Fate Stay Night is one of my favourite anime ever, and Urobuchi Gen has just earned his way to the top of my anime scriptwriter list with his work in Madoka and Fate Zero.
To recap, Fate Zero tells the story of the Fourth Grail War in Fuyuki City 16 years prior, with a cast of Masters and Servants that make the participants of the Fifth War look like kids messing around (which they are, actually). In the ring are a sociopathic serial killer, an ice-blooded assassin (who is pretty close so sociopathic himself), a nihilistic priest, and a vengeful prodigal on the brink of mental and physical breakdown – and there’s masses of betrayal, backstabbing, deception, unexpected killing/maiming, and general nastiness. A thick web of enmity, rivalry, obsession, vengeance, collusion, and reluctant opposition connects all the Masters and Servants, infusing the magical competition with personal stakes.
The tactics deployed truly are clever, and some of the most profound moments of the series are those of philosophical discussion – eg Rider criticising Saber’s ideals, Waver learning Rider’s concept of “conquest”. Kiritsugu even expresses a burning hatred for the idea of Heroic Spirits and the admiration they engender, questioning their fundamental glorification of war that’s far more unpleasant than the stories tell.
However, while the first season keeps the tension at a boil, the second season isn’t able to juggle all the threads and cuts far too many of them short. Kiritsugu’s transition from a hopeful child into a cold-blooded, deceptive murderer isn’t convincing, and numerous potential subplots (eg Saber’s disgust at his methods, his unfaithfulness to his wife, his instinctive rivalry with Kotomine) are raised briefly but left unresolved. He outmanoeuvres every opponent he faces with underhanded ease, making it difficult to identify with him.
Waver never meets the teacher that vowed to destroy him, and poor Kamiya and his Servant (who has awesome animations and a fantastic hidden identity) just appear and disappear randomly. Caster and his Master, and even Lancer and his Master turn out to be speedbumps in the story. Perhaps the original light novel is more complete, but the second season of Fate Zero falls short of its narrative potential.
The animation is brilliant, and the music great – though I found the visuals of the second ED hard to swallow given the actions of the characters.
Fate Zero is a more serious, less “kiddie” treatment of the ideas in Fate Stay Night, and one that’s well worth watching.