When Kyoukai no Kanata (Beyond the Boundary) ended in late 2013, I wasn’t terribly pleased with it. Beyond anything else, I thought that it could’ve easily been better, if not in terms of poor directing in its last two episodes, and its mismatched tones, and other issues, then at least in terms of emotional investment in a certain event, and thus in one of the two main characters of the story. It felt frustrating, that a show missed its mark with what could’ve been an easy change. And that in turn led me to solidify my thoughts on why I wasn’t as invested in Fate/Zero which I watched a couple of years prior – I felt that the show, which wasn’t bad, could’ve been so much better.
This post is going to cover an assortment of topics, as they all tie into one another. It will mostly revolve around and use Fate/Zero, both as the object discussed, and as an example for these other topics: Series composition, the act of deciding which part of the story will go where in the story, and how much space it’ll receive. Story structure with regards to revelation, character involvement and emotional attachment, and Urobuchi Gen’s specific quirk in this regard, and some thoughts on how it might tie to Visual Novel writing, as well as thrillers and tragedies. Hopefully these topics, and how they’re interwoven, will all be interesting.
(This is a Things I Like post, it’s not a review, but more a discussion of the show and of ideas that rose in my mind as a result of watching the show. There will be spoilers for Fate/Zero, and as Fate/Zero spoils Fate/Stay Night, that will be spoiled as well. There’ll be meta-structural spoilers (I’ll discuss the form of the storytelling) for Gargantia in the Verdurous Planet, Madoka Magica, Kyoukai no Kanata (Beyond the Boundary), and Psycho-Pass’s first season.)
Fate/Zero’s Characters – Kiritsugu’s Presence:
In some ways, Fate/Zero is an ensemble show, not unlike Sound! Euphonium, where we revolve around different characters, and each character or pair of characters gets their time to shine, some background and characterization, and interaction with other characters. As is often the case with stories authored Urobuchi Gen (the writer behind Madoka Magica, Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet, and others), the accusation that some of the characters exist more to stand for an ideological position than as flesh and blood people is not entirely without merit. This is especially true in this show, as each character pairing, of master and servant, comes from a different magical tradition, and has a different position on what a “true mage” should be like, and what one should wish for. As such, even the interaction between some characters tells you far less about the people involved, than it is a clash between ideologies.
I wonder if the cause for the biggest “problem” I find with Fate/Zero stems from it being a prequel to the Fate/Stay Night visual novel. Oh, I’m getting ahead of myself. Although it’s an ensemble show, it’s pretty clear who the main characters of Fate/Zero are, and those are Kotomine Kirei, corrupt priest, and Emiya Kiritsugu, mage assassin. Both of which are characters that are important to Fate/Stay Night, and so part of their characterization, of Kirei as a charming yet corrupt priest, and of Kirsitugu, as a broken man who dreamed of being a hero, is set in stone. And unlike the other characters, who can bring joy into their scenes, these two tend to drag down their scenes, and rarely, more than any other character, except for the other two Fate/Stay Night mainstays, Gilgamesh and Saber, seem to embody ideologies more than be complete people.
And the worst offender of all is Kirsitugu, who unlike the other 3 recurring characters doesn’t actually get a real role within Fate/Stay Night, but is a memory haunting Shirou, his adopted son, and story protagonist, so he’s given less room to be played with, and sadly, the story does not take the time to give him a fully-fleshed personality for most of its run. Or rather, it doesn’t seem to, which we’ll get to soon enough. And since he’s the main character of the story, even more so than Kirei, his deficiencies as an engaging character affect the entire show.
Fate/Zero is a story about a contest, about a conflict, material and ideological, over the nature of power: What it is, how it should be employed, and for what purpose. Here it’d serve to look at a couple of “pairings”, and how Kiritsugu’s character fares in comparison. Irisviel’s ideological theme is “I will sacrifice myself for others’ happiness. I will be a tool.” Saber went for “I will be others’ shield, and protect them from harm, and from the need to sacrifice themselves.” Saber complemented Irisviel’s character, and they had conversations that could revolve around their differences and similarities, as their themes run counter to one another, but they tried to resolve them by convincing one another. Kiritsugu’s theme in this context was, “I will use up others to achieve my goals.” He “complements” Irisviel, but there’s no conflict here, nothing to actually raise interest. And while Kiritsugu and Saber’s themes run counter to one another, he just flat out ignores her and doesn’t engage with her within the story.
It’s not that the show lacks in other one-dimensional characters, such as Caster and his master, a pair of derpy GrimDark serial killers, but they’re thankfully pushed to the background, for the most part. It’s also not the case that the show’s other main pair, Kirei and Gilgamesh are that much more fleshed out as characters, but they have two big things going for them. The first is that they are engaging to watch on a spectacle level, as whereas Kiritsugu is the epitome of the “Silent Brooding Protagonist” who is too cool for school, Kirei and Gilgamesh look as if they’re having fun (which is part of their theme of decadence and hedonism), and are greater than life, as if they’ve been lifted straight out of a soap, or Richard the Third.
