Fate / Zero – 11

Iris detects the massive mana of Rider heading towards the castle, and Saber suits up for a battle…only for Rider to show up in his t-shirt and pants with a giant barrel of wine. He’s not there to fight, he’s there to drink and talk. A Holy Grail “dialogue”, as he puts it.

Saber has no objection, and drinks from the barrel with Rider. Soon, Archer also arrives, on Rider’s invitation, and after rejecting Rider’s “swill” opens a portal to his treasury to draw out…a golden jug and three golden cups.

This would be absurd if it wasn’t also frikking brilliant, for Iskandar and Gilgamesh share one thing in common: they are hedonistic tyrants of yore.

Gilgamesh is such a tyrant he considers all treasures in the world to be his, since they all sprang from his treasury—a treasury so vast he isn’t even aware of all it contained.

Iskandar wants to be reincarnated as a flesh-and-blood man to take up his world conquest anew. Saber…wants to save Britain, in part by erasing all of the perceived mistakes she made in life as king. She wants a redo.

Archer laughs in her face at the fact she harbors regret for the deeds in her life, and Rider can’t help but agree. As far as they’re concerned, it’s the duty of the nation and its people to serve and sacrifice for their ruler, not the other way ’round as Saber would have it.

By insisting upon being a “slave to what’s right”, Saber might be able to save Britain, but she can never lead it, and so Rider ceases to see Saber as a real king.

Kingship, to him, has always been a wondrous gift, and throughout his rule he lived and fought as grandly and greedily as possible, living life to the extremes of both good and bad, that he might inspire men to fight and die for him. When Assassins surround them (a test by Kirei and Tokiomi), Rider transports everyone into a Reality Marble.

There, in the vast desert sands, Iskandar’s endless armies march, and when he mounts his trusty horse and orders them to advance, the Assassins are quickly routed. Saber, Iri and Waiver can only sit and watch in stunned awe, while Archer does his best to look unimpressed. It’s the biggest spectacle since the port battle, and it is well and truly momentous.

When the battle is over and everyone’s back in the courtyard, Rider takes one more drink, then takes his leave, which is just as well, as I don’t think anyone’s ideals could have been shat on as thoroughly and mercilessly as Saber’s (If I didn’t know better, I’d say Rider was a cruel drunk). Archer remains to mock Saber, urging her to go ahead and continue believing in her ‘backwards’ philosophy so he can laugh at her some more.

Their words cut as deeply as any blade, as Saber remembers one of her Knights of the Round Table stepping down because he didn’t think Arthur understood his people…and Rider and Archer’s words only served to reinforce her growing crisis of confidence.

But while it doesn’t end well for Saber, like at all, it was fantastic to see three Servant Kings simply sitting in a courtyard, drinking wine, and shooting the breeze…and for Rider to show that he can back up all his big talk, and then some.

Fate / Zero – 09

“Go fírinneach, mo chroí, ní féidir liom diabhal a thabhairt.”

I’m far more familiar with Gilgamesh, Alexander, and King Arthur than, say, Diarmuid Ua Duibhne. Heck, I can barely pronounce it. So it’s good to see a few glimpses of his life before he became a heroic spirit, in which his king’s daughter Grainne was betrothed to a the leader of his order, Fionn, but fell for him due to his love spot. Suffice it to say it didn’t work out so swell. Interestingly enough, the one dreaming of Lancer’s life is Kayneth.

“Oh BTW I DIDN’T sign the prenup.”

Kayneth…is in a bad way. His beloved fiancee Sola-Ui informs him that he’ll never use magic again, which means his time as Master of Lancer has ended. She wants to take over the “burden” of commanding Lancer so she can win the Holy Grail War for Kayneth and use it to grant the miracle of restoring him to the way he was.

Sola is threatening enough looming over the restrained Kayneth in a dark, dank, and not particularly sterile-looking makeshift hospital room. But when Kayneth bristles at her proposal, soon she’s breaking one of his fingers and threatening to amputate his command seal-bearing hand. Yikes.

