Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Familiar of Zero F
Episodes 1-6 Streaming
Louise and Saito are living happily if somewhat explosively in Tristain, far from the international troubles they've occasionally gotten mixed up in. The troubles come knocking, however, when Queen Henrietta taps the pair for a diplomatic mission to Romalia, the birthplace of Louise's faith. They're not in the nation for a day when thieves steal a precious artifact and then Louise, selling her to Tabitha's insane uncle, the King of Gallia. Saito is not happy, and bad things begin to pile up very quickly for all involved. Later Saito and Louise head to the countryside in hopes of finding a quiet place to live together...alone. Naturally every girl with a passing interest in Saito ends up in their new house, followed by Louise's judgmental sister. Much breaking up and making up ensues.
Zero F's first six episodes are divided neatly into two arcs, each of which neatly encompasses one of the series' two main modes: dead-serious political intrigue in the first; silly romantic comedy in the second. Which is about all that's neat in the series. The arcs are very different, but totally united in their messy unevenness.
The first three episodes are about equal parts new and old business. They waste little time in expanding the series' fantasy world to include more political forces, this time of the religious persuasion. The series' take on organized religion—i.e. the Brimir faith, its capital Romalia, and its outwardly saintly pontiff Vittorio—runs a lot closer to the devious medieval Catholic church than to modern religions, which is certainly an interesting choice for a fluffy romantic comedy. It isn't long before the new political forces run afoul of old, and soon enough the specter of war is again rearing its ugly head, as villains from earlier seasons return for a full-on round of evil plotting and megalomaniacal insanity. The Brimir Church, the nation of Gallia, and the heroes of Tristain are quickly embroiled in a mess of lies, exploited loyalties, ancient magic, and weapons of mass destruction.
If this all sounds pretty interesting, it could have been. The problem is that it's only three episodes long. That's not nearly long enough for the international tensions to properly play out. Or for the tension between Saito's secular skepticism and Louise's blind faith to yield anything. Or for the revelations about Void Mages to be fully explored. Even the basic plot has a hard time cramming itself into the timeframe. Mad king Joseph's grand scheme gets compressed until it hardly feels grand at all; Louise and Saito fight, make up, get kidnapped, and rescue each other in such quick succession that it's like a parody of their previous adventures. In the end the bad guys are dispatched with unsatisfactory expedience, the political schemes are swept under a rug, and the last of the problems from last season is mopped up with a magic potion.
After which the series jams the lid down on the whole business, throws it in the closet and waltzes off to the countryside for some hard-smooching, accidental-groping, hot-springs-frolicking harem fun. Part of the previous seasons' charm was that they managed to skirt such material, if only by focusing wholeheartedly on Saito's devotion to Louise. Season three began to change that: Tiffania entered the picture, Tabitha developed feelings for Saito, and even Queen Henrietta started looking more like a romantic partner. Zero F's first arc reinforces the sinking feeling—it makes it painfully clear that the girls in question, Henrietta excepted, have their hearts and other organs firmly set on Saito—but the flurry of activity keeps the worst of it at bay.
When the flurry lets up though, the series lets off the brakes and goes screaming right to Harem-Harem Land. Ah, Harem-Harem Land: Where girls flock to any guy lucky enough to be a main character. Where a guy can get up in the middle of the night, go for a stroll, and quite naturally stumble across a magical portal that allows him to go a-trysting with the Queen in her skivvies. Where a guy can't get any sleep because he's constantly being smothered by jealous girls who want to share his bed. Where any outdoor excavation naturally yields a hot spring, which is instantly filled with naked girls comparing their breast sizes. Where any time a guy falls, gets into bed, or just leans on his hand, he ends up in a compromising position, usually with a jealous girlfriend nearby.
It grows tiresome quickly, especially once Henrietta enters Saito's harem in earnest. Saito is a stronger, more capable man than is often the norm in harem comedies; certainly strong enough to warrant Louise's affection. But a queen? Or queens, multiple? In addition to a maid and an elfin magician and Louise? Watching Henrietta wrestle Louise (literally . . . and nakedly) for the right to pursue Saito is all kinds of wrong. If the attractions involved felt right or natural, squeezing drama out of that fight (and there is much squeezing) might have worked; as it stands it's just painful. Louise's scenes with Tabitha are better, mainly because Tabitha has real reason to like Saito, but not by much. The comic squabbles are equally bad, ending as they always do with one of Louise's rinse-and-repeat jealous rampages.
One might ask at this point why on God's green earth anyone would bother watching the series. That's a fair question. Part of the answer is simply that it looks good; or more specifically, that the girls look good. The series is filled with ladies whose looks and personalities come together in a kind of almost-iconic harmony. Louise in particular is a frilly, unforgettably cute tsundere concoction. Fan service is shiny, frequent, and often overt, but never crosses the line to vulgarity. Again Louise gets the best of it, often in a refreshingly indirect way—a flash of leg here, a disarrayed, partially-unbuttoned shirt there. She is slender and petite without being underdeveloped or underaged, which hasn't always been true in earlier incarnations.
From a technical standpoint, the rest of the series isn't quite on par with the female end of the cast. The series prioritizes character animation, especially in close-ups of the female cast, so that's to be expected. The male cast is pretty bland and gets far less attention from animators. The series' action has come a long way since the miserable fights of the first season, but is still only competent—battles are staged too conventionally and cut too many corners to be anything more. Tristain remains pretty generic in terms of its landscape and architecture, and the war machines of the various factions aren't particularly impressive. The series does get a boost from its new settings, though. Romalia is a touch more exotic than Tristain, and the new musical themes added for the pope have a choral, churchlike quality that is very nice. The visuals aren't quite as uneven as all of this makes them sound. All told the series has a smooth, if somewhat generic fantasy style. It's one of the reasons the series goes down as easily as it does, despite its herky-jerky plot.
The main reason we stick with the show, however, has nothing to do with style. It is, quite simply, Saito and Louise. They have a frank and open relationship that is rare in anime: they love each other and say it aloud without shame or uncertainty and demonstrate it passionately and frequently. They are married in all but name (well, name and body—they try to have sex, but it never seems to work out). They know how they feel, how their partner feels, and where they want their relationship to go. This is a pair that we want to see together, happy and safe—and anything that threatens that, be it rushed wars or a jiggling horde of rivals, affixes us to their story until the danger has passed. Dammit.
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C-
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : B
+ Saito and Louise are great together; expands their world still further; superior fan-service.
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