Review/discussion about: Zero kara Hajimeru Mahou no Sho
I hope to one day write my own novel.
While writing reviews, analyses, and essays is my forte, I have always had a keen interest in fiction. Whether completely imaginary like the Harry Potter series or closer to realism like 1984, the approach involves a different mindset that is fun to indulge. Creating witty dialogue. Describing scenery. Forming logical plotlines. It’s much different than articulating how an anime accomplished its goals or basing events off a personal set of ideas.
Zero kara Hajimeru Mahou no Sho features a novel of sorts – the Grimoire of Zero – written by one of its characters. In some sense, it contains the purely fictional (to us at any rate). Sadly, it doesn’t contain the solution for the show’s lagging performance.
Zero kara opens with witches at the stake and a huge white tiger-man fending off a few bounty hunters. After escaping the city, he, by chance, encounters a powerful female sorcerer just trying to enjoy some soup. She offers him the miracle he has always dreamed of: to turn back into a human. He must only act as her bodyguard while they search for her all-important book that, in the wrong hands, could destroy the world. After a finger-blood oath between the two, the witch-hating Mercenary and the “wagahai”-saying Zero begin their adventure in earnest.
Said adventure certainly contains the right elements to achieve narrative strength. The fantasy setting. The writing chops. The noticeable themes. Unfortunately for Zero kara, it takes these elements, attempts to form some magic with them, and ultimately summons a lackluster tale despite its many possibilities.
Lacking begins when it tackles the fantasy that drives the setting. The anime takes place in a world that resembles Medieval times with an extra helping of magic and beast men (known as “beastfallen”). To the show’s credit, it does try to build its world at times. For instance, as the characters investigate the carnage following the sacking of the village of Latette, Zero describes some of the spells used and what they can do. The anime also highlights the tensions between the different political and warring factions, including beastfallen, sorcerers, and regular humans.
Yet the show’s delivery of this information isn’t always sound. For the first three episodes (and never again afterwards), a narrator spews out relevant details to get the audience up to speed rather than letting them learn of it through more natural means. Then, in episode six, the characters do almost nothing but talk with and at each other about the current situation. Again, this info is necessary to create a believable, connected world, but the method behind its creation doesn’t go for anything enticing.
Furthermore, Zero kara doesn’t deliver enough. Despite everything going on, the anime never really goes out of its way to build a finer, more nuanced world for its characters to run around in. The knights hardly interact with the sorcerers, losing out on potential quarrels and insight. Minimal exploration of different areas keeps the kingdom itself either too isolated or too disparate as well.
Beyond the fantasy setting, Zero kara also has some clout with its writing chops. Quite regularly, the anime demonstrates a clear grasp of creating plot points and following through on them in a logical, fair manner.
Take the magic potion that Thirteen gives to Mercenary to nullify his beastfallen self. It not only symbolizes his conviction to stay true to the quest that got him here but also it becomes the item that frees Zero from her magical prison later on.
Or how about those blood contracts near the very beginning of the season. They form the basis for Thirteen’s scheme when he reveals that his death as “Him” will kill every Sorcerer of Zero and rogue witch out there presently.
Zero’s tattered robe that she trades for a better set of stylish clothes counts, too. It gets used as part of a tracking spell that was in turn introduced back in the second episode of the season with Mercenary’s fur and the undercover witch.
Can’t forget about the “curse” placed upon Mercenary by Zero either, for it pops up in quadruple fashion. Once when Mercenary is shot with an arrow. Once when Thirteen stops the guards from attacking him. Once when the giant dude bites Mercenary’s arm. Once when Mercenary blocks Zero’s mega attack to stop her from accidentally killing Thirteen and subsequently herself.
Not to mention the cool idea of Zero purposefully writing the spells in the Grimoire of Zero incorrectly, a detail that the audience can potentially catch onto when noticing her chants during her duel with Thirteen.
Truth be told, none of these examples stand out as exceptional in terms of impact or intrigue. But they no doubt stand as evidence for the anime’s respectable writing choices.
However, it must be noted that several of Zero kara’s story beats belittle the progression made instead. Biggest among them? The entire plot predicated by the fact that Thirteen essentially didn’t talk with and ask Zero about what she really wants. Plus, the tension involved throughout the last conflict lacks weight. Thirteen already used his rat familiar to coerce his followers to fight, yet he apparently cannot undo his decree despite their devoutness.
