by Theron Martin,
How would you rate episode 1 of
How would you rate episode 2 of
2011 will always be remembered by anime fans as the year that Madoka Magica upended the magical girl genre, and perhaps to a lesser extent for introducing major, enduring franchises like Steins;Gate, Chihayafuru, and Tiger & Bunny (as well as personal favorites Ben-To and Hanasaku Iroha). However, the second most important title to debut that year was the first half of Fate/Zero, which probably deserves a lot of credit for revitalizing the anime side of the franchise and turning the franchise into the major force that it would be throughout the rest of the decade; at least ten other series and three movies in the franchise followed through the end of 2019, in addition to numerous specials, OVAs, and ONAs. Since Fate/Zero debuted before ANN started episode reviews but was nonetheless extensively talked about at the time, it is an ideal candidate for retro episode reviews.
Fate/Zero is based on a novel by Gen Urobuchi, which serves as a prequel to the 2006 anime series Fate/stay night and its source visual novel. Back when the series first aired, a huge debate broke out over whether watching the two series in chronological or production order was better. (The visual novel was published first.) At the time I more supported the position of this series being the preferred entry point to the story, but upon long reflection I ultimately don't think it makes much of a difference. Whichever between Fate/Zero and Fate/stay night (hereafter abbreviated F/SN) you see first, it will provide major spoilers but also some benefits for the other. Those who see F/SN first will know at least generally how this is going to end, which can make certain events and characters all the more tragic but also lessen the impact of other events, while those who watch this series first will be spoiled on major surprises in F/SN but also have a better understanding of the motivations of some characters (especially Saber and Kiritsugu) and probably find the ending more satisfying as a result.
The double-length first episode defines the situation plenty well enough for any franchise newcomer: The latest edition of an every-60-years battle called the Holy Grail War is about to break out in Fuyuki City. It will be a battle between seven Mages and the Heroic Spirits (figures from history and legend) that they have summoned as Servants, each with a specific class: Saber, Archer, Lancer, Caster, Rider, Assassin, and Berserker. The ultimate prize is the Holy Grail – not the legendary one, but an alternative omnipotent wish-granting device. Most participants are representatives of major Mage families, but typically the Grail also chooses one or two wild cards to be Masters. The affair is supposed to be conducted in secret and is administered by a supposedly-impartial observer from the Church. Given what's at stake, the Holy Grail War can quite easily be a deadly affair, though killing rival Mages is not a requirement for victory; killing their Servants is enough.
This background composes about a third of the first episode, with the rest consisting of an involved introduction to most of the Masters and the intrigues which interconnect some of them. The greatest emphasis falls on establishing the series' pivotal rivalry: that between the former Mage Hunter Kiritsugu Emiya (who represents the venerable Einzbern family, having married into it for this specific purpose) and the priest/Master Kirei Kotomine, who is secretly allied with Tokiomi Toshaka of the prestigious Tohsaka family. In retrospect the third most important character introduced here is Waver Velvet, a teenage Mage-in-training who gets himself involved in the Grail War after feeling disrespected by his teacher (another Master) and stealing the relic his teacher was going to use to summon a Servant; several years later (both chronologically and in terms of production), he will star in his own follow-up series, and he will play a background role in other titles under a different name. The first episode also introduces Tokiomi's young daughters Rin and Sakura (that they are sisters by blood is a significant spoiler for F/SN) and Kiritsugu's even younger daughter Illyasviel, all of whom have major roles in several other franchise titles. The episode ends with the first peek at some of the Servants as they are summoned.
The major complaint that has always been voiced about this episode is that it spends so much time establishing its particulars that it is basically one big, ponderous info dump, and that critique is at least partly fair. Unlike F/SN, this series does not jump into action right away; in fact, none will be seen in the first episode. One scene where Kariya and another priest walk in a circle around Kirei as they explain things is especially notorious, and how silly it looks hasn't changed over the years. Granted, all of this effort does establish a good foundation for the story and characters, but surely a smoother way could have been found to do this.
If episode 1 is the formal introduction of most of the Masters then episode 2 is the formal introduction of many of the Servants. Episode 1 revealed that Assassin is Hassan-i-Sabah, the legendary Persian “Old Man of the Mountain” who founded the Assassin sect, but nothing much more is revealed about him before his apparent death at the end of the episode. The Servant summoned by Waver Velvet, this Grail War's Rider, is revealed to be Iskandar (aka Alexander) the Great, King of Conquerors, albeit a vastly bigger and more muscular version than he is traditionally portrayed as being. Waver is clearly in over his head here in dealing with a man whose personality is as big as his stature. Kiritsugu and his wife Irisviel, meanwhile, end up with Artoria, King of Knights, a young woman who represents the truth behind the King Arthur legends in this setting. There are already signs that her relationship with Kiritsugu could be a bit strained, and in fact the two are never shown interacting here; that Saber talks exclusively with Irisviel instead may be significant.
And then there's Caster, who is summoned by the psychopath Ryunosuke Uryu, the serial killer behind murders talked about on the TV in the background of one scene in episode 1. Ryunosuke does not have a clue what's really going on, and does not care; he's just happy that the “demon” he thought he was summoning turns out to be a Heroic Spirit just as sick and twisted as he is. Caster gives the name Bluebeard, which is most directly a reference to a fairy tale about a man who kills a succession of wives. That reference doesn't make much sense here, but images in the closer show Caster being taken to be hanged in a medieval setting. This suggests that he may actually be Gilles de Rais, one of Joan of Arc's cohorts who, a few years after her execution, was convicted and executed himself for being a serial killer of possibly hundreds of children.* Combined with the disturbing worm scene episode 1, the introduction of Ryunosuke and Caster establishes the very dark side of the series and shows the biggest reason why Netflix (deservedly) gives it a TV-MA rating.
The final scene provides the first true action element, with Assassin skillfully dodging magical defenses as he infiltrates the Tohsaka household, then gets graphically pulverized by Archer. Those who have seen F/SN will know exactly who Archer is historically, but for newcomers the big hint so far is an image of him in the closer showing him with a lion in an ancient Middle Eastern setting. Why Kirei would seemingly betray Tokiome this quickly makes no sense at the moment, though the episode's title – “The Fake First Shot” – suggests that it is part of a bigger scheme and not what it appears to be.
Overall, episode 2 finally gets things rolling, although the slow, thorough development is still holding the series back a bit. What isn't are the visuals. Though studio ufotable had been doing lead production work on anime titles since the early 2000s, this was one of two titles which solidified them at the level of an elite studio. (The late 2000s movie series The Garden of Sinners also contributed.) The animation does not have much room to show off yet, but both character designs and backgrounds are already highlights. Yuki Kajiura provides a musical score which, in retrospect, is very reminiscent of her slightly later work on Sword Art Online. The solid opener “oath sign” was the second anime theme ever done by LiSA, while closer “MEMORIA” features the anime debut of Eir Aoi. Both are solid numbers, and the latter provides hints about the identities of all of the servants, including ones barely seen so far. These hints caused rampant speculation back during the series' original run!
Finally, the English dub is being provided by Bang Zoom! Entertainment. Through two episodes it is far from being one of the company's stronger efforts. Some roles – especially Jamieson K. Price as Rider/Iksander – sound fine, but slightly stilted deliveries and struggles with some pronunciations are a bit too common. Hopefully this will smooth out as the series progresses.
* - The Bluebeard legend is sometimes traced back to Gilles de Rais, hence the probable reason Caster uses the name here. The method of handling the children he victimized – where he treats them well and revels in their shock when he turns the tables on them – is also creepily similar to what Caster does here.
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