Reviewby Jacob Chapman, Mar 6th 2014
Blu-Ray - Box Set 2 [Limited Edition]
The Holy Grail, the most coveted of magical artifacts, has been pursued by mages for hundreds of years in struggles governed only by merciless slaughter. In order to curb the bloodshed caused by these "Holy Grail Wars," three powerful mage families created a new arrangement for the conflict. The Grail may only be summoned once every sixty years, and solely by the seven mages it chooses with a sacred seal. These "Masters" must call upon the spirit of a legendary hero, a "Servant," to fight in their place using a weapon dictated by their class in the game: Sabers with swords, Riders with chariots, Casters with monsters, and so on. The last pair standing will win the right to the Grail's power: the granting of their heart's true desire.
Kiritsugu Emiya has paved his path to the Grail with years of preparation and sacrifice, and the time has finally come to take the all-powerful relic by force. His Servant, the noble King Arturia, wishes only to battle with chivalry and honor, but Kiritsugu has come too far to risk losing to any of the other six Masters. He will bloody his hands however he must to change the world in his image and make this the last Grail War in human history. The Saber Arturia and the Magus Killer Kiritsugu are at odds with each other's methods and at odds with themselves, as the other combatants converge on them in violent wave after wave.
No matter the victor, the game is nearing its end. The Grail sits empty, waiting to be filled by a heart already corrupted by the pursuit of its glory.
Since episode 1, Fate/Zero has been fraught with barriers to entry. First of all, it's a prequel to an established story: Fate/stay night. On top of that, it's a story with a daunting bulk of lore and magical mechanics to memorize, twisted around a complex plot with dozens of nuanced characters. The final cherry on that voluminous sundae is how these elements are presented. Based on a book series, Fate/Zero is bookish in execution, featuring long monologues delivered between parties nursing wine goblets that can last an entire episode or more. It has been an actively dissuasive series from the start and these audience barricades continue into its second half.
However, by story's conclusion, all the world mechanics and falderal that make Fate/Zero a challenge don't matter, and never did. The story underneath the tangle is a universal one, powerful and expertly told. Fate/Zero is about people, strong and weak, good and evil, and all shades in between. It pits faith against doubt, passion against ennui, virtue against pragmatism, and seeks to understand all range of human desire through one focused vision, resulting in an astounding wealth of perspectives and ideas that ultimately unite to speak simple, poignant truths.
While Fate/Zero's first half is purely an ensemble adventure (with Team Rider threatening to steal the show,) its second half re-focuses on our true protagonists, Saber and Kiritsugu. Saber is obsessed with the past, committed to noble methods regardless of their consequences, making her unapproachable and dangerous to her own comrades. Kiritsugu is obsessed with the future, committed to eternal peace and justice no matter what abhorrent method he must use to assure them. They are a terrible match, irreconcilable opposites blind to their mistakes in the present, and their story's role as a prequel gives it a rare freedom. They don't have to come together victoriously in the end. Their dreams might not come true, and those familiar with Fate/stay night already know how hard karma will tear into them, though not exactly how it will happen. It's a wonderful opportunity to sculpt out a brutal tragedy while still leaving room for future hope. (Sort of like the Star Wars prequels, if they had been any good.)
So writer Gen Urobuchi sculpts that beautiful tragedy with a big, loud chisel. He has an uncanny talent for humanizing evil, and he brings it in full force to the many antagonists of Fate/Zero. Serial killers and megalomaniacs are multifaceted, with bleeding hearts and lying lips all zipped up in the same skin. Just as there are no pure villains, there are no pure heroes, either. Magic serves as a placeholder for concepts of religion, heritage, and politics, and with that come the strong beliefs rooted in those institutions. Staunch fundamentalists are juxtaposed with radical mold-breakers, and both are found wicked or admirable at different turns to different people as the path for the grail winds back on itself. From top to bottom, the characters of Fate/Zero speak to the best and worst of humanity. There are no ordinary people here, and the only true evil is that of pure bleak apathy. Of course, apathy is also a part of humanity, and the human face it adopts in supposed man-of-faith Kirei Kotomine is truly frightening. Kirei's growing relationship with King Gilgamesh is at once familiar, combining elements of the Babylonian epic with a Faustian fall, but also unique in its horror as it turns his "fall" into a cruel rise and rebirth, speaking volumes to the brilliance of Fate/Zero's characterization.
