As I’ve said before, the editorial process is a demanding beast of a task, however, I felt it was time I built more on the subject of cliches since my last post strictly focusing on the “evil laugh”. To be honest, evil laughs work best in the visual medium, rather than writing, but you still find evil laughs in the best- and worst-written books about good and evil (see post).
And even though this post is again taking the anime series Fate/Zero (seriously, this show will NOT let go of me) as an example of a single work that uses most of the best-known cliches into its story (though to be fair, the series was originally a light novel (think young adult novel) by Gen Urobuchi), it’s such a good example of one that uses these cliches effectively that I can’t help it. And by effectively, I mean that despite their being cliches, the story weaves them in with such natural and epic flair and style that while watching it, you may or may not even notice that they’re cliches, or if you do, they make so much sense within the context of the story, and add to the epicness rather than take away from it.
That said, I’m going to pick them apart like a genius kid picking apart the cogs of a clock. Because I can. And them I’m going to plug them back in and leave them as if they hadn’t been pulled out in the first place. Because I can. Plus I enjoyed this video by the Nostalgia Critic counting down the “Top 11 Coolest Cliches“, which you can watch for yourself on YouTube at the link in the title. Yes, it’s for movies, but it’s just another form of storytelling. (And there are ten of them because that’s a nice round number to go by.)
***also, warning if you have NOT seen Fate/Zero, read on at your peril, because unlike the last post, there are DEFINITELY spoilers ahead***
Here is a spoiler-free explanation of the plot of the show, in general, just to give anyone who hasn’t seen it an idea of what’s going on–
Holy Grail War.
Seven Mages (wizards) called Masters.
They have servants called Heroic Spirits, which are the spirits of heroes long dead to come in and fight for their appointed Master in a battle royale for the Grail.
Each servant is referred to by what class of warrior they are, rather than their real name, to keep anonymity as an advantage. (Those classes are: Saber, Archer, Lancer, Rider, Assassin, Berserker, and Caster.)
Whichever winning Master-Servant team each get whatever wish they want granted.
Game of Thrones reference.
Now, on with the list.
1) The Evil Laugh (Ep. 25 “Fate/Zero”)
Okay, I thought I’d get this over with since I’ve already covered this where Fate/Zero is concerned. But aside from re-reading that post, I’ll add this to make the case for it as cliche used effectively: it’s in that they use it by sparingly, and by sparingly, I mean…basically once for one character, the main antagonist, Kirei Kotomine. Maniacal laughter comes out of another, minor antagonist, Caster, being that his true identity is that of a massacring soldier of Joan of Arc’s army, Gilles de Rais, but that doesn’t count, since the laughter is, as I said, “maniacal”, not “evil”.
Case and point: the entire show builds up Kirei’s character such that when the laugh comes out, it’s not only warranted, but gloriously wicked to hear.
2) Pre-Battle Speech (Eps. 11 “Discussing the Grail” and 23 “The Sea at the End of the World”
Here we have a classic dramatic build-up device that everyone enjoys, used in films like The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and Braveheart, and can be used in books to the same effect. In Fate/Zero its usage is no exception to the romantic lure of a stirring pep talk of epic proportions to the troops. The only character who employs this is Rider, a.k.a. Alexander the Great, which makes sense as his is a past life built on conquering armies.
Epic Speech = Epic Character = Fan Favorite.
3) Underdog (Waver. Just Waver.)
It’s somewhat interesting to note that while in Fate/Stay Night, the story that follows the prequel that is Fate/Zero, consists mostly of Masters participating in that particular round of the Holy Grail War that are, for the most part, adolescents, while in Fate/Zero, the participating Masters consist mostly of adults. True, the visual novel (think electronic choose-your-own-adventure book) Fate/Stay Night. which is the original source material, was originally your typical visual novel where the main goal is for the player is to capture the heart of one of the three main heroines in each of the three storylines the novel lays out, so of course it’s full of high school age characters. But then the concept of writing a light novel (think short young adult novel) prequel to the three storylines (hence why it’s written in the third-person omniscient) was developed, there were all kinds of adult characters thrown in instead, maybe because the creators saw the opportunity to expand the universe in that way.