“I won’t be passed around like a bottle of…Jameson?”

Dare I say, I kinda don’t hate this Sola-Ui? You’ve gotta respect her raw ambition. She was perhaps initially content to let Kayneth command Lancer while she simply provided the mana for his physical form. Now she wants Lancer…all of him. But she has to appeal to his indomitable sense of honor, and get him to overcome, or at least ignore, the regret he feels for how things went down in his life.

She does this by swearing to him that she is only seeking Lancer’s services, and the Holy Grail, for Kayneth’s sake. He grudgingly agrees, but something tells me he’s not entirely convinced she can be trusted. All I know is, Kayneth continues to have just the worst luck. I mean, sure, he’s an arrogant dick, and Sola-Ui is, shall we say, ethically flexible…but when people like Uryuu and Caster are skulking around, it tends to put things in perspective.

“Look, Kiritsugu loves ILYA very much. The rest of the kids in the world? Ehh…”

Kiritsugu is trying to win the War as quickly and efficiently as possible. That apparently means not wasting any time talking to his Servant or being anywhere near her, and it certainly means not stopping to save a few, or even a few dozen, children’s lives. The game is already stacked against him and he knows it.

No matter how much Saber may talk about the sacred rules of the Holy Grail War which are being stamped on, she’s not dealing with a knight. It’s not his job to serve any lord or abide by a code of chivalry, it’s to win and save the world…all of the world. And at the end of the day, Iri feels the same way. Even so, I could never imagine a Servant-Master relationship as dysfunctional as this one, to the point I worry it might come back to bite both in the future.

I must say I wasn’t expecting Rider to get his pants so soon, but this show is full of surprises. Rider also gets along smoothly and splendidly with Waiver’s hypnotized fake grandparents. Even better, Waiver impresses Rider by flexing his alchemical muscles in locating Caster’s lair, a neat little glimpse of the more science-y side of magic Waiver is clearly more comfortable with.

Unfortunately, there is nothing comfortable or pleasant in the slightest about Waiver and Rider’s trip to Caster’s underground base. Rider quickly ratchets down his jolliness at the first sight of the piles of maimed and bloody child corpses, and his warnings for Waiver not to look go unheeded, resulting in Waiver losing his lunch and probably a good deal of faith in humanity along with it.

“Tá mé ag suí i rud éigin fliuch.”

Waiver and Rider also meet some of Kirei’s Assassins, something that was apparently not planned, because Kirei is very upset about Assassin not only being exposed as being still around (if not in the game) and having numerous separate forms.

Upon reporting this, Tokiomi tells Kirei to continue to stay calm, keep a low profile, and keep his Assassins’ eyes on Waiver and Rider; no good can come of letting his emotions get the best of him. But I saw the beast that was unleashed when Iri and Maiya challenged him. This guy looks like a volcano waiting to burst, and Archer’s words about Tokiomi being a bore are still ringing in his head.

Everyone who fixed this War so the Toosakas would win are operating under the assumption that Kotomine Kirei can be trusted to play his part without any problems. But what if there was a problem with him? I’ll tell you what: it would make for more great drama. No one should have it easy in this war.

Fate / Zero – 05

This episode just wouldn’t quit. It shouldn’t work as well as it does: piling character after character into what was, at least on the battlefield, a one-on-one duel between Saber and Caster, but because of the build-up in the previous episodes, each and every time someone new takes the stage, it adds a new glorious layer to the conflict.

And even if this battle only turns out to be a big tease, now six of the seven Servants have met one another, and have at least a cursory idea of what to expect form each other. We also learn that if there’s one Servant who’s going to keep a kind of noble order and balance in this War, it’s Rider.

When Lancer declines out of obligation to his Master and Saber is insulted by Rider’s offer to make them his retainers, the Master who originally meant to command Rider appears, at least in voice-form; Archibald is tickled that Velvet would actually become a combatant in the Holy Grail War, and intends to teach him a lesson.

