Dark and gritty are two words you generally don’t want attached to a franchise, particularly if any prior entries have a comparative lightness of tone. For instance, there was a particular trend in comic books sometime in the 90s where well-trodden heroes were cast into hilariously bleak stories, often at the cost of coherence and quality; as long as Spiderman was seen ripping out a mugger’s spine and using it to hogtie his accomplice while screaming obscenities at the top of his lungs, the lack of context or consistency was fine as long as it was “dark” enough. In the more relevant anime medium, Violence Jack went so out of its way to be gritty and violent that it circled right around and became funny when it wasn’t just tasteless.
What separates “good” dark from “bad” dark is a difference in the understanding of shock value. Good dark knows that it has to find a way to make the audience cares for what happens, so it spends time showing characters happily frolicking about while allowing their relationships to grow organically like real ones would. There are always signs of some subtle wrongness in the atmosphere and the audience can feel that shit’s going to go down at any time, but the setup is so good that those feelings are suppressed until the right moment. To put it in the context of an analogy, good dark is like setting up a line of dominos to be knocked over in the most spectacular fashion possible; it has to be done with care, and it’s done with the purpose of giving a satisfying rush.
Bad dark, on the other hand, just throws objectionable content at the audience with no restraint, and hopes that something sticks long after it’s finished. There’s often such a long string of progressively over the top events that there’s nothing to juxtapose them against. Once again Violence Jack shows why, because a minute without rape or somebody getting shot at is too long to go with exercising a modicum of restraint. If good dark is setting up the perfect string of dominos, then bad dark is scattering them on the floor and demanding that they set themselves up, while choking a hobo taken in with promises of warm food and a shower.
Now, Fate/Stay Night had its fair share of dark moments, but it always carried itself with a somewhat humorous tone and never took itself too seriously. The comedic or just cool moments far outweighed the plain dark, even if there were fringes of it scattered throughout. It was the kind of story you could get sucked into without feeling challenged emotionally or intellectually, which worked just fine. Comparatively, Fate/Zero has the dimmer switch way on the dark side and refuses to let it budge; however, this is more to its benefit than anything.
Most of the series so far has been spent watching the servants duke it out in pitched combat or seeing how the various masters initiate diplomacy with each other. While it’s undoubtedly been entertaining, I can’t say that most of it could be called shocking. However, this has the benefit of making the disturbing moments all the more pronounced. After all, watching Sakura being invaded by magic pit larvae wouldn’t have been nearly as traumatizing if it were happening on a regular basis; same goes for having Caster sic his pet tentacle monster on a helpless child after allowing him a brief respite. These moments have more of an impact because they are so few in number, and manage to tap into some very primal fears.
However, as great as those moments were, episode 18 completely blows them out of the water in terms of shock value. It was always kind of understood that Kiritsugu had a bad encounter with mages as a child, otherwise he wouldn’t have dedicated his life to hunting them down. The first act sets things up, giving a rundown of young “Kerry” Kiritsugu’s everyday life on a tropical island, which includes talking to his reclusive mage father and spending time with an attractive local woman named Shirley. Time is spent hammering home the fact that Kiritsugu is close to Shirley, and it succeeds in establishing his idyllic island life.
But then the second act hits, and it opens with Kiritsugu stumbling upon a crazed vampiric Shirley eating live chickens right out of the coop in one of the most surprisingly chilling performances that I’ve ever had the privilege to see. Things go sharply downhill from there as he runs across more of the turned, before murdering the culprit unintentionally responsible for the vampiric outbreak in cold blood: His father. As far as Freudian excuses go for launching a personal vendetta against an entire group of people, that’s probably one of the most reasonable considering the trauma he was likely put through.
As far as backstories go, Fate/Zero outdid itself with this episode by providing one shock after another. Very rarely have I been stunned into silence by the end of a 23 minute show, and it’s even rarer for me to immediately feel the compulsion to write about how appropriately sobering it’s been. It speaks volumes for the quality of a show like this that I actually felt affected by what was on display, taking me out of my regular stance of cold detachment. Gold fucking star for Fate/Zero.