It’s hard to really describe the mix of apprehension and anticipation I had before watching this first episode of Fate/Zero. Funnily enough, both these emotions originate from the same source. Fate/Stay Night painted the story of Fate/Zero in the broadest of strokes but far from spoiling the ending of Fate/Zero it just whetted my appetite; I wanted to know what exactly happened, not just the general gist of things. I was excited to see a cast of characters, that I had thus far only heard about, come to life on-screen and I’m even more excited to see them duke it out. Yet, in knowing how this all ends, I can’t help but feel some degree of apprehension – there is a lot of pain and misery coming the way of potentially sympathetic characters. A quick note on spoilers – I will assume throughout this series that anyone reading this has played through the Fate/Stay Night visual novel and has seen the recent 2014/2015 Unlimited Blade Works anime. If you haven’t, and think you don’t really care about spoilers, I’d urge you to reconsider but if you insist, consider this to be your fair warning.
Before we jump in to the episode itself, I think it’ll be useful to have a quick recap of some of the key Fate/Zero plot points that Fate/Stay Night has already brought up, though I’ll freely admit to not being able to remember every single minute detail. Fate/Zero tells the tale of the 4th Holy Grail War, a ritualistic seven-way battle for control of the titular Holy Grail, vague details of which were mentioned, in passing, in Fate/Stay Night. Anyone who’s completed Fate/Stay Night should be familiar, to varying degrees, with some of the Masters – Emiya Kiritsugu, Kotomine Kirei and members of the Tohsaka and Matou families. One of the bigger question marks hovering over the 4th Holy Grail War is who the various as-of-now unknown Masters and Servants are; we know that Saber and Gilgamesh are both involved in this war but little enough beyond that. Lastly, we know roughly how all of this ends – the Grail is within Kiritsugu’s reach but at the last moment, he rejects it, resulting in an enormous fire in which he finds the boy who would later become Emiya Shirou. As a final note before we begin, I’ll be changing the format of these write-ups for this series – it’ll be less of an organized, topic by topic discussion and more of a ‘play-by-play’ kind of set-up. I feel that this approach will not only let me enjoy the series better but also allow me to zoom in on specific scenes and moments, which I felt I did not get to do for Unlimited Blade Works. I’ll give it a shot for this episode and if it doesn’t work out or feels too disorganized, I’ll switch back next week. Ok, so with all that out of the way, let’s jump into it!
The series’ first scene is a somber conversation between Kiritsugu and his wife, a homunculus named Iri. Iri has just given birth to their daughter, an adorable infant by the name of Ilya (!). When I wrote the opening paragraph to today’s post, I hadn’t yet seen the episode and I’m already alarmed by how accurate the apprehensive parts of my emotions are looking to be. There are a good many incredibly striking things about this first scene, which not only gives us our first look at Kiritsugu, but also introduces us to what we know will be his character’s primary inner conflict for this series. Kiritsugu has a dream fittingly similar to Shirou’s; a dream no smaller than world peace and universal happiness. It is a dream too great for a mere mortal but fortunately, a dream fittingly grand enough for the Holy Grail. Yet, it’s more than a little depressing to hear him talk about his dream when we already know it will never come true. We know that despite his best efforts, he will not be able to see his darling daughter grow up and we know that regardless of the route, his daughter will not live a long and/or happy life. Kiritsugu’s pained admission that he will be the cause of Iri’s death strongly implies that like her daughter after her, Iri is also a Lesser Grail (a lesser grail vessel? I admit to not knowing exactly how the Grails work). All in all, the whole scene is quite the downer – Kiritsugu has some understandable reservations about having to hurt his family for the sake of his dream while Iri seems quite positive despite knowing that said dream can only be achieved with her death. Considering that this is the first scene, it seems that this will be the series’ tone and we are already being prepare to accept that there is no unanimously happy ending to be found here.
