***This article contains spoilers for Fate/Zero.***
E. Stephen Burnett recently published an excellent article about Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name, specifically about its expression of our innate human longing for eternity. I’ve also delved a little into this theme with regard to Fate/Zero’s illustration of the human instinct for worship. But while Your Name was a beautiful depiction of eternal longing, Fate/Zero is a poignantly dark depiction of that same longing, and so has produced quite a different and often unedifying response from critical audiences. Burnett hints at how Your Name does not end with the “tragic dream” trope, but Fate/Zero certainly does. So to conclude this look at Fate/Zero, I think it’s important to discuss why it is that Christians can celebrate tragic series like Fate/Zero just as well as beautiful series like Your Name, because God is no less glorified in the dark things (Ps. 139:7-13).
The moral of Fate/Zero is that all of the characters were chasing after the wind in one way or another.If you were an anime fan and also into philosophy (because you like to be part of extraordinarily narrow demographics, and hypotheticals), you wouldn’t have to search far to find that Fate/Zero is a favorite child of the Internet’s philosophical anime nerd community, who have agreed on multiple occasions that the series is “a nihilistic masterpiece.” The Christian doesn’t seem to have much room to argue against this position either, since the Holy Grail is the centerpiece of this brutal series. The Grail necessarily implies that the Son of God existed in this world, but it also appears that, in the world of Fate/Zero, the Grail has become an idol of destructive worship with omnipotent power seemingly outside of God’s authority. The “good guys” in the series aren’t so good and, by the end of the series, are reduced to shoring up the fragmented pieces of their value systems against the ruins, while the bad guys continue on relatively unaffected, if not empowered. It really does sound like a nihilist’s daydream [read: nightmare]. So what, if anything, does the Christian have to contribute to this seemingly settled conversation?
First, we can try to understand better what kind of world the Fate world is in order to test whether the nihilistic shoe fits. Yes, the Holy Grail of the Fate series is anything but holy according to a biblical understanding of holiness. The grail that Jesus offers us is a sacrament taken in remembrance of what he did for man, taking upon himself all the sins of the world and offering humanity the covering of his own blood that reconciles us to the peerless God who is sovereign over creation. The grail that the Fate universe offers, on the other hand, is a vessel that demands the souls of six Heroic Spirits as sacrifice and draws into itself all of the evil and malice in the world so that it might use it as fuel to grant the victorious mage a power equivalent to God’s. So, no, not the same. But, if nihilists would count, they’d remember that there were two grails offered on the night of Jesus’ death. There was the grail that Jesus gave to his disciples at the last supper (1 Cor. 11:23-26) and then there was the grail given to Jesus in Gethsemane (Matt. 26:38-44, Mark 14:34-39, Luke 22:39-44, John 18:11).
Jesus Christ, being the sinless Son of God (2 Cor. 5:21), was not an object of God’s wrath, just as we naturally are due to our sinfulness (Eph. 2:1-3). This is why there is often some confluence of interpretation as to what kind of cup Jesus was talking about in Luke 22:39-44. God’s wrath is frequently referred to as being poured out like wine from a cup (Is. 51:17, Jer. 25:15, Rev. 14:10). It makes one think of a certain Battle Hymn of a certain Republic. But because God’s wrath is only ever poured out on sin, it has also been suggested that Christ’s taking of the cup was the instance in which he took upon himself the sins of the world which had garnered the wrath of God. Either way, the point remains that the Holy Grail of Fate/Zero is a misnomer and more appropriately an “unholy grail” closer to the cup Christ took in Gethsemane.
Okay. But the show’s grail still guts the lives and value systems of the characters by the end of the series. How is that not a victory for those who consider nihil a net gain? The answer is that Fate/Zero is “a nihilistic masterpiece”—in the exact same way that the Bible would be a nihilistic masterpiece if it ended with the book of Malachi. But, as a wise man once said, praise God, “the book don’t end with Malachi!” Fate/Zero is the Ephesians 2:1-3 paving the way for the “But God” of Ephesians 2:4. And if we look closely, we see a lot of the same human tendencies, the same idolatries and subsequent foolishness, that once did and still do pave the way toward Christ.
Romans 8:18-24 talks about how all of creation is writhing with yearning for the day when we all will be made new and everything made right (1 Cor. 15:50-52). We also know that creation’s chief end, much like our own, is to glorify (Psalm 19:1-6). But creation needs an object and direction for its worship and yearns to be given the proper channel for that purpose. This yearning is the reason why the sin of idolatry in Scripture is spoken of as both enormously stupid and also deathly serious. When understood from within a theocentric context, how can you be more foolish than to seek your own completeness from a thing that is itself incomplete and yearning for fulfillment? How can you be more insulting than to say to the God who created you, “I would rather die pretending that I can find fulfillment elsewhere than humble myself and submit to you?” Yet that is exactly what it means to sin, and a similar kind of thinking led to the Holy Grail farce of Fate/Zero.
At the close of the series, the Grail turns out to be something entirely different from what the masters and servants were told. The Grail is as much a character in the series as anyone else, with a will and a wish of its own. Because it is a spiritual object, the Grail desires physical form through both the sacrifice of the masters’ six Heroic Spirits and through the fulfillment of its purpose by granting the wish of the victorious master. That master earns the title “Angra Mainyu,” a Zoroastrian religious term meaning “the destructive spirit,” which is given to the person who proved capable of taking on “all the evil in the world” (2.9, “All the Evil in the World”) by having been the most successful—and presumably the most ruthless—to defeat their opponents. In a sense, the Angra Mainyu is like the first Adam (Rom. 5:12-15) who sinned against God that he might become equivalent with Him.
The only problem is that the Grail is not an omnipotent wish–granting device; rather, it is limited to the same creational constraints as the forbidden fruit Adam ate in the garden. In other words, there is no “God-like power” behind the serpent’s “God-like promises”: “Your wish cannot include a method you yourself don’t know. If your wish is to save the world, it must be done in a way that you yourself comprehend” (2.11, “The Last Command Seal”). This is particularly problematic for the character Kiritsugu who, desiring to see justice and peace brought to the world by the power of the Grail, commits himself to a philosophy of sacrificing the few for the sake of the many in his pursuit of victory. Kiritsugu’s reliance on the allegedly miraculous power of the Grail to solve a problem for which he knows no solution is the precise reason his wish cannot be granted by the Grail, which has no solutions of its own to offer.
The moral of Fate/Zero is that all of the characters were chasing after the wind in one way or another. The series provides us a tragic story of idolatry straight from the playbook of Scripture: humanity looks for ways of doing what only God can do by demanding fulfillment from created things that are themselves crying out to be fulfilled, sooner or later finding that their man-made saviors are impotent even to save themselves (Is. 46:1-2). And yet, that is still no reason to chalk up a point for a nihilistic view of the world. After all, the first Adam points to the second just as the cup in Gethsemane points to the toast of the marriage supper (Matt. 26:27-29). In the same way, Fate/Zero points to a later, hopeful, and lasting completion.