A hearty omedetou gozaimasu to Hideki Matsuyama, the first Japanese and Asian-born man to win the Masters!—RABUJOI STAFF
Looks like I got in just under the deadline in time for episode 1 of Fate/Grand Order: Absolute Demonic Front – Babylonia, which I will review soon. I wanted to make sure to catch Episode 0 for the same reason I watched El-Melloi II Case File’s Episode 0: to gain some context so I wouldn’t be too confused when the main show commenced.
Episode 0, also titled Initium Iter or Beginning of the Journey, starts simply, with a demi-servant experiment seemingly going wrong, as the servant is only awakened within the human subject for a short time. In that time, the subject is suddenly transformed to a Shielder-type servant, and tries her best to break through the multiple bounded fields that protect the researchers.
That subject is Mash Kyrielight (Takahashi Rie), a designer baby with a shortened lifespan, and her primary physician at the Chaldea facility is Dr. Romani Archaman. Initium Iter focuses on the start of their relationship, as Romani is one of her only connections to humanity.
The rowdy servant that still dwells deep within her could make Mash a time bomb in the wrong hands, but Romani is committed not just to maintaining her physical and emotional health, but teaching her what it is to be, well, a person, not just a vessel.
When some kind of singularity is detected which will cause “the history of all humanity” to cease to exist by 2016, the Rayshift experiment is proposed and approved by the UN, and Mash leads a group of “spiritrons” whose mission is to travel to various points in history and “intervene in matters” with the overarching goal of making sure humanity has a future.
This prologue doesn’t really go into great detail about the mechanics behind this mission, and we only see various glimpses into the adventures Mash goes on, which presumably comprise the content of the main series to come. Suffice it to say a lot happens (or will happen), there’s a lot of characters involved, wearing a lot of elaborate outfits.
Romani makes Mash aware from the start that she may only last eighteen years at most, but Mash is accepting of that span, and like him, hopes to make the most of it. Eventually she is able to leave the clean room that was her world for years and walk about the Chaldea facility as a fellow researcher.
At some point, some kind of calamity befalls Chaldea, and seemingly only two people survive the devastation: Mash, and a young lad with black hair whom we see interacting with Mash as a comrade in arms, companion, and perhaps more. With that, the beginning ends, and their journey begins in earnest.
The fourth level was apparently so uneventful the series skips it altogether, and we end up on the very rainy and somber fifth level, which takes the form of a enormous jumbled mass of skyscrapers. While the ladder to Level Six is in sight (and just an ordinary physical ladder) and there’s no Floor Master, there is a “homicidal maniac” lurking the floor; Julius Harwey, whom Rin remarks was defeated by Saber and her former master.
All of the hope Hakuno seemed to carry with him from the third floor seems to have faded away, and the more Saber discusses her former master (who was a girl), the harder Hakuno is on himself.
Saber, in another one of her warm, caring monologues, tells Hakuno not to worry about doing anything other than what he’s capable of.
True genius, Saber believes, lies not in one’s talents, but by their ability to bear the cruel truth that not everyone is equal; that everyone has their roles and weaknesses. Basically, she wants Hakuno to buck up and keep doing his best.
But once Julius shows up (with either a Berserker or Assassin Servant), Hakuno and Saber are quickly separated, and Saber needs an emergency save by Lancer-Rin. Saber leaves the Servant to Rin so she can return to Hakuno’s side.
Hakuno, meanwhile, is goaded into summoning his Dead Face, but learns that Julius is also a Dead Face…”unable to save anything or save anyone,” beings whose purposes were torn away long ago.
While taking what would be a fatal blow to the midsection were he actually a living human named Kishitani Hakuno, Hakuno enters a dreamlike state where he’s told exactly what he is: an amalgamation of the massive number of dead, defeated, and failed souls bearing grudges…a mass of hatred brought about by SE.RA.PH.’s long decline.
He is told he ascends “only to kill”, and was born “only to die.” If Hakuno were to take these words at face value and do as Saber recommended, dying would seem to be the only thing he is capable of doing, so he should do that, no?
Regaining consciousness just as Saber and Rin arrive, the battle is lost almost as soon as it resumes, as Julius reveals his Servant kills with a single blow, and Saber received that blow. Hakuno crawls towards the apparently defeated Saber (Julius and the Servant only flee when a giant arm breaks up the battle that was). He’s sure that she’d have been able to win had he been a real Master…even if there aren’t any of those left.
He descends into darkness, accepting everything he was told in his dream about being born from hatred. He allows himself to think for a moment that he might have been Saber’s former Master reincarnated before dismissing it as folly. But he hears Saber’s encouraging voice once more, asking if he really wants to simply give up at this point.