Series Composition and Emotional Attachment:
However, the other difference between Kirei and Kiritsugu goes beyond the superficial level, and go into how they’re characterized, and when, which is a big part of my problem with the show. Series composition is important for the success of a story. Pacing clearly affects storytelling and emotional resonance, as it can decide whether we’re kept on the edge of our seats, or end up looking at the ceiling, withdrawing from the material as it bores us. But where certain events occur within the narrative, regardless of their temporal location within the narrative, is also of utmost importance.
We see Kirei interacting with his biological father, or with his adoptive “father” early on. We see what motivates him, we see what he’s aiming for. He also speaks about it all the damn time. Then we have Kiritsugu, who for most of the show is a collection of tropes, as covered in the previous episode. But, 18 episodes in (and over the course of two full episodes), we finally learn what made Kiritsugu into the person he is today, someone who doesn’t share how he’s feeling, who bottles it in, who keeps others at a distance, even as he uses them, and why he wishes so much to be a hero. We learn how he became the way he is now. But it comes far too late.
I discussed this in my Sword Art Online piece about the nature of emotional attachment, and this is indeed a tricky point, as you need to hammer the watchers with the “sad” early in order for us to care for the “sad” later on. And through the sad moments, care for the characters. The sad early on feels unearned and reeks of emotional manipulation, which it is, but it’s what makes the later segments feel earned. I’ll give the show this, that Kiritsugu is an understandable character. Certainly after you watch episodes 18-19 and cast your mind back, but I understood his taciturn nature and what might lie underneath even beforehand, but while understanding a character has a sensible background and acts as a sensible person (in that they have believeable reactions based off of their personality make-up, not in their decision to become a mage assassin using his own bones to murder other people, mind), it doesn’t make them (emotionally) relatable. And while Rider and Waver are the true beating heart of the show, and while it’s also true that the show is an ensemble show, the show makes it clear that Kiritsugu is its main character; its protagonist, if you will. And when the character that is set up to be so damn tragic elicits no empathy or care on the part of the watcher, then the whole show suffers for it.
I intimated it at the start of the piece, but discussions revolving around Kyoukai no Kanata helped me form some of these thoughts, back in late 2013. Kyoukai no Kanata for most of its run is a pretty fluffy and comfortable semi-comedy slice-of-life action-drama. Yeah, that’s a mouthful. Regardless, though you can tell there’s some Stuff™ going on in the background, it’s a pretty comfortable watch, and the confrontation comes from outside. Until, when the series is almost over, a Capital-R Reveal happens, and changes the form of the story. While some of the feelings of pity we should’ve had for the character whose backstory and hardships were suddenly revealed were indeed earned over the course of the show, the overall atmosphere the show has been going for up to that point (of mostly light entertainment) left it feeling disjointed. Which is also how the last two episodes felt in general, both from a plot perspective, and in how the directing fell to pieces. But I digress.
It’s not enough for us to understand the characters, when you intend for us to care about them and what happens to them, it’s hard to decide where to place the sob-story. If you place it in the end, we should hopefully care about the characters by then, but if we don’t, then though we’d understand everything, especially in retrospect, then it’s likely to fall flat. And if you place it early, you guarantee that we’d understand the characters’ actions, and find the nuances in what they say or don’t say, but run the risk of people crying about “Emotional Manipulation!” early on, though frankly, emotional manipulation is to be expected, but that’s a topic for another day.
Urobuchi and Generalized Thriller Story-Structure:
I alluded to it slightly in my piece on flashbacks, but also above. This sort of method is common in thrillers, where you’re being kept in the dark on purpose, until a big reveal comes and drops information. But thrillers usually don’t work around the expectation that you’ll form an emotional connection or attachment to the characters involved. But there’s another thing going on here, and that’s tragedy. When you know bad (sad) things are going to happen, you sometimes prepare yourself for them in a way that heightens the impact, similarly to how you might tear up just before an emotional moment occurs when you rewatch a favourite film. A tragedy, to a degree, takes the build-up towards the emotional reveal/events and imbues it with some emotional weight of its own. It is as if you “feel” before the events occur, because you know they will (And I certainly think part of When Marnie Was There’s emotional weight comes from this fraught atmosphere it generates). But it’s a pretty fine balancing act.
Fate/Zero takes a very specific place in these discussions, because it is a prequel. If you come to it after reading/watching Fate/Stay Night, then you know that Kotomine and Kiritsugu will survive. You know most others will not. You know Kirei is a bastard, and that Kiritsugu will end up as a broken man, as a result of the events of the series. And perhaps, you already care for Kiritsugu before ever watching Fate/Zero, and know everything that will happen to him, more or less, so to you he’s not an emotional blank, but a character you’re invested in from the get-go, and so it works for you. And that brings us to an interesting topic, one of Visual Novels, and Urobuchi Gen’s writing in general.