That said, Fate/Zero's immense ambitions aren't fully achieved, and they probably could never be in just 25 television episodes. Even in the action-dominated second half, there are a number of long and placidly paced conversations clearly copied and pasted from the novels with little cinematic grace. Director Ei Aoki can wring incredible tension and power out of an action scene, but seems completely at a loss when applying any visual language to blocks of dialogue. It's an odd experience, jumping from jaw-dropping theatrical-level fight sequences to flat two-shots of talking heads that the eye instinctively wanders from. The dialogue can be sparkling gold, but the lack of compensation from the visual side of the see-saw is unfair to the prose and just could have been handled better. The few scenes between these two extremes can be odd too, as seen in episode 17 where a twist is revealed visually in a Death-Note-like explosion of self-indulgence that doesn't really work because just a minute before, we were told that the twist was going to happen in a flat, two-shot dialogue scene.
For the most part, however, Fate/Zero's second half is directed far better than its fatty, talky first half, and ufotable's production continues to impress, as does Aniplex's immaculate Blu-ray transfer and nice packaging. Character designs and expression are sharp and bear the emotional weight of the content with grace. The attention to detail in everything from backgrounds to rapidly shifting perspective in fight scenes is insane, and the animation, though limited by necessity, is top-notch. The hand-drawn animation is top notch, anyway. Fate/Zero's liberal use of CG models doesn't really work. Rider's 3-D chariot seems to move independent of him, and Caster's CGI demon worms are abominable, and not just because they eat children. Several composite techniques are integrated well and add to the show's luster, like Archer's cool teleporting effect, but the fully animated CG models stick out awkwardly.
The score comes courtesy of the renowned Yuki Kajiura, and is implemented beautifully, always complementing and never overshadowing the meat of the story on screen. Aniplex's release comes with the second soundtrack so the stunning score can be appreciated on its own merits as well. (Sadly, the lovely themes by Kalafina are not included.) The cast in both English and Japanese is perfect, packing the show's every moment with larger-than-life performances. That's not to say the English dub is perfect. It suffers from familiar problems of awkward slavish scripting and some confused or wooden reads. However, few dubs in recent memory have been this solidly cast, with every voice actor in a pitch-perfect role, pouring their guts into conveying the true hearts of their respective characters. Extras include the least fluffy English Cast Interview video ever, where the dozen or so VAs get into genuinely deep territory about what the show means, who their characters really are, and how impactful (and fun) the experience was. Their talents shine through the occasional unwieldy dub line, and the result is solid overall. Attempting to list individual standouts in either language track here is futile. The cast depends on one another to make the story feel complete, and they succeed.
While the series' writing is largely impeccable, there are a few hiccups on a script level worth mentioning. Fate/Zero is an adaptation of a thick series of novels, which themselves are prequels to a thick series of visual novels, and this limits its user-friendliness twofold. Details from the novels are clearly dropped in places. Kiritsugu's ongoing relationship with his mistress Maiya can be confusing in light of his loving relationship with his wife Irisviel, and requires a little googling outside the show to fully appreciate. Lancer's entire backstory is reduced to murky hints and blink-and-you-miss-them moments, which tapers the impact of his Mercutio-ish curse in episode 16, and his character's Mercutio-ish significance overall.
The series cannot be faulted for its limitations as a prequel, as the choices there are more deliberate, but they still may leave uninitiated viewers cold. Most of F/Z's child characters are given undue screen time only because they will be the leads in Fate/stay night later, and Saber's character arc is cut off at the worst possible moment, which would be an unforgivable offense if it wasn't intentional. Fate/stay night is Saber's story, and Fate/Zero ends just as she is reaching out to claim it. It's up to the viewer to follow her outside of this show.
Fate/Zero is Kiritsugu's story, and it's a story concluded with haunting profundity. We see his journey from child to mage to soldier to husband to father. We see how his choices change him and the lives he fosters or destroys, and at the end of it all, we see him obtain the "victory" that he really deserves. It's sad, but it's also honest and weirdly hopeful, despite the harsh fate of the grail and its champions. The result is a tragedy with purpose, more fulfilling than any bland happy ending for Kiritsugu and the other mages would have been. There is some levity in the heartwarming conclusion to Waver and Rider's contract, and the future of the children who will later star in Fate/stay night, but outside of that, F/Z is steeped in truckloads of pain and sadness. Viewers should be prepared for a devastating experience with a lot of challenging concepts that pile on hard and fast as the finale approaches.
Ultimately, despite some gorgeous production values, Fate/Zero's strength lies chiefly in the simple words on paper that came before its adaptation. It's not just a worthy (if not superior) prequel to Fate/stay night, it is a standalone work that deserves respect for its spit n' vinegar, and for all its ugliness along with its beauty. It is never easy to watch, either brain-breakingly complex or heart-breakingly severe, but it is rich in value. It's a timeless story for anyone who knows how it feels to burn with conviction. Fate/Zero is a treasure worth unearthing to its end.
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : A
+ Ambitious, brilliant, heartbreaking and masterfully crafted narrative, complex characters with powerful ideals, visually stunning, gorgeous score and strong cast in both languages.
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