The next scene actually takes a step back and re-introduces us to the mechanics of the Holy Grail War. The details themselves are not too important given that the basics of the ritual are unchanged from Fate/Stay Night. The attendees of this meeting, however, are much more noteworthy. We see a significantly younger Kotomine Kirei being instructed on his role in the War and informed of the conspiracy between the Church – represented by his father – and the Tohsaka family. That the Church is corrupt comes as no big surprise – Kirei himself will later go on to make quite the mockery of his role as an ‘unbiased’ officiator – but it is interesting that his father is the judge of not just this war but the one before it as well. I’m not sure if that will become a plot point, but for now, it seems that there might be more to this agreeable old man than meets the eye. What is also interesting, and a little amusing, is that Kirei plays the role of Shirou here; far from being the cynical, world-weary priest we see in Fate/Stay Night, Kirei is (relatively) full of wide-eyed naiveté, going so far as to ask if there isn’t a conflict of interest when a participant is related to the judge by blood. Tokiomi Tohsaka, Rin’s father, gives him the low down in much the same way that Kirei himself would to Shirou, telling him what’s what while circling him ominously. Of course, I don’t want to go too far with this – unlike Shirou, Kirei is far, far from being totally clueless but the parallels are there if you want to see them. We learned in Fate/Stay Night that Kirei was Tokiomi’s student and that he would later go on to betray his master, but this scene establishes, that he was not Tohsaka’s student for long and that their relationship was largely functional, with the intention of preparing Kirei adequately for the War. It doesn’t excuse or justify Kirei’s betrayal, but it does make it less of an out and out dick move. We learn that Kirei’s wife passed away only a few days ago but based on Kirei’s monologues in Heaven’s Feel, we know that he isn’t quite as cut up about it as his father and soon-to-be master believe him to be. We do know that he has given up trying to find any sort of meaning to his life, though, and instead of diving into the War as a way to deal with his grief, as his elders believe, he might be embracing it as a way to end his life honorably, believing himself to be an abomination. Again, I don’t want to read too much into this given that we will probably have plenty of time to familiarize ourselves with the characters and their motivations.
Next, we get a look at Rin as a kid! That might be the most adorable thing in this episode –certainly, it’s the one cube of sugar that keeps this next scene from turning into the bitterest thing ever. We are introduced to two new characters – Aoi Tohsaka; Rin and Sakura’s mother, and Kariya Matou, Sakura’s adoptive uncle and Zouken’s descendant (I was going to say grandson based on how young he looks and how incredibly old Zouken is, but he could be from a younger generation). I hesitate to call Aoi Sakura’s mother – a mother does not ship her daughter off to creepy old men, regardless of family ties and alliances but then again, in mankind’s long history of forced marriages and such, this would hardly be a first. To be fair, Aoi isn’t so much thrilled about the situation as she is resigned and unwilling to fight. Her unwillingness to fight or voice her opinions comes across as tacit approval and doesn’t do anything to make her likable. The relationship between Kariya and Rin is cute though; in fact, it’s almost absurdly normal. Of all the characters we’ve seen so far, Kariya seems to be the most genuine and, given that he abandoned Zouken and turned his back on the Magi world, the smartest. Or, he would have been, had he not decided to jump back in…
Given that Kariya seems like a good, upstanding, decent human being, is it any surprise that he’s slated for a world of bug-infested misery? I have tremendous respect for Kariya’s attempt to sacrifice himself for Sakura’s sake. Sakura, as a child, has had no say in anything that’s happened to her so far and it’s touching that there’s at least one adult willing to go to bat for her sake. Having said that, I have very limited faith in Kariya’s abilities – Zouken’s a dick through and through but he’s not wrong when he disregards Kariya’s potential as a Master. It turns out that Kariya is Zouken’s son (I don’t even want to imagine what kind of non-consensual methods were involved in a decrepit old man producing a son that young) and wants to at least try to keep the fucked-up-ness (that’s a word) in the family. He’s three days too late though – Sakura’s nightmarish family life has officially begun. Kariya’s story is shaping up to be a real kick-the-dog kind of story – we know that he will never free Sakura but despite that, I can feel myself liking him more and more. I’m setting myself up for the anguish but I can’t help myself – I think I might need professional help.
Things get a little more light-hearted in the next scene though it’s hard to imagine what wouldn’t seem more light-hearted compared to the blatant abuse of a small child. We meet another new character – and possibly the most hilariously under-prepared Master so far; Waver Velvet. After seeing the serious preparations that Kiritsugu, Kirei and Kariya (…I just noticed the naming convention too…) are making, it’s pretty funny seeing this Velvet kid, pretty much steal a relic and fly off to Japan to participate in the War. I have so many issues with this, the least of which being, why would you want to willingly participate in a battle to the death?! I guess insufferable college kids thinking they know it all is a stereotype for a reason. Secondly, if you’re getting a package from Macedonia, one that could potentially determine your success in the Holy Grail War and as such, save your life, wouldn’t you shell out a little extra for a proper delivery service? Seriously, Kayneth, get your shit together. It seems that Waver’s aim in participating in this War is to illustrate that Mages from less storied families are just as worthy as the Mages from older families. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for magic-circuit equality and I’d even support an Occupy Clock Tower movement but from the little I understand of magic in the Nasuverse, Waver is absolutely wrong. Archibald was definitely a little harsh, but Waver’s idealism is misplaced – since families pass their magic circuits through their bloodlines (and only one descendant per generation at that), it certainly stands to reason that the older families would build up a much greater cumulative understanding of magic. The hilarious thing here, of course, is that Kiritsugu is expecting a formidable, ninth generation Mage as an opponent, not realizing that he is instead up against an idealistic, untested college kid.
