The Mythology Behind Fate/Zero: A F/Z Review

Hey all! I’m Rebecca — Josh’s awesome girlfriend, and I’ll be joining his blog as a regular contributor starting today :). I’m hoping to do some more consistent anime blogging over the summer while Josh is busy talking about Japan. Hope you don’t mind!

Since I’m going to be posting on here every now and again I should give a little bit of information about myself. Here‘s my anime list if you feel like checking it out. It’s not nearly as impressive as Josh’s, but I’ve watched a good amount I think. My background is definitely very different. In college, I’m studying environmental science and creative writing — no hardcore astrophysics for me! I started watching anime probably my junior year of high school. I watched it super seriously for a few years, but now it’s a bit more casual. Some of my favorite shows include: Blood+, Chrno Crusade, Romeo x Juliet, Pretear, and Kemono no Souja Erin. I spend most of my free time reading mythology books and many other things, such as baking, watching anime or Star Trek, and playing League of Legends.

Anyway, I happen to be a bit of a mythology buff (at least I like to think that I am) so I thought I’d discuss some of the mythology used in Fate/Zero as well as in other anime in general. Almost all fantasy-based anime use some form of mythology, so I’m only going to touch on examples I think are relevant to the points I’m making. Of course, these are just my thoughts, but I’d love to hear some commentary about what other people think about the topic!

Fate/Zero happens to be particularly heavy (for obvious reasons) in the mythology department, which is why I thought it would be a good foundation for my post. Once again, courtesy of Wikipedia, here is a brief summary of Fate/Zero for those who haven’t seen it:

The story of Fate/Zero takes place ten years prior to the events of Fate/Stay Night, detailing the events of the 4th Holy Grail War in Fuyuki City. The War of the Holy Grail is a contest in which seven mages summon seven Heroic Spirits to compete to obtain the power of the “Holy Grail,” which grants a miracle. After three inconclusive wars for the elusive Holy Grail, the Fourth War commences.

I mean if there’s a quest for the Holy Grail there has to be some mythology going on haha. Of course not mythology in the sense of antiquity, but if it shows up in my Bullfinch’s Mythology book it’s good enough for me. So the questions I’m going to tackle are: How do Fate/Zero and other anime treat the topic of mythology? Is the treatment effective? How could it be better/more effective? And then I’m just going to address some more specific, nitpicky gripes. I’d also like to just say that I’m writing this review in isolation. I haven’t seen Fate/Stay Night or read any of the visual novels. Ok awesome, sorry for the long introduction!

holy-grail

So how does Fate/Zero treat the topic of mythology? The simple answer is that some treat it with more reverence than others and this is entirely dependent on the story and style of the show. I am a bit of a mythology purist myself so I’m going to try and throw that off a bit because I know that especially in Fate/Zero the mythology is completely warped. There is no way that the story could properly function without that element. Of course, a character like Saber (Arturia) could have theoretically been kept male, but that takes away the interest factor of the character and gives little wiggle room for Urobuchi to create a new character. I mean of course making Saber female had a lot to do with major pandering, but at the same time, her interpretation of kingship and her inspiration to obtain the Grail seemed highly influenced by a female perspective—one that would have been out of place with a male Arthur. Because that was the point wasn’t it? Yes, you can recreate epic heroes to a T, but no one wants to see Alexander the Great (Iskander) running around as a little Macedonian guy with no physical prowess. Fate/Zero was forced to take characters from history/mythology and contort them so that they could be fighting machines so that there was something menacing or powerful about the figures. My biggest contention with the use of mythology was drawing in a character like Gilles de Rais who was, as a sorcerer pretty insignificant. Yes, he tried to summon a demon and yes, he was a notorious child-killer, but he didn’t fit with the theme of legendary figures. Also, who the hell is Hassan-i Sabbah (assassin)? He/she was given no introduction and virtually no role in the story whatsoever, I mean I guess in this sense it was okay because he/she died so early on, but the fact that Urobuchi couldn’t be bothered to pick a more significant figure bothered me. These two characters stood out mainly because I hadn’t heard of them before and I felt like they weren’t keeping with the rest of the epic heroes. Almost everyone knows about Gilgamesh, Arthur, and Alexander the Great. Diarmuid is more obscure, but at least he is a legitimate epic hero.

Look at all that badassery.

Look at all that badassery.

