I’ve now watched twice as many episodes of Fate Slash Zero than I was capable of lasting through in Fate Slash Stay Night (in other words, I just finished episode 4). There’s a couple of more general reasons why Fate Slash Zero stomps over its previous competition. The directing is nowhere near as woeful. The animation is considerably better. What humour it attempts actually works. But the main reason I like Fate Slash Zero is because of Rider and Waver.
The story of Rider and Waver, when taken in solitude, is like a subversion of the Magical Girlfriend genre. Here we have this hopeless loser Waver, laughed out of class by his teacher and classmates. No family of his own, trying to somehow prove to those around him that he too can be great. He discovers a magical game in which people summon powerful heroes who will be at their every beck and call. They fight with other heroes to get this magical maguffin that will grant him anything he wishes. It’s real wish fulfillment in here. But what hero does he get? Not the beautiful and proud warrior Saber, as would be the typical magical girlfriend type. Neither does he get the masterfully powerful warrior who will bow to his every whim, making him feel amazingly cool. What he gets instead is a gruff manchild who makes him feel like an even bigger loser than he already is.
There’s more to the combo than humour that makes it work. Rider is like the hard-headed father trying to beef up his wimpy son. Throaty guffaws from his gut as he thumps his pupil on the back so hard that he falls over, lecturing him on the virtues of good food, drink and sex. But in a sense, this is exactly the hero Waver required. Waver never had a father figure in his life. The old couple in the first episode were simply hypnotised by him to believe Waver was their grandchild. If the Holy Grail gave Waver any of the other heroes, he would have simply indulged himself in a power fantasy. Rider’s refusal to listen is the exact firm hand of parenting Waver needed.
I would honestly like the anime to be just these two, partly because they’re so great, but also because I’m really not too fussed about the rest of the anime. Take episode 4 and the duel between Saber and Lancer. The episode consisted of the two of them discussing the weapons they were using, followed by a brief (admittedly well animated and well coreographed) fight sequence. Then they back off, having internal monologues about the attacks they just threw at each other. Perhaps maybe a brief exchange as to what their true identities are. A few more words of praise or goading. Shuffling into stances to prepare their next attack and then finally another brief flurry of attacks. Fate Slash Zero has essentially become Dragonball Z. It’s not the worst formula in the world but, as was the case in Dragonball Z, the extent to which they draw out the inbetween segments makes them rather dull.
This is an indicator of a larger problem in Fate Slash Zero. In the duel between Saber and Lancer, they’re both very straight faced. Lancer is a teensy bit more flamboyant while Saber is slightly more proud, but the difference is so small it means their exchanges are very similar. The two of them are just trying to out-cool each other. As is the case with every other character in the series. I still struggle to tell the difference between the two identical brown haired, deep voiced dullards. The other heroes aren’t much better, with Assassin and Archer also being intent on looking as cool as possible. It makes the interactions dull because they have nobody to play off. Everyone is so straight-faced that their conversations are stilted.
This is why the Rider and Waver segments are a godsend. It’s the only part of the anime where humour is injected, making the whole affair a lot less tedious to sit through. Not only that, but they do this while making their character stories already far more interesting than anyone elses thus far. As I haven’t seen Fate Slash Stay Night, I don’t know who wins this version of the Holy Grail war, but it’s safe to assume that Waver doesn’t win. His wish is for people to simply respect him, something that is entirely within his own power. Rider points out as much, saying that he should wish for something outside of his own control, like making himself taller. In a way, the Holy Grail has already given him the thing for his wish to come true. He doesn’t need to win the war because he will become a person worthy of respect under Rider’s tutelage. I don’t want to see a story about the Holy Grail war. I want to see the story of how Wavers magical girlfriend made him grow to become a better person.