Anime Breakdown: The Familiar of Zero (2006) Series Review

After finishing WataMote I naturally started looking for another comedy to pass the time whenever I wasn’t in the mood for something action oriented or at the time about magical teenage girls fighting witches that had allot of depth that shut me up on its cutesy drawn characters. So when researching I came across The Familiar of Zero which was unique for a Harem (basically a romance series where the protagonist has numerous potential love interest). Unlike nearly all Harems that uses a modern back dropped The Familiar of Zero uses a fantasy setting to make it stand out visually. However, as soon as I began watching the series it turned out the setting was the only thing noteworthy feature of the show.

Basic Information

Episode: 13

Available English Dub: Yes, but not recommended since it’s only for one season and its awful

Animation Studio: J.C. Staff

Premise:

Set in the feudalistic and fantastical world of Helkeginia, The Familiar of Zero centers around Louise de Valliere or “Zero”, an aristocratic girl who is completely and utterly inept at magic and who accidentally summons Saito, an ordinary boy from Japan, when she performs the traditionally summoning of one’s “familiar”. Reluctantly accepting him, she generally treats him poorly, verbally and physically abusing him and forcing him to perform menial attacks. In spite of his utter ignorance regarding this world, however, the perhaps too-forward Saito miraculously finds himself able to best an arrogant and powerful aristocrat who berates those of lower social standing, leading him to become popular with both plebeians and the other girls (to Louise’s dismay), and the headmaster of the school to speculate on who he actually is.

Good: Attempts To Be More Than A Romance Story

The world of The Familiar of Zero is one ruled by nobility who are magicians while peasants are ordinary citizens. Why only nobilities can become magicians and peasants can not is never elaborated upon beyond nobility can use magic. You think in a world with this kind of logic there would have been at least a couple instances where a noble marries a peasant, but apparently not. Back on providing some positives. The setup offers a wide variety of possible topics to discuss. Especially in this world where the division between social status is greater. The minority is filled with rich nobles that have magical powers while the lower class don’t. For a while it seems it wants to address that issues with protagonist Saito Hiraga not taking his unfair treatment lightly. Since Saito wasn’t born in the fantasy world he’s viewed as a pet in the noble eyes and is treated like one. Saito could only take his unfair treatment for so long before standing up for himself. Going up against a British noble despite Saito not having any extraordinary abilities. Sadly that discussion never goes anywhere rewarding beyond a certain point. It’s brought up every so often, but once Saito gets slightly better treatment that discussion disappears and dissolve into being only a Harem.

Not everything The Familiar of Zero sets out to do is accomplished to the degree it wants barely having enough positive to outweigh the negative. A positive trait is male lead, Saito Hiraga, is actually likable and it’s understandable why women would flock to get his attention to make him their boyfriend. His reaction to the world is natural and how he is used to integrate the audience into the world is solidly executed. In the context of the story it makes sense for a character within the world to explain to an outsider about the society they live in and in turn we as the audience learn about the world. Saito while not an engaging character is likable facing various conflicts that shows his growth. In particular towards the end of the first season where Saito is put in a positioned that forces him to choose between his livelihood or the well being of an entire kingdom. He has plenty of conflict he has to confront with his hate/love relationship with Louise slowly changing through the course of the first season. This change comes across naturally in the series. Admittedly the ambition shown in its first season and attempt to discuss society related issues through it world is respectable, but sadly that ambition is never reached for a number of reasons.

Mixed: Story

The first season doesn’t have an overarching story of any kind. It builds around smaller stories that focuses on the main characters personal life with the issues of the background world slowly catching up with them. Most of the conflict in the series is often solved with deus ex machina because you know, magic. Removing any tension that a conflict could have had, but also serves to progress the story further. While there is never a true sense of conflict because of easy solutions the story never stays in one place for too long either. Something is always happening and in some sort of way is making progress in the story whether it be character relationships or building up towards the finale. One key point it does miss is properly conveying the moment that Saito falls in love with Louise. Before Saito romance blossoms for Louise we know he’ll fall in love Louise because of the predictable nature of the show and its inability to throw its viewer off. However, the true issue comes afterwards as once Saito has finally made up his mind that Louise is the girl for him isn’t convincing. Aside from sharing a kiss and a couple of short moments of gratitude towards each other there’s nothing that really sells the idea Saito and Louise are right for each other. Let alone making a good argument for Saito affection for Louise since beforehand Louise does some questionable things that makes you wonder if Saito is a masochist.

