Fate/Zero is a thematically rich, brutally nihilistic series which benefits greatly from strong execution in sight and sound, a stellar cast of memorable characters and some outstanding scenes, though the directorial decisions and sometimes awkward story structure prevent this series from reaching its potential.
Fate/Zero takes place during the 4th Holy Grail war in Fuyuki City, in which seven masters must summon heroes from history and notable legends to fight to the death to win the Holy Grail, a vessel that may grant the victor any wish they desire.
The story of Fate/Zero takes a non-linear approach, with all of the masters and servants, and their respective motives and likely opponents, being introduced upfront. On the negative side, this prevents it from having the same initial level of mystery as its ultimately inferior sequel, Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works, which chose to focus on a specific couple of characters, however the plentiful details, relationships and variety regarding the characters more than makes up for it. There is, initially, no clear main character, though some are definitely given more screen time than others. The first two episodes consist primarily of establishing the world, characters and plot lines, though this is helped greatly with strong atmosphere and each of the characters having relevant reasons to fight. Other early episodes focus on each team learning about their opposition, including their abilities, history and reason for fighting. This establishes some very interesting dynamics, though it takes until episode 5 for this build up to be met with pay-off. Once the battles begin, they occur with relative frequency and direction, making every fight feel relevant in advancing the plot, even if few in the first half yield deaths.
In the second half of Fate/Zero, from the first minute the tension is ramped up significantly, as well developed characters find their ideals tested and, in most cases, broken. Of the 13 episodes in the second half, 10 of them are outstanding, completing the development of the characters and seeing them end in often shockingly brutal and ironic ways. The finale itself consists of a constant stream of memorable moments and set pieces, as the most important characters are left to fight with whatever they have left to seize control of the grail. The ending is bitter-sweet, with the finale serving as an incomplete, yet fitting end for all that was built-up.
The story of Fate/Zero is arguably very predictable, though only in particular ways. The conflicts that ensure are never for no reason, as they generally have satisfying build-up due to the ample amounts of time spent on most of the character cast. As a result, it is easy to guess which characters will fight each other, giving the series a sense of clearer direction and a stronger sense of purpose than having it consist of a compilation of random fights with no purpose. For example, were the finale to involve a confrontation between two characters that had never met, there would be little emotional weight behind it, causing the fights to come across as desperate attempts at being unpredictable. However, while the battles that ensure can be easily guessed, the content of the battles are often shocking, with the loser often having everything they fought for torn away from them, reaffirming the nihilistic overtones of the anime.
The world building in Fate/Zero isn’t particularly outstanding, with the Magical Organization essentially just serving as a means to prevent to public from being aware that they are in the presence of a war far bigger than they could ever imagine. Some flash back sequences do establish them as a formidable presence, though they are mostly displayed as a highly nepotistic, utilitarian body with no interest in human lives or affairs, as is displayed through the more convention contestants, like Kayneth and Tokiomi Tohsaka.
Throughout Fate/Zero, the plentiful themes are illustrated through the characters, and in contrast to the story progression, character progression is consistently satisfying throughout the entire anime, with at least 10 characters enjoying palpable development. The most traditionally developed character in the cast is Waver. Starting out as a hopeful yet cynical university student, he acts as the most effective anchor for the audience, neither understanding the severity of the grail’s potential nor the often monstrous nature of its seekers. His resourcefulness and beta male attitude will likely make him an instant favourite with many, a status only solidified by his relationship with the alpha male of the series, Rider. Over the course of the series, Waver matured under the combined encouragement of Rider and the realisation of what the consequences of him losing the war would be. That’s not to say that all of it is positive; in several cases, such as that of Kariya Matou and Kayneth El-Melloi, this manifests in the shape of tragic and comedic downfall. Even characters that get to live have their ideals shattered, their dreams and perceptions of reality disproved and their loved ones taken from them.
Though, while viewed on their own, the character-based themes of the anime are strong and well presented, it is the way in which the characters mirror and reflect each other that really allows Fate/Zero to shine on a thematic front. Kiritsugu and Kirei’s dynamic allows for the intriguing exploration of the theme of nature against nurture, Kariya and Tokiomi’s quarrels bring to light the theme of what defines a better parent, and Kayneth and Waver display how being resourceful and creative can often overcome any sum of money or nepotism. This is just with the servants; Saber has meaningful connections with Lancer, Berserker, Caster, Gilgamesh and Rider, each of whom have relationships with their own masters and other servants. Some of these relationships, like Waver and Rider, Ryuunosuke and Caster, and Gilgamesh and Kirei involves one lifting the other up or completing them, while others, like Kiritsugu and Saber, Kayneth and Lancer and Kariya and Berserker foreshadow the others downfall by highlighting their faults. Utilitarianism, honour, dictatorship and loyalty are all explored through this, with nihilistic overtones almost making them seem like a joke in terms of how easily they break, but the effort feels genuine and characters so sincere that the audience may be left siding with them even if they are on the brink of being brought down. Though it would have been understandable if Fate/Zero were to crumble under the weight of so many character connections, it instead manages to give each character their moment to shine. That’s not to say that everything is balanced perfectly; Assassin has little to say or do, despite whom his master is, and Kariya doesn’t have nearly as much screen time as the others. However, the strength of Fate/Zero’s themes and characters is so great that the sacrificed story structure and pacing may be, for the most part, excused.