A door appears, and Hakuno walks through it, into a classroom with projector running. Seated beside it is a girl wearing the same uniform as him, who asks him (in Ishikawa Yui’s voice) to take a seat…because “it’s starting.” Very intriguing.
The fourth level’s part two starts with a flashback—I think—to an Alice wondering where Hakuno went, and in the process of absorbing various objects around her to replenish resources, transforms into a grotesque monster that forces the Masters to flee to lower floors, and killing and eating those that don’t. None of this seems to be anything Alice the Master intended.
Back in the “present”—whatever that even is—Hakuno, Saber, and Rin make their way back to the castle. The phenomenon that sent them back was only a “respawn”, not a time loop; and all parties involved retain their memories of the first attempt.
Rin (flashing an epic Shaft head-tilt) continues to drop hints to Hakuno about Dead Face without coming right out and saying that’s what he is, DFs being humans “rebooted by their grudges”, and Hakuno not knowing what beyond hatred propels him upward.
When Hakuno starts daydreaming of hanging out with Alice, reading to her and playing tag, Amari is also there in some form. When he comes back to reality, he, Saber and Rin face the monster they’re assuming is the Floor Master’s Servant.
Rin puts up a barrier, but the monster sends a hail of scissors at it, shattering it and her. Hakuno manages to spend another command seal, but before the monster is destroyed and the “game” reset, he ends up back in the dream.
There, Hakuno meets Alice in her true form, covered in bandages, lying in a bed, hooked up to all manner of IVs…and dead. The living, walking, talking Alice Hakuno has been interacting with is no more than a dream that dead Alice is watching, and is herself dreaming in Alice’s place, even able to take Amari’s form.
Back at the starting point, after Hakuno washes up and Rin apparently had a bath, they set out once more with Saber, for what Rin hopes will be the third and final time. As they walk through the forest, Hakuno ponders what and where he is: a man with no past and a place where the past has piled up to the point of near-madness.
Hakuno feels of a piece with the place because the hatred that drives him is essentially an obsession with the past; an inability to let something go. Saber tells Hakuno a story of a Master she once had “much like him”, with neither memories nor a wish, aiming to ascend only out of a desire to live on. At Angelica Cage, the highest level, the Master was defeated by “Twice Pieceman.”
Saber’s point, I believe, is that there are no guarantees. If you get to Angelica Cage, you have to beat Twice. If you beat Twice, Moon Cell has to decide to grant your wish. She wants to know if Hakuno will still ascend despite all that uncertainty.
In the dream (and a repeat of last week’s cold open), Hakuno has already won the third round, as Alice conceded the fight by not showing up. He leaves her with the promise he’ll be back once he’s won the Grail. And it certainly seems to be the case that he did return even after failing to win it.
Once back with Saber and Rin, Hakuno acknowledges that he’s no one special; just a fake who made it this far in someone else’s place. But even as a fake, he wants his feelings to be true. His time with Alice in his dreams have spurred him to want to ascend not just with hatred, but with hope.
In the present, however, the Servant still needs to be dealt with, and between Rin seemingly unleashing her trump card—transforming into Lancer, complete with Gae Bolg—and Saber’s coup-de-grace, it feels as much like putting a wretched creature (or ghost, as it were) out of its misery as defeating the floor boss.
It also carries on the Monogatari tradition of lots of discussion punctuated by short, intense bursts of decisive action. On to the fifth level.
The third level, the “Nameless Forest” is a totally different animal than the ones that came before, both in design and purpose. First of all, it’s way trippier, as Shinbo creates a lush and textured wonderland inspired by the aesthetic of the illusory worlds witches created in Madoka.
These bizarre, whimsical surroundings make for a great backdrop as Hakuno, Saber and Rin attempt to find the Floor Master. According to Rin, the third level is the land of dreams where “ghosts” gather, ghosts being souls transferred into information by Moon Cell.
Rin also kinda answers my question from last week, in that Death Face is “something different” from the other ghosts,embodying a “different concept of death.” She also calls it a thousand-year-old legend, apparently unaware that Hakuno is that legend (or feigning ignorance for some reason).
Things get increasingly weird in terms of time and space, with Saber almost instinctively taking Hakuno’s hand to ensure they won’t become separated. Even so, with all off the multi-colored drawers, tanks containing thousands of playing cards, and most concerning, a preponderance of mushrooms, Hakuno eventually finds himself somewhere other than Saber’s side.
That place is in the presence of the Floor Master whom Hakuno says goodbye to in the episode’s cold open; we see his victory and ascent to the fourth level so we know it happens (or happened in the past); it’s a question of how.
