From the mind that gave us works such as Madoka and Saya no Uta comes a tale spun as a predecessor to the wildly popular series Fate/Stay Night. Of course, anyone who has read or watched Fate/Stay Night knows the outcome of the fourth Holy Grail War, but only half the fun of a journey is the destination. Gen Urobuchi and studio Ufotable guide us through a magnificent world saturated with dynamic characters, a beautiful score, jaw-dropping visuals and fluctuating idealistic views, which all congeal into a compelling narrative. Mistakes are made by Ufotable, but compared to the grandiose story and execution they only serve as minor annoyances.
The Grail War has been done before, but never like this. The same rules apply. Seven masters, seven servants, all fighting in a fierce battle royal in order to determine the rightful owner of the Holy Grail. However in contrast to Fate/Stay Nights cast of children struggling to accept the responsibility so prematurely forced upon them we have a plethora of adult men ready to sacrifice anything to achieve their goals. By Juxtaposing the series and its prequel it becomes evident that Fate/Zero is a darker story focusing on the ideals of each characters along with the suffering these ideals bring forth. The plot is essentially a catalyst that lets the characters tragically develop as they spiral closer and closer into despair.
But through its greatness Fate/Zero suffers from its link to Fate/Stay Night. As a prequel, its freedom was constrained by the eventual conclusion that loomed just beyond the horizon. But even as a predecessor limited to one conclusion Fate/Zero succeeded in producing a story that left you on the edge of your seat.
In addition to Fate/Zero Ufotable is also the studio responsible for the Kara no Kyoukai series; a powerhouse in the visual arts department. No corners were cut in producing Fate/Zero, either. Ferocious battles, twisted emotions, and familiar yet exotic settings are illustrated beautifully with the use of hair-raising choreography, movie quality animation and god tier CG. Now, CG is a turn off for most viewers, me usually included. However the CG in this series is so stunningly well done that I can’t imagine it would be animated half as well any other way. In addition to CG, Ufotable has once again incorporated a beautiful contrast between neon colors as seen in Kara no Kyoukai. The warm orange glow of a streetlamp beating down on the lifeless world bathed in the hue of moonlight really gives the show a sharp look that is pleasing on the eyes. Fate/Zero also houses THE most amazing fight in anime I’ve seen to date, I won’t spoil which fight it is, but those who have already seen the anime will know.
A beautiful orchestrated soundtrack is the icing on the cake. The music accompanying the series is a kaleidoscope of melodies invoking emotional responses when needed; happiness, despair, tragedy, splendor, evil, conflict, etc. The opening and ending songs both intertwine with the story effectively as well. The opening has an emotional feel to it as compared with the upbeat actiony sequence present in season one. It adequately inspires a sense of foreboding in the viewer. Now onto the ending. It serves to flesh out our protagonist Kerry by presenting us with how he and Iri came to be a couple and have their child. Teasing us with Kerry’s past and how happy the two lovers were during the short time they spent together only serves to harden the impact of the finale.
These are what makes this show shine so brilliantly. There are no exceptions; every single character is quirkily unique, each one sheltering an array of conflicting emotions, and impossible ideals. Labeling any character as an antagonist, protagonist, side character, or otherwise would be insulting as almost every person is artistically created with personalities astonishingly fleshed out and consistent. Gilgamesh for example was once the ruler of pretty much everything on earth. By standing above everyone else figuratively and literally for his entire life, he has fostered an incredible superiority complex. Infinite weapons fill his treasury, and he only expends four on an enemy that is about to destroy the entire city before retreating saying that he “Does not wish for the weapons to be returned because they touched that filthy creature”. That is beautiful characterization right there.
I enjoyed the shit out of this. There’s nothing more to be said.
One episode was filler, some others were rushed because of it, and a certain track wasn’t included in the score, but this does not stop Fate/Zero from being one of the best anime in a long time. With a bravura of directing, animation, plot, character development, sound, choreography, and dialogue, Fate/Zero exceeded all my expectations and got better every single episode. Fanboyish as the review may seem, a wonderful story is a wonderful story, no matter which way you cut it.
There are many types of power - financial, military, political, religious, etc - and at one time or another each has been used to further the goals of individuals, organisations, and even nations. The odd thing though, is that even though it has been referenced for thousands of years in everything from legends and myths to folktales and history, magic has rarely been placed in the same category. The problem is that people don't really believe in magic any more, and the subject has been relegated to the realms of fiction and fantasy - even though it was often said that practitioners had the ability to wield primal forces, command spirits, and shake the foundations of heaven.
Everything has a price though, and in order to achieve or seize power of any sort you have to be willing to give up certain ... things. So the question is, what would you sacrifice for the chance to be a god?
The continuation of Fate/Zero opens with two F-15 jets that have been dispatched by the Japanese Air Force with orders to investigate the situation on the Mion River. Archer/Gilgamesh watches with disdain from on high as Sabre, Rider and Lancer continue their temporary alliance, and the pitched battle with the giant creature summoned by Caster/Gille de Rais rages on.
Little do they know that a new player is about to enter the field ...
One of the most noticeable differences between the first and second halves of Fate/Zero is the shift from preparation and planning to all-out action - something that is rather eloquently symbolized by the battle on the Mion River. With much of the preamble over, the storyline is able to place the kid-gloves to one side and ramp-up the tension between the combatants. This is most often achieved by drawing on the conflicting ideologies of each of the characters - with some thoroughly unscrupulous tactics thrown in to drive home the fact that the participants are involved in a war. The plot remains as focused as ever, but there's a palpable change in the atmosphere of the series, and many episodes have a less forgiving, more brutal air about them.