That said, Fate/Zero does still contain one adolescent character who participates as a Master in the War, and that’s Waver Velvet, hailing all the way from England, and eager to prove his worth as a mage by participating. There’s no question that he’s the underdog in the story, limited not only by age, but also by resources. While Masters like Kiritsugu Emiya have the backing of an ancient mage family, the Einzberns, through his wife Irisviel, as well as his own personally amassed resources through his work as a professional assassin, or Masters like Tokiomi Tohsaka and Kirei Kotomine are again backed by the wealth and power of the Tohsaka family, and even Waver’s school professor, Lord Kayneth El-Melloi Archibald (nice name, right?) has the esteem of his own illustrious family line, Waver’s basically a nobody. Even so, oddly enough, it’s what makes his Servant, Rider, so keen on him, especially when he begins to see Waver’s true potential as a mage, that he manages his magecraft effectively despite his limits, and in gaining respect from Rider, and vice versa, the Master-Servant pact between them is gelled all the more into a strong friendship that goes beyond that contracted bond, giving us a character in Waver that starts out as a bit of a brat who laments his insignificance in life to one who’s grown into something more, someone people can root for, and be all-around likeable.
The success of the underdog despite all odds at its finest.
4) Teamwork (Ep. 13 “The Forbidden Feast of Madness” – Ep. 15 “Golden Shine”)
In the course of the Grail War in Fate/Zero, things start to reach crisis levels to the point of exposing the War to non-mages (which is apparently a bad thing) when maniacal Caster and his Master, a non-mage, totally-randomly-chosen young psychopath named Ryuunosuke Uryuu, decide to wreak havoc on the city of Fuyuki (where the Wars are traditionally held) with Caster using his Grimoire to turn into a giant octopus (yeah, this is Japan after all, and I’m given to understand that Gen Urobuchi is apparently a fanboy of H. P. Lovecraft) that slowly devours any person or thing that tries to attack it. In order to destroy it and defeat Caster and Ryuunosuke, the other Masters and their Servants are forced to join forces. Ryuunosuke, who, in his madness and the fact that he isn’t a mage, isn’t even really aware of the War and is just in this for the opportunity to commit mass murder like he’s always enjoyed doing, is taken out by a sniper bullet from Kiritsugu Emiya during the fray, and then his Servant, Saber (formerly King Arthur, who was apparently a woman disguised as a man all this time, just go with it) strikes the fatal blow with Excalibur after another Servant, Lancer, breaks the curse he’d put on her hand in a previous duel with her by breaking one of his two lances. This is all after Rider took it upon himself to bring their forces together to complete this task, and used his Reality Marble (an enclosed space separate from the present world–where’s that physics book on multiverses?) to delay the expansion of Caster’s monster until an effective method of defeating it was reached.
Epic teamwork for the win!
5) The Jerk Villain Wooing the Heroine – Archer Chasing Saber (Eps. 15 “Golden Shine” – 24 “The Last Command Seal”)
For as long as there have been douchebags, and for as long as there have been women smart enough not to fall for their dastardly charms, there has been the cliche of the jerk who doesn’t get that “No,” means “No.” In the case of Fate/Zero, we have Archer, who is the spirit of the epic hero Gilgamesh (and just about one of the biggest egotistical jerks in human history), wooing Saber, who is, as we’ve discussed, the spirit of King Arthur, who apparently was really a woman disguised as a man because even though she was a girl she still managed to pull out the Sword in the Stone–and the hero of the aforementioned visual novel, Fate/Stay Night, Shirou, needed to have a total of three heroines to fall in love with for each of the three storylines–okay, man, you’ve got to think, this franchise has come a long way in its epic nature when you remember that the original source material for the game that started it all was in fact a game centering around the main player getting three different female characters to sleep with him, a game where people came for the sex and stayed for the story.
Anyway, back to Archer and Saber. Setting this up was crucial to the plot in that, like with most pres-stories, it plays a part in Fate/Stay Night. (And the original game’s creators, Type-Moon, took pleasure in parodying this relationship in their tribute/celebration/parody/totally-makes-no-sense explosion that is Carnival Phantasm.)
Archer is dazzled (though in the way a god of the universe would be) by Saber’s use of Excalibur to deal Caster the final blow to defeat him, and from there on is determined to make Saber his (it’s a possessive love). This basically boils down to a confrontation at the appearance of the Grail in the penultimate episode, when Archer demands that Saber forget her quest for the Grail and marry him, she refuses, and he throws swords at her in an attempt to force compliance.