Aside from the predictable romance another area where carries over mix results is it exploration on the world past. It makes some interesting development as characters discover bits of the world past and one that is made with the most importance is the Rune (basically worded magic seal) on Saito hands. It’s allows him to control any weapon like an expert as long it is made out of metal. Within the first season it’s given a foundation of development where it doesn’t come across as an easy cop out for the protagonist in combat. However, the same can’t be said about Louise as out of nowhere she becomes part of rare magicians called Void Mage. Not only does this eventual development remove Louise relatable aspect, but also excuses her failure in using of magic on a simple titled. What’s most unfortunate about this development is it usage during the climax which easily resolve the conflict of an entire war. It’s a major disservice toward Louise because instead of making her commitment to be a good magician part of her growth it’s conc the idea she’ll never get better and a disservice for the viewer for it’s easy quick resolution.

Mixed: Repetitive Humor

A majority of the jokes in The Familiar of Zero involve Saito being put in a situation usually sexual related in general. A girl hits on Saito and doesn’t know to react in turn leading to some overtop reaction with Louise either “hilariously” whipping Saito for talking to another girl or bickering between two girls. It gets really old when there is a serious lack of variation on the same type of humor. Some of it is funny. In season one there’s an episode focusing on this sacred book that knows the secret to arouse all men, but actually turns out to be a porno maginize. In context it works because characters in the fantasy world reaction is over the top giving more mysticism to a basic object. In some cases these jokes don’t work. No other example better embodies this than the perverted old man character whose mouse is also a pervert. The first time the joke is funny if foreseeable given the genre. When it repeated again not so much since it’s the same every time joke being told over again.

In some instances there are scenes where you question if it was meant to funny. For example, there’s a scene of Saito walking in the streets of Japan and finding a wormhole in the middle of street. No one elses notice it and sticks his hand in it only to be sucked in the fantasy world. Now given the show doesn’t have a good success rate of being funny I laughed at this scene because of the fact no one in the street of Japan wanted to help Saito from being sucked into the wormhole. It’s such a natural occurrence that no one’s is bothered by it anymore. With scenes like that spread out through the series you’ll slowly grow an immunity to what it throws at you. A problem in comedy in general is attempting keep a certain brand of humor funny if your whole act revolve around it. Something this show first season fails to maintain fresh.

Mixed: Characters

I’ll be honest and say the cast in this series lacks engaging personalities. Main character Saito Hiraga and Louise Francoise Le Blanc de La Valliere (that’s seriously her whole name) are a predictable item. Part of the fun of a harem should be guessing who the main male lead will end up with. Even if it is predictable who the male lead will choose it helps that the leading lady is likable. In this case it suffers similar problems to Shana of the Burning Eyes in which seeing the couple relationship develop does not work because of it central pair refusal to move past the status quo. In Saito Hiraga case he unknowingly gets on Louise bad side. However, Saito makes an effort to make amends to his master Louise no matter how small the problem is. If it bothers Louise, Saito is going to attempt to explain to Louise why he did something and talk it over with Louise attempting to fix it. His heart is in the right place never compromising what he believes, but neither letting his beliefs cloud the way those around him feel.

Than there’s Louise Francoise who falls victim to execution. She is a an abusive tsundere (alternating between irritable or lovestruck personality) whipping Saito for any possible reason. Most of his whipping in season one stems from Saito simply talking to any other girl that isn’t her. Not only does her constant jealousy becomes realize in physical beating towards Saito, but comes across demented for feeling guilty for punishing Saito, yet continues to exact physical punishment despite the fact that it never once works to change Saito behavior. Louise falls on the spoiled brat side, expecting Saito to simply do her bidding without question. Believing her being unpopular is a much more serious issue than Saito being just being thrust into a world he didn’t know existed and forcefully given a role to serve his master. Leading to a chemistry of bickering and bantering that occurs in most if not all episodes. There’s actually a kind of disturbing unintended subtext of slavery here. With Saito getting a chain around his neck to keep him in line, and Louise barking out orders to him as if he were nothing more than mere chattel. Does that sound like a love interest you want your leading male character to deal with? If you said yes, then you’ll be happy to know she would probably make you sleep on the floor on a pile of hay sometimes outside of the academy like she does with Saito and threatens him with starvation.

The supporting cast offer other love interests that are more bearable, though not all are explored equally. First up is Tabitha who is the strong emotionless type. She does get characterization through second hand accounts from other characters in the series. While Tabitha doesn’t say much she is more likable because of it. Where a majority of the female characters are speaking about boys (come on, not all women are shallow) Tabitha remains silent on the subject showing her talents to yield magic. Though given her treatment in the show it’s clear she won’t register on Saito radar. That’s a shame since a quiet, emotionless character is more likable than the leading lady. Tabitha best friend, Kirche, who is the polar opposite of her. Kirche defining characteristic is that she is well endowed. Okay, to be fair she does use her body to get what she wants since she knows how to persuade men. Sure her big breast is an easy design for fanservice, but she’s treated like a person and not solely as an object. Kirche genuinely cares for her friend Tabitha becoming closer to her when learning about her tragic past. She does have fanservice moments, but also moments where she comes across a well intended character.