Smaller writing oddities affect the show as well. The convenient forced-teleportation spell after triggering a specific word seems too easy to push things where they need to go. A strange decision to cut the dramatic scene following Zero’s near death has no place. The group managing to traverse the entire kingdom in a strangely timely manner when placing the five mega-magic circles raises an eyebrow. With all the respect the writing deserves, it still foregoes some of it of its own accord when it commits to these weirder, weaker choices.
After the setting and the writing, the themes also try their hand. They dabble in morality through perspectives on racism and mindsets. One of the best scenes from the season follows these throughputs well. In episode seven, a young lady humors Mercenary, tricking him to have him help drive away other beastfallen at their establishment (or, as she and he put it, “It is what it is”).
These moments are few and far between, though. Indeed, Zero kara often misses out on a more balanced view of these topics, portraying each group involved as mostly negative rather than reaching for a middle ground. Serena was a kind sorcerer as was that old man who let Holdem walk free. Yet the constant misbehavior of the beastfallen. The current sorcerers almost never using their powers for good. The on-the-nose lines yelled by various villagers about the witches and their evil ways. Everything adds up to misbalance the anime’s thematic presence.
Altogether, the setting, writing, and themes are all there for the show to capitalize on. Unfortunately, that doesn’t exactly happen even with its best efforts, leaving the narrative without an option to summon further refinement.
ART & ANIMATION
For the most part, Zero kara gets the job done with its visuals. On an artistic level, the locations do little else besides fit where the characters are and what they are doing. E.g., traveling through a forest, visiting a busy city. They aren’t explored to any large degree, and the details present do not invite anything of interest to look at. Most likely a byproduct of the anime’s lack of world-building drive.
Nevertheless, the show displays at a semi-infrequent rate key shots that argue a lot more in its favor. A faraway view of the kingdom’s capital with a mountainous backdrop. The crew’s bonfire illuminates their lonely spot during the forest’s dark night; it eventually gives way to them overlooking a section of the forest as a rainbow arcs overhead. A somewhat top-down shot of Zero’s cavernous “home” as ominous red lighting fills the air. Again, these shots are by no means around all the time let alone to a noticeable extent. But, when they do appear, one has to at least appreciate their detail.
For the rest of the anime’s production and animation, it goes back to that serviceable state. It rarely tries for anything fancy in its scene composition or techniques in general. The most adventurous it gets is in episode six. Thirteen and Mercenary hold a private conversation, and a neat rotating-camera trick simulates the former’s hypnosis of the latter. All the while, the centralized glass vial housing the magic potion he desires reflects their faces.
Otherwise, a couple of rotated frames here and a few magic uses there counteract the weird charging close-ups of Holdem in his duel with Mercenary and the disregard for any interesting imagery overall.
The character designs likewise follow suit. Albus is designed to look like a teenage boy, so her looks do conceal her true nature, but the tradeoff is extreme plainness. Thirteen’s black cloak, dark purple eyes, unkempt hair, and angled face translate well into an evil aura, but his demeanor and slowness strip away any intimidation. Mercenary and Zero do fair a bit better, though. Mercenary’s large build, rogue outfit, and white fur both mirror and complement Zero’s small build, sorcery attire, and white hair, making their designs a fun, dichotomous duo.
In all, the visuals remain consistent in their meager delivery. Not that that hurts the anime, but it doesn’t help it out either.
Mercenary, Zero, Albus, and Thirteen. As the four main characters of Zero kara, they contribute to this anime in various ways. They also vary in their efficacy, too, putting their group in a questionable spot right alongside most of the other parts to this anime.
Mercenary stands the tallest among the group both within the show and in an analytical sense. With fangs, fur, and ferocity, he embodies the beastfallen moniker. His white coat coats his fervent dislike for witches, and his big build and even bigger sword makes him a force during any fight. Yet beneath his rough exterior, a softness of heart guides his path.
For, while he may frown upon Zero and Albus for their sorcery and their actions, he looks out for their well-being. He makes them soup. He finds them lodgings. He protects them to the best of his ability. He’s no saint, but he clearly strives for what is at least morally good. A statement reinforced by his honesty when dealing with Zero’s priceless gems in episode three.
Although, his kindness towards them is somewhat out of a desire of his own: to be a full-fledged human. This conflict arises out of a few interspersed scenes. In a flashback, he attacks and kills a gang of bandits who were terrorizing his village to obtain his head. Another occurs in his arrested freefall where he remembers how he and other beastfallen were mainly expendable losses in war, and his prowess and violence earned him the nickname “The Black Beast of Death” as well as jeers for his demise.