6) Betrayal – Kirei Kotomine and Tokiomi Tohsaka (Ep. 17 “The Eighth Contract”)
To me, some of the best villains in any given story are the ones that don’t start out as villains, because when done well it’s definitely a treat to watch them grow into a villain (dat character development again). Kirei Kotomine, who is a priest (look at that, you can already see the cliche coming a mile away) formerly working to weed out heretic mages with the use of his “Black Keys”, which are basically long blades that he can pop out from between his fingers (think Wolverine), at first does the bidding of his father, the overseeing priest for the Grail War, and Tokiomi Tohsaka, the head of the Tohsaka family, one of the three great ancient mage families associated with the history of the Grail Wars, by acting as a Master that works merely to make sure Tohsaka wins as a Master in the War unto himself. But then Archer, Tohsaka’s servant, who certainly sees Tohsaka as no master of him and as such takes pleasure in going off on his own, drinking as much wine as he can in the process and looking oh-so-chic while doing it, gets it into Kirei’s head that he is in fact, on the inside, really just a man who’s true source of personal pleasure is toying with other people’s lives and making them suffer, and that he’s been unhappy his whole life because he was denying himself that pleasure due to his growing up as the son of a devout priest (now vow of celibacy in this universe, apparently). He could not, until now, recognize that deep down he just wanted to be able to do wicked things. This comes to fruition when, after much discussion and insinuation, Kirei, instead of leaving the War when asked to shortly after the death of his father of Kayneth El-Melloi (who at this point has also been taken out by Kiritsugu), literally stabs Tohsaka in the back, murdering him right in front of a very unconcerned Archer who then gladly accepts Kirei’s offer for the two of them to form a new Master-Servant pact.
Yes, the fact that he literally stabs him in the back really hits the nail on the head, but the build up they give it is worthy of the final execution, which is why the sequence still gives me delicious chills up my spine. (Wonder what that says about me, heh, heh.)
7) The Evil Set-Up/Misunderstanding – Kirei Kotomine and Kariya Matou (Ep. 21 “Knight on Two Wheels”)
In this War for the Grail, among the Masters there is the underdog who overcomes, like Waver, and then there is the underdog who fails and for whom nobody roots because they already know they aren’t going to win, and that their defeat won’t just be a defeat, but a spectacular, cruel, and torturous defeat that makes us wince in compassion for the poor creature. This latter underdog is separate such from the likes of Waver that he creates his own cliche, with its very own cliche tragic ending. That latter, less-successful underdog is Kariya Matou, who’s only goal in this War is to save the life of Sakura Tohsaka (she’s another one of the three heroines in Fate/Stay Night as Sakura Matou), who’s been adopted by his family to be their next heir, since Kariya’s older brother has no talent and Kariya himself turned his back on magecraft because of his father’s cruel nature. The cliche storyline he exhibits here is that of the down-and-out who is duped into self-destruction by several factors.
First, that his father doesn’t actually believe he can win the War.
Second, that his father implanted him with creatures of his own making called “crestworms” (think those worm things from Wrath of Khan for example) in order to restore his previously abandoned ability to do magic.
Third, those worms slowly eat away at his mind, causing him to go insane with each defeat his very uncontrollable servant Berserker suffers.
Fourth, he used to be in love with Sakura’s mother, Aoi, but broke it off with her because he didn’t want her tainted by his father’s cruelty.
Fifth, while both Sakura and her older sister Rin (the third heroine of Fate/Stay Night) see him as an uncle, he loves them as if they were his daughters.
Sixth, he’s not a big fan of their father, Tokiomi Tohsaka (see where this is going?).
Seventh, Kirei’s just killed Tokiomi, and then he uses Kariya to get Berserker to kidnap Kiritsugu’s wife Irisviel, and then sets it up so Kariya comes across Tokiomi’s dead body and Aoi comes across him and is led to believe he did it–she rages at Kariya, only to have Kariya snap and strangle her.
Life’s a bitch.
8) The Past – Kiritsugu Emiya “Eps. 18 “Distant Memories – 19 “Where Justice Is Found”)
So I keep mentioning this Kiritsugu Emiya guy, that he’s a professional assassin, the he has a wife, Irisviel, and the two of them are fighting as a team in the Grail War with the servant Saber. But it isn’t until we get to the latter half of the series, after seeing him anguish over the fact that he has to sacrifice Irisviel’s life in order to obtain the Grail, and seeing not only the close (if reserved) nature of his relationship with his wife, but also the tender relationship he shares with his daughter, Ilya, (who is the sacrificial loli-lamb in Fate/Stay Night) the child that Irisviel and he had not only as living proof of their love but also to give Kiritsugu a reason to keep on living after the War is over and Irisviel is dead, we FINALLY get to the meat of his character in where his concept of justice–the very Spockian, “kill the few to save the many” (something like that)–sprang from. It all started because he couldn’t kill his childhood crush, Shirley, who had turned into a bloodthirsty vampire, so to atone, he not only killed his father, who created the vampire-turning elixir in the first place, but from there on he dedicated himself, due to a dream he’d harbored as a boy from a very young age to be a hero, to eliminating as many people as he took to tip the scales of the world in favor of saving the world from its own destruction.