This argument is very focused around the characters, but something else to address is the mythological setup for the entire show. The show does revolve around the quest for the Holy Grail. I wasn’t sure that this was the right premise for the show.  There are other wish-granting relics that might have been better. See, the Grail is a strictly religious object, and it doesn’t have any significance other than being a vessel for Christ’s blood. The fact that this was never addressed and that its religious relevance was ignored was strange to me. I thought that if a vessel like that was being used, either Saber or Kirei Kotomine (a priest) should have had some sort of upper hand. Even though Kotomine was a priest, he didn’t seem to have any sort of innate knowledge of the inner workings of the Grail. I felt like if Urobuchi was using an object with such a religious significance and one that was intrinsically tied to Arthurian legend he should have used that to his advantage as some sort of plot point—maybe given some explanation as to why Saber was such a powerful servant. Instead of the Grail, it might have been a better idea to do some research to find a different wish-granting device. If one looks through legends there are plenty of things like enchanted jewelry, magic lamps, etc.

552569-fate_zero___08___large_12

Irisviel was an interesting element, one that I thought was peculiar and ill fitting. Why a homunculus? I understand that the Einzbern family is known for alchemy, but having a homunculus serve as a vessel for the Holy Grail struck me as bizarre. Maybe a vestal virgin or some sort of priestess would have been more fitting. Another thing, if Irisviel was a homunculus and she had Ilya with a human then why was Ilya also a pure homunculus and not at least half-human? Homunculi are made from alchemy, not procreation—another element that Urobuchi chose to ignore. It’s likely that I’m asking for too much out of this show and that I should try and suspend my disbelief a bit more, but while some things are acceptably twisted or reconceptualized in the show, other things are simply too wrong to be viable.

Nitpicky Things:

Why was Gilgamesh Aryan!? Gilgamesh was a Sumerian king—if he had been walking around with blonde hair and white skin the people would have likely thought he was some sort of demon. I can give leeway to a certain extent—like I accept Iskander being a ginger because at least he had the right skin tone (I swear I’m not being racist). Then again, Iskander could have been the wrong species and it would have been okay because he was A BOSS. I’ve already told Josh that I’m leaving him to marry Iskander.

While most noble phantasms stayed true to the mythos, Gilgamesh’s noble phantasms were riddled with anachronisms and impossibilities (yes I know all of this stuff is impossible, but these were too much so). The Gates of Babylon? Gilgamesh was from Sumer not Babylonia. Not to mention, wine didn’t exist in ancient Mesopotamia—at least not when Gilgamesh was allegedly around. His spacecraft is from Sanskrit mythology—I know the point is that he can access this plethora of treasures, but how is a king of an agrarian society going to know how to use a spacecraft? Maybe I’m being too literal.

So I’d just like to give a quick summation to help clarify some of the points I made in this post.

Things that worked:
-Gender bending/changing figures to create more interesting characters.
-Well-done selection of some historical figures
-Good accuracy with most technical details of mythological/historical backgrounds

Things that didn’t work:
-Anachronisms for the sake of utility
-Misuse of the Holy Grail as a relic
-Misuse of homunculi
-Use of obscure historical/mythological figures
-Not enough scenes with Iskander

MY FUTURE HUSBAND.

MY FUTURE HUSBAND.


Further Reading

Books:
Bullfinch’s Mythology
The Epic of Gilgamesh
Any ancient history textbook

More F/Z reviews:
The Nihon Review
The Affictionado

Some related topics in Psycho-Pass:
Epic Conventions and Psycho-Pass

On writer Gen Urobuchi (reused):
Interview #1 (Sakura-Con 2012)
Interview #2 (Otakon 2012)
Interview #3 (translated on Otakumode)
Why Urobuchi is popular

10 responses to “The Mythology Behind Fate/Zero: A F/Z Review

  1. >> It’s likely that I’m asking for too much out of this show and that I should try and suspend my disbelief a bit more.
    in a post about elements in a show taken from mythology…

    >> Also, who the hell is Hassan-i Sabbah (assassin)? He/she was given no introduction and virtually no role in the story whatsoever..
    Who else but the namesake of the word assassin? Anyway, he/she/they became faceless mooks in a story of legendary personalities, so having their story ignored was unfortunately to be expected. Assassin is legion.