\Rider isn’t having that. Whoever this Archie guy is, he won’t let him torment his Master (that’s his job), who is at least by his side. He calls out Archibald for hiding like a coward, and calls out any other Servants who were drawn to Saber and Lancer’s excellent duel (though if he found it so excellent, why not let it unfold rather than interrupt?)

And so two more Servants appear in quick succession: first Gilgamesh / Archer, then Berserker (true identity unknown). Gil, as is his wont, deems all other kings in his presence to be pretenders (and he has a point, he is the first of them, historically speaking). But Matou decides that now is the time to test Berserker—as well as his own tolerance as a Master.

Archer takes Matou’s bait and exposes his Noble Phantasm for all the other Servants and Masters to see, but ends up with nothing to show for it, since Berserker is not only crazy, but an extremely tough customer, turning every blade Gil sends his way into his own NP. Ultimately Tokiomi has to spend a Command Seal to reign Gil in.

I love how powerful, frightening, and unpredictable Berserker is depicted; he’s a very cool design that seems to shudder in and out of solidity, as if he’s just barely being kept together.

But what I loved even more was Gil’s attempt to save face by basically saying “You’re all beneath me; kill each other off until there’s one left and then come at me.” He’s an arrogant prick as always, but he’s surprisingly likable in this version—perhaps because he was thrown off his game so effortlessly by Berserker.

With Archer gone, Berserker turns his attention (such as it is) to Saber, whose injured hand quickly puts her at a disadvantage, forcing Lancer to save her from a potentially vicious blow. He doesn’t do it because they’re friends, or allies, but because she’s his opponent. If Berserker wants to fight her, he’ll have to get past Lancer first.

That’s Lancer’s will, but unfortunately for him, Archie has Command Seals, and uses one to override that will, ordering him to team up with Berserker to eliminate Saber.  In the ensuing one-on-one (after Lancer apologizes to Saber), Kiritsugu and Maiya have their weapons trained on Archie and Assassin, respectively.

Their careful work is ruined, however, by Rider (again), jumping between Saber and Lancer and driving Berserker into the ground, forcing him to retreat, then telling Archie to order Lancer’s retreat as well. Rider has decided that no one is going to die tonight, and nobody challenges him.

I have no doubt that Saber would have gladly fought Berserker and Lancer at once, bad hand and all. But she’s clearly grateful to Rider for his intervention this time. The primary reason for that is Irisviel: if Saber falls here, she’ll be on her own, surrounded by enemies. Rider also decides to stay out of Saber and Lancer’s fight from now own; he’ll face whoever prevails.

That’s fine with Saber; she can’t fight anyone else at 100% until she defeats Lancer and lifts the curse on her hand. It’s just as well that Berserker withdrew when he did, as a longer confrontation might have killed Matou, who vomits blood and worms in a dark alley, but remains as committed as ever to protecting Sakura by winning the war.

What of Uryuu and Caster, the only Servant who wasn’t on the field? Bluebeard observed everything from a crystal ball, and has taken a particular—and worrying—interest in Saber.

Fate / Zero – 04

“You can’t see it, but trust me…it’s there.”

Here it is: the first Grail War battle in which neither side is trying to lose, and what do you know, it’s between Saber and Lancer. It feels like there’s been a lot of buildup to this, but I was still caught off guard by just how well-executed it was.

I didn’t even mind the frequent cuts away from the combatants to their various observers, because the weight of their interests and stakes in this fight felt just as significant as the thrill of the fight.

“Did I leave the oven on?”

Lancer, AKA Diarmuid of the Love Spot (best name, or bestest?), is a formidable opponent, able to surprise Saber and Iri on more than one occasion with his surprise tactics based on insufficient intelligence on his abilities.

But these aren’t two people who don’t like each other fighting to the death, it’s two people who through their interaction in battle only gain more and more Capital-R Respect for one another. They’re knights, but they’re also warriors who love a good opponent and they’re having a blast.

