Nothing Urobuchi Gen does is ever less than fascinating, and Fate/Zero is no exception. But I find myself questioning whether there was any lasting meaning to the whole experience.
In the end I think F/Z couldn’t escape the prison of Fate/Stay Night. Whatever else Urobuchi wanted to do with this story and these characters, he had to point them all at a very specific place and deliver them as advertised. There was some definite flexibility in how to get there, but ultimately I think that was a cage the series never quite broke free of. I’ll take the word of those who say F/SN was a VN of distinction – I can only vouch for the anime, which in my view certainly wasn’t especially praiseworthy – but I don’t think it matters one way or the other. F/Z has to stand or fall on its own merits and while it mostly stands, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a triumph.
The other great limiter on F/Z was format. This was a light novel series originally, and my sense is that a good deal of the nuance that existed in LN form was lost in the transition to the anime. There are certainly differing viewpoints on the question of whether an anime needs to be able to exist independently of source material (and sequel, in this case) but my take has always been that it does. Short of a direct sequel, if a new viewer can’t watch a series unhindered without having read the source material or seen the companion series, I think it’s failed one of its responsibilities. And there were too many times in the second season where F/Z sort of punted and just threw either LN or F/SN stuff in without any real explanation or attempt to contextualize it for new viewers. On the whole this was much more common in the second cour than the first.
Another problem with this inconsistent transition from one medium to another is that both Kirei and Kiritsugu – nominally the main characters in the anime – were basically ciphers midway through the second cour. This presumably prompted the decision to take a two-episode detour to try and flesh out Kiritsugu and make his motives more clear. There were issues with those episodes themselves, but even bigger ones with leaving the main storyline hanging for two eps to pursue them. Given Urobuchi’s expansive inner monologues in the LNs, both Kiritsugu and Kirei were likely much more complete characters in that form, but I don’t think the anime staff ever really found a way to communicate who these men were until it was much later than it should have been.
It’s for all of these reasons that the second season rarely achieved the same mastery of the first, and was less successful as a whole. There were some excellent episodes – Lancer’s death being a particular standout – but the limitations of what Fate/Zero is were much more apparent in the second cour. The first cour was free to play around with the large and diverse cast, explore Urobuchi’s fascinating worldview, and show off lots of cool stuff. The second cour actually had to tie it all together, and the freedom of the first cour was constrained by that looming endgame that was pre-determined from the beginning. The corridor got narrower and narrower the closer the show got to the end, and the pacing choices (the Rin detour in S1, the Kerry detour in S2) seemed to cause problems late, where Saber’s arc just seemed rushed and superfluous.
The strengths of this series are formidable – Urobuchu Gen’s writing and ufotable’s stellar production values. The latter is a bit too CGI-happy for my tastes, but the consistency of the visuals in this series is pretty astonishing. It’s a series of grand scale, both intellectually, emotionally and visually, and ufotable never let the side down in that regard. Rarely will you find a series so full of big ideas as this one – it’s ironic that despite all that CGI and epic scale, the best scenes in Fate/Zero were often characters talking to each other calmly and quietly. The Summit of Kings in S1 stands out as a particular tour de force, a brazen and unapologetic philosophical debate that set in its sights the entire world and mankind’s role in it. They should show that episode in university courses for years to come, because it was incredibly direct, pointed and free of BS.
Urobuchi is essentially a Nihilist with a healthy twist of despair, and that can get exhausting after a while. I always end up finding his works more intellectually than emotionally satisfying because there are relatively few characters I intrinsically want to root for (and they usually suffer for it) and despair is so prevalent that I shut that part of myself down as a kind of defense mechanism. But there are very, very few examples in anime of writers that ask the tough questions as cuttingly as Urobuchi does, or in such a lucid manner. Of course he’s better at asking those questions than answering them, but there’s a very good reason for that – I don’t think Urobuchi believes there are any answers to be had. Yes, he unambiguously rejects the views of both Kiritsugu and Saber in the end – but I don’t think he views either of them as morally inferior to the other (or Kirei’s view, for that matter). Rather, I think Urobuchi is saying that it’s the act of railing against the injustice of an impassive universe that brings on the tragedy. Existence is suffering – that’s Urobuchi’s fundamental truth. You can’t beat the system – the best you can do is work within it. Whether that means traveling the world, fighting for the sake of testing your own strength or saving a small boy who would die without your help, simply do what you want and help people where you can. Anything more is folly.
To look for conventional character arcs with conventional satisfactions in an Urobuchi series is asking for disappointment. Heroes aren’t rewarded and villains punished because the universe doesn’t recognize heroes and villains – only those who take what they want and those that don’t. That’s why his series don’t tend to satisfy in the end so much as leave you dazed and bleeding by the side of the road. He’s a remarkably smart writer and Fate/Zero is a remarkable show, but in the end most of the satisfaction I get comes from Rider and Waver, who were the leading lights of hope in a hopeless universe. People can change – and not in the way Kirei changes, or because of limitless suffering (caused and felt) as in Kiritsugu’s case. They changed because of their relationship with each other, and for the better at that. And it’s no coincidence, I think, that as characters they didn’t carry the heavy burden of having to confirm to their F/SN archetypes. They could simply be, and exist gloriously as Urobuchi imagined them. And in doing so, perhaps they reveal that Urobuchi hasn’t completely given himself over to hopelessness and despair.