Holy Grail as a plot point in an anime, but it's even rarer for it to be the object of contention rather than an object of journey and discovery. This is already different enough, but then throw in the seven-way free-for-all between all the main characters (none of whom are immediately nor obviously the central one) and you've got something you've probably never seen before. Without an obvious lead, the plot is free to go in any direction and it isn't railroaded into unfolding in a traditional way. With elaborate schemes, fragile alliances, backstabbings, and conspiracies all around, not only is the series unpredictable, but it also unravels in a smart and competent manner. But as I always make it a point to mention, a story is not satisfying unless its characters are also of high quality.
And hey, guess what? The characters are all really great! Both the seven Mages and the seven Heroic Spirits are given plenty of screentime and development (with maybe the exception of Assassin), so we know perfectly well what their outlooks, goals, and personalities are (and you can probably guess Assassin's). And to make it all that much more engrossing, you have Mage/Spirit partners who are made for each other like the deranged serial killer Ryuunosuke and the even more deranged and serial killer-y Caster, or you've got partners who clash from day one and seem completely incompatible like the slimy, conniving Rayneth El-Melloi Archibald and the extremely earnest and chivalrous Lancer. The interactions between the Mages and the Heroic Spirits, sometimes not even between their own partners, add a lot of depth to the characters, especially my favorite of them all: Rider. Rider (a.k.a. Alexander the Great a.k.a. Iskander) is this huge, mountainous, boisterous beast of a man who can very quickly show you that bulging muscles and bravado aren't his only qualities--rather, he is a man of compassion, ambition, and altruism, and when you see how dynamic and flexible he is by the end, Rider may become one of your favorites, too!
But now we gotta talk about Fate/Zero's faults, however minor they may be. Firstly, the first episode is twice as long as a normal episode and is stuffed to the gills with exposition and backstory and lots and lots of dialogue. I like me some exposition here and there, but 45 straight minutes of it?! You've gotta be kidding me! The solution: Just grit your teeth and muscle through it, because while it may be excessive, it's still necessary.
Secondly, the final episode is basically where Fate/Zero sadly remembers that it's shackled to the dreadful Fate/Stay Night, and so ends in such a way that everything is nicely set up for it. The result is a disappointing anticlimax where a blood-boiling and explosive climax should have been. It's not bad by any means, it's just a bit of a let-down considering the huge scope and grand ambition of the rest of the series.
Finally, I hope you've brushed up on your history and mythology lessons, because Fate/Zero is going to throw around references to, say, Diamuid O'Dyna's affair or Alexander the Great's obsession to find Okeanos or Gilles de Rais' involvement with Jeanne d'Arc. And if you don't know this stuff, the series tries to help you out a little, but to fully comprehend/appreciate what's going on, you'd better start sticking your nose in some books.
That's about it, really. Aside from those little bumps, there's barely a scratch on Fate/Zero's beautiful face. This truly is the best series of 2012 (it didn't finish in 2011 and only started at the tail-end, so it's not a 2011 anime), and I'm not surprised whatsoever that its popularity is both massive and insane. I'm going to take this as a happy sign that we're going to have more anime set in a non-high school setting, and it's been so long since that has been the case. But anyway, that's neither here nor there. This is about Fate/Zero, and Fate/Zero is awesome. Go watch it. And then buy it when it's finally dubbed. That is an order, soldier!
Final Score: 9.5 out of 10. Though it begins with an info-dump and ends on an anticlimax, the meat of Fate/Zero is a succulent filet of spectacular visuals, bombastic music, and memorable characters set in a marinade of satisfyingly mature storytelling that is enough to make any anime fan's mouth water. I may or may not have been hungry at the time of this review.