Gen Urobuchi has written some of the most psychologically dark anime in recent memory. He is a master at subverting anime tropes to breathe new life into stale genres. And while I had seen many of his series, I had never seen Fate/Zero. So with a new Fate anime coming in just a few weeks, I decided to fix that.
Fate/Zero is a modern fantasy revolving around seven mages battling in a tournament to receive a wish granted by the holy grail of legend. However, the mages are not alone. Rather, the grail itself pairs each of them with a hero from myth and legend—be this Alexander the Great, Gilgamesh, or King Arthur himself—who are also after a wish to be granted. The last team alive wins the grail.
Thus, this anime's most prevalent theme is that of wishes—as both mages and mythic heroes have them. For some, the wishes are petty—i.e., to be recognized by others or simply to own the grail as treasure. Others, however, are hunting the grail for far more impossible-seeming wishes—wishes that could change the very nature of the world. And their wishes reveal much about their personalities—as do the lengths they are willing to go to gain these wishes.
Among the summoned heroes, there are three kings: Alexander the Great, Gilgamesh, and King Arthur. Each has a different view on kingship. Gilgamesh is a selfish king, believing everything is already his, including people. Thus, they can be used according to his whims as he is the source of morality. Alexander the Great is a conqueror who takes what he wants and inspires loyalty through victory. King Arthur, on the other hand, sees kingship as service to the masses—not the other way around. It is a burden, not complete freedom as it is for the other two. Thus, as the three fight, it is not just a clash of swords and wills, but one of ideals.
We have all heard the saying “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” But rare is the person who actually lives by that motto in all things. That is what makes Kiritsugu, the main character, the most interesting character in the series. Moreover, he has no care for what most people would consider a measured response. If a dangerous murderer is on an airplane, he won't hesitate to shoot it down (killing all the innocents aboard) instead of risking the killer getting away and causing even more deaths. Yet, at the same time, he is far from being an emotionless killing machine—rather, his outward personality stands in stark contrast to the inner beliefs that drive his methods. How he came to be this way and the internal struggle within him make every moment he's on screen compelling viewing.
Some of the best episodes in Fate/Zero are those not focused on the battles for the grail, but rather on character backstories. One full episode is spent in a side story following Rin (one of the main characters in the sequel series Fate/Stay Night) and showing what she was like as a child before tragedy struck her life. Kiritsugu gets two full episodes focused on his backstory as well, detailing his life from normal kid to fanatic. In fact, this series could have used some more of these character backstory episodes—specifically ones following Kirei and Kariya—especially as the early and middle parts of the anime often feel like there’s a bit of treading water going on (but we'll talk more about that later).
[Skip to the next section to avoid major spoilers about the ending of this anime.]
By the end of Fate/Zero, the vast majority of the cast is dead—and they are the lucky ones. The rest of the characters end up horribly broken. Kiritsugu loses his wife, his daughter, and his dreams for a better world. Saber loses her confidence as a King and is left feeling betrayed and confused. Kirei, a man who has spent his whole life trying to be perfectly moral, is driven insane by the pleasure of reveling in his newly awakened dark emotions. Rin is left fatherless with a brain-damaged mother, all while being raised by her father's killer. Sakura is left in a home where she is broken and tortured day after day with no hope of escape. Illya is left motherless, with her father magically barred from ever seeing her again. Simply put, the good guys don't win in Fate/Zero. No one wins in Fate/Zero. Everyone—except for Waver, who had nothing to lose from the outset—loses practically everything they know and love.
Yet, despite the incredibly depressing ending, two people do manage to gain a sort of redemption. Kiritsugu, in raising the orphan he finds in the rubble, and Waver, in letting go of his petty jealousy and embracing the loving family he finds in the elderly couple he hypnotized, give the story some measure of hope. All in all, it is a dark, yet strangely satisfying ending.
Fate/Zero isn't blatantly ultraviolent. While it shows more than a few disturbing images, they are rarely graphically gory. However, the anime is certainly more ultraviolent in the psychological sense. The most egregious example of this is the flagrant violence against children. Some are tortured. Others are dismembered as they are killed. Hell, some are even eaten by eldritch abominations.
Beyond that, there are plenty of other instances of other types of soul-rending psychological conflict which is pretty much guaranteed to leave you feeling disturbed. If you have a weak stomach for despair, it's probably best to avoid this series.
The final six or so episodes of Fate/Zero are fantastic as everything comes to a head. However, much of what comes before that feels like a meandering mess. Nothing in the plot gets resolved and everything is left in an endless holding pattern—most notably the battles and the progression of the tournament. Starting with and including Saber's first battle, no fights end with a meaningful victory. Rather, the fights are interrupted by other mythical fighters or mage companions. Of course, that is not to say there aren't cool action moments, clever twists, and fun comedic moments; but for nearly half the series, there is very little progression of the anime's main plot—i.e., defeating the other teams to win the grail.
Going in to Fate/Zero, I had never watched or played anything in the Fate franchise. However, after watching it, I am so invested in the characters that I'm going to have to continue working through the franchise—despite hearing around the web that it’s all downhill from here. And for a franchise as massive as Fate, that's a meaningful review all its own.
Simply put, Fate/Zero is an excellent anime (despite its overall lack of progression until about the final third of the show). It has dynamic, multifaceted characters, explores great philosophies and themes, and tops it off with large helpings of action. It also has the will to go deep into dark, psychological territory to improve both its characters and story. If you are looking for a fighting anime that stands out from the pack but still includes all the best aspects of that genre, Fate/Zero is for you.
For a second opinion, check out the review of this anime over at TAY, Kotaku's own reader-run blog.
Kotaku East is your slice of Asian internet culture, bringing you the latest talking points from Japan, Korea, China and beyond. Tune in every morning from 4am to 8am.