Gen Urobuchi has gotten a tremendous reputation as a writer of animation, particularly through his deconstruction of the magical girl genre with Puella Magi Madoka Magica. In 2011, he did something slightly different, by doing a novel prequel to the hit visual novel Fate/Stay Night, covering the events of the previous Holy Grail War, which set the events of the original game and anime in motion. The show shifted animation studios from Deen, to Ufotable, who had only a handful of shows under their name at that time – though the animators had years of experience from TMS.
While Fate/Stay Night, being an adaptation of a Visual Novel, puts its focus on one or two characters, specifically Shirou Emiya and Rin Tohsaka, Fate/Zero is much more of an ensemble piece. Each of the Masters in the Fourth Holy Grail War are perspective characters, though some have more focus than others.
The main five leads are Waver Velvet, a young student at a magic academy in Britain from a bloodline of no account, who has stolen his teacher’s catalyst for Rider (Iskandar/Alexander The Great) in order to get the respect of his masters and peers; Kirei Kotomine, who has summoned Assassin (The Old Man On The Mountain), to assist his master in winning the war; Kirei’s master, Tokiomi Tohsaka, who has summoned Archer (Gilgamesh); and Kiritsugu Emiya and his wife Irisviel von Einzbern, who have summoned Saber (Arturia Pendragon – the same Saber who will team with Shirou in Fate/Stay Night).
The other notable characters are Kariya Matou, who had left the family, but returns after his sister Aoi, and her husband Tokiomi, send their second daughter, Sakura, to the Matou family, where the leader of the family – Zouken, is indoctrinating her with his worm magic. Zouken himself is an ancient sorcerer who is basically sustained by worms living in his flesh to such a degree that he’s practically a cultist of Kyuss. Kariya receives a magical boost from Zouken through his worms, causing Kariya to become increasingly deranged over the course of the series. Kariya has summoned Berserker (whose true identity is not revealed until very late in the series, so I’ll leave it unspoiled)
While those Masters have their sympathetic elements, here are two Masters who are clearly antagonistic. There is Kayneth El-Melloi Archibald and his wife Sola-Ui, who are from an Old Magic family, but not as old as the Tohsaka, Einzbern, and Matou families, who are all much more deeply involved in the creation of the Grail. We’re introduced to him as Waver’s teacher, mocking him due to his lack of a major bloodline, and he never really does anything more to try and make himself more sympathetic. He’s summoned Lancer (Diarmuid of the Love Spot), who proves himself generally more honorable than his master.
Finally, there is Ryuunosuke Uryuu, who is voiced in the English dub by a very much cast against type Johnny Yong Bosch, who is a serial killer of children who summons Caster – Gilles De Rais. While this duo isn’t at the forefront of the overall story, they do take the forefront as antagonists through the midpoint of the series.
Now, the issue prequels run into is that the audience knows, ultimately, where a story is going. Thus, you need a journey that is particularly compelling to make that story worth telling, through unanswered questions, compelling characters, or both. Fate/Zero manages the latter. The cast is very well written, with each group having plenty of chemistry, and each character’s motivations (except for Uryuu and De Rais, who are written as stock serial killers) making perfect sense.
Additionally, we know from the conclusion of Fate/Stay Night that the information we’ve gotten about the events of the Fourth Grail War are either incomplete (Shirou and Rin’s remembrances), or from questionable sources (Kirei’s explanation). The story told here recontextualizes the information we got from the original game and the Deen anime better. The series ultimately makes me wish that the novel had been written when Deen’s anime was in production, so they could include references to the material in the book, that would make it worth a re-watch after having seen Fate/Zero. Instead, I’m just going to have to look for that material in Ufotable’s own adaptation of the Unlimited Blade Works route.
Speaking of the differences between the two studios – Ufotable’s animation blows Deen clean out of the water. Deen’s night scenes felt like day-for-night shooting. Ufotable paints much deeper shadows, creating much more striking night scenes. The fight scenes are also incredibly fluid, with the fight scenes getting across the strength and power of the protagonists much more than the Deen version did. The facial animations also are much more subtle – Deen tended to go more super-deformed in Fate/Stay Night for any comedic moments. Ufotable stays more realistic, which fits with the more grounded material.
Also, the character writing also feels so much better, and the first season of the series has one of my favorite moments of television. The penultimate episode of the first season features a scene that I’d call the Council Of Kings, where Gilgamesh, Alexander the Great, and Arturia Pendragon, sit down over wine and talk about what it means to be a monarch. You see how each character is defined by where they were at their death – Gilgamesh as triumphant king of the known world, but alone after the death of Enkidu; Alexander as triumphant conqueror, leader of a mighty army; and Arturia, in the wake of the Battle of Camlann, broken, beaten, and alone, questioning the path on which her life has taken her. It is a wonderful piece of writing, and if it didn’t end with Alexander showing off his Noble Phantasm, had I known about it in high school drama class, I totally would asked to adapt it into my classes single-scene assignment.
That said, all is not roses – mainly due to the form in which this show was released, because it was licensed by Aniplex. If you want to buy the show on Blu-Ray, it will cost you $300 for both seasons. If you buy it on DVD, it will cost around $150, and both releases are very bare bones – not commentaries, no interviews with the creators, nothing. The show is available for streaming, even with the dub, pretty much everywhere, but that only will last as long as Aniplex deigns to keep it available.