In the Internet Generation, the word “epic” gets bandied about a lot, but once in a blue moon, a series comes along to remind us of the way we used to use it before computers came along. Odysseus defeated the warriors of Troy, then spent a decade at sea trying to get home; Dante scrabbled around in the nine circles of Hell; a party of hobbits took a gold ring to some volcano somewhere for some reason... and now, the battle lines are drawn for another venture into Fuyuki City as seven mystical titans of history fight for the prize of the Holy Grail, an omnipotent entity that can grant the bearer its deepest desires.
Okay, so that may be overstating it slightly, but ufotable has elevated this storyline from merely interesting (as witnessed in its decidedly inferior predecessors Fate/Stay Night and Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works) into an event. The premise is not only outlined at great length for viewers new to the franchise, but also illuminates the setting and mythos for more seasoned fanboys. For instance, before Fate/Zero, I never even suspected that Ilya wasn't actually human but was, at least in part, a created species called a homunculus. With this new information, the endings of both previous Fate incarnations made way more sense. My overall sensation was one of a fog lifting over the whole Type-Moon setting and finally seeing the franchise at its peak. We are now seeing what Fate is truly capable of.
And boy, was it worth the wait. In essence, Fate/Zero is a multi-genred title, peppering scenes bordering on slice of life (usually when Rider's out shopping) with enthralling stratagems, conspiracies and well-choreographed fight scenes. Due to its billing as the battle royale to end all battle royales, a lot of focus is given over to the formation and dissolution of alliances, which again, certainly isn't new to the franchise, but is done a whole lot better in F/Z. And it has to be, because the true strength of this series comes from its diverse characterisation and multi-faceted philosophies. What elevates this above being a simple fighting series are the interludes between battles where the characters interact and grow and create new modi operandi from their situations.
The flaw in this, though, is that Fate/Zero becomes more of a slow-burn action serial. There are times when the conversations seem endless (usually the ones between Tohsaka Tokiomi and Kotomine Kirei) and it's worth noting that by the end of the thirteenth episode, only one Master and Servant have been eliminated from the Grail War, which seems a little unbalanced for the battle royale concept. Luckily, the fight scenes, even though few-and-far-between, are entertaining and the sheer precision of the choreography is striking. Ultimately, the success of Fate/Zero is the way that it hides the fact that there are very few actual “fights-to-the-death” – proving that you don't have to have a colossal seven-way fisticuffs in order to provide a memorable scene. In fact, all it takes is a boisterous giant of a man buying a t-shirt with the words “Master Strategist” plastered across it.
As with most recent series, this is becoming an increasingly difficult section to score for one important reason: inconsistency. The character designs are well-realised with returning characters taking on new dimensions (such as Saber and the importance of her armour, not to mention the shimmering cloak of air she has around her sword to hide its true form) as well as new characters who are more than a match for their more recognisable counterparts. Caster and his master, Ryuunosuke Uryuu, are notable examples, where the grotesquery of their appearances complements their actions perfectly.
However, in later episodes, the decline in artwork is noticeable, with characters' faces dissolving into the sum of their parts rather than displaying a whole. At one point,Riderlooks more like a Klingon than a human – but later in the same episode, there's an awe-inspiring battle with literally thousands of warriors, seemingly overcoming the earlier art issues. Unfortunately, this is another one of those times where lack of funding has affected the art of a series. This happened in a thirteen episode stint, so ufotable's decision to split the series into two halves (the second airing in April, presumably after more funding has been sought) is nothing short of inspired.
Other than this quibble though, scenes are crisp and the use of noticeable CG (everything's CG these days so I'm talking about the parts that have flying gloop balls known as Reality Marbles) is fairly seamless. There's little variety in setting but when there is a change in environment, we're transported immediately there by the art, whether it's a desert, a sea at the ends of the Earth or simply a garden at night-time. The fight scenes in particular are also well-judged with even the minutest of details and movements being highlighted for the viewers' tantalising enjoyment. The first battle between Saber and Lancer oozes the artistic and you'd have to go a long way to find a better animated battle anywhere in the anime world.