So, when Zero crosses that path of his, and her sincere words match those of his mother’s from when he was a kid, he accepts her offer with his own style of oath. What follows, then, is his journey alongside that which (and witch) he hates, experiencing troubles of a physical and mental nature as he fends off baddies and learns more about the magical world (and people) around him.
Come the end of episode six, however, it is clear that the seeds of doubt still stir in his soul. He (unwillingly) raises his blade against Zero, forcing their separation and his contemplation. Nevertheless, she keeps him alive thanks to her powers and keeps him sane thanks to her reaffirmation of the softness within him. The latter especially, for he nearly succumbs to the beastfallen desire of eating flesh that the show alludes to a few times throughout the season. Thankfully, his memories (albeit neither extensive nor moving) of their time together stay his fangs.
Now with a clearer mind, he knows what he must do. He works with Holdem to save Albus from her untimely fate. He scales the side of a cliff and climbs the outside of a castle to reach Zero and to tell her that what little brains he has were enough to convince himself that he had to be there for her despite his doubts. He even takes part in the final magic ritual (but not before a playful prod), indicating that, by this point, he has overcome his disdain for those arts to at least some miniscule extent.
Zero kara gives Mercenary a rather appreciable arc to his character – except it flubs his finale. With his journey complete, he doesn’t receive his desire to become a human. He doesn’t get to settle down as an inn proprietor like he wanted to either. The audience doesn’t even get to learn his real name, missing out on a neat full-circle writing chance right at the end.
Rather, the anime doubles down thrice. One, the beast part of soul is fused even tighter to him after the ritual. Two, he continues traveling with Zero. And three, he actively refuses to give his true name or learn Zero’s, saying, “Well, maybe it won’t be so bad if I’m a beastfallen a little while longer,” a statement that contradicts his base motivations. In short, this open-endedness to his arc stops him from being a solid character and closer to barely a competent one.
Arguably, his line there follows a theme on being comfortable in one’s skin (or, in this case, fur). But that was never really a talking point of the show. Instead, what it focused on most was that of indirect loneliness. The audience sees it handily with Mercenary. As a beastfallen, he’s ostracized to some extent, he is belittled, and he cannot get along with humans or witches.
Zero experiences such indirect loneliness as well. In fact, almost her entire character stems from this idea. It’s obvious from her interactions in the city and with Mercenary that, despite her skills, she doesn’t have a grasp on how regular life and normal society works. Seemingly because she has been kept in a cave for most of her life, knowing only faded pages for friends and an occasional peeking sun to keep her company. She explains as such periodically, too.
As such, her connection to Mercenary means a lot to her since he’s one of the only people – beastfallen or otherwise – that she has ever bonded with. Unfortunately, Zero kara does not go too out of its way to build their relationship.
That’s partly because of Albus, a necessary evil in this show. She basically represents the “other side,” the counterpoint to much of the plot’s discussion about the warring factions. She either introduces or says a line of thinking that relates to the sorcerers’ camp, and the anime proceeds to highlight why her naïve worldview isn’t as black-and-white as she may believe. Furthermore, without Serena around anymore, and realizing that her newfound friends do not necessarily agree with her stances, she as well goes through that same indirect loneliness.
However, with her inclusion, she severely detracts from that key component of Zero kara: Zero and Mercenary’s relationship. With this third wheel constantly around and spinning, the two main characters of the anime hardly have any scenes just together to make their connection worthwhile.
Not to mention that Zero is simply not a compelling character on her own, and the anime itself sidelines her for a sizable chunk of the last half of the season. This sidelining mirrors her time in the caves and coincides with that indirect loneliness, so it does make sense on a writing level. However, the anime spends very little time addressing her thoughts and her actions while in captivity to make it worth the time. So, when her climactic scene with Mercenary in the castle tower arrives, it’s nice in concept, but the foundation for it doesn’t exist or at the minimum doesn’t have the support required to elevate it to a strong level.
Then there’s Thirteen, the weakest of the four. He appears roughly halfway through the season as a quasi-evil dude. Simultaneously, he acts as Zero’s caretaker and teacher (or to her, “brother”) during her cave times and, after his leave, a zealot to the cause of granting her the world that (he thought) she desires. Where she viewed magic as a tool that would benefit everyone, Thirteen saw that it would be nothing else besides a weapon for the common simpleton.
His thinking somewhat comes true when his secret ploy upholds the inevitable abuse and misuse of this magic. As for his actual character, it does not uphold as well. Because of the mystery that surrounds him on a plot level, he never receives enough attention. There’s no tangible context to his rise as “Him.” His admiration of Serena has little to no basis. His feuds with Albus and Holdem do not have the necessary room to grow. He doesn’t relate to that indirect loneliness as well as the others. Just a weak character all in all.