Such themes come up when Saber, who of course has a very chivalrous sense of justice, confronts him about his underhanded killing methods–underhanded because he will do anything to make sure the outcome of any situation is that of most lives saved. This of course brings us back to his anguishing over having to sacrifice Irisviel’s life, since the wish he will ask of the Grail once he obtains it is to save the world and bring peace to it forever, end all wars, suffering, bloodshed, and sadness. For such a pure dream, he has been forced to take cruel measures so his efforts will not be in vain, and that includes forfeiting Irisviel’s life, as she was in fact a homunculus designed as a Vessel for the Grail, and must die in order to bring it into the physical world, along with the sacrifice of the servants, or Heroic Spirits in the War. Which is not to say that he did not give Irisiviel the chance to flee, because he did, but instead she chose to fall in love with him, and in the end, that and Ilya became her reasons for giving up her life, and she expresses her loyalty to him and his cause throughout the show very movingly. And what she says about him and how he gave her such a beautiful love in her short life, despite knowing that it would end in tragedy, speaks the volumes that his tendency towards silence leaves to the imagination.
But just as Kiritsugu was once also forced to kill his mentor, an assassin named Natalia Kiminsky, who was like a mother to him and taught him everything he knew about hunting and killing targets, in order to save the city of New York from an infestation of vampire-turning bees (no I Am Legend scenarios then) by blowing up her plane, now he is forced to give up the life of the woman he loves, and risk losing his daughter too should he fail.
Which is why, despite his underhanded tactics, we see the point he makes about mankind’s own sordid past and the cycle of death and violence that its wasted itself on.
I guess here I could lump in the additional cliche of the cold killer who isn’t really cold at his core, and just does cold, cruel things at the risk of his own soul and for the greater good, but his past builds that persona for him. Plus, I’d love to go on and on about him (and I will in another section) but for now I’ll leave it at that.
And with this clear cut evidence that he is one of the sexiest anime characters I have ever scene. (I don’t care if he’s just a pattern of drawn lines and colors, he’s ATTRACTIVELY DRAWN. Cue the Cascada.)
9) Mano a Mano (Rider vs. Archer – Ep. 23 “The Sea at the End of the World” and Kiritsugu vs. Kirei – Ep. 24 “The Last Command Seal” and Saber vs. Berserker – Eps. 23-24)
The best satisfaction to be had from a great rivalry is when the conflict between the two rivals involved comes to a head. Both great rivalries in this show are built up nicely, like everything else. In the case of Archer and Rider, you have the golden douchebag who actually is, quite frankly, just as powerful as he claims to be, and badass Rider, the only guy with the guts to try and take him down. He experiences his own underdog moment in coming to his defeat at Archer’s hands, but he goes out the way all great blazes of glory should: he goes down fighting. Like a boss. And with that, Waver’s character comes full circle. Like a boss. Wait.
As for Kiritsugu vs. Kirei, we get build up for that from the very beginning. The aftermath of their rivalry plays into events in Fate/Stay Night, so it was important to get this right. And even without Stay Night, it was still awesome. Both men don’t actually meet until the moment of their final confrontation, but from hearing of each other from the very beginning, both immediately come to the conclusion that the other is not only a man he can’t understand, but the only man who can kill him. They are, from the start, both intrigued and terrified of the other, and in the final battle for the Grail, it’s kill or be killed for the both of them.
Cue the Breaking Benjamin. Or the Fallout Boy.
Seriously though, watch the fight if you get a chance and have an appreciation for animated fight choreography, because even out of context, it’s HOLY EPIC. (There are several cuts of it posted on YouTube, but I basically inserted a sub and dub version for links, depending on your preference, lol.)
Concerning the fight between Saber and Berserker, this actually ties in a bit into the par about the past too. Saber, as it turns out, is trying to atone for her own past (yes, despite their differences in moral grounding, she and Kiritsugu are very much alike, ha, ha irony). She was unable to save Britain from its eventual defeat in her time, so the wish she’d offer the Grail would be to prevent that from happening. Berserker meanwhile is curiously fixated on her throughout the War, and we find out that his true identity is Sir Lancelot, who’s basically gone insane because she never punished him for having betrayed her by sleeping with her wife Guinevere (I believe he wasn’t aware that Arthur was really a woman, Arturia, wink, wink). Confronting her mistake of rather than being a king that was open to her followers, being instead a martyrous king who kept to herself, she defeats Berserker, giving us a glimpse into the darkness that threatens her from within, and plays into the third and most brutal storyline of Fate/Stay Night.
Gritty and fantastic.
