Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Limited Edition Blu-ray Part 1
In an alternate universe, the third Holy Grail War takes place not in Japan's Fuyuki City, but in Romania, in the lands once ruled by Vlad III. In this Grand Holy Grail War, two opposing sides summon seven servants each in order to fight for the right to the grail. The Red team consists of academic mages, while the Black team are all members of Yggdmillennia, a family of Romanian magi. As each side wages war, personal grudges, servants' interpersonal relationships, and the appearance of a new class of servant, Ruler, all combine to make this a much darker, more twisted battle than those that came before.
While Fate/Apocrypha does share some basics with the game that started it all, Type-Moon's Fate/Stay Night, it's really best to think of it as totally separate from the story of Shirou, Rin, and Sakura. Occurring on a much grander scale and in a land soaked in both myth and legend (some of them more in the realm of horror), Fate/Apocrypha chronicles a Grand Holy Grail War, with two teams each summoning seven servants who then wage all-out battle for the elusive chalice. It's based on a five-volume light novel series written by Yuichiro Higashide, which also allows for more room for the story to develop in its own directions, given that the word count for five books is significantly higher than one visual novel. But what really makes Fate/Apocrypha's first half interesting is the way that it treats its servant characters – much more involved with each other, there's a real sense of who they were in their past lives, which gives them more space to act as people in their own right.
This is perhaps best seen in the fact that Achilles and Chiron, both characters from Ancient Greek tales, are summoned by opposing sides. Chiron is the Archer of Black, working with the Yggdmillennia family in Romania, while Achilles is the Rider of Red. Unlike a few other pairs who could have been summoned on opposing sides (Arthur and Mordred, for example), Achilles and Chiron historically had a good, close relationship. Having to fight each other for the whims of some magi clearly would not have been their first choice, and Achilles' reaction upon first coming face-to-face with Chiron makes this abundantly clear. Although Chiron controls himself a bit better, it's also apparent that he's not thrilled with this turn of events either, and when events come to confirm that neither Red nor Black is objectively “good” Chiron is one of the first to react to that fact, again suggesting that he's still the Chiron Achilles remembers, and suggesting his discomfort with the role he has to play. More importantly in terms of the overall story told in these first twelve episodes, he's still recognizably Chiron in a way that wasn't always true of Servants in the origins of the franchise, something that holds true for other summoned Servants. This, generally speaking, allows the story to focus not just on the fight for the grail, but on the feelings of the fighters themselves, and that leads to some developments that would not otherwise have happened.
As an added bonus, many, if not all, of the summoned Heroic Spirits actually make sense in the roles they were called for. Among the more surprising choices are Frankenstein's Monster as a Berserker and Solomon ben Judah (known as Avicebron, one of his non-Hebrew names, in the show) as a Caster; the former works if you think in terms of the Monster's reaction to his rejection by Dr. Frankenstein while the latter was a creator of golems, which makes an easy transition from the sacred to the magical. Less sensical is the choice of William Shakespeare as the other Caster, although given that Solomon ben Judah was also a poet and the credence given to the power of words, it's not too hard to see where the show was coming from. Jeanne d'Arc as the new Ruler class certainly is a comfortable fit, and she, Siegfried, and Astolfo are among the most engaging of the characters in the ways they play (or don't play) their roles. Siegfried, legendary Germanic hero, particularly stands out for the way he ably shows why he's truly a hero while his “master” (and many of the humans on both sides) patently are not. Siegfried's actions, as well as those of Astolfo and Jeanne, serve as points to remind us that the Grail War is, essentially, a selfish thing – no one wants the Grail in order to achieve lasting world peace or to end hunger; they all want it to become immortal, rich, or any other number of personal desires. The way that Siegfried and Astolfo interact with a young homunculus doomed by the Yggdmillennia, on the other hand, is for the good of someone other than themselves, something we rarely see from those who deliberately summon a Servant for these wars.
While this conflict between who the Servants were in life (or literature) and what they were summoned for forms the backbone of the story, there are other elements at play, some more successful than others. Mordred and summoner Kairi's relationship is basically one big buddy comedy, while Astolfo's summoner seems to think she's in a totally different, far raunchier, show. Vlad III (AKA “The Impaler”) struggles with the fact that his legacy has been perverted from “great Romanian hero” to “that guy who Dracula was based on,” which does a nice job of reminding us that different countries and cultures have different heroes based on which side they were on in any given conflict. To that end, the choice of Romania as a setting is an interesting one, especially since WWII comes up a few times: the country began as neutral before joining the Axis in 1940 only to join the Allies in 1943 to finish out the war. This feels symbolic of the events that have been set in motion by episode twelve, but it also reminds us that wars, even magical ones, are hardly ever as clear-cut as we'd like them to be.
The animation is generally strong over the course of this set, although a few scenes in episodes eleven and twelve feel like they're trying too hard to look like Studio Trigger's work, and character designs are interesting all around. (The fly in the ointment is Astolfo's flesh-colored fang, which is just annoying.) Both language casts are strong as well, and Sarah Anne Williams does an impressive job mimicking Ai Nonaka's gravelly growl for Frankenstein. Although I rarely espouse mimicry of that sort, it was important for this character and it's very well done. The limited edition blu ray comes in a box with new illustrations by Ototsugu Konoe and includes a soundtrack disc and a booklet with character design notes and a good amount of illustrations.
Ending on a major revelation (although one that makes abundant amounts of sense with Ruler), Fate/Apocrypha's first half knows how to pace itself. With plenty of attention paid to the Servants as the people they were in the past and lots of action to be found, as well as a touch of humor, this is an interesting addition to the overall franchise and just a good story in its own right.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B
Art : B-
Music : B-
+ Nice attention to mythologies for Servants, strong moral ambiguity on both sides
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