This Master is a ghost named Alice, and this wonderland is where she’s been ever since a war that killed everyone else, and after her life of illness was ended by excruciating pain caused by adults in a hospital.
Alice wants nothing more than to have someone like Hakuno to play with forever and ever. Quite suddenly, Hakuno “snaps out of it” and is once again in Saber and Rin’s presence. A vision.
Rin and Hakuno each have one more vision while in the midst of the mushrooms – both involving Amari Misao, their “classmate” in “high school.”
If ghosts are reproductions of people’s states at the moment of death, Amari’s regrets come through strong and clear; both her insufficient strength (which Rin can sense) and when she tried to seek the week to defeat her enemies, only to find there was no one weaker than her.
Having returned from their visions, Hakuno and Rin find signs of a battle, and Saber goes after a shambling, scissors-shooting construction of various objects as if it were like any other opponent. She manages to slash it in two, but the moment she does she and the other two are instantly transported all the way back to where they started, next to the ladder that brought them there. Even time has seemingly reverted.
Rin surmises this is the work of the Noble Phantasm known as “Nursery Rhyme”, which is being used to ensure they keep repeating the same day forever. With such a power, in such a place, being wielded with such a character as the Alice we met, it’s pretty obvious we’re dealing with Caster. Swords and bullets aren’t going to do the trick this time.
Last week Rani painted a morose picture: there are only a few thousand humans still alive on Earth, a dire scenario the species hasn’t seen since the last ice age. Combined with the dreadful state of SE.RA.PH, mankind is staring at the edge of oblivion.
It’s a much bigger crisis than I had comprehended at the time (due partially to spotty translation); almost too big a crisis for our MC, who still isn’t sure how many times he’s died and been brought back (though it’s been a lot). All I know is, he may be humanity’s last hope.
It certainly isn’t Dan Blackmore, a knight who fought and was defeated by Hakuno 999 years ago. He lost not due to lack of willpower or clarity of duty, but simply because he had more regrets and thus less resolve, than his opponent.
But now that Dan’s back, he’s not going to let anything get in the way of his winning—in lieu of the Holy Grail or ascending, continued victories are their own reward, and has been for nearly a millennium.
Once Hakuno is over the initial shock of learning what year it really is and how long things have been left to rot, he, Saber and Rani talk Dan, Archer, and strategy.
First, since he was already defeated and died, Dan is no longer a true Master (why Hakuno, who has also died a lot, is a true Master is a head-scratcher for your humble author). As for his servant, Archer’s true name is Robin Hood, an expert in guerrilla warfare, who has two noble phantasms but cannot use both simultaneously.
One allows him to attack undetected; the other, Yew Bow, is more of a coup-de-grace, and is only effective after the first phantasm has been used to shoot the target with a poison arrow. The Yew Bow detonates the poison in the target’s blood, killing them from the inside out.
For the battle, Saber takes on Robin by herself, dodging a number of invisible arrows until one finally gets her, thus exposing her to the poison Robin will use to blow her up. But her part of the plan is simply to keep Robin busy, partly by asking why he still serves a man who is no longer a Master, to which his reply is both concise and logical: Would you tell a knight who’s been brought back to life and fought 999 years to simply give it up?
Meanwhile Hakuno learns more from Rani (in her awesome futuristic motorcycle and sidecar) about Moon Cell’s quandary: while it can manage the “exterior” of humans, it could not understand their “core”—their reactions and emotions—even when it invited them to SE.RA.PH. for observation. So it simply discards those emotions to the bottom floor.
By that same token, there is no physical or observable “world of the dead” on Earth, but SE.RA.PH. made it quantifiable, such that the hatred (and presumably other emotions) of the dead still roam around as “ghosts,” which is exactly what happened to Dan Blackmore. One could also say he respawned.
Hakuno and Rani’s chat is cut short by their arrival at the clock tower, but as soon as they emerge from the forest, Rani is shot and she and Hakuno knocked off the bike. Hakuno finds cover, but Rani is out in the open, obviously bate to take.
Many “ghosts” start to surround Rani, urging Hakuno to forget about her and continue up the tower to defeat Blackmore, but he rejects their certainty and chooses to save her instead, donning the Death Face to gain exceptional speed that avoids the gunshots. Rani is unable to move, but still able to fight.
Deeper in the forest, Robin deems the time is right to use Yew Bow on Saber, only to have it fail spectacularly. Saber, you see, picked up on the fact the detonator targets the impurities—the poison—in the target’s blood. Her answer to that is to simply bleed out, and once Robin detonates it, divert the blood-blast with her sword.