  2. t0moko–that’s a fair point and I agree with what you are saying. I guess I just like a bit more thematic consistency in terms of legendary status and in this case there wasn’t much. I think what I really wanted was a figure who did have a bit more mythology and legend surrounding him. True, Hassan-i Sabbah was an important figure in creating one of the first groups of assassins, but at the same time he is relatively obscure and lacking in the rich mythological history that the other servants had.

  3. Pingback: Fairy Tail: Uniqueness in the Cliched | Chromatic Aberration Everywhere·

  4. To comment on how you viewed Giles as not the best choice, it is actually a plot point that is explained in the 3rd route of Fate/Stay Night “Heaven’s Feel”. As implied in the ending of Fate/Zero, the Grail has gone corrupt, due to the influence of the servant “Avenger/Angra Mayu” or as they call it “All the Worlds Evils” meaning that the war that supposedly would only summon Heroic Legendary Spirits, now will also summon evil ones. It has been shown in different projects of the fate franchise that the legend doesn’t have to be INCREDIBLY famous, it just has to be a legend, but the better known the legend, the stronger the servant.

    Relating to your comment about the holy grail and different aspects of the show, Gen urobuchi was limited by the rules written by Nasu, the creator of the Fate/ Series, such as “Saber has to be female, The Holy Grail war is done x way” But in episode one it is said word for word “We have confirm that this isn’t the same holy grail as the one that belong to Christ, but it’s power it’s too much too ignore” meaning that it’s only taking the name sake.

    That being said, I really appreciate this post, since my knowledge of Gilgamesh and the others is rather limited, thanks for making it and making the critiques you did. I would suggest if you want, to check the rest of the series, Fate/Stay Night Visual Novel, Fate/Extra, Fate/Aprophya and others.

    Before I forget, Saber was originally gonna be Male in the fate series, but Nasu thought “we would probably be able to get a bigger audience if we have a male protagonist and a female love interest” during the production of Fate/Stay Night *first product of the series* so they changed the genders for saber and the protagonist of F/SN and created what we have today

    • Thanks for the comment Luis! You’re definitely much more well-versed in the Fate/Stay/Zero universe so I’ll defer to you on technical points regarding the show/game. I’ve only seen Fate/Zero so all of my criticisms were based on that foundation, but it’s always nice to learn things I didn’t know before about the dynamics of a show :).

      • No need to thank me :) Fate/Zero is my favorite anime of all time after all, but I like to see what other people think of it, regardless of what those reasons may be for each opinion. I actually started with Fate/Zero just like you. If you are still interested in the story, I would give “Fate/Stay night” a try, since it continues where Fate/Zero left off. However, if you are gonna do so, read the visual novel or wait until Ufotable releases their remake of the anime, since the original anime is…well to put it lightly, bad. And if you ever had any questions feel free to contact me :) I can give ya my tumblr if needed for that.

      • Thanks for the recommendation! I’ve been meaning to give Fate/Stay Night a try for a while now, but I just have never gotten around to it.

  5. well, i think that your article is interesting. but as you had already said above, it clearly shows that you have not played the fate/stay night vn.
    all of the things that you considered to be an inconsistencies are explained further and much clearer in the novel, such as why the holy grail war was held in fuyuki city, or why the vessel in the 4th war was a homunculus, etc, etc….
    i was deeply fascinated by fate frachise after i played the visual novel, and only after that i realized that this series had a really deep and profound back story.
    if you did not have the time to play the vn (as it contains of 3 arcs and you will need around 80 – 100 hours to finish each arc), i suggest that you visit type moon wikia to find out more about this series, and if you are a fan, you would not be dissapointed, as some of your questions will be answered.
    anyway, thanks for the post. it was interesting.
    and i’m sorry for my bad english.

  6. Well, its important to remember that the many heroes had different backstories compared to their mytho counterparts. For example Fate Extra and Fate Stay Night explained that Humans were super advanced in Gilgamesh’s time, hence the ancient aircraft which is apparantly supposed to contain ancient nuclear warheads. Its incidentally also the reason Gilgamesh is a douchebag (he is disspointed in the modern humans). There were many things like that which were explained in the Fate Zero light Novel and thr sequel VN. I disagree that Gille is an obscure hero though. Its true that he isn’t nearly as famous as Arthur or Alexander but it wouldn’t exactly be right to call him obscure. I personally liked how less famous heroes were used here. It made me feel that the creator wasn’t just using the most famous names in history in an attempt to look eye catching.

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