Review for Fate/Apocrypha Part 1
Apocrypha, the bits that don’t really count, the stuff that we don’t believe actually happened. It’s a big deal indeed when it comes to religion, but other, less controversial fictional works have apocrypha too. Gene Roddenberry considered the 5th and 6th Star Trek movies to be apocryphal, and who knows what he’d have thought about Enterprise and Discovery? When Disney started making new Star Wars movies, they instantly declared the Expanded Universe as non-canonical, making hundreds of thousands of fan boys cry out in anguish. Anime has its apocrypha too. The various iterations of Ghost in the Shell might live happily side by side, but they can’t share the same space.
Then there is the Fate universe, which kicked off in spectacular style with Fate/Stay Night. Based on a video game, it offers three routes through the story. The Fate path was animated first to mediocre effect, but then they turned the Unlimited Bladeworks route into a feature film, and when that didn’t quite land, they tried again with a series. The Heaven’s Feel route is going for the feature film adaptations; we’ve had the first film to date in Presage Flower. Of course what really elevated the Fate franchise to greatness was the Fate/Zero series, made before the Unlimited Bladeworks series, but after the movie of the same name. It acts as a prequel for all three of the Fate/Stay Night routes. There’s another movie series with the Fate name attached, Fate Grand Order, which is a lot more deserving of the Apocrypha appendage, as it does its own, completely weird thing, but instead we get Fate/Apocrypha, which tells an alternate story of a Grail War to end all Grail Wars. Normally seven magic users would be the Masters to summon seven Servants, heroes from ancient history, to do battle in a great free for all. The last one standing would get the Holy Grail, and have a wish granted. In Fate/Apocrypha, it’s 14, and it plays out like a 7 vs. 7 battle.
In this world, history played out differently. The Grail Wars in Fuyuki City ended 60 years ago when the Grail was taken. But now the Greater Grail has been found by the Yggdmillennia family, and they are rivals to the Mage Association. Their leader, Darnic has essentially declared war, a Greater Holy Grail war. His family have summoned 7 Servants for 7 Masters, black pieces in magical chess battle. It’s incumbent on the Mage Association to counter the Yggdmillennia family, and form a red team of Servants to recover the Grail. They recruit a necromancer named Shishigou, and he summons Mordred, son of Arthur as his Servant Saber. But Shishigou isn’t exactly a team player. The Yggdmillennia’s have other advantages too, an army of golems, and a production line of homunculi to act as cannon fodder. But nothing about this war is conventional, including the arrival of a Ruler class Servant, a mythical hero to adjudicate the war.
The first twelve episodes of Fate/Apocrypha are presented across two Blu-rays from MVM.
1. Apocrypha: The Great Holy Grail War
2. The Saint Departs
3. The First Steps of Fate
4. Life’s Cost, Death’s Redemption
5. Voice from Above
6. The Knight of Rebellion
7. Where Freedom Lies
8. The War Begins
9. A Hundred Flames, A Hundred Flowers
10. Like Scattered Petals
11. Eternal Radiance
12. The Saint’s Triumphant Return
This should be good, an Aniplex show, with a 6-6 distribution across 2 dual layer BDs, and of course we’re back in the Fate universe, which since Fate/Zero has been hitting it out of the ballpark when it comes to animation quality and visual impact. Sure enough, the 1.78:1 widescreen 1080p transfer looks fantastic at first glance. The image is clear and sharp, the world design is fantastic, the characters are striking and effective, and the production value is visible in each frame. There are some serious effects in the battle and magic sequences, and the whole thing buzzes with quality. But there are plenty of darker scenes, and banding is a noticeable issue, although it could have been worse.
You have the choice of PCM 2.0 Stereo English and Japanese with translated subtitles and signs. I stuck with the Japanese audio throughout, and was somewhat disconcerted with the experience for a change. The dialogue is clear, the subtitles are timed accurately and are free of typos and the music and action comes across well for the most part. But there is a lot of action, and this is a show which emphasises the action with some serious LFE. This is a show that resonates the explosions of magic with bass to the level of distortion. I don’t think it’s an issue with the transfer, it’s consistent enough to be a creative choice, and I found it to be really quite distracting.