It works like a charm, and Robin isn’t ready when she charges him and runs him through. How can she survive bleeding out? Well, aside from being Saber and thus very tough, she apparently has up to three extra lives provided her body remains intact. Losing her blood now and again isn’t that big a deal…especially if it helps secure a path to victory for her Master.
That leaves Dan on his own against Hakuno, who does not fall for the trap of Dan being at the top of the clock tower just because the bells ring every time he takes a shot. Dan is in fact in the tower of the citadel, firing at the bells, while the clock tower is lined with explosives.
No matter; once atop the clock tower, Hakuno, in Death Face mode, shoots Dan before he can shoot him, and Dan dies with a distinct sense of relief he can finally be with his wife again. Upon his death, the elevator appears immediately, leaving Hakuno no time to get Rani.
But as Saber says, Rani never intended to ascend at all. She was always content to tend to the dead and watch one last “star” ascend, which Hakuno and Saber do thanks to her assistance. 50 years of “rebellion” against Blackmore were enough.
Oh, and Rin’s still hanging out on the elevator as they start their ascent to the third stratum—though Hakuno and Saber aren’t sure why.
As they ascend to the next level, Hakuno ponders Rider’s dying question to him: Why does he want to ascend? All he can come up with is hatred, and a desire to simply ascent, but Saber, once again demonstrating her lack of modesty, does not consider his motivations relevant; he’ll surely find what he desires as they continue to “climb the ladder”, so to speak; she’ll help.
When they arrive, the setting is a lot simpler than the complex, futuristic city: a vast forest with mountains on the horizon, and a few buildings in a clearing. In one of those buildings, someone has been waiting for them; a aging Master who also desires to ascend—and believes defeating another Master will do the trick.
To that end, he fires shots with his sniper rifle from his perch in the clock tower, and Saber and Hakuno have to flee into the forest.
There, Hakuno makes sure to thank Saber for keeping him alive to that point, and Saber tells him to essentially not forget to stop and smell the roses—to enjoy what is beautiful, whether it’s the forest, some flowers, or her own purty face.
That face is threatened once more, not by the Master, but by his Servant, Archer, who drops a poison cloud on Saber and Hakuno and stays invisible, shooting invisible arrows, one of which pierces Saber’s shoulder.
Hakuno must expend a command seal so Saber can raze all of the forest around them with fire (she IS Nero after all, isn’t she), but that’s just what Archer wants: a clear shot.
Archer’s arrows don’t find their target, however, because they’re destroyed by a surprise ally to Saber and Hakuno, the Servant-less Master Rani VIII. She takes them to her home, where she explains she is the last “rebel” Master fighting against the sniper, and has been waiting for someone like Hakuno to come along, with a Servant, to arrive on this level.
She concedes that for all of its inherent stagnation, SERAPH may well be an “ideal heaven”, but that’s irrelevant, because it’s on the brink of destruction. When Hakuno sleeps, he dreams of the man in the white coat he met lower down, making him to wonder if he’s trying to ascend to a place he had already descended from.
After all, not only does his thus-far-inexplicable drive to ascend simply “feels like the right thing to do”, but he’s completely clueless about the actual year; he thinks it’s still the 21st Century, but Rani informs him it’s actually 3020. Worse, the humans living in SERAPH will soon be all that’s left of their race; if SERAPH goes, humans go extinct.
It would seem Rani has far grander designs for Hakuno than he himself could ever have envisioned—that will determine not just the course of humanity, but its very existence in the universe. Perhaps, then, Hakuno finally has a reason to ascend…other than hatred.
I was a little confused about what happened to Rin after seeing her in the bath with Saber. It seemed a bit convenient they’d be shorthanded when Archer attacked them. I guess she had other matters to attend to this week?
Shinji’s attempt to destroy Hakuno and Saber fails when Toosaka Rin shows up, hacks Shinji’s systems, and lends Hakuno and Saber a ride out of the tower on her flying motorcycle—all good stuff. We don’t learn anything more about Hakuno’s “Dead Face”, only that it drew Rin to their location.
Rin takes them to a run-down but still very stylish safe house, and explains why she interceded on their behalf: while she is only a former Master, she is the only one in the city (other than Hakuno) to have not fully surrendered to the stagnation of Mayor Matou’s grand plan.
She’s a resistance of one, and now that Hakuno, a fully-active Master, and his Servant Saber have appeared, that resistance grows to three. The only means of reaching the upper level is to defeat the “king” of the one they’re on: Shinji—who also happens to be an active Master. Hakuno and Saber met his Servant in the bar.
The morning of their assault on Central Tower, Hakuno glimpses Saber resplendent on the rooftop’s morning light, surrounded by birds. This show is nothing if not pretty and sometimes drop-dead gorgeous in its staging of people and places.