In terms of visual presentation, Fate/Zero is outstanding in many regards. The broad, yet appropriately dark, colour palette blends into the most scenes seamlessly, elevating the dread felt in genuinely threatening moments. The character designs are varied, appropriate and highly memorable, particularly for Gilgamesh, Saber and Rider. Even the integration of CGI, which is usually widely maligned in the field of anime, and often for good reason, is done effectively due to proper lighting and application. This does result in some scenes feeling more computerised than hand-drawn, though the cinematic quality of Fate/Zero would be extremely difficult to match without considerable drops in animation quality if traditional animation were used exclusively. That’s not to say that the two-dimensional animation was bad; on the contrary, the fight scenes are some of the most fluid that may be found in modern anime. With exceptional work from key animator Nozomu Abe and character designer Atsushi Ikariya, the fight sequences are kinetic and weighty, and stay that way throughout the entire series.
On the directorial side of the aesthetics, things are more hit-and-miss. From director Ei Aoki, known for the controversial Aldnoah.Zero, the expressive quality of the characters is minimalistic to a fault. It could be argued that the fight scenes were prioritised, or that the grim nature of the series warrants sombreness and gravitas, though that so many scenes are reduced to well-drawn talking heads does make the exposition scenes, particularly the beginning, a bit hard to tolerate. However, the choreography and framing drastically improves as the series progress, being particularly outstanding in Kiritsugu’s backstory and the finale fight sequences.
The sound of Fate/Zero is also quite strong, standing out in nearly every aspect. The original sound track, composed by Yuki Kajiura of Madoka Magica and The Garden of Sinners fame, doesn’t quite rise to the ranks of her best work, due to the slightly repetitive feeling of the instruments and lack of distinctive character themes. However, the weighty guitars and violins give the more dramatic scenes a sense of urgency. Most of the tracks are used to great effect, as a result of timely application and strong sound design. The gentle, potent strings of “Sword of promised victory” are particularly memorable, making for one of the most memorable scenes of 2012. Even more impressive, however, are the cold, creeping violins that largely make up for the aforementioned lack of artistic integrity in the talking scenes by adding a harsh, distant feeling to them, further illustrating that what’s going on is of great importance. The sound design is also commendable, with Berserker’s creaking, rusty armour excellently displaying his unhinged nature, the gentle clinking of Saber’s dress displaying both her grace and strength, and all the explosions and blade clashes giving to proper sense of impact to increase the immersive quality of the action.
The first OP isn’t a good tonal fit for Fate/Zero, promising action scenes that the series doesn’t really have many of at the beginning and displaying an upbeat, believe in yourself ballad that doesn’t display more than a trace of nihilism. The second is much better, high octane action sequences being wisely swapped out for beautiful pans of characters facing meaningful directions and Kalafina’s grave, even harsh voice seeming to fit Irisviel greatly, and the concise and powerful visual metaphors make it greatly impactful in how they fit the thematic nature of Fate/Zero splendidly. The first ED, much like the first OP, is more Sword Art Online than Fate/Zero (given that Lisa and Eir Aoi both sung for each series) and outright gives away a major plot point. However, the second has a mellow song that sounds very much like Irisviel’s Japanese voice actress could have sung it, and it works well as a character theme for her.
Both the English and Japanese voice actors did an outstanding job with the characters, carrying out challenging roles with subtlety and finesse. The general quality of the voice acting stays at a relatively consistent level across both, with all the side characters serving their roles well and the dialogue being well-adapted, in spite of some occasionally self-indulgent dialogue. Both languages tracks, however, do have some weaknesses, though these interestingly occur in different places. In the English dub, Kari Wahlgren gives Saber a strong sense of presence and power, though the equally important caring, motherly side of her feels more obligatory than in Japanese. This is fixed towards the end, with the performance quality rising alongside Saber’s development to result in many scenes matching the emotion of the original. Irisviel suffers from having dialogue that feels borrowed from a video-game cut scene, sounding out of place among a cast of much more genuine and natural performances. Thankfully, this doesn’t happen too often, though it can break the immersion severely when it does occur. Additionally, David Vincent’s Gilgamesh just isn’t able to match the more cultural and deeply disrespectful performance of Tomokazu Seki, though it’s still serviceable.
The standouts of the English dub are Crispin Freeman, giving a more youthful and natural vibe than Jouji Nakata was vocally capable of, Matthew Mercer, solidifying Kiritsugu as a superficially strong man-child, and Jamieson Price, matching the original Japanese performance for Rider. In Japanese, many of the characters sound like they are trying a bit too hard to convey specific qualities (Tokiomi doesn’t need to sound like a wrestler, nor does Kayneth have to sound so nasally), though, like with the flaws of the English dub, these don’t occur frequently. On the whole, both tracks are of a very high standard, though depending on your ability to read subtitles the English dub may be a better alternative.
Overall Score: A-