***This article contains spoilers for Fate/Zero.***
Admittedly, anime has many of the same pitfalls as modern cinema: replacing plot with superpowers and explosions; spending time and money on aesthetics and distracting visual attractiveness but little else; equating love (whatever that is) with several dozen compromising camera angles and sexual slapstick accidents. Sometimes all three of these elements are combined, with superpowered women committing fantastic acts of violence in clothing ill-suited for the activity yet somehow effective (or, inversely, with the tensile strength of single-ply toilet paper). And, at face value, Gen Urobuchi’s series Fate/Zero appears to fit right in with the rest of that action/sex/eye-candy zeitgeist. It seems to have the narrative depth of a playground argument between boys over which of their favorite comic book heroes would win in a fight. But it would be a mistake to write Fate/Zero off when underneath this action-series veneer is a show whose main conflicts are philosophically driven, a show which makes several thought-provoking points about the nature of human worship.
Whoever believes that God can be used to obtain their desires will find themselves and their goals frustrated in their own inefficacy.The plot of Fate/Zero is rather simple: throughout history, certain mage families have summoned the spirits of legendary heroes to be their servants and fight to the death for the prize of the Holy Grail, a vessel that can grant any wish to the last-surviving master/servant pair. Masters use items historically related to the servant they desire as a means of increasing their likelihood of success during the summoning ceremony. However, an attentive viewer will notice a second factor influencing a master’s success: in the Fate universe, masters naturally tend to summon servants who mirror them in certain aspects or motivations—almost as if by Fate.
The series doesn’t proclaim these similarities between masters and servants to the viewer through ham-fisted exposition episodes but subtly reveals them over the course of each character’s arc. These similarities are borne out of the conflicts between the seven masters who alternatively compliment and foil one another with their personalities, with all of these relational confluences working to prove a biblical truism found in Psalm 115:
Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
and they do not make a sound in their throat.
Those who make become like them;
so do all who trusts in them. (Ps. 115.4–8)
Some theologians and pastors, such as N. T. Wright and James K. A. Smith, have restated this truth as simply “you become like what you worship” or “you are what you love.” And it’s not even a question of whether you worship but whom, because, as a wise man of entirely different fame once said, “It might be the devil or it might be the Lord, but you’re gonna hafta serve somebody.” But we also know (thank God) that the Gospel turns how this world works on its head and that, instead of general deadness, worshiping the true and worthy God brings us into an increasing newness of life (Rom. 6.1–4). So, since we all instinctively worship, and we are guaranteed to resemble the object of that worship, we would expect these same two rules to be present in art when it imitates life.
For instance, the master Waver Velvet is a student mage who wants to win the Grail War and prove his own worthiness of the Holy Grail, the greatest of conquests. It is no wonder, then, that his desire would lead him to successfully summon Iskandar, King of Conquerors (Alexander the Great), the youngest and most well-recorded conqueror in history. But, seeing how supremely powerful, strong-willed, and battle-seasoned Iskandar is, and how easily Iskandar could win the Grail for him, Waver finds there is really no glory in any of this for himself. Waver wields comparatively little power, doesn’t believe himself to be making any contributions to their success, and, therefore, is not garnering any of the worth or recognition for which he entered the war. Ultimately, while Waver’s desire was to use his servant as a means of achieving his own goal, he learns that Iskandar’s greatest historical strength derives from his leadership and ability to inspire devotion in the men he led toward a common goal. And so, a redemptive moment occurs in Waver’s character arc when his admiration leads him to pledge his allegiance as Iskandar’s retainer, a pledge to take up Iskandar’s dream as (and in place of) his own, with the master submitting himself to the servant he once believed himself to be above (2.10 “The Sea at the End of the World”). In that moment, Waver’s character changes from embodying his Dickensian name to becoming a steadfast individual who values the people around him as more than just means to an end. It is even clearer that these kinds of inversion moments are an intentional development within the series by the fact that not every master experiences one.
Compare the redemption of Waver to the other end of the spectrum, the relationship between master Ryunosuke Uryu and his servant, the Caster, Gille de Rais. Ryunosuke is a serial killer who fails to summon a demon at the scene of one of his murders but successfully summons Caster instead (though there quickly proves to be little difference). Neither Ryunosuke nor Caster ever discover that they are participants in the Holy Grail War, but they manage to become instant friends over a common interest. They both treat the murder of innocents as an art form and take pride in the “beauty” of their work as they strive to commit greater and greater blasphemies. Neither has a particular wish for the grail, but, through a twisted philosophy borne of their own counsel, they strive to worship God and paint Him as the ultimate hero by playing against Him as the greatest living villains who “paint the gardens of God with [progressively] brilliant despair and terror” (1.13 “The Forbidden Feast of Madness”). But despite the grand scale of their goal, Ryunosuke and Caster prove to be the only team not to experience any change, good or bad, in their relationship. Unlike Waver and Iskandar, there is no hierarchy in their relationship, no talk of submission whatsoever. Unarguably, they are the picture of relational equality, but the series does an interesting thing in making that fact grossly unappealing. And unlike Waver and Iskandar, they have no similarly redemptive moment when their expectations are inverted and true fulfillment is found.
These two relationships juxtaposed show exactly what scripture portrays as the rules of this world and the effect of the Gospel. Ryunosuke and Caster display one side of the situation: people left to themselves, left to walk in their own devices (Ps. 81.12), will devolve and become more like the things they worship most. Neither Ryunosuke nor Caster recognized himself as being subservient to the other in any real sense because they were on the same plane. Turning the lens on ourselves, if the thing we’re putting our hopes and aspirations toward most doesn’t cause us to change in any self-recognizable way, the best case scenario is that we are merely worshiping ourselves; the worst case scenario (and the more likely) is that we have serious need of a running inventory to discover just what that thing is at the center of our lives to which we have pledged ourselves. A man might not easily detect changes in himself if he is merely becoming more like the thing he already resembles.
Waver and Iskandar present the counterpoint relationship, which proves it is those who imitate God who find themselves truly changing, and changing the most. Whoever believes that God can be used to obtain their desires will find themselves and their goals frustrated in their own inefficacy (Num. 22–24), their few achievements too small, and their selves less significant than they’d thought. Submission to persons truly worthy of your admiration—taking their dream as your own and uniting your will with theirs—does not necessarily make you a mouse to scurry beneath the feet of your self-selected oppressors, though that is what modern society may tell you. Rather, submission to a worthy and trustworthy person emboldens, and it is a delight to see that clearly not only in the Christian’s relationship with Christ but even in the fictional relationships of Fate/Zero.