Superfluous Tragedy In Fate/Zero

Introduction: Strengths of Fate Zero

Fate Zero is a stunning anime in several ways. The art, animation, and character designs come together for a rich visual feast. The music is memorable and the opening and closing songs are generally pretty awesome. The characters are interesting, well written, and well developed. A vast and complex world lore and magic systems can be found in this anime, although those details are not always explained well enough. Clearly, Fate Zero has a lot to offer. I couldn’t argue otherwise even if I wanted to. For today’s post, I don’t have a specific, overall point to argue at all. However, I wish to share my thoughts on this anime, and some criticism will definitely be present.

Narrative Power: Influencing The Audience

The narrative style of Fate Zero has extraordinary power. But in my opinion, that entrancing power is something to be wary of. Fans should distance themselves from the story to some degree, particularly if their thoughts and emotions are easy to influence. I’ll try explain. The world in Fate Zero is profoundly “grim-dark” and littered with characters (Mages, mostly) who eschew good ethics and consider a normal conscience to be a sign of an idiot. Violence is treated as run-of-the-hill. Nihilism is a prominent theme. The storytelling is powerful because it is so immersive– but it’s immersing you in a deep swamp you might not be ready for.

People–including myself– are generally easier to pull along than we realize or care to admit. It’s because the writing is so good that many Fate Zero fans are captivated and begin to think more like the characters in this world while they watch. There’s nothing wrong with this, unless you’re a bit of a contrarian like me, who doesn’t like to be forced into the flow of things.

Let me provide an example. When I first watched Fate Zero, it was on a free streaming website, and I made the mistake of reading the comment sections. It was shocking how many people eased right into this fictional world and its bleak, heartless nature. Toxic people can be found in any fan-base, but that’s not what I mean. I’m referring to people in civil discussions who argue their points without realizing how much the atmosphere of the show informs their perspectives. Again, this shows amazing narrative prowess and character building. Getting people genuinely interested in the minds of horrendous villains like Kotomine is no easy feat.

Also consider Tokiomi Tohsaka, the father of Rin and the master of Gilgamesh. He is far from a morally admirable character (although he’s treated with utmost respect by fellow Mages). The narrative makes it rather easy to slide into this character and argue things from his side. But in any other show, fans would almost certainly react to him as a cruel, manipulative man. Tokiomi gave away one of his daughters, condemning her to a dreadful fate with another Mage family. The other daughter would be the heir to his magic; this is her only purpose and value in life. There are in-world reasons behind all this, but those coldly practical reasons are not moral justifications for deplorable behavior. Fate/Zero makes it hard to tell the difference.

(Tokiomi Tohsaka)

Story Weakness: Excessive Promotion of Themes

What rubs me the wrong way about Fate Zero is its pushiness. Its themes and messages are rather roughly shoved into the audience’s metaphorical face. Tragedy is bound to befall good, earnest people. Everyone is selfish. Honor has no value. Nihilism is reasonable. Hedonism is freeing and worth considering. Arrogance and dominant personalities are all-important traits for success. These are the ideas Fate Zero presents. I am not saying stories must always promote social ethics and sound morality. If I thought that, then I would probably hate Fate Zero, as well as other “dark” anime that I enjoy and respect. My point here is that these grim-dark themes should have been presented with more subtlety and less aggression.

The best kind of stories are those with at least some sense of atmospheric balance. The lack of this is a weakness in Fate Zero. To be frank, it’s unrealistic and imbalanced to showcase such an over-abundance of darkness and tragedy. Positive elements are completely overlooked. For example, cruel character deaths are common; even the devoted, loving Irisviel is strangled to death on screen. Kiritsugu’s life is overflowing with countless deaths, and in the end, he can’t save anyone. Kotomine finds his life’s joy in treachery and killing. The reason the masters and servants banded together to fight Caster was to stop him from making magic known to ordinary humans– not to stop him murdering dozens of children.

(Caster and his master, partners in serial killing)

Fate Zero is supposed to be a show with a dark tone, and there’s nothing wrong with stories like that. But if you pile on the clouds heavily, at the expense of any other type of content or narrative choices, the story quality drops. Just as shows that are too bubbly and happy make me feel disgusted, shows that have nothing but bleakness feel tasteless and desperate. Now, Fate Zero isn’t a total loss. There two or three relatively positive highlights. We’ll discuss that in a bit. First, I’ll provide one more example of this anime’s overly dismal content.