Next up is Siesta who is a maid at the academy. She develops a romantic interest towards Saito and her affection for Saito reasonable. As oppose to Kirche who falls in love with Saito because it’ll make Louise jealous; Siesta loves the side of him that stands up to the noble and speak for the common man. Unlike Louise, Siesta actually holds a conversation with Saito as an equal being one of the few people Saito actually likes being around. She show concerns for his well being and on top of that is a good worker. When Louise punishes Saito for something he did by not feeding him, Siesta brings food from the kitchen or takes him down to the kitchen where he gets some of the leftovers from the nobles. Even when she knows Saito clearly has a questionable attraction towards Louise, Siesta still stays by his side as a friend. As you can tell, this character is pretty much everything the main love interest is not. Affectionate, caring, and oh, one sided positive traits. Okay so not entirely perfect nor interesting in a form of a story, but still a much more preferred option over Louise.

Finally there’s princess Henrietta. I know the whole princess thing can be problematic especially if given the traditional lazy the king is away excuse or not bringing it up at all. In Henrietta case it’s actually explain why she’s a princess. It’s because she was too young to be coronated to the throne and thus become queen when her country is at the brink of war. She’s given a realistic portrayal because of her job it shows the conflict of running an entire conflict as such a young age. Making her job all the more difficult when lives are at stake and her subordinates forcing her to agree on a decision she knows are wrong. Henrietta is sympathic since many want to be her, but very few actually want to know her.

Wait, what about the male supporting cast? Just plot devices to move the plot forward and do not whatsoever have much of a focus aside from chasing after a particular girl. About time a harem made it male supporting cast characters shallow, though that’s not really a positive either. The only other male that receives prominent screen time and development is a talking sword. Let that sink in. Goes to shows how much it value it male cast.

Mixed: Production Values

It’s one thing that the story doesn’t use it fantasy setting much to its advantage, but it’s another to restrict the animators on that front. The technical aspects are below average failing to capture a wonder in its world or imprint any image in the viewer that remains with them. Everything from it’s aesthetic is the very definition of basic. The cartoonish color scheme of bright tones, devoid of shading of texture, while the character art is very bland. There’s not much of an animation budget with noticeable movement being very limited. It’s made apparent even in the opening intro as some of the characters movement looking delayed. Less crucial is Shinkichi Mitsumune’s score is the equivalent of J.C. Staff’s generic fantasy-world settings: pleasant, and in some cases downright pretty, but hardly a draw unto itself. I’ll admit the opening theme is more bearable than it’s outro theme which is entirely off key. It’s pleasant to the eye and nothing wrong with things being pleasant. However, simply being pleasant to look at doesn’t excuse unremarkable technical aspects.

In the English dub voice actress Cristina Valenzuela has the good sense to tone down Louise’s wilder swings, creating a slightly more mature variation on the character. Jonathan Meza makes the fatal mistake of playing Saito with a quavering loser edge, effectively destroying his unflappable charm. Iwasaki is a veteran of romantic comedies (part of the reason, no doubt, that his action direction is so poor), but the little jolts of poignancy he teases from Louise and Saito’s evolving relationship cannot survive a toned-down Louise and a dispiritingly limp Saito. Nicholas Manelick picks up some of the slack with his hilariously ham-handed take on womanizing self-aggrandizer Guiche, and most of the other supporting players are solid enough, but a romance drained of its chemistry is too sad a thing to be saved by humor.

If you must for consistency reason go with Japanese language all the way. At least when it’s being adapted there’s effort put into translating the source material into a series and a understanding from the cast to deliver the performance expected of them. As for the English dub on the other side it’s very lazy in translation. In episode one when Louise first summons Saito they both are unable to understand each other, but in the English dub both speak English so comes across as a bit of confusion. It’s later explain that Louise was speaking in a different language and so put a spell on Saito so he can speak their language. If the English dub was too lazy to record couple of Saito lines in a different language it already failed. It doesn’t get any better so Japanese voice actors all the way. It’s not like watching it with English subtitles will make you miss the “meh” production values.

Final Thought:

The Familiar of Zero doesn’t offer diversity as a harem, comedy, or as animated series to warrant multiple viewings. It appeals to a specific audience meaning unless you’re part of that target audience you don’t have a reason to bother batting an eye at it. It attempts to appeal to a large audience and fails to live up to that goal. There’s some aspects of the series done right, but not enough where the good traits become noticeable.

Ambition: 2/2

Story: 1/2

Characters: 1/2

Humor: 1/2

Production Values: 1/2

Rating: 6/10 – The Familiar of Zero offers a unique setting and some interesting ideas, but those traits takes a backseat to its genre cliches and a cast of characters that are mix in results. It’s more concern in filling out a quota for a specific genre that’s audience expect from it that holds itself from better things. At the end though, it does tell a complete story, has a likable lead, and an interesting world that made it worth seeing. Even if the end results didn’t match those standards it could have.

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