Fate/Zero – It was epic but ultimately flawed
June 30, 2012 33 Comments
Fate/Zero was a fascinating series, and in some respects one of the best to look at for the season, however, it is a deeply flawed series, one that was supposed to push boundaries and restart a franchise, but ultimately ended up simply continuing where Fate/Stay Night left off, only worse. In a sense Fate/Zero was a glorious train wreck, it looked spectacular while it was happening, but once it had finished and you begin to sift through the rubble and twisted metal you have to ask yourself what it was all about. It was a series that aimed high, one that had a fascinating, and potentially great concept, and yet, it ended with more of a whimper than a bang, despite the ending being on such apparently epic proportions.
There are series that often use action in place of much needed dialogue, having a fight sequence that goes on for far too, and with very little narration. Such series can be entertaining in their own right, but the lack of dialogue and narration can leave the plot and overall characterisations somewhat lacking. Fate/Zero does not suffer from this, but instead it has gone too far the other way, having longwinded speeches, monologues and exposition in the space of action. In terms of action, this does not necessarily mean fights, but rather character movement, of any kind. The dialogue can take up so much time and space that the movement is simulated through continuously changing camera angles and distances, making it look as if there is movement in the frame. It is a series that lacks certain important elements of narrative story telling, turning what could be a potentially very interesting idea into something dull and quite boring.
A narrative framework with interesting and informative dialogue is useful in any form of visual media, and anime is no exception. Without good dialogue a series can quickly become a collection of action set pieces with little in-between in the form of characterisation and development. To take an extreme example, a series could become something akin to Dragonball Z, where the majority of an episode, or even an arc is taken up with one single battle. The amount of dialogue and explanation in Dragonball Z means that we never truly see the battle itself; instead we see elements of it, with particular flashy moves. The editing involved often means that halfway through a move, or in more extreme cases, only part of the way, we cut to a deep and in-depth explanation of what is going on by other characters who are sitting on the sidelines.
This explanation can become so deep or more accurately long-winded, that the move itself loses all context, becoming something like a diagram explaining the movements of the planet. It is nothing more than an explanation without anything physically showing us what is actually happening. Now, the explanation itself can be useful, adding a context and perhaps a back-story or other useful information to the battle or the fight. But, when taken too far, the fight itself loses all meaning; instead becoming a series of set pieces with each character merely glares at each other while simultaneously charging up their next big move. The absurdity of such a situation becomes apparent when you begin to think that in the time these characters charge up their super move and then use it (in Dragonball Z, this could go on for over ten episodes), an entire series of fights could have taken place with multiple victors and losers.
Now, while Fate/Zero does not suffer from these incredibly long battle arcs, the core problems with Dragonball Z are still present. There are times when the amount of talking and dialogue take up the majority of the episode, with fights seemingly taking a backseat. We have seen on several occasions a fight between two heroic spirits start, only to be interrupted, with both characters jumping back to glare or glower at each other. What follows are often internal, or perhaps external monologues, along with exposition of other characters who are either a part of, or are following the fight from afar. It becomes a series of speeches, a match of who is the best orator, be it internal, or external.
The battles themselves can occasionally lose all meaning, and while there may be a conclusion, it takes so long to happen that often all tension is lost. We have seen fights where heroic spirits charge in and exchange a few blows, only to back of to glare at each other for 5 minutes, then to either jump back in, or retreat. Regardless of these characters beliefs, the idea that a fighter will simply stand there thinking or working out their next moves seems a little silly, as if they are unwilling to truly fight. In a sense, Fate/Zero is less about the battle of the heroic spirits, fighting each other over control of the grail a mysterious object with the ability to grant a single wish, and more about the battle of the masters. Now, this is not a physical battle, and neither is it a battle of wits, but more it is a battle of oratory, of monologues and of stout faces and fierce glares.
