Come on now, ufotable – that was just showing off.
OP: “to the beginning” by Kalafina
I’m not really sure why that season break was necessary, because Fate/Zero – perhaps more than any show with such a pause – made no attempt to couch it in terms of a true season transition. Episode 13 ended, ep 14 began – it’s basically one continuous airing with a 13-week hiatus. Of course, now that I’ve seen the premiere maybe it was a chance for everyone on staff to eat cookies and drink a lot of juice, because I’m guessing they sold a lot of blood to pay for all the flash that went into this episode. But then, with as many $498.98 (!!) Blu-ray box sets as they sold, maybe that wasn’t a problem.
If you add up all the elements that make up a superb series – writing, acting, production values, soundtrack – I think F/Z was probably the most impressive series of 2011 along with Steins;Gate. And episodes tended to fall into two main buckets – either fascinating but somewhat esoteric gab-fests, or balls-to-the-wall action thrillers. Well, this opener definitely falls into that second category. We knew ufotable was superb at big and grand, but this was some of the most impressive animation I’ve seen since Seirei no Moribito. The CGI was superb and superbly integrated, the shot composition by ace director Aoki Ei was spot-on, and the battle choreography, well – thrilling.
Of course the downside of all that is that sometimes those flash eps tended to lack the authenticity and emotional power of their quieter counterparts, and I think Urobuchi Gen (one of the very best writers in anime today, any genre) is on top of his game when dealing with the psychological dark side of the human animal. Fortunately while the bulk of the episode was devoted to the Godzilla-style battle with Caster (with a full-on wink at the genre) there were a couple of strong dialogue-driven scenes that balanced it out. As the honor-driven servants were doing battle with Caster as Ryuunosuke laughed hysterically from the shore, Gilgamesh/Archer was his usual haughty self, continually refusing Tokiomi’s entreaties to engage the beast and forcing his master to consider using his precious command seal, as two SDF jets ineffectually join the fray.
What was fascinating to me about this is Tokiomi’s reasoning – like everything else in his world, this is about propriety and appearances. He doesn’t really care about the innocent lives at risk – he (and his co-conspirator Risei) only care that the rabble will see what they shouldn’t and put the Grail War at risk. It’s no wonder Archer finds him so boring, and that’s coming from a guy who finds almost everything boring. Archer does get some entertainment when Berserker shows up, however, and commandeers the surviving SDF jet (the other having been eaten by Caster) and turns it into an attack on Archer. The aerial ballet between the berserker jet and Archer’s UFO throne was some of the best (mostly hand-drawn) action animation you’ll see this year, and I was as entertained as Gilgamesh was.
For me, though, the best part of the episode was what was taking place on the ground, where the two dogfighting servants’ masters had their long-awaited meeting. Kariya was the mostly-missing piece of the first cour, and this moment has been a long time coming. He’s a tragic figure, being driven by hate and a thirst for revenge – but compassion, too – to allow himself to be turned into a grotesque freak to try and spare Sakura. His hatred for Tokiomi knows no bounds, and despite the links between them these two men truly seem to represent the polar opposites of the Grail masters – as indeed their servants do for their own fraternity. It’s interesting to watch Urobuchi-sensei continue to subtly show us how the masters and servants are perfectly matched.
I confess I don’t quite understand why no one just offed Ryuunosuke in the first place, since Caster was simply regenerating himself after every attack, but for all that it was certainly a joy to watch him die – and his demise was a classic Urobuchi scene, complete with a little pathos and a bullet to the head. Problem is that Caster can apparently keep his physical form for a while even after his master dies, and if he makes it to shore and starts feeding, do so permanently (which no one wants). Since the only two servants who have a noble phantasm that can kill Caster in one blow (no regeneration) are Gil and Saber we have a problem – as Gil won’t dirty his hands, and Saber’s phantasm is still disabled by Lancer’s curse. Kiritsugu (you know the Caster thing is serious if he actually gets involved) hints that Lancer’s chivalry is the key to releasing Saber’s power, but doesn’t tell us how (and please don’t using the comments, either – we’ll find out next week and that’s how I want it).
So we have a nice cliffhanger there – does Lancer have to die for Saber’s noble phantasm to be freed of the curse? Can he do so voluntarily if he chooses, or if his master does? Even so, that’s a mess in and of itself, with Kayneth apparently out and Sola having usurped his place in the Grail War, and her nowhere to be found at the moment. If you were a fan of S1 (I really should say the first cour) I can’t imagine you were dissatisfied with this episode, as it had pretty much everything that made Fate/Zero the monster hit it was. I hope the ratio of bombast to character drama is a little more balanced in the remaining 13 episodes, but if they were trying to get out attention after this little break, ufotable, Urobuchi and Aoki-sensei certainly succeeded.
ED: “Sora wa Takaku Kaze wa Utau” (空は高く風は歌う; “Up on the Sky, the Wind Sings”) by Haruna Luna