NOT THE BANGS

What also made the fight so engrossing was my complete lack of an idea how it would go. Early on, Saber is pushed back on her heels, so to speak, made to discard her armor only to play straight into Lancer’s Gáe Buidhe-and-Gáe Dearg dual-wielding hands.

But while he draws blood and seems to have the edge in the battle, even he knows one cannot simply underestimate a Saber-class Servant, especially one who has yet to really dig into her own bag of tricks.

(One thing I did not realize until this episode is how and why Saber’s sword is invisible: she conceals it with wind magic because it bears her true name. That…actually makes a lot of sense.)

YOU GUYS I BROUGHT BEER

But what truly makes the battle special is that it isn’t the only thing going on. Aside from Matou and Uryuu, virtually everyone is carefully watching this fight, from Toosaka through Kirei via Assassin (who still, for the moment, believe Iri is Saber’s Master) and Kiritsugu and Maiya, to Velvet and Rider.

Iskandar is increasingly worried he’ll lose the chance to have a good fight against the other heroes if he lets Lancer kill Saber too soon, so he crashes the party in grand fashion, landing between them in his chariot in a cloud of lightning. Quite the entrance, and one that promises a more complex and nuanced outcome than simply one Servant beating another.

And this is because these are three epic heroes we’re dealing with—not mindless obedient robots—whose actions are driven almost as much by their histories and charisma as by their Masters’ orders.

Fate / Zero – 03

“Oh sorry, did YOU want wine?” | “What channel is He-Man on?”
As Tokiomi apologizes to his Servant Archer (AKA Gilgamesh) and begs him to be patient as the plan unfolds, Waiver celebrates the death of Assassin, but his Servant Rider (AKA Iskandar) doesn’t really care, and is far more concerned with acquiring B-2 Stealth Bombers and other weaponry with which to defeat…Bill Clinton.

I enjoyed the contrast between these two Servant-Master pairs, with Tokiomi exercising the utmost deference to Archer, who abides by his wishes while Rider is more of a constant nuisance to Waiver, who can’t even get him to enter spirit mode. I can’t blame Rider; Waiver may have shown guts in stealing the relic with which to summon him, but he hasn’t done anything to inspire confidence since then.

They’ve already won the Holy Fashion War.
Rider’s not caring about Assassin’s death is just as well, since Assassin isn’t actually dead; he can take the form of many different people. What is dead are Kirei’s chances of winning the War, so he withdraws and is granted asylum in the Church by the observer, his dad Risei, and plans to use his Assassins to spy on all of the remaining Servants for Tokiomi.

Meanwhile, with Saber summoned and ready to go, she accompanies Irisviel to Fuyuki City, her love’s hometown, and the first place she’s ever left Einzbern Castle to visit. While Iri sightsees, Saber is her knight and bodyguard, wearing a stylish, practical black suit that contrasts nicely with Iri’s snow-white garb. They make a stunning pair…even though Iri isn’t Saber’s real Master.

“I sense my man kissing someone…”
That guy, Kiritsugu, arrived in Fuyuki a bit earlier, and enters a hotel room to find his assistant Maiya and a cache of weapons with which he’ll fight the War. When his thoughts turn to his frail daughter and he momentarily despairs, Maiya re-centers him by taking him in her arms and kissing him.

Whatever history those two have, I doubt it’s a threat to the union Kiritsugu and Irisviel, an unexpected pairing, but both a necessary and intriguing one. Their love for and trust for one another is above reproach. Irisviel, meanwhile, enjoys a walk on the beach with her night in black tailored suit, until Saber detects trouble nearby.

“Okay…let’s see what you got.”
The women head to the harbor, where the Servant Lancer is waiting for them, but with no Master in sight. Far from being concerned by a potential attacker in the night, it would seem Irisviel was acting as a faux Master of Saber in order to accomplish what came to pass: luring out the last Servant unaccounted for.

As for who commands Lancy, I’m not ruling out Archibald, who has been curiously absent despite Waiver having stolen his relic for Rider. And as for who will win this duel, I suspect neither party will end up dying, since we’re only three episodes in. A draw, perhaps? Either way, I can’t wait to see it.