The series itself quickly degenerated into a middle-aged melodrama, with these various stout faced characters in dull clothes all attempting to out-cool each other. There are numerous occasions where characters such as Kiritsugu and even Kirie are seen standing on roof-tops or other high places with their coats billowing out behind them in the breeze. They are placed in places to look cool, with no real context or reason for the placement, but simply a stylistic decision without weight or reason. These characters all have their large speeches, full of philosophy, rhetoric and ideals, or in some cases, the lack of them. There is a distinct lack of characterisation within Fate/Zero; the characters you get at the end of the series are largely the same as you got at the beginning of the series. In its attempt to become a more grown up Fate/Stay Night, Fate/Zero appears to have wandered into the realm of mid-life crises.
Characters such as Waver and Rider are colour to a grey series that is so caught up in its own greatness and pretentious philosophy that it has yet to realise its own absurdity. Waver is a fascinating a character; one with a wish that is considered so silly that Rider mocks him for it. He wants to gain recognition as a person, be seen and taken seriously as a magician and a human being, but as Iskander (Rider) notes, such a wish is too small in scale to mean anything. In fact, the series itself, or at least the excellent parts follow the progression and growth of Waver, and his relationship with Rider, showing us how a weak and frightened Waver can gain the trust and perhaps love of the pompous and bombastic Rider. The little moments between them become the central thread of the series, something that not only adds humour and comedy, but also a sense of humanity and progression, breaking up the dull, melodramatic angst that we see from the other characters.
Rider is particularly interesting as a heroic spirit, not only is he loud and pompous, but he also dreams of something so big that it could never be realised. Whereas other heroic spirits appear to be infected with the same dull melodrama and angst of their masters; getting involved in sophistry and debates about their true power and worth. Rider is someone who becomes a parody of what a heroic spirit should be like, dressing in casual clothes and becoming this loud father figure that Waver lacks. We see characters like Gilgamesh, the most arrogant and pretentious of all, always making grand speeches rather than fighting. While there is a certain element here that makes sense, with Gilgamesh feeling that he is above fighting, and that it is not worth his effort to attack or kill others. The speeches themselves become boring, overly long and lacking any real content or reason to exist.
We have other heroes such as Saber and Lancer who are equally as dull, so caught up in their own sense of honour and justice that they seem incapable of attacking anyone. Again, there is an element of reason in their actions, but such things are taken too far, with these characters becoming caricatures, unable to truly fight, and thus showing that they lack the necessary skills to truly win this war. The heroic spirits, along with their masters make up a group of dull characters that are prone to melodramatic outbursts and angst. The heroic spirits themselves are two-dimensional, with little-to-no character progression outside of Iskander, instead we have characters who never change. In the case of Saber this is likely deliberate since it is supposed to be Shirou who ultimately changes her view of the world.
The series itself had some interesting ideas, with the notion that this Grail is not the Holy Grail, but more of a demonic force that only brings pain and misery. That the Grail War takes place every 10 years creates this ever-lasting circle of pain and repression, with numerous powerful mages attempting to gain their one true desire through the destruction of others. It is a dark story, and one that has an atmospheric, and very interesting take on the idea of the Grail as a holy cup that gives ever-lasting life. And yet, Fate/Zero manages to turn this atmospheric tale into one of endless monologues, melodrama, angst and cool poses on rooftops. While many may have suggested that Fate/Stay Night was too light-hearted and that having a cast of adults meant that Fate/Zero had a certain element of gravitas to it, it feels like the opposite has happened.
Fate/Stay Night for all its faults at least understood how absurd some elements of the story were, and by injecting humour and sartorial, self-referential nods at itself, along with the progression of Saber as a character managed to make a series that was enjoyable, and did not take itself too seriously. Fate/Zero as a series is dull, lacking any of the essential flare that could have helped to create something great and entertaining, while also helping to explore the darker side of the grail quest. It gets so caught up in the dialogue that it forgets essential elements such as fighting or simple action. If the phrase ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ is accurate, as indeed it is, then having an action sequence in such a series can take the place of these endless lines of dialogue.
