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The past few years have gotten pretty wild for me. I had largely abandoned anime for a period of time, to be honest, in favor of the new wave in America in which animators have adopted the trend of making animation that appeals to all ages and not simply all kids or all adults (and by adults I mean college students). In more recent times, I’ve tried to come back. And while in the past I dabbled mostly in “junk bins”, I’m trying to now get to what’s en vogue. I’m reading “Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic”, “One Punch Man”, “My Hero Academia”, and “The Ancient Magus’ Bride”, and I bought “Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid” and “Fairy Tail”, although I’m still getting to those two.

This attempt to get into the more popular animes and mangas has led me to some new and interesting stories, although I must say it’s also caused me to start identifying why I think anime/manga is failing in some storytelling compared to newer American material…but that’s a whole other story. And one of the ones that was suggested to me was the following…

Now, technically this isn’t a “junk bin” entry. The “Fate” series is very popular right now, after all. At ACEN, they were showcasing the “third path” to the visual novel that the source material was based off of coming soon, and last year “Unlimited Blade Works” was highly proclaimed as well. After finishing this series, I did a bit of research on the “Fate” series and found out that this was actually the prologue to the original series, which was “Fate/Stay Night”, although it was considered vastly better in terms of art style, storytelling, and plot. Nevertheless, the reason many people seemed to like “Fate/Zero” better was because “Fate/Stay Night” was largely considered a disappointment; meaning most people viewed it in the context of already knowing “how it would end”. And since it’s a tragedy, anyone who had seen “Fate/Stay Night” already knew how people would succeed or fail in “Fate/Zero”.

So, in spite of the fact this series is well-received, I am one of the few who walked into the “Fate” series with no prior context right at the point of the prequel, so I think I might have a different perspective than most. So, without further ado, the first ever “special” junk bin entry…

“Fate/Zero”

The setup to the “Fate” series is kind of interesting in and of itself. I find it somewhat of a mixup of Harry Potter and the Highlander series. The world is full of mages who live in secret under the radar but actually command very powerful and deadly orders right underneath mankind’s nose. Many of them do many cruel and inhuman experiments that kill innocent lives, but the mages themselves are largely apathetic. To them, none of it matters so long as they further their ends: the greatest of which is to attain a magical item known as the Holy Grail, which is said to grant the desires of anyone who obtains it. How do they obtain it? The Holy Grail War.

The Grail itself selects seven individuals from around the world to become “Masters”, which are the contestants in this war. All of them are mages, but in order to be chosen they have to have a very strong desire for the Grail to make reality. The participants almost always end up chosen from the three big magic houses in the world as well as four other outsiders. Once they’re chosen, however, the mages don’t duke it out with their own spells. Rather, they summon up the spirits of long-dead, legendary warriors to fight on their behalf. The warriors fill seven job classes…sorry, roles: Saber, Lancer, Archer, Rider, Berserker, Assassin, and Caster. They correspond to the respective Masters and they are the ones who battle it out for supremacy.

In this Holy Grail War, one of the Masters who has been chosen is a man named Kiritsugu Emiya, who is a mercenary and assassin of mages as well as a mage himself. His own father was an unscrupulous mage whose experiments led his entire village to being killed by vampires, but felt nothing other than it was a failure in his experiments. Enraged at his callousness, Kiritsugu killed his own father without hesitation and dedicated his life to killing all other mages who abused their power. He became so obsessed with saving people from the mages that he ended up killing innocent people in bombs and assaults, including his own loved ones, so long as it meant neutralizing his target as he believed the needs of the many outweighed the needs of the few. Kiritsugu ends up getting chosen by the Einzbern family, who marries him to a homunculus representative of the Grail named Irisviel. In doing so, he allows her to live as a human for a number of years and even bear his child, which the Einzbern family consents to so they can groom her to be the participant in the next Holy Grail War if the current one fails. His new wife and child become his focus, and his intent becomes to use the Grail wish to put an end to all of mankind’s struggling and warfare to ensure a peaceful future for them and everyone…and is ready to spill however much blood he needs to accomplish that end.

