Monday, September 17, 2018

Deconstructing Heroism (ft. Fate/Zero)

One of the most important elements of the Fate franchise are the characters known as Heroic Spirits: entities from the past, present, future, and alternate realities that come together to fight for the mythical, powerful, Holy Grail. Most times the spirits are indeed heroes of old: King Arthur, Lancelot, Odysseus, Robin Hood, but other times, they're not so great. Each hero carries their own set of ideals and in no better way is that put on display than in the 2011-2012 anime Fate/Zero, where the idea of what it means to be a hero in a world that does not allow for heroes was put to the test.

Defining heroism can be difficult. When someone talks about heroes they are often talking about superheroes like Superman or Spider-Man and not the everyday heroes like firefighters or doctors. But the common theme of each hero is their desire to do good, right? Yes, but, to an extent. What if a hero only wants to better themselves for the good of the world? What if you can't save everyone: are you still a hero to the people you let die? Or, in the end, does it all balance out?

These lines of thinking lead to numerous intriguing character arcs that powerfully impact the plot of the series. The ideals of heroism are deconstructed to such a degree that each character comes to embody some level of heroism in their own right, and in doing so exposes the moral rights and wrongs, or at least, how they perceive those morals.

As such, let's take a look at each heroic ideal the characters possess and analyze to what extent they show this ideal and how this effects their narrative arc as a whole, or if it really has anything to do with being a hero.

"The Needs of the Many Over the Needs of the Few" - Kiritsugu Emiya

While Star Trek obviously got to this idea way before Fate/Zero did, it's still on display to a harsh extent here. Kiritsugu Emiya is a character not beyond performing villainous acts for seemingly heroic purposes. He wants to help the world and knows he is hurting other people. So what does it say for a man to be saving so many and yet not be able to save enough? Is it justified? 

Obviously that's something up for a much more dangerous debate, so in the context of Fate/Zero, Kiritsugu is broken down by this very debate. He believes that he has to kill to save others but also hates war. He does not want there to be violence and brutality in the world, he wants the world to be at peace. Kiritsugu's ideal, above any other hero in the show, is at the highest tier in terms of being a savior, which is something that will come up later. 

Kiritsugu as a hero, the embodiment of this idea that some must be sacrificed for a few, is obviously a dangerous line of thinking. How many are the few? Every life on this world is precious and while most heroes would agree with that, Kiritsugu's line of thinking forces him to put on irrational glasses that balance one life over the other. No greater is this on display than when he has to destroy the airline flight containing a disease that will infect a heavily populated city. In order to save the city, and potentially the world, Kiritsugu is forced to destroy a plane full of peope as well as his own mentor. 

While this is a horrific act, there's still some shred of heroism in there as he knows that what he did was ultimately a good thing on the rest of the world, but, he still murdered dozens of people. This, likely, sparked the debate of what it really meant to be a hero in a world of consequences. 

It's easy for Superman to put away a robber but what happens when the boss of the robber comes looking and kidnaps the robber's family? What happens then? 

The ultimate consequence of Kiritsugu's ideal, that being the possible extinction of all humanity save for himself, is fitting. In order to save the many, you cannot get rid of the few, because there will always be evil. But, if humanity is inherently evil, what does that mean? Does that mean a hero is someone who would wipe out humanity if they are to wipe out evil or is there something greater that they have to hold onto? What about hope? 

The Savior Complex - Young Kiritsugu

Everyone's idea of a hero is that they will be the one to save the world and that no evil will come again. Superman puts away Lex Luthor and now Lexcorp cannot do evil things; Spider-Man thwarts the Green Goblin and the streets of New York are going to be cleaner. If the world just had a hero they could place their faith in, things would be better. 

Young Kiritsugu's ideal to become a hero of justice is one that is very endearing, obviously, but also one that is played up in different lights throughout the series. How does one define justice? Is it saving those that someone else deems saving? Is it some sort of divine intervention? 

What this aspect of Fate/Zero's heroic deconstruction shows is that being a hero is completely subjective. It's all up to the eye of the beholder. Saving one life might mean dooming another, but, there's always going to be hope that you can save both lives. That's the truth of being a hero. 

This heroic stature is something prevalent in something like My Hero Academia, which shows the Number 1 hero, All-Might, as the Symbol of Peace, someone that will always be there. In reality, he can't, but he has others that he can place his faith in. Being a hero isn't just about yourself, it's about the others around you. 