It is as if Fate/Zero forgets that it is after all a story about the fight for this demonic grail, and instead becomes a lesson on middle-ages melodrama and angst. The characters (other than Waver and Rider) become so caught up in their own self-importance and self-worth that the effectively forget their original goal. While the Type-Moon universe is a very dark one, there should still be room for lighter material, with comedic elements hat help to break up what is an overly dark and gloomy world. Fate/Zero in a sense takes this dark and destructive world to the extreme, almost forcing out humour and joy, and instead replacing it with pain and suffering.
The gorgeous animation by ufotable appears out of place, and sometimes wasted due to the lack of movement or motion, instead providing beautiful backgrounds and set pieces for the inevitable match of words. Ultimately it feels as if Fate/Zero did not go far enough, and rather than attempting to re-launch or recreate the franchise, contented itself with creating what has become a simple prequel. We know that all the masters will ultimately fail simply because if they didn’t then Shirou, Rin, Sakura, Archer and Saber would have no role to play in Fate/Stay Night. The final ending sequence of the series showing the connections between Fate/Zero and Fate/Stay Night sums it up, it is a series that could never really become something new, but was instead constrained by the need to tie it neatly into the story line of Fate/Stay Night. I wanted to like this series, having rather enjoyed Fate/Stay Night, but ultimately it became somewhat dull, often appearing to exist in order to sate the hunger of Type-Moon fans. While there are flashes of brilliance, they are inevitably swallowed up in the grey mess of pretentious dialogue spoken by dull, overly melodramatic characters.
On a final note, the sheer horror at finding out what this series had done to the Arthurian legend is worth a mention. This is more of a separate complaint or annoyance at this series. Having Saber as Arthur is one thing that can be easily ignored, since in part her character fits (at least partly) the character of Arthur in the legend. However, casting Lancelot as the Berserker is something altogether different. This is what we find when we look at Lancelot’s characterisation in the Light Novels:
Though he wanted to take her away, Lancelot’s loyalty to Arturia and his sense of duty to serve the kingdom prevented him from doing so. When political enemies of the king exposed Lancelot and the queen’s affair, the queen was ordered to be executed. Left with little choice, Lancelot rebelled in order to try and save her. The knight, the queen, who had made her beloved betray his duty, and the king, who felt responsible for the despair her most loyal servant endured, all suffered.
Though Lancelot suffered greatly, he found that he could not hate Arturia, who had never blamed Lancelot for anything regarding the state of affairs they had become entangled in. In his despair, Lancelot desired to become a beast who had no worries; thus, when he became a Heroic Spirit, he became a Berserker-class spirit (taken from a description from the light novels).
Normally, such a description would not trouble me, and luckily this does not appear to make it into the anime. However, this description shows a profound lack of understanding when it comes to the Arthurian Legend, with central important elements being completely re-written in order to fit the story that Light Novel author wishes to tell. While Lancelot did go mad after being banished, it was partly because of his own guilt – the central tragedy of Lancelot is that he is the purest of knights, too pure in fact. By falling in love with Guinevere, Lancelot feels that he has betrayed not only Arthur, but also himself and the kingdom; his madness is therefore self-inflicted. Furthermore, his affair with Guinevere does ultimately lead to the destruction of Arthur’s kingdom; along with Arthur’s death at the hands of Mordred is son. But he never rebels against Arthur, and Guinevere is never sentenced to death but ultimately dies as a nun.
By re-writing one of the most longstanding legends of the British Isles, the Light Novel authors are showing an astounding ignorance in this area, or are perhaps ignoring the legend in order to tie it neatly into their narrative. There is such a thing as ‘Artistic Licence’, and changing minor details of stories to fit in with your setting is usually fine (such as different time, possible name changes and tweaking of details). However, here we have one of the central elements of this legend being entirely re-written in order to fit into the Type-Moon universe. This in itself did not necessarily make me find the series boring, and is more of an added extra, but it demonstrates a profound lack of understanding when it comes to this particular legend. If nothing else, this little revelation did somewhat take away from my overall enjoyment of what was a ridiculous, and at times frustrating finale. Fate/Zero was in the end a truly epic experience in places and a series that I did quite enjoy, however, it was also ultimately flawed and will be a series that I will remember for all the wrong reasons.