The discs present the show with animated menus.
On disc 2, you get the textless opening, but the link to the textless closing is broken.
You also get trailers for Fate/Grand Order – First Order, Attack on Titan Season 2, Ajin: Demi-Human Season 1, and Ushio and Tora.
The clue is in the title, Apocrypha. It doesn’t count. That’s the little glimmer of hope that you hold onto as you watch this show, avoiding the temptation to link it thematically or narratively with the established Fate universe. You might think that this is a Fate story with a different set of rules, and quite frankly I might have been interested in that; taking the basic set up of the Grail, the Masters and the Servants and doing something different with it. But what kills Fate/Apocrypha for me is that it has no rules whatsoever. This comes from a writer who has decided that it is cool to just throw in any old thing, any weird twist or surprise and expect audiences to accept it. It is really hard to accept. This is a show where the spectacle and sheer noise replaces anything of substance and it’s a real disappointment in a series which in terms of production value does live up to the other shows like Fate/Zero and Unlimited Blade Works.
The Fate/Stay Night storylines centre on a war in Fuyuki City, fought for the Holy Grail, which will grant the winner one wish. It’s all about magic, with seven magic users making contracts with Heroic Spirits, historical or even fictional beings called forth to the present day to battle each other alongside their masters. It’s a free-for-all, seven pairs fighting each other until just one pair remains standing and they get the Grail, they get their wish granted. It’s a pretty convoluted set-up, with fourteen characters to keep track of, but when it’s done well, it delivers the brilliance of Fate/Zero.
Fate/Apocrypha tears up the rules. Its story begins 60 years previously, at the end of one of the Grail Wars, when Darnic of the family Yggdmillennia takes the Grail and brings it back to his home in Romania. Since then the Yggdmillennia family has held onto the Grail, but it’s only now that they can use it. But first, they have to have a Greater Grail War, which involves a seven versus seven battle. Seven of their number will call forth Servants, Rider, Saber, Lancer, Assassin, Caster, Berserker, and Archer. They are the Black team. The Mage Association in London, they’ll also call those seven servants, the Red Team, and travel to Romania where the war will take place. To oversee this battle, another Servant is called, Ruler, who I suppose is the referee.
The first thing that you’ll realise is that this show suffers from character overload by the bucketload. Fifteen Servants to begin with is an epic collection of historical and mythical figures, and in the end, the show doesn’t even bother with the masters that contract with them, other than the significant characters, five of the Yggdmillennia family, and just a couple of the mages from the Association. And as the story unfolds, it turns out that allegiance and contracts aren’t as stable as the characters expect. But there’s more. In preparation for the war, the Yggdmillennias have prepared a disposable army of golems and homunculi (they also harvest mana from the homunculi to power their magic), and one particular homunculus breaks free with the aid of one of the heroes, develops independence of thought and a story arc of his own.
I had initially thought that there was another, rogue Hero and Master on the playing field, Assassin Jack the Ripper, who is in Romania at the same time as the war, preying on mages, devouring their hearts and their magical power, but checking on Wikipedia filled me on the back story that the anime neglects, and I realise now that she’s (there’s a lot of gender switching with the historical characters) actually the Black Assassin. But it feels like yet another plot arc thrown into the mix. Then there is the whole Ruler thing, Jeanne D’Arc summoned to adjudicate the war, heading towards the battle, and treated like a playing piece by both sides. Whatever rules there are for this thing, that to begin with we as the viewers aren’t privy to, are torn up as the story unfolds, making a confusing tale downright incomprehensible. Don’t get me started on the big, midpoint twists in episode 12!
Fate/Apocrypha is pretty to look at, and you might get some value following distinct character arcs, that of master Kairi Shishigou and Red Saber Mordred (Arthur’s gender switched son), that of Black Rider Astolfo, that of freed homunculus Sieg, and that of Ruler Jeanne D’Arc. But for me the biggest problem was that I just couldn’t latch onto a protagonist, or antagonist long enough to form an emotional connection to the story. I just didn’t care about the characters enough for it to matter. The Fate franchise has its equivalent of a Michael Bay movie.