Fantasy is a genre that rarely sees much innovation. It is the great irony that this area of fiction known for far-reaching adventures and fantastical imagination involving new races, creatures, magic, and cultures, could be so shackled by its own standard conventions. Combine that with the shackles of your standard tsundere-led slapstick harem anime and it’s nearly destined to be both frustrating and popular (which is also frustrating).
Zero no Tsukaima has zero heart. This is especially troubling because there’s so much about it that is good, it’s such a shame to see the potential wasted on being overly “safe” with a formulaic plot and structure. Truly, the corporate compromises seem to permeate every bit of it, and glaringly so. Yet there is much talent employed underneath the rigidly mechanical exterior.
A generous budget for a TV series gives you quite a polished and competent show, with lots of detailed backgrounds, locales, colorful characters, and plenty of flourishes and effects. But the animation is usually robotic and predictable, with utterly uninspiring cinematography that is perfectly adequate but no more. The music is usually fine and fitting but forgettable. The opening/ending animations are equally unsurprising and forgettable, you’ll skip them without a pang of guilt. The voice actors are all excellent but never any standouts. Sound effects are plenty and fitting. And the fantasy/harem genres are, well… exactly as you expect. Magic, swords, castles, princesses, dragons, and even elves. And then girls, lots of them, all eventually vying for the male lead in increasingly silly ways with more and more ridiculous hijinks as the writers keep trying to up the ante. And with four 12 episode seasons to write, things get especially strained by the end, I assure you. Oh, and lest we forget, the countless and overbearing fanservice and yet more fanservice.
I happen to be, in principle, a fan of fantasy. I have no problems with the genre as a whole, but even I will readily admit it has its obvious shortcomings, mostly to do with the impossible to avoid clichés. There’s just not really any way to be all that original in the genre. And as an obvious work of commercial appeal, ZnT is no different. It attempts nothing original, not even close. But… well… magic and elves are still fun! You’re starting to see why I said this was frustrating, yes?
Our story begins with Louise, a noble attending magic school, who is known as Louise the Zero because she always screws up spells and can never seem to make anything more than explosions happen, much to everyone else’s chagrin. But she’s proud and determined and attempts to ignore her many detractors. As second year students they get to perform a summoning ritual, where each budding wizard will be joined in a magical contract with a familiar. They do not get to actively choose but rather the magic and their personalities seem to influence what it will be. Most get some kind of random creature, like a fire-breathing salamander or an owl or even rarely a dragon. Louise gets a human boy, Saito Hiraga, who had been strolling through Tokyo one afternoon when a portal opened up and sucked him in, leaving him stranded in this strange world where he cannot understand anyone. A human is incredibly strange, though apparently not unheard of, as a big recurring theme of the show is the rare appearances of mystical “artifacts” their world has collected which all inevitably end up being things from our world. My favorite is the first one mentioned in the series, a “Staff of Destruction” which turns out to be a Vietnam-era rocket launcher.
More intriguing yet, and one the more interesting bits, is Saito’s newfound ability as Louise’s familiar. Upon his left hand appears strange runes that catch the eye of the senior faculty and which glow blue whenever he touches objects meant for war, instantly granting Saito the ability to know how to use whatever it is. For example, early on he grabs a sword and to his surprise immediately becomes adept at swordplay as soon as he lifts it. There are quite a few of these interesting little bits that, sadly, get overshadowed by the more conventional things.
And then there’s the boobs. Oh god. As a male who happens to be very fond of breasts, I can’t say I don’t appreciate seeing them, but the joke was worn out long before this series aired. It’s a fallback that gets fallen back on far too often and it never gets any less annoying. The amount of scoffing and eye-rolling I did, mostly as a result of the constant boob-pandering… ugh! Most of the time it wasn’t even clever or plausible, just blatant boob scenes because boobs. Worse, it so often killed the tension/emotion of what could have been otherwise good scenes.
Especially because when the scenes avoided the boobs and pratfalls they could be really good scenes. Louise is mostly a stock tsundere character but she does have her moments, usually in regards to her stubbornness about nobility and how that shapes her decisions and morality, which is nicely (and poignantly sometimes) contrasted with Saito’s casual disregard for caste systems given his modern world upbringing. It’s always a nice touch when he doesn’t bow to royalty (until Louise shoves his head down), not out of deliberate disrespect but because the very concept is foreign to him. When the two clash on these things there are some very real and stinging emotions.
And to its credit, the love that slowly simmers between the two leads is quite enjoyable at times. Sure, the writers throw misunderstandings and such at you constantly to grind the gears for awhile and it tries its hardest to satisfy the harem tropes with the rival girls, but it also never really gives you any indication that they aren’t meant to be. Louise grows on you, and some of the sweetest scenes between the two can be especially stirring and heartfelt. Perhaps it is merely artificially enhanced by all of the crap you have to put up with, what with the retarded fights and her being such a standoffish denier. But you probably won’t care during, you’ll just be awash with awws.
With four separate seasons aired, the series manages to cover quite a bit of material and story with plenty of plot twists and such to enjoy. Unfortunately, there are far too many times where it drags, spending consecutive entire episodes on trifles and filler in-between (and even sometimes during) major story arcs, almost exclusively to pander heavily to its harem roots with fanservice. Immediately it becomes apparent that ZnT is at its best, even perhaps including the comedy and fanservice, when it actually has a story to follow. The times where it languishes makes it all feel pointless and annoying. Fanservice isn’t inherently bad, but it doesn’t hold up entire episodes well, especially when the show proves time and time again that it can be better.
Worse, the genres start to conflict with each other, as ZnT cannot seem to decide what it wants to be. Does it want to be Love Hina in Hogwarts? Or Escaflowne with tits? So often the show seems to just be filling in the dots and checking off all of the usual fantasy/harem tropes with no soul. And yet, it can still be sweet, heartfelt, and dramatic. The heart-to-heart moments with the leads can give such a rush of feels. And the fantasy elements can be especially fun when the battles and spells break out. Again, it feels like the execs wanted it to stay conservative and marketable, but some on the staff wanted to do more bold things.
I can’t say I didn’t enjoy ZnT, but it’s a frustrating experience. There’s so much bad mixed with the good, but the good is still there, and overall I’d say I enjoyed it. The final season (which does, most thankfully, finish the story!) helped make up for a lot of things, as I felt it got markedly better. The story ends properly, there’s more focus on actual plot, without sacrificing the fun and humor and cute stuff. Plus, there finally seemed to be real progression in the characters. They seemed to have grown, they were quicker to stop the petty fights and silly misunderstandings, which are the bread-and-butter of harem love stories. And they showed maturity in their relationship, and it was greatly appreciated and satisfying, I must say. Still, it feels like it was extra satisfying more because it had been so annoying and dinky so often prior to that. Hard to tell!
I don’t regret watching ZnT, I’d even venture to say I liked it, but I sure as hell bitched about it all the way through. If you don’t spend much time on anime and want to stick to the truly worthwhile ones, don’t feel bad about skipping this one. But you could do a lot worse. If you can look past the usual flaws of watered-down assembly-line anime, especially when the glimmers of quality shine through occasionally, you’ll probably have a right good time.