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The Characters in Fate/Zero Don’t Suck

sample_7eb6ad2a1c7a9d2f7ba75f144fba8d2bbfe4acb9So I recently watched this obscure anime called Fate/Zero. You might have heard of it from somewhere.

I went into the show expecting several things and found myself surprised on all counts. For one thing, the animation wasn’t actually all that great. Outside of the battle scenes, there wasn’t that much animation to speak of, and the camera work was bland as well. The scene-setting is effective mostly because of the Yuki Kaijura soundtrack and the well-drawn backgrounds, not because of the animation or cinematography.

The other thing that surprised me was that I thought the character writing was great. Every scene was purposeful and told you exactly what you needed to know about the characters’ roles, while slipping in colourful details at the same time. I hate to say stupid redundant catchphrases like “Fate/Zero is the Game of Thrones of anime”, but… Fate/Zero is the Game of Thrones of anime.

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One of the examples of clever characterisation that comes to mind is Irisviel and her driving. She drives her Mercedes-Benz like a hooligan, treating it like an extravagant toy. Saber is unnerved but polite about the whole incident.

This scene tells us three things: that Irisviel has expensive tastes, that she’s fascinated by the mundane aspects of the outside world, and that Kiritsugu treats her like a precocious child.

Irisviel’s relationship with Saber is also shown very clearly here, just through visual cues. Saber assumes the role of the knight who treats Irisviel as her lady. Thus, it makes sense for her to wear a suit during her downtime in Fate/Zero, as opposed to the dress she wears in Fate Stay/Night. Her attachment to Irisviel is contrasted against her colder, more businesslike relationship with Kiritsugu. It’s a perfect setup for their eventual hostility.

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A common complaint about the series is that the dialogue is too long-winded. I don’t agree with this. I think the conversations are very revealing and sharply written. The problem is that the direction cuts corners, leading to scenes like the one pictured above, where the same static image is shown while voiceovers ensue. And let’s not forget that walking-in-circles scene from episode 1. The lines themselves are interesting, but the presentation is clunky. This does muffle the impact of the dialogue, which is tasked with most of the thematic heavy lifting.

The characters are too boring and stoic, you say? No, I think they’re quite varied. Most of them might be reserved (and, yes, stoic) but that comes with their job descriptions. What I admired was how Urobuchi was able to differentiate traits between like-minded people with a common goal. Stoicism is depicted in degrees, not broad strokes.

For example, Tokiomi and Kirei both keep their cards to their chest, but as the series progresses, we see that they derive their stoicism from very different places. Tokiomi cares, first and foremost, about his duty as a mage. While Kirei at first puts his duty above all, he eventually comes to acknowledge his taste for depravity. Gilgamesh acts as the foil who brings out the contrasting tastes in the two men. He writes off Tokiomi as boring but perceives Kirei as interesting. His reasons for doing this only become clear when Kirei shows his true colours.

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We also have Saber and Lancer, who represent chivalrous knights, stoic because of their virtue. They’re both very similar people, but there’s a very clear difference in how their masters treat them. Where Irisviel and Saber develop a friendly relationship, Lancer and Kayneth do not, and the reason for this is twofold: firstly, Lancer distances himself emotionally from his master, choosing his abstract ideals of chivalry and loyalty over pragmatism. Secondly, Kayneth reads Lancer’s erratic behaviour as a sign that he is untrustworthy, and so seeks out more Command Spells. The distrust is further compounded when Kayneth’s fiancee transparently flirts with Lancer.

Thus, Lancer is less open with his emotions than Saber; he has thoroughly retreated into himself by the time the Grail War begins. Saber gets to play the gallant knight for a while, but Lancer never does. Their ideologies may be similar, but they contrast each other quite effectively.

Ironically, where the series does fall over itself is with the main character Kiritsugu. For over half the series length, he’s a cipher. You’re given no reason to root for him, nor any insight about his ideals. His two-episode backstory is ill-placed, breaking the momentum of the plot, and doesn’t even give you a clear idea about what he is now fighting for. Only in the final episodes does his character achieve any nuance, but by then it is too little too late.

His “redemption”, though? The answer he ultimately found to his deeply flawed utilitarian belief that killing a few will save many? It’s fantastic. One line says it all.

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The pacing problems also affect the impact of Kariya’s story. For over half of the second cour, he is completely out of the picture, only for his story to come to an abrupt conclusion. On paper, his dilemma is really tragic, but it just doesn’t translate to screen very well by the end. It just comes across as weirdly sadistic more than anything.

tldr; there are problems with Fate/Zero’s presentation and pacing, but the characters don’t suck and work well in the story Urobuchi is trying to tell.