Of the many individuals opposing him in this war as not only rival mages but rival Masters is a man named Kirei Kotomine, who was raised as a priest but is truly a sadistic psychopath at heart; deriving pleasure only from making other people suffer and die by killing them himself. Realizing this all to be sin, he has suppressed this side of himself but now lives without pleasure or joy or feeling as only in the act of killing other people does he feel any emotion or happiness. To Kirei, Kiritsugu is both his perfect opponent because, like him, he’s emptied himself for his goals, as well as a target for his hatred because he abandoned his own chance at happiness of his own free will rather than felt compelled to give it up.

Among the other Masters are Tokiomi Tohsaka, a powerful mage, head of a magic house, and father to daughters Rin and Sakura…one of which he is grooming to be his successor and the other he gave as a free will offering to an evil and profane magic house so she could get success as well; Waver Velvet, a young, nervous, and timid mage who wants to win the Holy Grail War to be respected among his peers; Kariya Matou, a “prodigal son” mage who returned to be a Master in the Holy Grail War to hopefully free his niece Sakura from the horrible fate that awaits her in her magic school; Ryunosuke Uryu, a psychopathic serial killer; and Kayneth El-Melloi Archibald, a snobbish and egotistical mage who was Waver’s former teacher.

Kiritsugu himself ends up summoning the “King of Knights” himself, Arthur Pendragon…sorry, Arthuria Pendragon. That’s right: history lied to you. Arthur was really an attractive teenage girl the whole time. However, once summoned, she goes by the title “Saber”. Similarly, Kirei initially summons the Hassan for the “Assassin” role, Tokiomi summons the first and greatest of all heroes, Gilgamesh, for the “Archer” role, Waver summons the “King of Conquerors”, Iskandar/Alexander the Great for the “Rider” role, Kariya summons an unknown black knight from Saber’s past for the “Berserker” role, Ryunosuke summons Gilles de Rais in the “Caster” role, and, finally, Kayneth summons Diarmuid Ua Duibhne in the “Lancer” role.

So the Holy Grail War comes, and what follows? Three words: bitter, bitter tragedy.

“Fate/Zero” is one of those rare titles in an anime that has a double meaning. The series actually starts with a backward ticking clock such that, when it hits the end, it is the start of the main series that people are familiar with. However, the real purpose of the title is how everyone ends up being crushed by fate. The name of the entire series is all about living and (pretty much always) dying for one’s ideals and vision; whether that vision be a noble one or a grotesque one. One after another, characters are dispatched in the series in the name of their goals without ever having attained them. The “Servants” that were brought forth are, ironically, individuals who were undone in life by fate, and find themselves ironically bound to suffer the same thing inevitably crushing their hopes, dreams, ideals, and desires. Therefore, the series is not so much about battle and victory as it is about how someone who is doomed or forced into a sentence that is basically slavery chooses to face the inevitable.

Being a prequel to the later “Fate” works, this is not a “happy” story. It’s not one where the hero gets to emerge triumphant or evil gets defeated. Rather, the sole consolation for the audience at the end of the series is in admiring those who met their fate bravely and still finding hope for the future even in the midst of losing everything else.

Now as for my personal verdict…

Well, unfortunately for me, before writing about this anime I went and did a bit of research ahead. The children who appear only briefly in this anime, Rin, Sakura, and, in the final episode, Shiro, are bigger characters in the following series I now know, but when I saw this series I knew little of what to make of any of them on seeing them. That biases me just a little for the future series, but I’ll try to consider this one as a whole.

To sum up my thoughts on the series, for me personally, I will quote Happy Gilmore:

“You were good out there. Maybe even a little great. But not that great.”

I will admit that I am not a fan of shows or series that feature large assemblages of morally ambiguous characters or of tragedies in general. The bottom line is there are precious few characters in this series that aren’t flawed to a point where they cross a bit of the Moral Event Horizon, and the ones that are that way have been forced into the roles of slaves or tools of other characters so neither their wishes or ideals factor much into anything. While I feel bad for many of the characters that perish, I don’t feel that bad about many of them as they were, to be honest, not terribly nice people. Early in the series, I got a sense that I wanted everyone to lose, so that diminished the tragedy aspect quite a bit.