The Epitome of Tragedy: Kariya Matou

By far the best example is the case of Kariya Matou. This character sought freedom from the cruel world of Mages, so he refused to inherit the Matou family magic. His father decided to pass the magic on to his adopted granddaughter, Sakura. She was only a small child, rejected by her biological parents, and now forced to become a Mage. The Matou tradition made powerful mages using unspeakably horrific means. Sakura was being tortured. This is where Kariya comes into the picture.

Like anyone with a conscience, Kariya couldn’t tolerate the traumatic torment of a little girl. He also felt a sense of duty to save her, since this wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t abandoned the Mages. So Kariya underwent Mage training in Sakura’s place. Here we have a very relatable character with sound morals who is looking out for the wellbeing of a child. But this is Fate Zero. So naturally, Kariya’s fate is one of the worst tragedies of all.

(Kariya post-mage-training)

In order to become a powerful Mage within one year, Kariya endured the process that would normally stretch over one’s entire childhood. He successfully inherited the strong magic of the Matou family, but it broke his mind, and snipped his lifespan down to nearly nothing. Kariya couldn’t beat the other mages due to mental trauma and constant pain as his body rotted. His mind was so far gone that he murdered Sakura’s mother. In the end, he dies in a delusional state, finished off by Sakura herself.

Now then, I mentioned there are a few positive elements in Fate Zero. Let’s look at those next. The main optimistic features are the characters of Rin and Waver, as well as the ending to Kiritsugu’s story. I also think it’s great that Saber is around to provide a more heroic, honorable perspective; I may discuss this point in a separate post. For now, we’ll focus on the other features I mentioned.

Redemptive Elements: Waver and Rin

Episode (?) of Fate Zero is a side-story about young Rin Tohsaka. She grows up to become a main character and good mage in Fate/Stay Night. The episode focuses on how Rin was able to save several children from being murdered by Caster and Ryunosuke. It may seem relatively insignificant, but I consider it a positive highlight of the anime. It foreshadows the adventures of the next generation, who become better people and strive for greater goals than their predecessors.

In addition, this episode shows Rin’s mental fortitude and courage even at such a young age. She has always been among my favorite characters in the Fate series due to her determination, practicality, and bravery. In the midst of the dark world of Mages, Rin makes her own path and forms her own thoughts and opinions, unshaken by the loss of her parents and other hardships. Rin’s main story is in Fate/Stay Night, but even in Fate/Zero, she is a hero.

(Young Rin)

Waver Velvet’s character arc was my personal favorite of the masters in Fate/Zero. His family was not one of the main Mage bloodlines, knowing only some basic magic. The world of Mages is strict, hierarchical, and prejudiced against “commoner” Mages. So Waver had to work hard every step of the way, enduring the censure of the Mage world, to even begin his mage-craft training. This boy is uppity, a complainer, and not particularly courageous. Nevertheless, he’s been amazing from the start with his drive to pursue his dream and prove the naysayers wrong.

In Fate/Zero, Waver is recognized as a master and can enter the Holy Grail War. He summons the Heroic Spirit Iskandar (Alexander The Great), a step that changed his life forever. Through his interactions with Iskandar, Waver becomes braver, stronger, gracious, and more inspired. He was emotionally attached to Iskandar, and moved on a deep level by the warlord’s unending dreams, nobility, and confidence. After Iskandar was defeated by Gilgamesh, Waver was heartbroken, but at the same time, he now had even more reason to keep striving for success. He considered it his solemn duty to become more like Iskandar and to tell the conqueror’s stories to keep inspiring people to battle for their dreams.

Waver survives the war in Fate/Zero and is thus the only character whom the narrative doesn’t torture or kill for having dreams and ideals. This makes him a symbol of hope and a bold light in the darkness of Fate Zero’s world. Most of the characters have tragic arcs, ending in some kind of major disappointment, pain, or death. But Waver’s story is not a tragedy. It’s the start of his success. He goes on to become a respected Mage who teaches magic to others without prejudice. It’s a story that’s a bit sad but overall very uplifting. That’s why the character of Waver is so important in Fate Zero.

(Waver and Iskandar)

Redemptive Elements: Shiro and Realistic Hope

Kiritsugu is arguably the real main character in Fate Zero. As expected, he has a tragic story ending in failure to save anyone he cared about. If you’ve seen the anime, you already know this, but it’s worth recounting the event to emphasize its importance in redeeming the overall story. Due to Kiritsugu’s interactions with the will of the Grail, disaster unfolds. A flood of fire and lava is unleashed on the city, destroying much of it and killing hundreds. As Kiritsugu stumbles around in the ruin and flames, he finds a lone boy close to death. That boy is Shiro, and he is the only person Kiritsugu successfully rescues.