Rin assists in Hakuno and Saber’s infiltration of the tower, which necessitates her remaining behind to fight Shinji’s Berserkers, leaving the other two free to ride the elevators to the non-projection Shinji’s location.
Once they reach that location—which appears in the form of a standard Japanese school rooftop, Shinji recalls the victory that got him to where he is today. In light of that victory, he is game for a duel against Hakuno and Saber.
With that, massive walls begin to rise above the cityscape, great hatches open, and the entire level is quickly flooded with water, turning the city into an ocean. I love how intricately rendered this city has been the last two episodes, only for the show to completely destroy it here.
The reason for the transformation is that Shinji’s Servant Rider has a naval theme: she is Francis(ca?) Drake, and leads an armada of flying sailing ships to face Saber and her…saber.
Rider’s Noble Phantasm is the “Golden Wild Hunt” / Temesoro el Draque, and Saber is seemingly overwhelmed and sinks into the deluge, too low on mana to mount a counterattack.
That is, until Hakuno dives to her location on the “sea floor” and transfer his plentiful stores of mana through a kiss, which I don’t believe I’ve seen before in a Fate series.
It works a treat, and Saber rises out of the water and rams Rider’s flagship with a ship of her own, revealing
her Noble Phantasm one of her skills is “Imperial Privilege”, which enables her to copy her opponent’s ability. Rider and Saber face off in a decisive dual, but Rider’s flintlocks appear to jam at a crucial moment, while Saber’s sword does not miss Rider.
Shinji gets to have an uncharacteristically noble end when he decides to ascend with his Servant rather than break his contract at the last moment to continue living.
And that’s pretty much Mission Accomplished for Hakuno and Saber. With Shinji gone, the level is restored to its true state: that of a vast, eerie, deserted ruin. That majestic city was only ever an illusion in which cowards could stagnate for all time. While that state wasn’t ideal, there is still a measure of sadness in what was lost…even if I won’t miss Shinji, as usual.
With that, a lift descends for Hakuno and Saber, which will bear them to the next level up. Rin, who obviously did not drown in the deluge, trails right behind them on her flying motorcycle. What visual wonders, challenges, Masters and Servants await them on the second level? I can’t wait to find out.
Our introduction to this new Fate world and story continues with a classic Shaft-type episode that is dense in conversation and exposition, but festooned with lavish trappings that befit a story of this scope. F/ELE (as I’ll be calling it for brevity’s sake) has a lot that is familiar to fans of Fate, fans of Shaft, and fans of both such as myself.
Indeed, the manner in which Kishinami Hakuno summons Saber when he is on death’s door is essentially a reversal of Araragi Koyomi’s first meeting and rescue of Kiss-Shot, another blonde of legendary status, in Kizumonogatari. And while Hakuno is so far a walking bag of virtues, this new-look Saber, voiced by all-star seiyu Tange Sakura, is a lot of fun to watch.
We also get a Nisemonogatari-esque bath scene, not just in any bath, but a sprawling, elaborate Roman-style mixed bath strewn with rose petals. It’s hardly a Shinbo production without such a bath, where a young man and a young woman talk business utterly unfazed by the fact they’re both stark nakked.
When they arrive at the first level, which Saber believes will be the first battlefield of the next Holy Grail War, she is surprised to find a bustling metropolis that, far from being ravaged by war, is united in celebration. At first Saber doesn’t mind this twist at all, and soaks it all in, and we learn that while Tange’s Cardcaptor Sakura says “ho’e,” her Saber says “umu.”
They visit an empty bar occupied by only one, somewhat suspicious woman with pink hair dressed as a bartender. When Saber presents herself as a foe and bids her chosen opponent defend herself, the lady scoffs; surely Saber jests. There is no Holy Grail War here, she says; the Masters have sold off their Servants to live in eternal happiness and peace; that’s what’s being celebrated.
Both Saber and Hakuno seem a bit disappointed by this news, but also somewhat skeptical. When seven splendidly uniformed policewomen arrive, surround the pair, and ask them to accompany them to the Mayor’s office, Saber may gush about how pretty they look, but just as with her outwardly carefree soaking in of the city, Saber is likely staying on her guard and gathering information as if there were a war in progress, which is as it should be.
As they’re escorted to the Central Tower and ride its super-fancy elevator to the top, Hakuno starts to remember some of what happened before he arrived here. Saber said his memory would start to return upon becoming a Master, and his vision of a pile of dead classmates serve to remind him of what had to be done to get this far.
