The Familiar of Zero
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.
I'm no Dungeons and Dragons geek, but I do have a soft spot for fantasy stories. Although there are plenty of atrocious examples of the genre, I appreciate the best ones for the universes they create, and I often find myself paying far more attention to that than the story itself. This brings me to The Familiar of Zero, a fantasy-harem franchise that, while popular in Japan, has never really caught on with American audiences. As a fantasy series, it's a middling and insubstantial title, for while the setting is interesting enough, much of it seems to have been chosen arbitrarily, and there's little of the hidden depth that I often enjoy uncovering from the layers of clashing swords and dueling magician laid above it. It does, however, make for an entertaining diversion if one can ignore some of its cringe-worthy antics, and I enjoyed it much more than I expected considering my none-too-great love for harem anime.
In spite of being such a series, The Familiar of Zero spends plenty of energy on its story. Admittedly, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't familiar with the trope of the "normal" kid being abruptly thrown into an unfamiliar world (think El Hazard, Escaflowne), or if I didn't acknowledge that I had seen virtually every fantastical element present in some other story. Indeed, although this is hardly a children's show the setting at times feels like something made with them in mind: elements that instantly speak "fantasy", such as a magician's academy, flying passenger ships, and water spirits, are thrown in arbitrarily, with nothing seeming especially out of place but nothing having symbolic significance, either. That said, considering that many harem treat their setting as a gimmick to (supposedly) differentiate themselves from their peers, The Familiar of Zero isn't bad at all. The story is coherent, if too-often rescued by the deus ex machina of having Saito find an element from his world that he alone can operate. There's a clear political structure, which I appreciated, while the battles are enjoyable and harem fans may actually be disappointed to find that the series spends more of its time focusing on a (likely) upcoming war and the actual reason behind Louise's (seeming) inability to do magic than on maids, catgirls, and yuri, though there's still plenty of the first. The technical aspects, unfortunately, are unacceptably below average. The cartoonish color scheme of bright tones, devoid of shading of texture, quickly becomes tiresome, while the character art is very bland and not particularly attractive. There's not much of an animation budget, either, nor does the music leave any impression (I invariably skipped over both the OP and ED, which are very off-key). Those who enjoy the aesthetic aspect of fantasy are going to be sorely disappointed, and I've seen enough harem series with more interesting character art to think that fans of that genre may not be entirely happy either.
The harem aspect of The Familiar of Zero won't be overwhelming if you aren't a fan of the genre, and fans will probably like it just fine, mediocre art aside. The much-maligned female lead, the Rie Kugimiya-voiced Louise, is about as intense of a tsundere as you can get: give an already-temperamental archetype the backstory of being an incompetent wizard and relatively "poor" aristocrat surrounded by abler and wealthier peers and you've got near-constant temper tantrums on your hands. Saito, being about the only person she can kick around, gets the full brunt of her near-sadistic abuse, and it's not at all entertaining to watch. Louise isn't entirely evil, but she's a bully and an unpleasant person, one who won't endear herself to those tired of her archetype. Frustratingly, it's very obvious that she is the one Saito will end up with, but there are nonetheless plenty of other girls to distract you from that fact: the amusingly-named "Siesta", who simultaneously fulfills the role of the "modest" girl and maid (she does actually work in that profession, so it's not entirely ridiculous); the busty and ever-horny Kirche, who tries to seduce Saito in spite of having basically every boy on campus lusting after her; the bookish and ever-quiet Tabitha; and Princess Henrietta, the young ruler of the region. Interestingly, although the viewer is presumably free to write as much fan fiction as he wants, only the first two show any real interest in Saito, which may disappoint harem fans but helps to keep the fluff down to manageable levels. For the record, Saito himself is a decent enough guy and much less of a wimp than I expected him to be, and indeed, part of the reason why Louise throws so many tantrums is that he openly and unhesitatingly argues with her over her absurd demands. He manages to tread the correct side of the thin line separating "sympathetic everyman" from "boring blank slate", which definitely improved my opinion of the show somewhat.
I can't say that I found the series to be particularly funny, however. In terms of its humorous aspects, the series leans towards the overblown and overdone, with much of it being commonplace within the harem genre. Pretty much everything you'd expect is here: Kirche making fun of Louise for having tiny breasts; the "joke" of Saito seemingly always having to wash Louise's underwear; the perverted old man, in this case the Dumbledore-esque headmaster using his mouse familiar to look up women's skirts; the horny, effeminate, and overly-muscular gay man; and the obnoxious "pretty boy" who can't seem to keep the names of his various girlfriends in order. The one comic episode I found to be amusing was when Louise accidentally drinks a love potion and becomes both extremely affectionate and bizarrely horny, remembering (and being enraged by) these events even after she returns to her normal, belligerent self, but I've seen this done elsewhere, too. I can, however, generally ignore mediocre humor if there's enough interestingly material elsewhere in the series. This was, for example, all that got me past the "funny" (read: "atrocious") parts of Higurashi, and The Familiar of Zero presented a similar situation. If you aren't a fan of harem-style humor, however, it's enough reason to proceed cautiously. Meanwhile, there's also not really much here that'll appeal to women, as is unfortunately true with the majority of harem series: the very fact that the girls frequently talk about their boobs and cup sizes is a dead giveaway that this was written by men, with an audience of straight men in mind.
Those problems aside, The Familiar of Zero is insubstantial but not at all bad as a light diversion. It's an enjoyable if generic fantasy tale set over harem antics that fans will love, detractors will hate, and that I simply chose to ignore. If you're sick of tsunderes, I'd stay away, since you're not missing that much in the end, but if you're out of top-tier titles, you could certainly do far worse.
There isn't much substance to it and Louise can get on my nerves, but even ignoring that it's still pretty entertaining. Add a star if you especially enjoy harem shows, remove one if you've had too large a helping of tsunderes for one lifetime, and don't expect to see much that'll make female viewers happy. — Nick Browne
Recommended Audience: Teenagers and up. There's plenty of fan service (mostly in the form of Kirche) and a fair amount of lewd humor. The battles aren't particularly intense, though, and a few deaths aside the content is pretty tame. This show really isn't for kids, however, and given it's status as a harem series that should be pretty obvious. It's also worth noting that the show features one character who is little more than a walking stereotype of a drag queen.
Version(s) Viewed: R1 DVD, Japanese with English subtitles
Review Status: Full (13/13)
The Familiar of Zero © 2006 Noboru Yamaguchi/Media Factory/Zero Project
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