Fate/Zero is the Avengers of 2012’s anime season, in the sense that there’s a lot of super heroes beating each other up and enough homoerotic subtext to launch a thousand Tumblrs. In other words, Fate/Zero is the must watch anime of 2012, but much like the Avergers, you may be wondering if this is something your friends are going to drag you to or something you’re actually going to enjoy. Short answer: yes. Fate/Zero has moments that may, depending on ones prior attachment to the Fate series, either puzzle or deeply annoy you, but either way, it may be sort of impossible to not have fun watching it.
The Fate series (of which Fate/Zero is the prequel to) centers on a supernatural competition called the Holy Grail War, in which seven mages (called Masters) are chosen to summon seven heroes of ancient legend (Servants) to fight to the death in an small city in modern Japan. Lest one think this is going to be all fun and games though, know that Fate/Zero was penned by Urobuchi Gen, a writer infamous for his brutal, uncompromising endings, so much so that his involvement in last year’s excellent and dark Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica was hidden to conceal that what looked like a cute Sailor Moon-esque magical girl show was going to quickly turn into a bloodbath. As Fate/Zero is the story of a man whose failures as a hero and a human being caused the ascendency of the villains of Fate/Stay Night, Gen’s a perfect fit to tell it.
Animation studio Madhouse does a great job bringing the over-the-top duels between mages and heroes to life, so despite the inevitable tragedy and horror that underpins the series, Fate/Zero is, more than anything else, fun, and never afraid to go just across the line of true absurdity for the sake of being awesome: A fighter jet is chasing after King Arthur while she[yes, she] runs across a river! A giant monster summoned by Baron Gilles de Rais shoots down Japan Defense Force fighter jets! Alexander the Great summons an army of heroes in his final confrontation of Gilgamesh! Betrayals! Double Crosses! Double Reverse Crosses! Literal and figurative backstabbing, often simultaneously!
Here’s where things start to get a bit unwieldy, though. Each Master and Servant and their various allies makes for a huge cast, and while the show is great about giving them all enough screen time, it’s ironically the main character who feels the shallowest by the end. The protagonist Kiritsugu Emiya, an assassin with a particularly ruthless philosophy of heroism, willing to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to ensure he saves as many people as possible, and he’s paired together with the strongest Servant, Saber, whose honor and chivalry is utterly incompatible with her Master. This could have been an interesting dynamic, or at least they would, but in a move that will leave first time viewers quite confused, Kiritsugu only speaks to Saber three times through the entire two seasons of the show. There’s something to admire about the faithfulness of the prequel here: a detail mentioned only once by Saber in Fate/Stay Night is that Kiritsugu only spoke to her three times (not to mention that the crappy treatment of Saber undercuts the strong, noble character she was in Fate/Stay Night). But in the prequel it’s not worth being chained to, especially since it had some potential, to critique or at least force Kiritsugu to explain his radical, brutal philosophy. There are a few backstory episodes, but they don’t answer questions so much as raise them, such as “why did this suddenly turn into a zombie movie for two episodes?” It stretches believability, and it makes it pretty hard to want to root for him, especially since the rest of the cast is, while often pretty evil, a hell of a lot more interesting.
There’s the pair of serial killers (half of which is Gilles de Rais, a real life mass murderer whose wikipedia page I dare you to read) and a pair of magical aristocrats that are unbelievably fun to hate, but the best of the teams is Alexander the Great and Waver Velvet, the latter being a spineless but precocious schoolboy and the former being history’s greatest conquerer. Alexander’s limitless generosity and boisterous humor steals every scene he’s in, and the slowly developing friendship between him and Waver has plenty of that aforementioned subtext.
However, it’s the descent of series villain Kotomine Kirei that is the most pronounced character arc to watch. Kirei, a demon hunter for the Catholic Church, is ordered to help his father’s friend win the Holy Grail War. He’s fascinating because although the Grail chooses him first, he can’t think of any wish for it, and indeed has never been able to find anything in life pleasurable. Finding it leads him to become the main antagonist of Fate/Stay Night, and watching him turn from a humorless, taciturn man into the sly and mocking character he becomes is both creepy and thrilling. He’s the furthest thing from a hero, but he’s much more fun to watch. I’d have much rather watched two flashback episodes about him, but maybe I’ll just take comfort in watching the villain get a happy ending for a change.