10) Old defeated Warrior/Teacher/Sensei Passing On His Values/Teachers to a More Hopeful and Enthusiastic Youth (the Beginning of Kiritsugu’s relationship with Shirou, the hero of Fate/Stay Night, to conclude the story of Fate/Zero – Ep. 25 “Fate Zero”)
I’m gonna be straight and just say right here and now, I think this is my absolute favorite cliche (apart from epic choirs and shouting the word “NOOOOOOO!”). If I had to pick one. It’s what got me to want to watch the 2006 Fate/Stay Night anime adaptation, and then thank the heavens when I watched the superior epicness of Fate/Zero that they were remaking Fate/Stay Night into something that promised to be equally epic, rather than blaise and corny and clunky (like the original adaptation was–and I must say so far, so good: they’re adapting the second and third storylines of the visual novel, with the second being a series like Zero and the third being done as a film–because there’s…um…rape).
But getting back to this last cliche, yes, this relationship, and Kiritsugu’s relationship with Irisviel and Ilya, is what got me invested in the Fate franchise–the Haagen-Dasz strawberry ice cream that delivered additionally with whipped cream and sprinkles. I’m a HUGE romantic, of a sort, so it goes without saying that we have a character like Kiritsugu who, despite his being a cold killer, does in fact have a wife and daughter that are very precious to him is all sweet goodness for me, but as for Kiritsugu and Shirou, well that has a romanticism of its own in the sense that it’s something beautiful out of something so simple.
In the climax of the last episode, despite Kiritsugu ordering Saber to destroy the Grail (the Grail turned out to be Evil, big surprise), the fact that all the evil contained within the Grail have now lost their Vessel upon its destruction (actually it wasn’t even really destroyed, argh) they basically spill everywhere and cause a disastrous fire, out of which Kiritsugu, screaming to the heavens, is only able to save one life: Shirou, who at the time is just a small boy of like five. Having lost his family, and lost any other reason to live while at the same time desperate for an opportunity to atone, Kiritsugu offers Shirou the option of coming to live with him, as he’s willing to adopt him, or go live in an orphanage (now that his biological parents are dead from the fire). Shirou decides he wants to live with the man who saved his life. From there, he comes to admire Kiritsugu and aspire to be a man strong enough to save other people, like he was too weak to do in the fire, like Kiritsugu was able to do for him. It’s because of this that just when Kiritsugu thinks he’s going to die with the weight of regret on his shoulder, he feels eased and free at last when Shirou proclaims that he will make Kiritsugu’s dream of becoming a hero in his stead.
Paving the way for the stories in Fate/Stay Night.
Part of what makes this relationship so beautiful to me is in part because of the emotional weight presented by both of these characters, and the fact that in some ways it reflects Kiritsugu’s relationship with Irisviel, the wife he loved and lost, only in the sense that he and Shirou are both broken in the same way that he and Irisviel both were.
And I’m gonna stop there, because I’m basically exploring this entire concept in grand detail in my Kiritsugu/Irisviel fanfic, which you can read here (shameless plug!!!). But the scenario itself evokes many a famous father-son relationship (that involves a man and boy who are in fact not related by blood but still share a bond) throughout story-telling: Luke and Obi-Wan, Harry and Dumbledore (or Sirius Black if you prefer), Frodo and Gandalf even. It’s what got me interested in checking out, Sword of the Stranger, an anime film that again tells a simple story in that same vein.
Even going beyond that, family bonds in generally fascinate me in storytelling. Harry Potter is as rife with them as shows like Fullmetal Alchemist and Eureka Seven are, and I adore them for it. And here we have it again in something like Fate/Zero. Diamonds of emotional awesome, right there.
Hmmm…maybe I should rename this post, “Reasons Why I Love Fate/Zero So Damn Much”.
Anyway, the only reason I neglect the epic choirs used in the soundtrack (written by the awesome Yuki Kajiura) as a cliche is because, as great as books as are, music is the one thing the visual media has over them (but then again, there’s good and there’s bad just like with anything).
The thing about cliches is they can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they can be tired old things when put in a story just for the sake of having them, but at the same time, they can be quite awesome and that again is why storytellers can be greedy to use them. That, and to be honest, the root of any good story does follow certain formulas that just work (so quite a lot of elements in stories are in fact cliches when you think about it), and straying from the structure can turn the story into a mess. That’s why cliches work when done well: they are elements of storytelling that are time-honored, passed from generation to generation and entrusted to storytellers to be cared for properly in their stories. When not done so, they turn out wincingly awful. But handled right, handled with realism appropriate to the situation–even if the situation itself is fantastic–a cliche, an embodiment of a truth about life, can turn out brilliant.
Any cliches I missed? Post in the comments below!