Overall, on the total execution scale, Mercenary rises above Zero, Albus, and Thirteen. But when Mercenary does not attain anything higher than competency, the cast here do not deserve much praise whatsoever.
MUSIC & SOUND
Although last in order, the ending track wins first. Titled “Hajimari no Shirushi,” delicate piano keys and light acoustic strings calm the audience in their simple, gentle flow. Soft vocals accompany the instrumentals, upping the calmness of the piece that much more. The melodic pace moves the song along in a nice way, and the rise in tone changes its structure without taking anything away from that calming feel.
Opposite the ED, the opening track heads for the back of the pact. Immediately, the sound of this piece is entirely unfitting. It would be appropriate for a story aimed at something slightly whimsical rather than serious like Zero kara. The vocals aren’t shabby, and the beat has a catchiness to it, but the punk-rock body of the song simply detracts from the established direction of the content itself.
Tsuyoshi Koyama as Mercenary likewise hurts the show’s chances. To start, his voice for the white-furred beastfallen does not go deep enough to match his build. The delivery of his lines lacks emotion, too. And roars sound less like a ferocious tiger and more like a guy frustrated from stubbing his toe on a nearby table. Not that his performance is a total failure – it just didn’t embody the main character in full.
Less frustrating is the rest of the original soundtrack. While it has lively songs like the one that plays when the group enter Formicum, the OST mostly sticks with mystery vibes and everyday tunes instead. Deliberate piano keys. Calm trumpets. Reminiscent wind instruments. Wild yet reserved violin strings. These tracks are all rather simple in design, but they support the anime well enough throughout the season.
With the ED and the OST on one side, and the OP and the VA performances on the other side, “split” just about sums up Zero kara’s audio outing.
My initial impression of this anime was not favorable. I hardly liked anything that it set out to do: the bland characters, the plot direction, the different details at each turn. Just a whole lot of me shaking my head at its repeated, failed attempts to pull me in.
Lo and behold, revisiting the show anew with fresh eyes and a fresh mind did not change my thoughts.
Those characters? Mercenary is not funny or cool or interesting or nuanced. The best he can do is take up a lot of space on-screen as he complains out loud. Zero says “Wagahai” a lot, but her formality cannot distract from the fact that the pebbles on the sidewalk have more intrigue about them than she does. Thirteen is thirteen times too boring. And don’t even get me started on Albus, for I only need one simple word to describe her: annoying.
That plot? Let’s just let Thirteen live as an innocent among us despite him literally prolonging a war that killed hundreds if not thousands of beastfallen, witches, and humans. Holdem kept a bunch of women as slaves, but we’ll forget about that whole aside I suppose. I couldn’t care less about the twist that Albus is Sorena’s granddaughter because I couldn’t care less about her.
These extra details? Magic battles and usage were not entertaining. Mercenary and Holdem run through a crowd of people that somehow grows in size the longer they sprint. That one guy who got attacked at the secret hideout for the Sorcerers of Zero needlessly died because they stood around and did not bother to heal him.
Admittedly, I’m being rather harsh right now on the anime. To its credit, it never really gets worse as each episode rolls along. Nothing that it presents is outright horrible or ill-conceived, and I can tell effort exists within this project. Yet because it remains consistent in a mired, mediocre state for nearly its entire run, the small grievances I have just pile up to the point that I cannot personally perceive it in a positive position.
Zero kara Hajimeru Mahou no Sho does have something to show for itself, but so many of its decisions drag it down. The story and characters include a lot of that pushback, but the serviceable and questionable audiovisual elements don’t do a whole lot in return. Fiction or no, it writes out a lagging novel all the same.
Story: Fine, the setting, the writing, and the themes have definite clout, but they each have a bunch of problems regarding exploration, nuance, and balance that ultimately affect the narrative’s execution
Art & Animation: Fine, the visuals involved get the job done, nothing more and nothing less
Characters: Bad, Mercenary’s open-ended arc leaves him as competent rather than solid, Zero is neither compelling nor connected, Albus is a necessary evil, Thirteen misses the mark, but at least a theme on indirect loneliness can be found among them
Music & Sound: Fine, an unfitting OP counteracts a nice ED, not all the VA performances pass, and the OST works, albeit in a very simple fashion
Enjoyment: Terrible, boring characters, lame plot, and uninteresting details
Final Score: 3/10
Thanks for taking the time to read my review. If you want, take part in the discussion below! :3