I’ll just come out and say it: I really don’t like Saber’s character at all. Mostly because she was made out to be a Woobie but, the way the series was so ham-fisted about it, it comes off as a Wangst at points. I will cut “Fate/Zero” some slack as it was not this series’ intention to make King Arthur a girl, but now that she is in that form it seemed to be a cheap gimmick to get the audience to pity her and be behind her. She goes through most of this series being rather pitiful, constantly suffering self-doubt, constantly needing other Servants to bail her out or be chivalrous to her in order to allow her to succeed, and almost being “bullied” by some of the other Servants. Even when she does gain access to her Limit Break or whatever they want to call those special moves, she still gives the impression of being a pity sink rather than a formidable warrior. The fact that she’s the only female in the group and a cute teenager just seems like the plot is trying to slap you over the head with it.

But ignoring Saber, for she really is just a side character out of several in the series, I would say that the series only works halfway as a good tragedy. Spoilers are about to follow from here on in so you’ve been warned.

The ultimate crux of any good classical tragedy is not that something horrible happens to someone who had good intentions and now everyone in the world is a little bit more miserable and ticked off than they were before. A tragedy usually has one of two goals: (1) to teach the audience a lesson (such as in “Of Mice and Men” and “To Kill a Mockingbird”) or (2) to show the triumph of the human spirit. The latter case is what would apply here as none of the watchers are going to participate in any mage tournaments. In these situations, the key takeaway from the tragedy is that the tragic victim fell in the pursuit of a noble goal and, in the end, either left a ray of hope for the future or made things better by their sacrifice. That you can at least take joy in the triumph of an ideal that was held to the end.

Unfortunately, that does not apply in whole to “Fate/Zero”. It’s true that the main “winner” in this tragedy is Kiritsugu, who fails to achieve the world he wanted and loses everything but emerges a changed man who found salvation saving one of those “casualties of war” and spent the rest of his life trying to live up to be a true hero who devoted himself to saving everyone he could. Likewise, because of his friendship with Rider and witnessing his sacrifice, Waver is inspired to always shoot for the impossible and to have faith in himself. However, Lancer dies unable to atone for his own misdeeds in life, loads of innocent people die who get caught in the crossfire, and the main villains go off to kill countless other innocent people pretty much scot free.

Yet worst of all is Kariya. Goodness alive…this dude was put into the plot pretty much just to be tortured to death by it. His sacrifice is worthless, his goal goes totally unfulfilled, and the world is generally a worse place for him even trying. That’s not tragedy…that’s just a punch to the audience’s solar plexus.

For a tragedy to succeed, to paraphrase “To Kill a Mockingbird”, you have to at least believe the fight was worth fighting even if there was no way you could win. Everything would have been better for Kariya and those around him if he did nothing, and that’s just bad.

However, all of that said…

I will concede that I am not a huge fan of tragedy, but even then the “good” tragedies ended up making me smile a little in this one. The artwork was indeed very well done. Beautiful from start to finish, no matter the scene or setting. I don’t think the action was quite as great as everyone said it was, although the artwork, again, was beautiful during them. There’s a lot of talking, but the intrigue kept me invested from start to finish unlike its following series. And…because of all the tragedy and a desire for a better end, as I write this I have started watching “Fate/Stay Night Unlimited Blade Works” through the miracle of Netflix, so it must have done something right even for a guy like me.

Obviously if you’re a fan of the “Fate” series, this one is for you. Also, if you don’t shy away from a bit of tragedy and like some gorgeous animation and art, then it might also be for you…but only if you can follow up with the next in the series.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Because it’s not about if you win or lose, but how you fight your war…eh, most of the time.

What You Should Do With This DVD:

If you don’t mind the taste of bitterness and sweetness in your mouth, give it one good run before assigning it a place of eternal glory in your collection.