However, the mayor—who turns out to be Matou Shinji, appearing before the pair as a hologram—would prefer if they go no farther. After waxing poetic about the benefits of the AI and NPC-rich Utopia he’s helped build (and performing the Shaft Head Tilt), he finally brings up the price of all this happiness. Citizenship requires all Masters to sell off their Servants.
Naturally, Hakuno refuses, and Shinji stops playing nice, reveally he had physically isolated Saber some time ago with his suite of high-tech digital smoke and mirrors, and sics not one or two but three nasty-looking Berserkers upon Saber. She seems to relish a fight at last, as I did, but at the same time she doesn’t seem that impressed by her foes.
Meanwhile, Shinji’s sexy police all stab Hakuno with their swords. For defying the order of things, the plan is to use Saber as a power source as other Servants have been used, and for Hakuno to simply die.
Only Hakuno didn’t get the right script, and refuses to let a few impalings bring him down. To his attackers’ shock, he pulls out their swords one by one and then seemingly powers-up/transforms, a phenomenon Toosaka Rin senses from the top of a building elsewhere in the city.
Rin calls it “Dead Face.” Whatever that is, it’s clear Hakuno isn’t there to celebrate, or live comfortably, or die. He is there to fight.
After an appropriately intense prologue in which a red Saber is magnificently defeated by what looks like some kind of golden deity. She starts falling and her eyes meet those of a dying girl—perhaps the female version of our protagonist (in a different life). Like Bakemonogatari or Madoka Magica, Shinjo starts things out loud and brash.
Things tone down a bit (or possibly reset), as we settle into a more-or-less ordinary high school class. There, familiar faces abound as our protagonist, Kishinami Hakuno, has interactions with Matou Shinji, Toosaka Rin, Matou Sakura in short order.
These faces are familiar, but the setting is strange, and there are constant flashes to a darker, more sinister reality lurking beneath the bright top layer. Kishinami can sense the death, and he questions what anyone is doing in this place, or why it even exists.
When he goes against a teacher’s warnings and approaches “Limbo”, the incinerator in the bowels of the school, he gets a fresh lecture from a bespectacled teacher. This is indeed an artificial paradise; a “digital hell” made in the image of heaven. He calls it a “Moon Cage”, where those with Master compatibility are sent.
Once the number of potentials reaches 100, there is a purge, and only the strongest selectees survive. An already disoriented Kishinami is quickly stabbed in the back by Matou Shinji (I guess he’s a jackass in any reality!) and as he starts to bleed out, an army of terminators starts mopping up the losers.
But Kishinami refuses to die, not without “vengeance” or “bliss, ” and presumably, not without more answers. As he’s chased by some kind of stone golem, he makes it to Limbo and falls in.
When he’s at the bottom, he finds a red sword waiting to be plucked…some version of Excalibur? His would-be destroyer is breathing down is neck, but Kishinami reaches and grasps the sword in time, summoning the servant Saber, who cleaves the foe in two in a sumptuous display.
By choosing to fight rather than simply run or survive, Kishinami seems to have earned the favor of the most powerful of Heroic Spirits, and a chance at an “encore” to attain vengeance for his plight and the bliss of victory—and Kotomine Kirei seems to be rooting for the kid, in his way.
Hmm…I found this a fresh an interesting twist on the Fate formula, going virtual and combining advanced Matrix-esque technology with the more low-tech history of the various servants. The Holy Grail would seem to be, at least in part, release from all of the layers of virtual prisons; a “true freedom”.
Akiyuki Shinbo directs this much like Bakemonogatari and Madoka, juxtaposing epic spectacles with mundane daily life and not afraid to let things get a bit trippy. While I would like to see a little more humor infused in the proceedings, I understand the need to establish this world with a straight face. Let’s see where this leads.
This first normal-length episode Fate/Zero leaves out a few faces so it can spend more time with others, starting with the first meeting between Waiver Velvet and his Servant, Iskandar (AKA Alexander).
The contrast in personalities is wonderful, as Iskander immediately pooh-poohs Waiver’s “small” goal to get people to treat him fairly and take him seriously despite not being from a grand old family.
Alexander, meanwhile, wants to re-conquer the world as soon as possible. That means winning the Holy Grail War first, so at least he’s motivated. He also enjoys reading atlases, as I do.
We return to The North, where Kiritsugu is enjoying his last hours with his young daughter Illyasviel, hunting for Chestnut buds. Saber watches from inside and can’t help but think she must’ve offended her Master in some way for his demeanor to be so different than it is with Ilya.
Iri, however, chalks it up to Kiritsugu and Arturia “never being able to see eye-to-eye”…because…she’s shorter than him? Both he and Iri expected a male King Arthur, after all; for the King of Kings to appear as young woman was a shock. But perhaps that’ll wear off and they’ll establish a rapport, in time.