Each scene in Fate/Zero uses its music to blend in with the action, meaning that, while there's no stand-out tune that becomes synonymous with the series, there's also nothing that seems out of place. There's a variety to the background score that does elevate the series above the usual fare – the use of choral voices, then a thumping techno beat and then a swirling whirlwind of strings within a few minutes should sound schizophrenic but oddly, every switch of genre seems natural. The sheer mix of inspiration from the classical to traditional Japanese music and even stretching into African tribal beats is a true treat for the ears.
The opening and ending songs are inspirational in the sense that they sound epic, as if they were a call to war, which is all the more impressive when you consider that the vocalist sounds as though she's just graduated J-Pop University. The instrumentation of the opening in particular is technically astounding and as with the rest of the series, is a jumble of different genres melded together to make a successful whole.
Where the series really scores points though are the voice actors. From the insane ramblings of Caster, to the earth-shaking laugh of Rider and the naïve but self-assured voice of Saber, every character has the perfect accompanying voice. The voice actors convey as much emotion (or lack of, in some cases) as any I've seen across the anime spectrum and there is not a single character who can be singled out for letting the side down. In a cast as vast as Fate/Zero's, that's pretty spectacular.
Good characterisation consists of two qualities: diversity and depth. Fate/Zero has huge vats of both and definitely isn't afraid to show it, with a whole gamut of characters that'd even have Baccano! quaking in its boots. The Fate universe has always had the complicated conundrum of pitting well-known historical figures against each other, and while previous incarnations have failed at this, F/Z raises the bar through the roof. Whole histories are explored and become vital to the characters in a variety of differing ways – the fact that there are three Kings among the Servants, for instance, becomes a pivotal nugget of characterisation when all three sit down for a drink and a chat.
But it goes beyond that. I could witter on endlessly about the philosophies thrown up by each character and about their differing moral codes, but the real crux of the matter is that all the characters seem real. Every action they make is realistic. Every character acts and reacts according to their deep-seated beliefs as well as to their stature. Archer is portrayed as being constantly bored, which is consistent with his background as a king who owned pretty much everything. Rider has an innate desire to conquer, unsurprising for a Macedonian king whose empire encompassed most of the known world. Even Ryuunosuke Uryuu, Caster's master, who is fairly anonymous next to his bug-eyed Servant for most of the series, has a crucial moment where he explains his motivations to an extent that we can understand what has driven him to take such pleasure in torturing and killing his victims. This is all done without any false sympathy or overdone dramatics, but simply by understanding the relationship between cause and effect and how a person's mindset affects everything they say and do.
Having said that, some characters are more likeable than others and luckily, the directors spotted what a scene-stealer they had in Rider. His pairing with a wimpy teen with self-confidence issues only heightens his affability factor, and I think it's fair to say that, even among the goliaths inhabiting Fuyuki City, Rider stands head and shoulders above the rest.
It is my belief that Fate/Zero has set a new standard in the action genre. Never has there been an ensemble as well-developed as this and for that reason, the series is littered with memorable scenes. The fight scenes admittedly take a long time to arrive but when they do, they're stunningly produced. But above all, F/Z understands the concept of consequences: Everything has a consequence – when Saber's arm is injured in a fight with Lancer, it's still a hindrance to her a dozen episodes later. Compare that to Bleach where each energy-sapping fight-to-the-death is followed quickly by another one with the protagonists apparently regaining their strength in the short time between them (at least Dragonball Z had the decency to invent senzu beans) and you quickly see why Fate/Zero comes out on top.
The major point I'll take away from this series though, is the fact that, despite knowing King Arthur is really a guy and despite knowing Alexander the Great is of much shorter stature, the world Fate/Zero invokes is believable in its entirety and considering how important suspension of belief is to both the fantasy genre and the supernatural genre, it just goes to show that this series knows exactly what it's doing.
Ten years before Shirou Emiya's and Saber's fateful meeting, Japan is the stage for the fourth Holy Grail War. Seven Masters, each with his own dreams, step forward to win the boon of the mystic relic. Into this fray comes Kiritsugu Emiya, the enigmatic "Mage Killer" who wants to use the Grail to make a better world. Can he, paired with the indomitable Saber win the War? Or will he fall to the ambitions of the other mages?