Home > Episode Reviews, First Impressions > Fate/Zero Episode 1 – Legacy Project

Fate/Zero Episode 1 – Legacy Project

Most visual novels produced in Japan are poorly written crap serving as an excuse for the sex scenes. There are, however, some studios that have made their name by doing something … more. Key is the shining example of how to do visual novels with actual characterization and drama. Nitroplus, makers of Stiens;Gate, focus on issues of madness and unreliable narration, and generally put a darker spin on the whole concept of moe.

And then there’s Type Moon. Like Key, Type Moon is willing to bring in supernatural elements into its games; unlike Key, those elements become a remarkably consistent—if occasionally top-heavy—exercise in world building, with a shared setting from game to game. Characters and conflicts come and go, but the basics of magic, the organizations and powers that shape the world, and basic dark ambiance are remarkably consistent.

Several years back, Type Moon got an anime adaption of one of its more popular offerings, Fate/Stay Night, detailing the story of a high schooler roped into a supernatural battle royal, the “Fifth Holy Grail War,” fighting “masters” (mages picked by the Grail to fight for it) and their summoned “servants” (heroes from distant ages brought back into the world, each corresponding to a different class of warrior). Only as the story progresses does he discover how his own history, and those of everyone he cares about, has been twisted up in the conflict.

Fate/Zero is that history. A prequel light novel series that Type Moon cowrote with Nitroplus, it details the story of the Fourth Holy Grail War and all that came from that conflict. And if the first episode is any indication, Fate/Zero is going to far outshine the story that inspired it.

The seven types of servants are Saber, Archer, Lancer, Berserker, Caster, Assassin, and here, Rider. The specific hero summoned depends on the relic used

For starters, Fate/Zero isn’t based off a visual novel, which means it can ditch the harem trappings. No longer is the cast flooded with teenage “masters,” half of whom attend the same school. Rather, Fate/Zero is about adults, and the running rivalries between the oldest and most powerful mage families in the world. The scale feels much more appropriate for the conflict at hand, particularly when the stakes are so serious.

Despite being a spin-off property, Fate/Zero also does a much better job explaining what the heck is going on. Fate/Stay Night starts off with a clueless protagonist getting a sink or swim course in the wider magical world, so some confusion about the plot is understandable. Fate/Zero, however, starts off immediately by explaining how the Holy Grail War came to be, that the “Holy Grail” being fought over isn’t the real Holy Grail (something that someone could watch the entire Fate/Stay Night series and still possibly miss), that the three previous wars all ended in a stalemate, and several other key details.

In the Type Moon universe, the Church has an uneasy but occasionally productive relationship with the Mage’s Association. Of course, in the Type Moon universe priests regularly marry and pass on the role to their sons (as is the case in Shintoism), but real world accuracy is hardly a major concern

It does this, moreover, in an hour-long intro episode that still manages to keep the viewer’s attention even though it’s almost entirely exposition. The show pulls this off by bringing the motives of each master to the forefront, giving each his due and explaining why the seven (well, six—the last has yet to be revealed) have come to seek the Grail.

Tokiomi Tousaka, for example, fights for the prize of the Grail itself; he thinks that only he can be trusted with the power that the Grail will bestow on its user. The oddly named Waver Velvet is in the fight to prove to his haughty mentor (also a Master) that those of a lesser family pedigree can just as strong mages as those from long magical lineages. Kariya Matou is the most tragic, returning to a brutal father and subjecting himself to torturous, life-shortening methods of training, all to save a niece from having to undergo such a fate herself.

Waver comes off as a idealistic young man fighting against the prejudices of the wizarding world, but he’s a bit more unscrupulous than a Harry Potter. He also has no idea what he’s getting himself into

The main exceptions to this are the leads themselves: Kirei Kotomine and Kiritsugu Emiya. Neither seems a likely choice to fight, as they are unrelated to the mage families who kicked off the war centuries back, and are roped in for reasons other than the prize. For Kotomine, he fights out of loyalty for the Church, but he still can’t understand why he was selected, by the Grail itself, for his role. For Emiya, he fights for the Eiznbern mage family (one of the initiators for the conflict) on behalf of his wife. Yet how he came under their auspices is less than clear.