Zero continues to excel where often UBW fell down, managing to make virtually every patch of dialogue (or monologue) compelling, integrating just enough comedy to avoid being too stodgy or serious, and most important, making every participant either eminently rootable, deliciously loathable, or a lovely synthesis of the two.

Fate / Zero – 02

“OMG I LOVE MAPS!”

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.

Illyasviel von Einzbern : Good Anime Kid

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.

You got KRAKEN’D

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.

“There’s no such thing as TOO much hair gel.”

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.

Fate / Zero – 01 (First Impressions)

“Your Dad and I are just going to slowly orbit you for a while. You don’t mind, right?”

I have watched the UBW anime, but not the original Fate/stay night. I intend to watch and assess stay night’s prequel Fate/Zero on its own merits, forgetting/disregarding wherever possible what transpired before or after, since. That being said, having watched UBW I’m not a complete novice to the Fate franchise, so I know the basics of the Holy Grail War and its Servants.

Zero takes all of the limited information I know and recontextualizes it and expands my understanding of its players, all of them operating ten years before the events of night. Things obviously feel familiar to UBW for the most part, but they are still, in fact, quite different. Dare I say, more significant…and more emotionally resonant?

“Hey Rin! Here’s hoping the next time we meet I don’t have white hair and a face full of bugs!”

I’ll admit I was a little lost in the woods as I watched flashback after flashback to the present day of Zero, in which Irisviel von Einzbern and Emiya Kiritsugu’s newborn child Illyasviel, or Kotomine Kirei’s father Risei and Toosaka Tokiomi informing Kirei that he’s to ensure Tokiomi’s victory.

But as I carefully watched and took a few notes, the complex network of characters and relationships—both good and deeply troubled—gradually took shape. Rin, Sakura, and Illyasviel are all players I’ve known and seen, but this is the story of how their older relatives assembled and summoned their Servants to fight the Fourth Holy Grail War.

I thus found myself gaining lots of insights into the kind of families and personalities those familiar faces came from. For instance, I had no idea Shirou and Illyasviel have the same dad…or that Sakura and Rin are biological sisters.

“What is this bullshit…A5? I wanted LEGAL.”

Watching this epic introduction jump from one party to another as they begin to circle one another and size each other up is, in a word, thrilling (I say that despite the mundane-ness of the image above). And without exception, I found myself invested in everyone for very different reasons, even though I know they’ll all be at each others’ throats and most of them will have to lose and/or die.

Kirei and Kiritsugu may think each other the most underhanded, dangerous men alive (in a masterful dual-monologue in which the two shit on each other for what seemed like five solid minutes), but I never felt the compulsion to take a side, because both men have their reasons. I also never felt like the show was trying to make me take a side.

The exception to that is, of course, the clearly demented Matou Zouken, who needs go fuck off immediately to hell with Sugou Nobuyuki and/or some similar assholes. It’s good to see Kariya sacrifice his freedom, health, and maybe life to keep poor Sakura out of the fighting. I also appreciated the layered characters of both Rins’ dad Tokiomi and apparent wild card Waiver Velvet.

“I like what you’ve done with the lighting in this place.”

This episode is long and talky, but it’s length well spent and talks that kept me interested. Call it a crash course in Fate, only with a little bit of prior knowledge, and far more comfortable and entertaining than a crash course has any right to be. This is setting the stage done right.

Speaking of that stage: once all the talking and sizing up ceases in this first episode, it’s time to start summoning some Servants, and the inter-cut scenes between Saber, Archer, Berserker, and Rider’s awakenings form a compound momentousness (just as Assassin’s intro was stealthy and low-key, as befits an assassin).

In short, I was pleased with this opening. The fact that nobody so much as laid a finger on anybody for nearly an hour only reinforces my confidence in this show’s narrative chops. Timelines and venues may jump around, but it’s just people talking-talking-talking in rooms, to one another, to themselves, about each other…then summoning some Servants. It just…worked.

Captions by sesameacrylic