Oh, oops, scratch that, Archibald found another artifact; he’s back in! Waver better win this war, or he’s going to find his ass expelled when he heads back next semester. You have to wonder how loaded Archibald is though, to get not one but two Grail War worthy artifacts. After all, these have to be artifacts from great heroes; you don’t want a random Roman legionary’s helmet, for example. Speaking of random though, it turns out the Kirei is Assassin’s master. I had assumed that he was Gilgamesh’s master given how chummy the two of them were during Fate/Stay Night. Does that mean that the others have yet to summon their Servants? Isn’t it a big risk to wait to summon a Servant – what if you get a shitty Servant like Assassin because all the good ones got taken up? It seems that Kirei picked Assassin though, which is fitting when you consider that Kirei wasn’t looking to win the Grail in his own right but rather ward off Tohsaka’s enemies while his master goes for the real prize. The conversation between Tokiomi and Kirei also introduces us Kiritsugu – but this time, as his enemies see him. This is the same reputation that Kirei would inform Shirou of ten years from now and it’s not a totally baseless reputation either. Kiritsugu is known as the Mage Killer (I prefer Anti-Mage), and has gained notoriety for his ability and willingness to kill Mages. He apparently uses very unorthodox methods like poisons and bombs (i.e. very orthodox methods to us normal folk).
The scene alternates between Kiritsugu and Kirei as they each learn of the other’s’ involvement in the Grail War. Kirei is at once taken in by Kiritsugu – not by the man himself, but rather by what he could represent. Kirei is an evil man at heart who has pledged himself to do God’s work (ostensibly, at least), via the Church, in order to counter what he sees as the flaw within himself. Yet, here we have Kiritsugu who indulges in evil acts like assassinations and warfare for some unknown purpose. The differences between the two men don’t stop there; Kirei has no passion for anything other than the pain and misery of others while Kiritsugu’s primary motivation is to prevent anyone else from suffering. Kirei does not fully get Kiritsugu but does sense that there is more to his motivations than just money – he thinks that Kiritsugu was asking the same questions that he (Kirei) was and that Kiritsugu, unlike Kirei himself, found an answer. Kiritsugu does not fully understand Kirei’s position either and as a result both men are wary of the other’s motives and acknowledge each other as worthy foes. Thus is the stage is set for the clash between them.
Meanwhile, back at the Matou hellhole, things are going exactly as well for Kariya as we expected. It seems that he has a month to win this War or die trying. No prizes for guessing what happens. Elsewhere, Waver, has ethically decided that he can’t afford to pay rent for an apartment and has instead magically hoodwinked a sweet old couple into accepting that he is their grandson. If it weren’t for the whole Sakura being mind-and-body-raped by worms thing, this would be the most morally questionable thing in the episode, though I guess the Kotomine family’s ignorance of how conflict of interest works deserves a place too. Also, it seems that Fuyuki City is as dangerous as ever; the morning news informs us that people are already being killed. Is this Assassin killing to build his mana stores? He shouldn’t need to – Kirei is a more than capable mage and should provide enough for a Servant as weak as Assassin. As the various Command Seals begin to appear on the participants hands, we get ready for the Summoning – it’s time to see some Servants! This makes Waver’s plan even more questionable – he stole an expensive relic from a professor and flew off to Japan before knowing that he would even be taking part? I wonder if he had a plan B in case the Grail didn’t think he was worth a shot.
