REVIEW: FATE/ZERO – PART 1 / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: VARIOUS / SCREENPLAY: VARIOUS / STARRING: MATT MERCER, KARI WAHLGREN, BRIDGET HOFFMAN, CRISPIN FREEMAN, MARC DIRAISON, JAMIESON PRICE, GRANT GEORGE, DAVID EARNEST, DAN WOREN / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
In the convoluted associations typical of Japanese fiction media, Fate/Zero is an anime adaptation of a light novel which was written as a prequel to a visual novel (a kind of interactive fiction game), Fate/Stay Night. The series takes place ten years prior to the action of the game and expands upon events previously only alluded to.
Every sixty years, families of magi compete for possession of the Holy Grail, a supernatural artefact capable of granting wishes to the victors. The war is fought by seven Masters, human magi the Grail has deemed worthy of participation, and their Servants, warriors from history and legend summoned from a pool of Holy Spirits classified variously as Saber, Lancer, Rider, Caster, Archer, Assassin and Berserker, signifying their various combat styles.
The most prominently featured is Saber, the female warrior Arturia Pendragon that legend knows as King Arthur, mercenary Kiritsugu who acts as her Master and his homunculus wife Irisviel. Principally opposing them are Kirei, a priest who is the Master of Assassin (Hassan-i Sabbah, grandmaster of the Persian Assassin order) and Tokiomi, the Master of Archer (Mesopotamian hero Gilgamesh). Strategic manoeuvring between Kiritsugu and Kirei forms the centre of most developments, each of them recognising their own emptiness reflected in the other.
Further antagonism comes in the form of arrogant mage Kayneth and his equally confident but far more honourable servant Lancer (Diarmuid Ua Duibhne, a warrior from the Fenian Cycle of Celtic mythology and contemporary of the legendary Fionn mac Cumhaill). Rider (Alexander the Great) is commanded by Kayneth’s student Waver, while Berserker, a mysterious and mighty warrior shrouded black armour whose identity remains unrevealed, is commanded by coerced mage Kariya.
Seemingly uninterested in the war itself is Caster (Gilles de Rais, the Breton knight and serial child killer immortalised as Bluebeard) who is obsessed with Saber as he believes her to be Joan of Arc reborn, and his sociopathic Master Ryūnosuke, who follows Caster out of a desire to experience new and exciting ways of killing people, mostly children.
As befits an action series, the fight sequences are intense and intricate, the guns and magic at the command of the Masters and the various fighting styles of each Servant along with the powers at their disposal mean that no two altercations are alike, and often spill over from one episode to the next. Indeed, the final episode ends on a cliffhanger as three Servants combine forces to battle a summoned CG monstrosity, an epic battle doubtless to be begun as soon as the next part of the series begins.
As well as fight sequences, the story is driven by moral ambiguity, with everyone having various motives for seeking the power of the Grail. Some are in it for personal power, some to regain former glory, some for selfless altruism and some to protect others. This also leads to the only major criticism of the show: its pacing. Large chunks of many episodes are taken up by single conversations as characters discuss their beliefs and viewpoints. Although they serve to further develop the motivations of the characters, the depth of the philosophising undertaken is a little excessive and drags out the story to an unnecessary length.
Taken on its own, Fate/Zero is never anything less than entertaining, but when compared to Fate/Stay Night its storytelling achievement is amplified. Frustrating behaviours and motivations are given justification and context, while some characters make small appearances as young children and the genesis of their development is seen. One episode is entirely devoted to Rin, daughter of Tokiomi and one of Fate/Stay Night’s main characters, investigating the missing children tortured and murdered by Caster and Ryūnosuke.
As often the case with prequels, if you’re familiar with any incarnation of Fate/Stay Night you’ll get a lot more out of Fate/Zero, but even without any prior knowledge it’s still a highly engaging and multi-layered story.