Fate/Zero is the first installment to the Fate series. It was not the first part of the series to be animated, but it does precede all of the others chronologically with regard to the story being told (think of Fate / Zero as the Phantom Menace but better, obviously). The series itself began as a Not-So-Safe-For-Work visual novel which detours into erotica frequently while trying to tell a very long and convoluted story. I am told that the visual novel, besides these negatives, is a very good story but not one that I have personally read or plan to read. Instead, I will address the anime series that have been created from the original source material. Because the directing studio wanted to take the story seriously, the series had all of the erotica stuff cut out of it (save maybe some hints to it) and I think that its fair to say that the story did not suffer for the subtraction whatsoever.
**As a side note, I believe this move by the Fate directors should be the test for all American movie source material from here on: if you can cut out the erotica and the story underneath can still stand up on its own as something worthy of investing in, film the movie and cut the crap; if not, please allow it to remain the Amazon Ebook, fanfiction, bestseller that it is and die its death in a grave of insufficient depth.**
The story itself takes place in a fictional Japanese city called Fuyuki. The city itself seems rather normal but it is the site of what is called The Holy Grail Wars. Three ancient families of mages — the Einzberns, Matous, and Tohsakas — started the Grail Wars by summoning the souls of legendary heroes as servants to fight one another to the death for the glory of winning the Holy Grail, which is said to grant a single wish to the victorious duo. The Grail Wars were started by the three ancient families and are still fought by their descendants, but it is clear that there are other individuals who are capable of manipulating their mana to perform magic and summon servants for the war.
Total, there are seven heroic classes for each of the seven mages. A mage’s heroic spirit must be from either the Archer, Lancer, Saber, Berserker, Assassin, Caster, or Rider class. These classes can be filled by various heroic spirits that fill the nominal qualifications of the class, usually summoned by using an item specifically related to the heroic spirit in a summoning ritual. Each servant has a fighting style not only characteristic of the class but also according to their personality and heroic reputations, being that they are drawn directly from their respective time periods. The identity of the servant is something that each duo generally tries to hide in order to preserve an edge of surprise in combat until they are pushed into a corner and forced to use a attack particular to their heroic character called a Noble Phantasm, and usually a give-away of their identities.
The Fate series is an account of this War between the seven masters and their servants. While it seems clear from the outset who our heroes will be, the rule of the Fate series is more often than not that nothing is as it initially appears. The Fate world is complex and the development of the narrative follows suit.
The Series and First Impressions
I have already watched the series through and this will be my second time. So, when I say “first impressions,” I mean to list some of the things that you might notice off the bat if you are a first-timer to the series. Please note also that the three points I am about to make are slow-burners throughout the series. You may not see the truth of these three points from only the first four episodes of the series.
First, you will probably notice the detail invested in each of the characters’ stories. This is not to say that each of the masters is perfectly detailed in every respect, but several are in many respects. While the backstory of the Grail Wars starts in an obscurity that you might expect from fantasy (but doesn’t remain that way, mind you), the motivations of several of the masters goes beyond a mere “we’re all main characters with magical powers and this is what we do.” The balance of attention between characters is decently portioned, and you are likely to find yourself interested in the stories of several other masters and servants despite their not being front and center characters like Kiritsugu Emiya and his servant Saber.
Second, between these masters and servants, the series builds on an idea that has been a recurrent theme in my graduate studies, that you become like what you worship. Without trying to give too much away in case those of you reading want to start the series yourself, the master’s success with his or her servant, and even their ability to summon their servant, often depends upon how well their reasons for wanting the Grail align with those of their servant. However, this is not to say that all masters have pure motivations or even go into the Wars with a clear understanding of those motivations, but that their relationships to their servants often line up in this way regardless. For instance, and again trying to avoid spoilers, we find that Kiritsugu and Saber’s individual desires for the Grail are practically the same even if their method of pursuing it differ.
There is another master, Kariya Matou, who summons the Berserker class servant because he desires to take the place of his young female relative, Sakura Matou, who was forced into the war against her will. We eventually find out how fitting it is that Kariya summoned this specific Berserker servant, beyond their shared habit of abandoning all restraint to the point of madness in order to accomplish their goals:
On the other end of the spectrum, there is Caster and his master Uryu Ryuunosuke. Uryu is a serial killer who knows nothing about the Grail Wars, happens upon a book of black magic, and summons Caster while trying to summon a demon. And, boy, does he get what he was looking for even if Caster wasn’t quite what he expected.
**Seriously, the first meeting between the two after Caster’s summoning was one of the darkest things I had ever seen portrayed in my short experience with anime up to that point and the “blasphemies,” as the duo call them, only increase in their frequency and graphic nature as the show goes on. I was even more disturbed when I looked up the historical person whom Caster is meant to depict, Gilles de Rais. I refuse to link to the Wikipedia page for Gilles de Rais because the description really is too disturbing to share casually on a blog.**
But even during all of these awful things being done by Caster and Uryu, there is an undertone of fittingness around their relationship. Uryu is completely ignorant that the Grail War is going on, that he is now a combatant in the War, and has no idea that he has summoned a servant and not a demon (though we can easily forgive him for the confusion). Caster, similarly, seems to have no awareness of or interest in the actual Grail War and mistakes Saber for another young girl of his time period that he loved for her purity (no doubt in a twisted way), Jeanne D’Arc, believing that Saber is his martyred love against all protests to the contrary by Saber. So, we see that not only are Uryu and Caster allied in their serial killing but also in the confusion and one-track-mindedness that stems from their depravity.
Finally, you will probably notice the level of a deep and philosophical topics the series chooses to engage with. The visuals of the series are absolutely beautiful and ever since its release has been elevated as a prime example of how fluid and well animated a fight scene in anime can be. Granted, the amount of money that was poured into the animation of the series has lead many to refer lovingly to a part of the Fate series we will cover later, Fate / Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works, as “Unlimited Budget Works.” But while it does stand as an example of the kind of glorious thing that can be accomplished if the money is flowing, I would argue that it is an example of that affluent situation uniting, as it so rarely does these days, with an amazing story. A large part of Fate / Zero‘s amazing story is that it isn’t merely an excuse to animate beautiful fight scenes, but also that it engages with philosophical questions of what it means to be a King, the proper way to pursue a good thing, examples of how the road to Hell and madness is paved with good intentions, the psychology and subtleties of evil, and other complexities of life that intertwine with human nature.
That is the conclusion of this introduction to the Fate series and specifically Fate / Zero. If you haven’t yet but think you would like to watch the series after having read this post, it can be found and watched through Netflix and Hulu as far as I am aware. I would recommend that you watch the series subtitled with the audio in the original Japanese, even if you find that weird and would prefer to watch it in the English dub. My reasoning for this is really just from a personal preference for the subbed version (and because Caster’s voice in the English version almost takes away from his more sinister moments), but its worth mentioning that some of you may find the English dub to make the plot execution seem more melodramatic, which isn’t the kind of thing you want when trying to suspend your disbelief for an action-fantasy. So, if you can get over the foreign-language hurdle, I think the sub improves the experience. The question of sub versus dub in general is itself an unnecessary vendetta in the anime community perhaps worth its own blog post later on (we’ll see). Otherwise, please enjoy the series if you plan to look into it yourself and until next time to those of you who simply want to follow along as I update the blog.