This shift in "attitude" has been handled extremely well by series director Aoki Ei and his writers, and a great deal of attention has been paid to the impact the numerous action scenes have on the characters - something that's becoming a rarity in modern anime. It's an interesting and effective usage of screentime that is markedly different from the patient build-up of the first half of the story, but crafted with the same care and attention to detail that have become a hallmark of Type-Moon/Ufotable collaborations. This prevents the show devolving into a legendary free-for-all, and allows for some very interesting confrontations - several of which have their roots in the layers of subtext that were added during previous series.
With the focus on action instead of intrigue, one might have expected there to be some differences in the visuals. Thankfully there are almost no major alterations present throughout the series - aside from a few cosmetic differences in clothing and apparel. The high production standards have been maintained and character movements are as sharp and crisp as ever. There are a few relatively minor issues with the blending of CG and standard animation, but these are pretty easy to ignore. What does stand out are the rather dazzling visual effects, many of which are bigger and bolder due to the shift from preparation to action. The choreography and timing of these - together with the quality of the character animation - make for some truly stunning combat sequences.
Composer Kajiura Yuki's all-female band Kalafina - the long-time muses of Type-Moon/Ufotable collaborations - open the second season with the operatic rock ballad "To the Beginning", while the main participants in the Holy Grail war are re-introduced in a well-choreographed montage that contains a few hints of things to come. On the other hand the closing sequence is a rather simple yet moving account - told through a series of still images - of the relationship between Emiya Kiritsugu and Irisviel von Einzbern - with Luna Haruna's pop ballad "Sora wa Takaku Kaze wa Utau" adding an uplifting and slightly bittersweet tone. Kalafina also return with the martially themed operatic ballad "Manten" as a special closing track for episodes 18 and 19.
The first season of Fate/Zero featured a very high standard of audio production, and it's nice to see that sound director Iwanami Yoshikazu hasn't allowed anyone to rest on their laurels. The background music is as diverse and atmospheric as ever, and while there are a few tracks that may sound a little off-kilter, this appears to be a purposeful move in order to heighten the mood of certain scenes. That said, there are two areas where this series is arguably superior to its predecessor - both of which have been pushed to the fore by the move to action.
The audio effects are as sharp and clear as ever, but the increase in combat means that the production standards need to be pushed even higher and more diversity needs to be added. In addition to this the quality of the audio/visual choreography - which was already excellent in the previous series - often went unnoticed because of the focus on preparation and planning. Thankfully Iwanami is arguably one of the most experienced sound directors working in the industry, and his skills - developed over many years working on a variety of different anime - really make the difference. The superb effects and remarkable choreography really set the second series of Fate/Zero apart from other shows released this year, and mark it as a front-runner for any potential awards in this department.
Unlike many other anime, the move to an action footing hasn't caused the script to devolve into random shouts, grunts and screams, and the writers have done well to retain the maturity and intelligence of the first season. There is a bit of a change in the delivery though, as with the goal in sight, some of the actors appear to have been encouraged to add more emotion to their roles. This works surprisingly well with characters who were cold or aloof in the first series - Sabre and Archer for example - and the differences in their feelings becomes more pronounced as the story progresses and the battles take their mental toll.
One of the biggest criticisms of Fate/Zero is that it has tried to weave a coherent narrative from too many character and plot threads without relying on a lead role. Now this may seem like an anathema to those who prefer their development to follow a distinct linear progression, but those tales often suffer from an age-old problem in storytelling - every good protagonist needs an equally good antagonist. It's an issue that has affected anime for many years as - contrary to popular belief - creating and developing a good opposite (the antagonist doesn't have to be a villain after all), to a hero/heroine is not an easy task.
Thankfully Fate/Zero takes its cues from shows like Baccano!, and the lack of a lead role is actually a boon to the series as it allows multiple perspectives to come to the fore. Each of the participants in the war for the Holy Grail is effectively the antagonist of one or more of the other combatants, and all of the players bounce around the plot like peas on a drum - colliding into each other and changing their directions, alliances and enemies in the blink of an eye. It's a rarely used and fascinating approach to character development that highlights in particular the ever-changing nature of the battlefield. One big plus is that while the first season was rather staid in its portrayal of the heroes, the second half of the story pulls very few punches - showing clearly the lengths to which several of the combatants will go in order to win, opening the scars of old wounds, and ensuring that the viewer knows exactly what everyone has put on the line for the ultimate prize.
Over the years there have been many anime that have changed focus and tone from one season to the next, but rarely does it happen in the space of one series. The reason for this is because it's often extremely difficult to reconcile what may eventually turn out to be conflicting portrayals of the story and characters - and therein lies the greatest achievement of Type-Moon, Ufotable, and author Urobuchi Gen. The successful blending of two different perspectives has created a remarkable story that isn't afraid to show off its intelligence or maturity, and the second half of Fate/Zero successfully builds upon the carefully laid foundations of the first season - even with the increase in action and combat.
Prequels are often tricky to deal with as they are very easy to get wrong, which is one of the reasons why this series is a little bit special. In addition to shedding new light on the events that occur in Fate/Stay Night, Fate/Zero is also a singular example of just how good seinen action tales can be, and a testament to the quality that can be achieved through long-term studio collaborations.