The plot of "Fate Divided by Zero"* takes place in an alternate 1990s, where magic is real and all legendary heroes of epics and folk tales actually existed with all of their fantastical powers. The set up is actual an incredibly simple battle to the death, a la "Highlander", where seven wizard Masters summon seven great warriors from the past to do battle as their Servants. The surviving wizard gets the Holy Grail (no relation to the Cup of Christ), a magical artifact that is said to grant the winner of the War any wish. The rules are simple: each Master gets three Commands they can issue to their legendary Servants, when all other Servants are defeated the Holy Grail appears, and whoever grabs it gets their wishes granted. Beyond that, there are no rules. You can assassinate other masters with high-powered sniper rounds, your Servant can double-cross you if you displease them, even Cthulhu can show up if you know the right spells.
Of course, things are not quite so simple once you realize the plotline is essentially fourteen characters all battling for one prize. It grows more complicated when the Servants often turn out to be radically different than your expectations. King Arthur, for example, is pictured there. Yeah, he was actually a blond teenaged anime girl**, for fanservice reasons. Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, is an arrogant golden God with unlimited power whose only real goal is watching the other the other opponents squirm. If he actually cared for a moment he would have won the war in four seconds. Alexander the Great (known by his Persian name of "Iskandar") is a giant of a man with a beard, but rather than a egotistical conqueror, he's the nicest man you will ever meet, with no goal other than to make friends - and the conquer the universe with them. And as for Gilles de Rais, notorious medieval serial killer... he's about the same, actually. The characters go from a spectrum of absolutely evil but weirdly sympathetic, to honorable and pure but clearly foolish. It is a great battle between the entire gray spectrum of morality, with twists, turns, and again, a special appearance by Cthulhu.
With a nicely complicated plot involving what is essentially seven factions, a plot summary of "Fate/Zero" would be worryingly similar to simply listing the characters and their motivations. This unfortunately is what the first episode of the show has to do. It is forty minutes of exposition, explaining the nature of the Holy Grail War and gives a basic outline of the participants' motivations. It makes for somewhat awkward pacing, since the early episodes have nothing to do but explain what is going on. From then on, most of the show is spent establishing its characters.
Kiritsugu Emiya is nominally the hero, but with the plot being more of an ensemble piece, his place as main character is disputable. Kiritsugu is a cold assassin specializing in magical targets, but whose ultimate goal is to save the world using the Holy Grail. (What is he saving the world from exactly? Unfortunately even he has no idea.) But sharing the spotlight is his awkward pairing with Arthur, who is not comfortable with Kiritsugu's underhanded tactics. But considering that being a ruthless assassin willing to blow up buildings actually makes you on the more noble side of characters in the Holy Grail War, Kiritsugu remains sympathetic. Consider his competition: arrogant aristocrats from the corrupt noble wizard families, a psychopathic priest, and a serial killer. He's underhanded, he cheats on his wife, and he's deeply troubled, so unfortunately, Kiritsugu cannot be the moral center of this universe. Kiritusugu is clearly overtaken by other participants, such as the tragic figure of Kariya Matou, a man slowly dying from forbidden worm magic, who is just trying to save a little girl from his evil family's insect rape dungeon, and by this magnificent motherfucker:
|Iskandar is the most awesome human being to ever be drawn.|
What's tragic is that since this is a prequel, many of the worst characters are the ones that wind up on top. From the beginning it is made that Gilgamesh is completely invincible, with so much power that he has an unlimited collection of magical swords each with their own unique powers. Of course, he doesn't actually use those swords or those powers, he just throws them because he has an infinite number more. The greatest mage is a sniveling prick of a wizard whose smugness defies belief. But even he's overshadowed by the priest, Kirei Kotomine, a figure who begins the story so emotionally stunted that he honestly believes himself to have no desires at all in the world other than to the serve the Church, which he does with long knives, the greatest physical strength of any human in the show, and a mastery of several kinds of magic. Kirei, unfortunately later does discover his source of pleasure, and his true self is terrifying indeed. Compared to this, the true heroes are frail, doomed, and hopeless.
|Kiritsugu evens the score for good with a sniper rifle.|
But who ends on the all the advertising? Arthur. Why? Because she's blond and skinny, so you can sell her.
Beyond the unpredictable twists and turns of the plot and character development, "Fate/Zero" also does not slouch in the department of spectacle. The animation is crisp and lovely, this was not a production that saw any corners cut. In the original 2011 run, they made sure to cut the series in half, taking a break to keep up the animation quality for the second season. And it really shows. There's no point in "Fate/Zero" that ever seems poorly made or cheap. Even if the pacing can be somewhat slow in the beginning and towards the end - when the show make the poor decision to interrupt the story to give us Kiritsugu's backstory in a poor attempt to cement his position as the main character, which does nothing but slow everything down - the animation quality, and the beautiful fluidity of the fight scenes, will keep you interested.
|Battle of the pretty people!|
More awesome perhaps than the animation is the music, which was created by my favorite anime composer, Yuki Kaijura, creator of the soundtracks of ".hack//SIGN", "Noir", and "Madlax". It is a typical Kaijura production, with epic chanting, complex female harmonies, and utter beauty in every note.
All told, "Fate Over Zero" is an interesting anime. It has its flaws here and there, partially thanks to being a prequel to another story. There is too much exposition in the early stages, and then, far too little towards the end, with the ending being a full-on "Evangelion"-style mindfuck, with a very sudden dark conclusion to make room for the heroes of "Stay Night". But what I love most about this show is that it keeps itself complicated and mature enough that any viewer can find their own favorite character and their own least favorite character. It all depends on your point of view in life and your biases and judgments. There is no wrong answer in who you love or hate, or which version of the world you come to support. This was twenty-five episodes of maneuvering, plot twists, amazing moments of heroism, and terrible moments of tragedy. "Fate/Zero" is a great show, worth your time.
Now to wait for "Fate/Stay Night", to see if all this build up was worth it.
* Oh no, we divided by zero! The universe is coming apart!Help!Oh fuck.
** This leads to some horrifying questions, such as: where the heck did Mordred come from if his "dad" is a woman? What was going on with Arthur and Guenevere? Or is that why Guenevere cheated on Arthur?
*** Iskandar is currently sitting in my Top 5 of Greatest Anime Characters of All Time, along with such greats as Haruko Haruhara from "FLCL", Spike Speigel from "Cowboy Bebop", and Renton Thurston from "Eureka Seven".