(Notice how I managed to write an entire post about Fate/Zero’s characters without even mentioning the fan favourites? And I’m not talking about Caster and Ryuunosuke here, heh.)

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Posted on March 28, 2015, in Anime Analysis and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. While mentioning the placement of Kiritsugu’s flashback, you missed an important detail. It actually was a pretty clever placement based on the broadcast schedule. Kiritsugu drops a plane with vampires? You’re going to watch it on Mother’s day of all days. That Corrupted Grail’s twisted questioning? Heck, it’s broadcasted on Father’s day.

    It is meta-knowledge, but still. Pacing might have been better if the flashback was thrown into the middle of S2, but at the time it was broadcasted, it was a great move from ufotable.

    • arbitrary_greay

      It’s always interesting to see how much writers prioritize the broadcast vs. DVD watching in TV shows.

      In this day and age of binge-watching, you can do much more serialized arcs and less episodic structure, but that also means that you have to jam recaps in at the beginning of episodes, which eat up limited broadcast running time. Or you might use in-episode flashbacks. For a binge-watcher, those flashbacks might be completely unnecessary. But an American prime-time showrunner once said “90% of the audience doesn’t understand our episodic plot details,” because they’re probably watching while they eat dinner or do homework or chores or the like, so they have to continually reset and reinforce the plot at every act break and reveal.

      For western live-actions, there might be the case of a summer mid-season finale, a Christmas one-off, and then a spring mid-season opener, which in a binge-watch feels really bizarre to have the Christmas one-off plopped in-between arc-heavy episode that might have a cliffhanger break, or question why there’s a particular plot break at that point in the series.

      Similarly, do anime every plan for being superceded by sports broadcasts? They do seem to favor tailoring consumption to binge-watching, though, considering how poorly or non-existent the episodic structuring is for many anime. Or is it the other way around, that they’re favoring broadcast watching much more, allowing for more plot filler and repetition of elements in each episode, leading to glacial seasonal pacing?

      Froggy: are any of F/Z’s pacing issues such that they wouldn’t be a problem in the original novel? (The feeling of overly-faithful adaptation without regards to pacing kind of gutted UBW’s episode one for me)

      • I thought the reason anime storytelling isn’t generally so episodic is because we’re talking about late night broadcasts, which don’t lend themselves to casual dinnertime viewing. The shows broadcasted on prime time slots are much looser with the pacing, at any rate.

        As for F/Z, I actually haven’t read the novel, but I spent some skimming over it today. I thought the writing style was pretty standard dark fantasy fare. Lots of exposition, especially in the early parts. But at least the plot certainly moves a lot quicker than something like The Wheel of Time. The pacing issues of the anime do appear to stem from the difficulty of translating narrative exposition to the screen.

  2. I rather liked the full cast of Fate/Zero too, so it’s nice to see someone else posting something positive about anyone other than just Rider and Waver. Their subplot was certainly welcome for keeping things from being entirely “doom and gloom,” but I found myself just as engaged in what was going on with everyone else.
    I felt like the ending was rather sudden unfortunately, and I was hoping to have more delved into for the contrast between Kiritsugu and Kirei. They’re both quiet and deathly serious characters, but obviously have a very different way of looking at the world (both of which have definitely shifted by story’s end). I found Kiritsugu an interesting take on the dangerous Byronic hero, while Kirei was a villain I felt could be considered pitiable(?) in that he simply seemed unable to divert his apathy and loathing (both toward the world and himself) from an increasingly destructive path. Going along with that, I think it’s interesting to see how Saber and Archer affected the two characters over the course of the series.
    Overall it was an engaging anime, and I’d certainly be up for reading the novels if they were to be localized. I’m also hoping that watching this new Fate series (Unlimited Blade Works) will help me understand the lore a little better, as some aspects of Fate/Zero likely went over my head. It’s a strong premise for a franchise at the very least, though I’m not sure how much I really want to delve into it…

  3. I also agree with this. The characters don’t suck. Gil is my personal favourite for his delightful arrogance and excellent hair. However, thinking they’re good characters won’t stop me from hating a lot of them. Kiritsugu is an especially good example of this, because despite being well-articulated, I found his entire philosophy incredibly dumb. So when it came time for them to actually break down his flaws, I felt like it was too little, too late. His ‘salvation’ at the end felt completely undeserved to me. Come to think of it, it’s mostly just Kiritsugu I hated.

    • I think that’s what so great about Kiritsugu’s redemption. It’s so undeserved. Nothing he could have done would have made things any better. But instead of killing for the sake of salvation, he saves one person without violence – and that’s what it takes for him to realise that killing won’t redeem anyone, not even killing himself.