The flaw in Young Kiritsugu's philosophy is that he alone wants to be a hero; this is the tragic flaw of every Heroic Spirit. They all tried to their own thing on their own: King Arthur never allowed her soldiers to fight with her, Iskandar rode at the head of the company despite claiming he was never alone, and a punk. 

Symbol of Hope - Irisveil's Dream for Kiritsugu

Perhaps the biggest supporter of Kiritsugu's dream of Fate/Zero (not counting Shirou, who would carry on the dream) is Irisveil, who places all of her faith in Kiritsugu's idea of a world without evil. Most heroes do reasonably serve as a symbol of hope for those that they inspire, but the twist that Fate/Zero places on it is that this symbol of hope is a murderer that might have a heart of gold if it suits his purposes. So, is what Iri sees really a hero, or just what she needs to be a hero? 

And if Kiritsugu is the symbol of hope for Iri, can he be that for others? Iri's idea of Kiritsugu, too, is mostly just that: her idea. She sees a man who is dedicated and loyal to his path but is blinded to his tactics due to her "love" of him. 

Fate/Zero shows that heroes as simply a symbol of hope are empty without the actions to prove that they can provide such a hope. That hope can come from several different places, as shall be discussed later on, but must have a foundation somewhere to begin with. Heroes who inspire have to be more than just their words or their desires, they have to fulfill the actions that they set forth. If Superman wanted to show the true potential of a man with good ideals he wouldn't just stand up and spout them, he would have to go out and save people. Kiritsugu does this, but at the cost of many lives, and yet Irisveil ultimately goes with it. 

Irisveil's friendship with Artoria also implies she idealizes King Arthur, but not to the extent she does her husband. Rather, she sees Artoria less as a symbol and more as a myth, that someone of such great chivalry cannot possibly exist in the modern age. It's an interesting view to take, and an interesting commentary on the modern world. 

Heroes as Idols - Gilgamesh (Archer)

"Now wait," some may say, "Gilgamesh is the bad guy of the series! How can he possibly show any signs of being a hero?"

Because he is the first hero for a reason but was corrupted by such a status. A hero who knows they are a hero becomes awfully aware of their status with the people they're saving, and as such develop a superiority complex that inflates their ego to an unfathomable degree. 

Now, as previously mentioned, not all Heroic Spirits were heroes of their time. Obviously not Bluebeard, as shown in Fate/Zero, or Medusa in Fate/Stay Night, but there is something to be said about Gilgamesh that would give him the status of a hero. He serves the purpose of showing what dedication to one's self and what the adoration of others can do.

Gilgamesh obviously has the ability to walk the walk after he talks the talk: it's part of his real-life legend and it's on full-display in Fate/Zero, but he takes it to an extent of villainy and making everyone his playthings. Yet, in the ending credits for Fate/Zero, his past life is shown and it matches similar to the legend of Gilgamesh. A man of both human and gods and he is faithful to those that serve him. He only betrays his closest servant due to ineptitude.

Gilgamesh is not a good person, nor is he much of a hero, but he became a hero simply through his status and the idolatry of the people that would hear his legend that he ascended to the status of a hero. This is similarly dangerous to how Irisveil views Kiritsugu, but as Kiritsugu wants only to be a figure of change and not permanence he would never become such an idol. This idolatry could also lead one directly into...

Martyrdom - Artoria Pendragon (Saber)

The episode "Discussing the Grail" in Fate/Zero puts all three of the Kings on full-blast for their ideals and wishes regarding the Holy Grail, but perhaps the one put to the test the most is Artoria (whom I shall henceforth refer to as Saber for ease of typing). She is the one who has the most to question by the end of the discussion, and the one who places the most weight upon her shoulders. 

Heroes are martyrs is no unfamiliar thing. Batman martyred Jason Todd after his failure with the boy; the world saw Superman as a martyr after his brief stint with death. Saber's willingness to die for the sake of her country but not for the sake of those around her is what defined her as a Heroic Spirit. While her morals are sound in the eyes of most, it's the mighty Iskandar who makes a good point: Saber always stood for the people, but never stood with them. She could never lead them, because she became this perfect image of a hero. Nobody could become as perfect as her, and that's what led some down darker paths, it's what led her people ultimately astray. 

Seeking to become a powerful, noble symbol of a hero works only so much as inspiring people for a brief amount of time before your name gets lost to the legends and people only mention that hero in passing, as simply a reference. "Chivalrous like King Arthur." There is legacy, but, what else? Where's her country, where's the rest of her ideals? 

