When I first watched Ufotable's Garden of Sinners, I was immediately blown away by the attention to detail applied to every shot. Something as simple as the effective use of depth of field made the experience far more cinematic than the average animated film that hits japanese theaters. Save for some of the big guns like Studio Ghibli, Madhouse and perhaps Production IG, films tend to feel like longer, higher budgeted TV episodes rather than true cinematic experiences. There were a lot of other qualities from GoS that stuck with me as I went through each film, but that first impression probably hit me the strongest and was the reason why I was initially so excited for Fate/Zero.
I wasn't the biggest fan of Fate/Stay Night. My only exposure to the franchise had been through the TV series and while I enjoyed it for what it was, I found it somewhat forgettable. The production qualities were all over the place and some characters were a bit grating, but I generally enjoyed my time with it enough to want to look at other Type Moon works.
With the knowledge that one of my favorite writers (Gen Urobuchi) had penned the original novels, I went into Fate/Zero hoping that it would meet my somewhat high expectations and avoid collapsing on itself like so many hyped up projects often do. Keep in mind that I went into this show with no knowledge of the source material save for knowing that it was a prequel. I don't tackle any material that was exempt from the anime.
Follow me after the break as I tell you why the 4th Holy Grail War is something you don't want to miss.
The final episode of Fate/Zero is a book end, showing several of the survivors of the Holy Grail War after the fact and hinting at the future to come. Looking at Urobuchi's previous work, this is arguably a less despair-filled ending than some people might have expected; Waver growing and finding real happiness or even Kiritsugu managing some kind of self-redemption. Urobuchi still treads into the darkness however, with a particularly sinister scene involving Kirei's reaction when he sees Rin crying over the death of her father.
Saber is given one last sequence as well, showing her back in her own time after a terrible battle has ensued, cast into despair over her failure to lead her people or her friends. In my opinion it's a touching moment that is best served here in the final episode, effectively completing her story arc while still hinting that perhaps there's hope for her yet. The final shot of the clouds parting and the beam of sun shining upon Saber was a nice touch. Her final scene in the present, the destruction of the Holy Grail, is especially profound as she briefly reflects on how she could never have hoped to understand her master when she couldn't even understand her own subjects.
I think Ufotable did a good job introducing Shiro here, with a strong inner monologue to set up why he looks up to Kiritsugu so much. I was especially impressed with the way Ufotable and Urobuchi handled Kiritsugu during the final episode, showing a man who once believed so firmly in the 'save a lot, sacrifice a few' idea, being brought to tears by the fact that he was at least able to save a single human life. In some ways the truth of the Grail (and its curse), as painful as it is for him, is what seems to push Kiritsugu to realize the flaws in his ideals.
While brief, it is revealed that Kariya somehow made it out of Berserker's final battle alive, though not for long. He sees Sakura and Rin being reunited with their mother, only for the curtains to be pulled back revealing that it was a hallucination. Kariya is eaten alive by the worms below the Matou household, as Sakura watches with a cold cruel glare. She calls him a fool for ever trying to disobey the will of his father.
The overwhelming message of the episode seems to be that there is still hope. For all of the awful that has transpired throughout the war, there are still survivors. For Kiritsugu, even if he can never see his daughter again, he still has hope in the form of Shiro. Waver can move forward in life because of what he learned from his friend Rider. Saber, perhaps in the darkest place out of all of the major players, still has the chance to find her way again. If that's not a relatively positive ending for an Urobuchi penned story, I don't know what is.
Fate/Zero started off slow which I know was a turn off for a lot of people. To its credit though, I think the initial slow burn paid off in the long run as it gave us the chance to get to know the major players and their motivations a bit better than we otherwise might have. Past the first four or so episodes, I think the pacing throughout F/Z has been excellent, so distributing the heavy exposition early on was probably a solid idea. The second half of the series in particular moved at a great speed, with every episode proving to be something of a showstopper for one reason or another.
A huge part of what makes this show special is the level of artistic consistency across the board. Combat animation, when paired with the thoughtful fight choreography, is stunning to behold and gets very close to film quality, sometimes arguably reaching that goal. Sequences of dialogue are handled carefully, with the staff choosing 'shots' that best bring out the qualities in characters/support the overall feel of the sequence. As a former student of film, it's surprising just how much more cinematic Fate/Zero feels from many other shows in the past few years, simply because of shot choice and overall camerawork.
Yuki Kajiura brings her atmospheric sound to the soundtrack of Fate/Zero, effectively manipulating emotions and drama via subtle musical cues. Despite being primarily an action series, the soundtrack for F/Z is surprisingly underplayed, with Kajiura more focused on scene setting than making a standalone work. That isn't to say there aren't some standout themes that will stick with you post-viewing; it's a lot like her work on Garden of Sinners in that sense.
It's been a long since I've seen a two season show so consistently entertain and engage me for the entirety of its run. Often times shows take massive dips in quality after the initial episodes, making a come back toward the finale. Fate/Zero manages the rare feat of frequently outdoing itself whether it be through thoughtful action choreography or careful wordplay. Ufotable has done an altogether spectacular job on this project, and I can only hope that Type Moon continues to work with them to bring their stories to life.
If you hated Fate/Stay Night, I highly recommend you give Fate/Zero a look. It's a very different beast in the way it handles its cast and story and you might be surprised to find yourself loving the show. Likewise, if you've seen F/SN and enjoyed it, there's no reason not to check out F/Z; it offers a fresh, mature take on a very cool concept.
Plus it has Gilgamesh. What more can you ask for?
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