Meanwhile, in an episode where Sakura’s tormentor Zoukan is mercifully absent, we meet a new contender for Worst Guy in Zero: Uryuu Ryuunosuke, a serial killer who “prefers little boys and girls”, and has been using their blood to paint magical circles.
His grisly rituals end up ‘accidentally’ summoning Caster, who calls himself “bluebeard” after pretending to free one of Uryuu’s captives, only to jump him in the genkan with eldritch tentacles, teaching his new Master a lesson about the ‘dynamism’ of terror; Uryuu blushes with glee at his new Servant. Wonderful.
The last Master featured in this episode is Kirei, who I thought would be a little more discrete in his alliance with Toosaka Tokiomi, but wastes absolutely no time sending his Servant Assassin on an extremely ill-advised mission to eliminate Tokiomi.
I loved his ‘shrug, don’t worry about it’ when Assassin asked Kirei if he’s sure he wants to do this. Assassin shows off some moves in taking out and dodging various magical security devices, but before he gets near the house, he’s run through by a number of weapons belonging to none other than Gilgamesh, Tokiomi’s Servant, for whom Assassin was never anything other than a bug, squashed and left to die face down on the ground.
I had nothing against Assassin, but his quick exit was an unexpected surprise, to the point I wonder if he’s actually gone. As for Caster, he’s a sadistic dick but I still like him better than Uryuu, who looks to be another wild card. They’re both pretty grating, though.
Five years have passed. Sukeroku and Miyokichi are long gone. They don’t even appear this week at all, and their absence is felt. I missed them, but whatever Kikuhiko feels about this, he’s soldiering on during these years.
He’s gained fame as a Shin’uchi, with the power to make total strangers leave their families and homes and burn bridges behind them just to get a shot at begging him for an apprenticeship, which he always refuses.
He feels he has nothing to teach apprentices. The successful formula he’s grasped and run with, he still scarcely knows what to make of it himself, let alone how to pass it on to others. It, being the rakugo business, is like a soap bubble; he daren’t disturb it.
However, Kiku cannot stop the march of time from taking its toll on his master Yakumo, who isn’t taking his wife’s death well. One could say she’s calling to him, and now that he has a reliable successor in Kiku, there’s little point in keeping her waiting any longer.
On his deathbed, Yakumo confesses to Kiku something new, but something that in hindsight makes sense: the “old man” who taught Sukeroku (and had that name before him) was a rival of Yakumo’s from his youth; someone he knew was the better talent, but used nepotism to snatch his father’s name from the interloper.
Obviously, Yakumo managed to become a great and revered storyteller, worthy of the name, but it’s clear, especially after taking in the young Sukeroku, that the possibility of blocking a greater talent than himself for the sake of his own pride, weighed on him greatly.
After tearlessly leading his father and master’s funeral ceremonies, Kiku gets back to work the next day. Taking the stage to new, gentler (and thus more suitable) entrance music, he eschews a sentimental story for one about an old man meeting a shinigami, who says magic words and shows him candles that represent lives, including his own, which eventually goes out.
The peformance ends with Kiku literally sprawling out on the stage as if he himself had died. And in a way, a part of him did die with his master: the part that was tied to others. When lying there soaking up applause, Kiku isn’t tearful or distraught, but relieved and elated by his new-found—and in his mind, hard-won—solitude. It’s a solitude he’ll use to hone his craft and become someone he believes worthy of being the Eighth Generation.
Before that, however, he wants to see Sukeroku. Not just to inform him of their father’s death, and recover the money Miyokichi stole, but to see how his brother doing. Kiku never had much faith Sukeroku could take care of himself, and didn’t think running off with a woman and raising a child would suddenly make him more capable of doing so.
So soon after achieving clarity through complete solitude—no master, no rival, no apprentice, no family—Kiku sets out to find old connections once more, no matter how briefly. In a town far from Tokyo, he asks an old man where rakugo is performed, and gets a predictable answer: strange for a young person such as himself to be asking about rakugo; there are far fewer such venues in town; television has taken over the hearts of most, making the world more boring.
Kiku probably agrees with all of that. But the old man also steers him in the direction of a soba restaurant, where he finds something…not boring at all: the entire crowd of diners is being entertained (and later squeezed for change) by a five-year-old girl with fiery red hair who is performing rakugo that Kiku immediately recognizes as Sukeroku’s. A little girl named Konatsu.
I loved Kiku’s little eye twitch upon their meeting. His late father believed young Sukeroku came to him as “karmic retribution” for maneuvering the older Sukeroku out of his father’s favor so many years ago.