After what happened, there wasn’t any hope left in Kiritsugu at all. The despair was too great. He failed to make the Grail grant his wish to save everyone. He lost his wife and his sense of purpose. Drowning in guilt and regret, seeing so much death and destruction, Kiritsugu was a broken man. But he saved Shiro. He went on to raise the boy as his son. It was amazing to see a child still alive in all that chaos. Shiro was the light in the dark. Kiritsugu found redemption and inner peace thanks to the child. By saving Shiro, he also saved himself.

Sometimes it seems like Fate Zero’s only message is to give up on your dreams and ideals. You might as well just give into animal nature and complete selfishness. And yet, there is another much subtler theme hidden in the story. Those who obsess over perfection, those who stubbornly cling to their ideals without adapting, and those who have dreams too vast and unrealistic– they will most likely fail. But those who can grow, accept their weaknesses, and strive toward reachable goals have a much better chance.

Think about it. Waver’s dream was to become a Mage in spite of the unfair system. A more extreme version of Waver would probably have wanted to completely destroy the prejudiced, hierarchal system of Mages. Also, rather than try to be exactly like Iskandar, Waver only wants to move a little closer, using the lessons and spirit of Iskandar in his life. This is the difference between blind idealism and progressive realism. Similarly, Kiritsugu never needed to sacrifice so much, with some grandiose goal of eventually saving everyone. He only needed to save one person, and in so doing, save himself as well.

Conclusion: Value of Story Diversity

While there are certainly positive elements in Fate Zero, these are like tiny gold nuggets among the mud and grime of the show’s dominant darkness. My earlier point about Fate Zero being unbalanced still stands. If not for this anime’s audio-visual beauty and vast world lore, it would be easier to see that the story is bitter, edgy and over-the-top. Just as with too much fanservice or too much gore, an over-abundance of negativity for its own sake is tasteless. It deals a major blow to overall quality.

(Hedonistic antagonist Kotomine Kirei)

This definitely doesn’t mean the anime is without value. Fate Zero is essentially a tragedy tale where the ones who try the hardest suffer the most. Evil prevails, and the antagonists’ selfish, skewed mindsets are almost glorified. That’s actually really rare to find: a story where the villains completely win. I value diversity in storytelling. I value the talent required to write such an extremely bleak narrative from start to finish. So in my view, the unusual and dismal nature of Fate Zero is a major reason it should be held in high respect.

For the most part, I watch anime to deconstruct the heavier or more technical aspects of it, including story quality. I will sometimes be critical. But it’s not as if I expect or want a narrative to be flawless or perfectly balanced. It would be abysmally boring if all stories were like that. Each and every story provides unique elements and perspectives. Streamlining them would be unthinkable. For those reasons, Fate Zero is a truly great anime despite its blemishes.

Thanks for reading my work here at Anime Rants. It means a lot to me to have people looking at and thinking about what I wrote. Take care of yourselves, and I’ll see you next time.


4 thoughts on “Superfluous Tragedy In Fate/Zero

  1. Hi!

    Really liked the points you brought up about how “Fate Zero” is rather grim and how that is not something we normally criticize. But I don’t think there’s much wrong with writing a dark and edgy story with morally questionable characters. One description I see get thrown around a lot about “Fate Zero” is that it’s kind of like a Greek Tragedy. Nearly every character is a bit shitty in some way and the ending isn’t always good. But that’s why I liked “Fate Zero” when I watched it. I do think that it managed to balance out the negativity pretty well though it tends to lean gritty. Then again, I haven’t watched “Fate Zero” in years and my initial introduction was through AMVs and clips so I suspect I’d harbor your feelings if I watched it thoroughly now that I think on it.

    I also want to bring up that I think that because “Fate Zero” is the prequel to “Fate Stay Night” it does get some room to be dark since some of the emotional payoffs can be found in the upcoming story. “Fate Stay Night” is lighter in nature and several routes provide a hopeful or positive payoff that “Fate Zero” lacks. “Fate Zero” was supposed to be a story to set up the tragic parts of “Fate Stay Night” which are used and solved in that story as well through the fights with Gilgamesh. I do think that at least softens the blow a bit knowing what comes after.

    That’s just my opinion on the subject, I don’t mean to contradict you or anything. Then again, I think it’s influenced by the fact that I prefer anime/manga with a darker theme like “Made in Abyss” and “Madoka Magica” as opposed to lighter ones so “Fate Zero” is something that fits with my tastes.


    Liked by 1 person

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