Both, in reviewing the reports of the other Masters, is drawn in curiosity to the other, each seeing the other as his greatest threat, and yet also sensing a depth to the other’s character that their fellow masters miss. Ironically, they wind up describing each other in almost identical terms, showing that the two have far more in common than either might like to admit.

It takes skill to have two dueling monologues ratchet up the dramatic tension as effectively as a real duel would. Yet that’s exactly what Fate/Zero gives us in one scene

The show, in short, does a great job of introducing the stakes and providing reasons to care about the cast. It’s one of the easiest introductions to a Type Moon work I’ve seen anywhere, which is all the more amazing given there’s so much history and background from the first series floating around. I would almost say that you don’t have to have watched Fate/Stay Night to appreciate this series.

That’s only true in part, though. Much like the Star Wars prequels gain a much greater potency when one knows from the beginning that Senator Palpatine has a deeper agenda or that Anakin will become Darth Vader, the foreknowledge of how the Fourth Grail War will end (here’s a hint: badly), and how Kotomine and Emiya will become the most bitter of enemies, puts the entire situation in sober relief.

Every single child we see in Fate/Zero plays a role in the next series. Rin Tousaka, here, always said she didn’t like Kotomine, and now we get to see a pint-sized example of that. Not all the cameos are as cute

And the advantage Fate/Stay Night has over the Star Wars prequels (aside from the fact that the latter was directed by George Lucas and the former by Ei Aoki) is that while the basic facts are known, so much of the details has been left unexplained until now. We know who will survive the Fourth Grail War, but not necessarily who will die, or how; while Lucas had detailed out the back story of Star Wars long before the prequels were made, here the light novel and its anime adaption are the first and only hints of Fate/Stay Nights’s backstory.

And what hints they are! In the premiere episode alone, those familiar with the first series are given additional insight into the vicious heritage of the Matou family. They learn about how several of the Fifth Holy Grail War’s masters were even more closely linked than those masters ever realized. And they provide what we know is only the first glimmers of insight into how Kotomine and Emiya will change as we know they will change, throughout this conflict.

Kariya Matou’s father is cold-blooded enough to use his disgusting powers (all insect related) to torment his young granddaughter, all in a project to make her ready to breed a child capable of fighting in a future Grail War. He also thinks nothing of inflicting his son with a lethal condition to make him a viable contender in the current war

What makes the drama of Fate/Zero so potent, in short, isn’t just the foreknowledge that it will all end in tragedy. It’s in seeing how what happened here will be the catalyst for the battles to come. It’s in seeing the sins of the fathers coming to rest on the children: how that has already happened, is happening, and will continue to happen in Fate/Stay Night. It’s about how, despite sixty year breaks, the Holy Grail War has never truly ended, which in turn makes the finale to Fate/Stay Night all the more remarkable.

I thought the Fate/Stay Night was a solid series, and decently entertaining for what it was—but it wasn’t something groundbreaking or exceptional. Much will depend how Fate/Zero maintains its mood as the actual battles take center stage and the external conflicts begin to rival the internal ones, but right now, this prequel series feels superior in every way. It, too, will likely not be groundbreaking, but it is on its way to being exceptional.

Unlike in the first series, this time there’s no effort to hide the true identity of “Saber” (which, admittedly, is a bit silly). Perhaps the fact that Fate/Stay Night needs to surprise the viewer on occasion also dictates in favor of watching that series first

Aniplex, in what I believe is a new move for the company, is streaming the series in multiple languages (including English) immediately after broadcast release, keeping episodes up for a week at a time. You can find the first episode here (in English) and the series page here. It is also streaming on Crunchyroll.

  1. thelonewolfegc
    April 17, 2017 at 1:50 pm

    Gen Urobuchi wrote Zero, so conflict is no longer an issue. That guy knows how to tell a story.

    Btw have you watched Key’s Angel Beats?

    • threeheadedmonkeys
      April 23, 2017 at 9:59 pm

      I’m not sure what conflict you are referring to … I said Fate/Zero is about a conflict, but never implied it was bad. (Quite the opposite.)

      As to whether we watched Angel Beats: Yes, yes we did.

      • thelonewolfegc
        April 24, 2017 at 5:47 am

        By conflict, I meant the constant friction between character ideologies.

  1. October 12, 2011 at 9:09 pm
  2. October 13, 2011 at 10:38 pm

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