  4. It’s also got the unfortunate trait of having so MANY characters, which means you just can’t squeeze development of all of them into 24 episodes, especially when it’s giving focus to the “main” ones like Kiritsugu and Kirei, which leaves some of them (mostly the women, excluding Irisveil and Saber, but they also get a pretty crappy end of the stick) feeling completely flat and only there to fill a role. Though I suppose what speaks of the show’s success is its ability to make you fall for the characters in spite of the flaws in their handling, and make you want to learn more about them through your own speculation or whatever. I’m reviewing the series episode by episode at the moment, so it was kind of interesting to see a post just about characterisation as a whole!

    • I read some of your posts. You’ve got some great insights into the characters. You picked up a lot of stuff I completely overlooked :)

      The ensemble cast in F/Z is a potential pitfall, but I think it manages to work well with its limitations because the characters have agency. All of the characters are capable of moving the plot forward on their own, no matter how minor their role is. For instance, Sola-Ui has a pretty insignificant role in the scheme of things, but the scene where she took Kayneth’s command spells from him was a genuine game changer. None of the schemers, not even Kiritsugu or Gilgamesh, are able to comfortably predict what will happen because all the characters are loose cannons.

      Basically, F/Z tells you just enough to understand where the characters are coming from, but leaves enough unsaid that you don’t know what they will do. It makes sense for the suspense-filled tale that F/Z is.

  5. So, can people die if they are killed?

  6. During my rewatch I noticed that about the animation too. I think we tend to laud it because the fight scenes are really shiny and sakuga, but yeah, the rest of the show is fairly static to make up for it. Fortunately the dialog is sharp enough to carry the story.

    I think it’s telling of how NOT into the ani-community I was when this series first aired that I had no idea there were criticisms about the characters. The characters are great! They’re the whole reason F/Z works as a battle royale-style tragedy! Or maybe I was the only person watching who actually got gut-punched in the final few episodes.

    As an aside, I rewatched F/Z last year with a friend and experimented with the placement of Kiritsugu’s flashback episodes. I inserted them into the first season right after Episode 8 (the big confrontation in the woods) and it works SO MUCH better. It’s a logical “resting place” where an extended flashback can naturally occur, plus it gives you enough time to see Kiritsugu as he is now but then introduces his back story early enough that you can understand his subsequent actions much better.

    I keep trying to tell the BD/DVD distributors to change up the episode order, but nooobody listens to the girl shouting in English on Twitter. :p

    • Or maybe I was the only person watching who actually got gut-punched in the final few episodes.

      No, I got gut-punched too! It’s a testament to how well-executed those final episodes were that I really felt the emotions of all the characters, even when I didn’t think the series had laid the right groundwork for me to care for them. That part where Kiritsugu killed Ilya inside the grail, man.

      Also, that’s a really neat suggestion about the flashbacks. Next time I watch the series, I’ll definitely try watching them after episode 8. I have a feeling it’ll work out much better. Thanks!

  7. Actually I’d argue that Fate/zero is much better than Game of Thrones. The problem with Game of Thrones is that when you break down the characters and start psychoanalyzing them, a lot of their choices don’t make sense given their personalities/motivations/backgrounds — GRRM creates characters more to represent ideals than based on real psychological footprints. F/Z does a far better job at maintaining internal consistency (although the author does have far less characters to juggle I guess).

    • Really? I thought the GoT characters were pretty well-suited to their roles and their actions made sense. Then again, I wasn’t exactly psychoanalysing them.

      Ironically, the charge of creating characters “more to represent ideals than based on real psychological footprints” is something that has been levelled at Urobuchi time and time again. What do you think of that particular observation? Do you agree with it?

      • I think Uobuchi’s work is more about the characters than the archtypes. Having read through the Epic of Gilgamesh, I could definitely see Gilgamesh being a cocky bastard just like he is in the show. It’s only one example, but…

      • Yes, Urobuchi’s characters are very much driven by their ideals, but people should keep in mind that Fate/zero’s characters all have tremendous focus and self-discipline, the heroes having a lifetime of experience to back up their conviction with the mages just as determined to achieve their goals (enough to travel halfway around the world and bet their lives in a bloody battle royale with a reputation for failing). The impulsiveness we often expect from normal characters do not apply to them, instead it is their consistent determinism that truly takes shape (i.e. even in the face of losing everything he fought for, Kiritsugu would still prioritize the world over individuals because that’s what he did his entire life and denying it would be denying his very self — even though the pain of what he sacrifice essentially broke him).

        …Compare this to say, Ned Starks who risked his people, gambled the nation, etc, in order to uphold his personal sense of honor that he see as more important than life itself, only to betray that honor within just a few days of having his family threatened.

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