Urobuchi Gen, who wrote the light novel Fate/Zero is based on got his start writing Visual Novels, the most (in)famous of which is probably Saya no Uta. Saya no Uta, from what I know, certainly has a reveal of the thriller sort, that alters what you think of it. If you look at some of his anime from recent years, such as Madoka Magica, we have an episode later on dedicated to revealing the background of the situation, and which also serves as a certain character’s “Sad Moment,” Gargantia on the Versurous Planet saves a setting-altering reveal for the final moments of its run, and so does Psycho-Pass. I think in visual novels, this type of writing might be expected and cherished, so I wonder if Urobuchi is drawn to this type of writing and was thus a good fit for visual novels, or whether he picked it up from his start in visual novels?
So, why do I think this sort of writing is not only common but encouraged in visual novels? Because many if not most visual novels these days seem to promote multiple playthroughs. The first playthrough isn’t even designed to be the end-all be-all. So, in the first “story” you get the sob story reveal in the end, and you don’t care all that much for the character, or the events. No biggie. But then the visual novel is designed to make you “rewatch” the content again, or different content, but also use the material you’ve already consumed to establish understanding and an emotional connection to the characters involved. It is sometimes used in such a way that a later arc, even though it undoes the events that led to you caring for the characters by that point, will bank on you understanding them as if they did do and go through events that have been undone. So you get to a new story, but it’s banking on you caring for the characters before it earned it, because the previous “story” did.
I have some general issues with this sort of storytelling, but that’s a different kettle of fish. I have an issue with how it’s used in Fate/Zero, where I don’t care for Rin’s father, Tokiomi, or for Kiritsugu, just because I cared for their children. And I think the story falls flatter when you don’t know where it’s going to end up, because it keeps pushing this uninteresting and unsympathetic character to the center, and takes way too long to actually convince you he’s worthy of your tears, even if you understand him, because while he’s a well-constructed character, he’s still a bunch of tropes, so he doesn’t feel fully-fleshed out, fully real.
Why do I not have issues with this form of storytelling elsewhere in Urobuchi’s stories, or thrillers in general? Because it’s not the lynchpin. Fate/Zero relies on you knowing it’s a tragedy, and not just knowing it’s a tragedy, but caring for the characters involved before you even start watching. While it being set up as a death game frames it as a form of a tragedy, but not in the way I meant, with how everything turns out wrong for everyone involved, and especially the so-called protagonist. It’s more of a given that sidesteps the emotional side, more of an action set-piece.
In Urobuchi’s other works, the tragedy is either present, or the core conflict and emotional attachment lies elsewhere. In Madoka, the show opens with the promise of tragedy, as it flat-out tells you where things are going. Furthermore, the emotional core, while certainly moved and heightened post-reveal and upon rewatching, actually still exists, both in atmosphere, and in other characters’ presence and interaction before said reveal. While the show would be much diminished without said episode, which is by far its best, it’d still work.
Psycho-Pass is a thriller, and it has some philosophical undertones that run alongside its main story, so while the reveal serves as further commentary on the philosophical question it raises, it doesn’t change what the thriller was about all along, nor does it really change our opinions on most of the main characters in any significant manner. Likewise, the interpersonal struggle in Gargantia isn’t at all affected by said reveal, and it mostly serves to underline one of the show’s morals – but how we feel about the characters, or the events within it, don’t really change.
Not so with Fate/Zero. Fate/Zero is built around us caring for a character that’s honestly, quite an asshole. Even if you understand why he is an asshole, it doesn’t make him any less of one, or more sympathetic. The story would’ve been better served by relegating Kiritsugu even more to the background, as he actively harms the ideological conflicts the show likes to present us with, or by actually placing the explanation for Kiritsugu’s understated emotes and interactions at the start of the series. As it is, I can’t help but suspect that Fate/Zero is indeed intended as what it was written as – a prequel to a visual novel, or as outlined above, a story where you don’t care for characters, but which serves to make us care for them in a later arc. And as such, the emotional heart of the series isn’t missing, just misplaced, twice over. Both in placing so much emphasis on Kiritsugu and Kirei, and on placing Kiritsugu’s far too late.
Now, one can’t have a discussion on Fate/Zero without addressing “Should I watch Fate/Zero first, or Fate/Stay Night first?” so let’s deal with this – this post is not a review, and assumes you’ve already watched Fate/Zero. Furthermore, it spoils the Fate/Stay Night events that Fate/Zero spoils. As such, it’s too late to ask that question if you’ve read this piece, and as such, utterly useless. Since it’s utterly useless to answer the question here, I won’t. If you still feel the burning urge to discuss this question, please read this post first. And then keep it to yourself, for reasons outlined there.