It speaks to Saber's character that so many people adore her, but don't relate to her. The only way they can is realizing how human she is once her ideals are brought down to Earth, and that's just depressing. 

Saber really does make the perfect tentpole for a hero, but it's difficult to execute that properly. Again, going back to Superman, he has all these amazing powers and abilities that nobody can ever hope to get, but he's also a guy with a day job. Tons of people can relate to that. Artoria? Not so much. She's too much of the hero. 

Saber can only be the hero she set out to be post-mortem. She cannot be what her people need because her people need a leader, not an idol. As much as Batman is a symbol and can be inherited, there is still something inherently human about him that Saber has only so much that she wants to save her people from ultimate destruction. 

Love and Honor - Diarmuid (Lancer)

The one who strikes the balance of being a noble warrior and a symbol of heroism is Lancer, balanced through his loyalty and valor on the battlefield. As is typical of Fate/Zero, Lancer is initially portrayed as a villain or antagonist but is quickly revealed to be one of the more valiant heroes of the line-up. 

Lancer fights for his honor as a knight and for the love and loyalty he has of his allies. Despite the fact that his first monster is a monster and his second master a devious witch, Lancer remains true to them, exemplifying the concept that most would associate to heroism: honor. That honor, though, would ultimately be his undoing because that is not how heroes can remain in this world. According to the rules of Fate/Zero, honor in the face of victory is a weakness, not a strength. To win one must sacrifice their honor, it would seem. 

However, Lancer remains a hero because of it. He doesn't get martyred in his death but displays the heroic spirit of a man who wants to do good by those he calls allies. The Fuyuki river battle displays Lancer as one willing to make a sacrifice when necessary in order to allow Saber her opportunity to strike. Fate/Zero would have one think this was a decision that ultimately lead to his undoing, but it actually heightened his presence as a hero in the story. Without Lancer, it's likely that Gilgamesh would have had to have intervened in order to take down Caster's monster; Rider, Saber, and Berserker all would have fallen to the creature. 

While the debate between the most altruistic hero of the bunch can be had between Saber and Lancer, there is no denying that Lancer is the hero that most people aspire to be one: one with confidence in their own abilities and seeking for the thrill of battle. He is the one that most bards would sing about in a tavern, the one that they would tell stories of but just in myth. His nobility and loyalty were strong enough to have him partly resist the omnipotent bind of a Command Seal. However, much like a certain family in Game of Thrones, these ideals ultimately lead to a road not too pleasant. 

Glory - Iskandar (Rider)

Rider is essentially the ultimate Heroic Spirit: the ego of Gilgamesh, the ability to inspire like Saber, and some of the honor of Lancer. While Alexander the Great was probably not all that great a person, he is still the most well-known conqueror in human history, and his portrayal in Fate/Zero comes nothing short of a man who avidly seeks the next battle, the next thrill. What makes glory such an important point of Rider as a Heroic Spirit is that it is the thing that led him into his legendary status. The glory of finding a new land, the absolute rush that came with riding into battle alongside his loyal vassals. 

Rider has the most convincing argument in the aforementioned "Discussing the Grail" episode because he so actively believes in what he says. It's not always the most correct speaker that wins the room, but the one that so believes in what he says that you can't look away. Rider may not be entirely correct in his stance, that's up to the audience, but there are vigor and passion in his words. And, as a hero, what he says makes sense. While the discussion mostly revolves around being a king, it also relates to the characters as heroes. 

Gilgamesh believes that a King stands alone because he thinks himself above all others, since he is a great hero. Saber believes that a King must stand alone to lead the way and be an example to those behind them, showing that her status as a martyr was practically her destiny. Rider? He goes into battle with his crew, charging headlong with his friends because there can be little glory in battle alone: he wishes to share it with others. 

This concept holds true in particular with his relationship to Waver, who just wants to be recognized. Rider's heroic ideal of glory is reflected through Waver in a negative light until he comes to realize that glory all on its own is such a fragile thing; it's glory tied to another hope or dream that makes it all matter. For Rider it was all about finding Okeanus, the ocean at the end of the world. And for Waver? Well, that's something for him to go on his own adventure for. 


Fate/Zero deconstructs several different ways for heroes to be used in stories. Sometimes, being a hero is actually a dangerous thing for yourself and for the world, whilst other times it can mean the world to someone or some cause. What it means to be a hero is never set in stone and can be interpreted a wild variety of ways, but what matters most is that the hero should stand for something and for that something to be a righteous cause. From there? It's up to them to decide, and for the great yarn that is narrative to be weaved together. 

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