Kiku may not know it yet, but Konatsu will end up being another kind of retribution: the kind that not only deprives him of the solitude he yearned for so dearly (not that being alone was what was best for him), but serves as a daily reminder of the brother he always believed was the greater talent. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Things move fast this week, but most of the things that occur are basically foregone conclusions. Kikuhiko and Sukeroku both become Shin’uchi, but in his debut, Sukeroku sticks it to the association president by performing his specialty, “Inokori”, in which he must embody multiple sides of one character, Saheiji, depending on who else he’s talking to. It’s a challenging story, but Sukeroku pulls it off and gets the only approval he needs: that of the crowd.
Now a Shin’uchi, Kikuhiko is committed to shedding a woman he feels someone of his stature can no longer be with. It’s not pride so much as obligation to the structures he was raised into, which demand that a man put things above his own personal feelings. His breakup with Miyokichi had been telegraphed for some time, but that doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking when the hammer comes down.
Miyokichi, as it happens, isn’t the only one who gets dumped: as a result of his insolence in his debut, Sukeroku is taken aside by his master, who informs him Kiku, not he, will be the Eighth Generation Yakumo. Again, the writing was on the wall. As well-intending as Sukeroku is, and no matter how much practical sense it makes, he was never going to be able to successfully convince the old guard of his “change or die” views of rakugo.
For the elders, including his master, change is death; there is no difference. Oral tradition cannot truly survive if it becomes a game of Telephone. Tweaking tradition is a slippery slope, one that the elders would rather fall to their death by clinging to rather than allow it to be propped up with new ideas.
Furthermore, Sukeroku was always hampered by his modest origin; he was always an interloper, a “stray dog” who clawed his way into this world. There’s no way the master would allow such a person to succeed him, no matter how unassailable his talent. There may be TVs now, but castes still matter.
When Sukeroku argues too forcefully, Yakumo expels him, throwing him out of his house. And that’s how our two dumped and dejected people find and comfort each other.
Speaking of comfort, Kikuhiko isn’t experiencing it just because everything seems to be going his way. In his mind, Sukeroku is still better at rakugo than him, no matter how many elders or syncophants say otherwise. He’s particularly irritated when a dilettante-ish rakugo critic tears down Sukeroku in an apparent effort to curry favor. Kiku ends the interview right there.
Then Master Yakumo’s wife dies, and with mortality on his mind, he informs Kikuhiko that he intends to give him his name. Kiku’s initial reaction is that it’s a mistake; Sukeroku should get the name; he’s more skilled; he doesn’t have any skill compared to that raw talent. But Yakumo reproaches his apprentice.
It’s not Kiku’s place to tell him who he should give his name to, nor to say whether he’s better or worse than Sukeroku. Just like his brother, Kiku spoke out of place, but out of humility and inferiority, not arrogance and outsize obligation to take rakugo upon his shoulders and “save” it, as Sukeroku wants to do. There’s more to being Eighth Generation than being The Best At Rakugo.
As Kiku continues to thrive but derive no joy from anything other than doing rakugo, Sukeroku and the scorned Miyokichi quickly shack up together and become an item. Just as Sukeroku and Kikuhiko must embody different people to perform their stories to suit their audiences, so too does Miyo, a skilled and experienced geisha, know how to be exactly the woman a particular man wants. She could be classy and prudish for Kiku, whom she loved, but knows Sukeroku less propriety.
I’m glad Miyo doesn’t waste any more time than she needs to worrying about Kiku; what’s done is done, and she’s moving on with someone who actually wants to be with her. Sukeroku doesn’t know if he’s quite that person yet…but he does like boobies. There’s something sad and close-looped about the two being depressed about the same person—Kikuhiko—but they must make do with each other.
Also, she doesn’t have time to wait around or worry; she has a baby on the way, and wants to raise it in the countryside. Her geisha house is shut down, so she steals the till with the intention of running off with Sukeroku.
He stops by Kiku’s not for money or a place to stay, but to say goodbye, even as Kiku urges him to make peace with the master so he can give him his name. Sukeroku knows what he has to do to get back in the good graces of their master, and he can’t do it. He tells Kiku about Miyo and the baby and the country, and Kiku is not happy.
What is Kiku going to do without Sukeroku around annoying him and challenging him to be his best? What is he going to do with Yakumo’s name when he’s certain his drunk, uncouth, stray dog of a brother deserves it more? Someone he wants to punch and embrace in the same moment?
These unanswerable questions (which must attempt to be answered anyway, one day at a time) sow the seeds of a bitterness and regret that will stay with Kiku for years, then made worse one day when Sukeroku loses his life in his prime. That bitterness will come to define the man telling this story to Yotarou and Konatsu in the present.