Kiritsugu solemnly admires Saber’s scabbard – Avalon, as we know, offers incredible regenerative powers and as such shows no signs of tarnish despite its age. He worries that he and King Arthur Pendragon might not see eye to eye. We know that they won’t; Saber will go on to remark that she and Kiritsugu barely exchanged more than a handful of words over the course of their partnership. Iri is more optimistic; she thinks that given that both Kiritsugu and Saber are ‘good’ people, they will begin to cooperate once they learn each other’s objective for the Holy Grail. Surely, the legendary king of knights will not deny Kiritsugu his dream of seeing a world where no one gets hurt. Unfortunately, we know that not only do the two of them never get along but that Saber will not learn of Kiritsugu’s real dream and objective until ten years later. It’s one of the more poignant aspects of watching this team; two characters we support and root for not being able to get past each other’s personalities. Kiritsugu is determined to see Saber as a tool and while that just might be his pragmatism talking (Kirei noted earlier that Kiritsugu does whatever it takes to win), it might also be that Kiritsugu is not totally comfortable ordering someone to take a bullet for him or into open combat. I also like that Kiritsugu is aware that, given his style as an assassin, Caster and Assassin seemed like better choices. It shows that he is thinking strategically, which is really where his advantage over the other Masters would be from what we’ve seen so far. I also like that Iri is thus far a fairly prominent character – her optimism and positivity helps balance out the series’ thus far sullen atmosphere. It also helps humanize Kiritsugu, who could quite easily slip into asshole territory. Iri, as a character who understands Kiritsugu’s redeeming qualities and the goodness in his heart, and help us see the good in him, even when he doesn’t really want us to.
Elsewhere, Rin and Sakura bid their respective farewells to their families – Rin tries and fails to extract a promise of protection from Kirei. Well, I guess it says something that Kirei didn’t make a promise he knew he had no intention of keeping – I’m just not sure what that ‘something’ is. I’m also not convinced that Kirei has already made up his mind about betraying Tokiomi at this point though I’d be surprised if he hasn’t at least considered it as an option. In the Matou household, good, gentle but increasingly deformed uncle Kariya bids farewell to Sakura, with the promise that when he returns, he will rescue her from her nightmare. He intends to also save Aoi and Rin, despite neither of them indicating that this was necessary and you have to wonder whether his motivations for fighting in this war are as selfless as they seem. It seems instead that he has convinced himself that Aoi is unhappy in her marriage, that Rin and her are being held there against their will by the monstrous Tokiomi and that Kariya will be the white-haired, worm riddled knight in shining armour who will whisk them away to eternal happiness. Has he forgotten that he only has a month to live? Sakura, for her part, is less than thrilled to see the only good person in the house leave on what, at this stage, is beginning to bear striking resemblance to a suicide mission (though, to be fair, we don’t know what Servant he’s going to pull out of the hat). It’s not that I dislike Kariya suddenly (far from it) but I can’t help but think that he would have done Sakura a whole lot more good by sticking around and being a positive influence in her life instead of risking it all in trying to save her.
On that note, it’s time for the Servant summoning scene(s)! Kariya is told that his life doesn’t suck enough and that he will need to summon a Servant from the Berserker class to make up for his insufficient unhappiness – also, to make up for his lack in ability as a Master, but you get the distinct feeling it’s got more to do with the former. Waver slays some chickens to draw a circle, Tokiomi swears by his great ancestor Schweinorg, Kiritsugu uses silver to draw the circle because that’s just how loaded the Einzberns are, and Kariya fatefully adds the line ‘But let chaos cloud thine eyes’ to his chant. I’m joking around, but this scene was actually incredible from a visual stand-point. The blue tint to the whole scene gives it a mysterious, ritualistic feel and there build up to the Servatn’s appearances felt like a drum-roll more than anything else (in terms of the tension build-up, not the soundtrack). There’s a genuine hype in seeing all four of the Servants (though we don’t get a good look at Berserker) regardless of whether we know them or not. We know that Gilgamesh was summoned to the Archer class, Saber is obviously a Saber (and people die when they are killed, yes), and Kariya’s Servant is a Berserker. I’d guess that Waver lucked out and got a Lancer, though it as easily be a Rider or Caster. I love how Tokiomi declares that victory is their upon seeing Gilgamesh – declaring victory at the beginning of a fight is itself a very Gilgamesh-like thing to do, so maybe Team Tohsaka will have better chemistry than Team Emiya. I’m a little sad that we didn’t get a hype shot of Saber, but there’s time yet.
So with that, we reach the end of episode one! It was a long one, but I enjoyed every second of it. There is definitely something to be said about knowing all, or most, of the various Servants and Masters right off the bat and compared to Fate/Stay Night, where it felt like the good guys were perpetual under-dogs, it feels like this fight could go in any direction. Of course, we know that it won’t, but it will be very interesting to see what mistakes the various losing sides make that get them eliminated. The tone of the series also feels considerably heavier – there is no light-hearted cooking scene with Fuji-nee or fun school activities or bickering banter. Instead, it feels like it’s all business right from the get go. It’s up in the air if the series can (or even should) keep this level of intensity throughout because, it will need to ramp it up at the more climatic scenes, but for now, it’s all good.