So, I came into Fate/Zero having not yet seen its more popular follow-up Fate/Stay Night, and not really knowing what to expect. What I got was a very interesting character drama with some unbelievably well animated fight scenes and some beautiful yet tragic undertones and sub-plots.
The show centres around seven humans who each are chosen to take part in the HOLY GRAIL WAR, in which each fighter gets a champion "heroic spirit" from the past to fight for them. These guys include:
- An Armin Arlert-type weedy kid called Waver who is studying to become a mage (wizard), who gets to command Alexander the Great (whose design is more like Attila the Hun).
- Emiya Kiritsugu, and his wife Irisviel, a mage and former assasin and his wife who's an artificial human (homunculus - yeah, there is a little bit of an FMA vibe here), who are trying to create world peace and end all wars. They get to command King Arthur (Saber), who as it turns out is actually a woman, and a complete badass who gets a lot of great fight scenes.
- Tohsaka Tokiomi, a manipulative and arrogant mage with a silly little beard, who gets to control the exceptionally arrogant and psychopathic self-serving King Gilgamesh (Archer).
- There's a child murdering serial killer who tries to summon a demon and instead joins the Holy Grail War by accidentally summoning one of these "heroic" spirits, and the spirit he calls just so happens to be another freaking child murdering serial killer.
- There's a very arrogant elitist mage called Kayneth, who fights with a ball of magically manipulated metal, and who commands the honorable warrior Lancer, whose dialogue and battles with Saber, as well as their code of honor between one another, make up for some of the most interesting and evocative moments in the series, especially when Saber's master destroys that trust in a scene which really does evoke mixed feelings in me regarding who I'm actually supposed to be supporting in this series.
- There's a very tragic man called Matou Kariya, who is fighting to rescue his childhood sweetheart's daughter from his own father's cruelty, and who has a bitter rivalry with Tohsaka Tokiomi (that girl's father), though he himself is actually dying because of some worms that his father put inside his body that are slowly eating his insides. Oh, and he commands a freaking BESERKER!!!!! (Yes, I know "berserkers weren't real", but this is a MAGIC BESERKER!
- And lastly, there's Kotomine Kirei, a vicar whose dad is the referee of the war. He starts off as a pretty decent chap who forges an alliance with Tokiomi and Gilgamesh, but slowly gets corrupted by Gilgamesh and develops into a pretty twisted and flat-up sociopathic villain as the show develops. He is in charge of about 100 assassins.
So, those are the main characters, but there are so many other great, well developed characters that get so much exploration and development, and there are so many twisted and or touching backstories to these characters which get quite a lot of exploration. And all of the characters in the show are so human, you can see that in the circumstances under which these guys lived, that this is what they would realistically develop into, with the exception of the child murderers, they all feel like real people. It' also interesting how the show looks at the vastly different philosophies of the different kings and how, in a weird way, none of them were really wrong in their way of going about what they did, but none of their methods were really flawless either.
And then there's the animation, and it is beautiful. There's just so much attention to detail, so much clarity of the picture, the action is great, the lighting of all of the scenes is perfect, and combined with the show's epic soundtrack you get some of the most memorable moments I have ever seen in anime, like this one below:
Just look at that, it's like I'd imagine a scene from a fairy tale, it's just breathtaking.
And then, there's the voice actors. As Crunchyroll doesn't have the English dub, I only saw the Japanese voice cast, but these guys were flat-up spectacular. Iskandr's voice actor Akio Ōtsuka was particularly perfect, capturing the jovial and serious sides to his character perfectly, and he really sounded like someone who could inspire an army and lead them into battle.
But, I do have some problems with the show:
- It's not entirely clear if magic is something well known to the public or not. The entire world looks like the real world in the early 1990s, but then there are schools of magic and giant magical events that occur every few years in the Holy Grail War, and it isn't made clear at all whether or not these are kept secret from the public.
- The child murderer guy Uryu, while an interesting character, has a really annoying voice in the Japanese dub, which made all of his scenes so unbearable to sit through. Fortunately, I hear that in the dub he was voiced by Johnny Yong Bosch, who in my opinion is just perfect for that kind of role, and I'm tempted to re-watch just his scenes in the English dub to see if I'm right about that.
- A lot of the really interesting characters die too early, and a lot of times the story gets very predictable regarding when characters will die, and whether or not they'll be saved.
- Matou's father should in my opinion, as well as the opinion of countless commenters on crunchyroll, have been the main villain because he is just such a great villain who has an intense drive for the grail, doesn't give a damn about anyone else, and if far more evil than every other major antagonist in the show, going so far as to condemn his own son to a slow and agonising death and threaten to do the same to an innocent little girl just to get what he wants... BUT HE'S HARDLY IN THE SHOW! This character is so underused, so underutilised, so unbelievably creepy, that it's almost heartbreaking that he wasn't the show's main villain.
- The moral ambiguities in a lot of Kiritsugu's actions make him difficult to support as a protagonist, particularly in one episode in which he manipulates one of his opponents into having his servant kill himself before then killing both this opponent and his fiancée in cold blood.
- Kiritsugu's actions in the final two episodes regarding what he says/does in/to the grail after finding something out about it (which I won't discuss because I don't want to spoil it) make no sense as he basically blew his one chance of a good, happy life with his family for no obvious reason whatsoever. I just don't get it.
So, what are my final thoughts on Fate/Zero then?
Well, it's an interesting and complex show with plenty in it for every kind of anime fan... BUT it's also full of little annoying things which build up to make it a pretty annoying show to think about. With that said, the animation is great, the music is great, the characters are relatable, and even the occasional episodes where characters are just sitting and talking are just so interesting because of how well they dive into these characters. The way that characters like Saber, Irisviel, and Iskandr are written is just so unbelievably good that it's just interesting to learn about them, about their motives and their goals, about their passions and their philosophies, about what makes them great leaders, and my talking about this really just isn't doing it justice. [OH, AND THE FIGHT SCENES ARE FREAKING AWESOME]
So, yes, it is undeniably a flawed show but it's the kind of flawed show which, much like Shiki, I still think you should watch because in spite of everything wrong with it the creators still managed to come up with a very enjoyable experience.