"The Familiar of Zero": Zero For Innovation, Ten For Enjoyment
Mixing one part harem and one part magic, The Familiar of Zero is “familiar” territory (sorry), but it’s executed in a way that is strangely entertaining. Call it a guilty pleasure. Just don’t call Louise flat-chested, or you’ll regret it.
The Familiar of Zero is like Maburaho and Harry Potter in a blender. In a mythical kingdom outside Earth named Tristain, there’s a school for magicians. Our protagonist, a pink-haired student named Louise, is a failure when it comes to casting spells; her low success rate has caused her classmates to stick the nickname “Louise the Zero” on her; when she’s called on in class to perform a spell, one of her classmates leaves the room in anticipation. Poor gal. One day, at an assembly where Louise and her fellow classmates have to conjure up “familiars” for themselves (creatures that act as loyal servants to the students), Louise tries her hand but accidentally brings a human from Earth to the school instead.
Enter Saito, your typical high school/college-aged guy. Louise is understandably embarrassed and wonders why she gets all the bad luck. Even though Saito is a human being, that doesn’t stop Louise from treating the baffled Saito literally like a dog, even going so far as to change in front of him (because after all, he’s a lower life form so she has no need to be modest, ha ha), whip him like a horse, and threaten to take away his meals if he misbehaves. Throughout the series, Louise does soften up at times and treat Saito with a little more dignity, and Saito grows fond of Louise as well. Still, Saito’s a bit of a letch and anytime Louise catches him going ga-ga over other pretty girls, she degrades back into the angry sector of tsundere mode.
There are two main competitors for Saito’s love. The first is Kirche, a boobalicious and flirtatious fellow student. One of the funnier running jokes is how she apparently sleeps with multiple guys at the school, so much so that she keeps a schedule of who she beds every night. There’s a scene where Kirche, trying to seduce Saito, is interrupted by numerous guys barging in, all saying they’re her 11 o’clock. The second is Siesta, a shy maid who works at the academy, and is the “nice girl” contrast to Louise; she treats him with respect, is curious about his life on Earth, and doesn’t leave him with welts every time they’re together.
For the first nine episodes, things are fairly episodic, focusing on Saito meeting everyone in the school (including picking a fight with a snobbish debonair) and ever so slowly warming up to Louise (and vice versa), despite road blocks like Louise walking in on Kirche seducing Saito and assuming Saito was the one to initiate the sexual activity. While many of the episodes are fairly enjoyable, I have a couple of favorites in particular. There’s a lightweight episode where Louise, under orders from princess and close friend Henrietta, goes undercover in a nearby village to see if there are nobles taking advantage of commoners. Upper class Louise has to adjust to a crappy temporary apartment (thanks to gambling her money away by trying to strike it rich and rent an expensive hotel) and take a humiliating job as a scantily-dressed waitress leered at by the perv customers. She’s always losing her cool with these slobs, thus losing out on tip money that could be used to pay her rent. Her not-so-successful abilities to hide her status as an upper class student are amusing.
There’s also a two-part episode where minor character invents a love potion to use on her boyfriend, but Louise unknowingly drinks it and starts acting lovey-dubby towards Saito, which freaks him out. Now this double episode has a rather overused plot and has its share of stupidity, as the only way to reverse the spell is to beg a water spirit for help (?!), but the interactions between Saito and Louise are humorous, like when a clingy Louise worries how long Saito will be gone simply doing her laundry.
So you may be asking yourself, is there a plot here, other than some girls vying for Saito and some sexual hijinks? Well, yes, though not until the last third of the series, when a rival country, Albion, strives to take over Tristain. Of course, the students of the magic academy get involved in this war, including Louise, who can’t exactly aid the fighting. In addition, Louise finds out she is set to marry a man who, it turns out, is not all he seems and makes her realize how much she misses Saito. On top of that, Saito discovers a method to get back to Earth, but will he take advantage of that or stay in Tristain to help fight against Albion? No points for the right answer.
While I do think it was worthwhile to make the story a little more epic than a school-based show, I felt that this war plot was tacked on. After eight episodes or so focusing mainly on everyday school life, to suddenly thrust the story into a war situation didn’t feel like a natural transition. There’s a way to seamlessly combine two aspects of a show (Full Metal Panic was masterful at it), but I didn’t think they did as good of a job here. Either the war plot should’ve been introduced earlier in the story or chucked entirely; as it stands, it feels like an afterthought. It doesn’t help that during the battle scenes, Saito, who can’t use magic, has to fight with a giant talking sword (yes, you read right), which is disappointing since I’ve seen too many series with a sword-wielding character, and his battles do little to make him stand out in that regard.
In addition, as you’ve surmised from previous paragraphs, the humor in The Familiar of Zero isn’t exactly fresh. If you’ve seen one show where a girl pretends to hate the main male but secretly is falling for him and gets jealous seeing him around other girls, this will seem stale. However, even though The Familiar of Zero reuses many of those clichés, they’re executed well by director Yoshiaki Iwasaki. Louise’s repeated “You dog!” exclamations after Saito caused trouble (whether by accident or on purpose) always put a smile on my face.
And the show does give the harem genre a fresh coat of paint thanks to the master/familiar aspect. Besides the fact that Saito understandably objects to his position as a familiar (such as having to eat off the floor during school meals), it’s easy to pity both Louise and Saito in their awkward living situation; Louise is bitter that all the other students get a loyal animal and she gets a human being who talks back, and Saito has to adjust to being little more than a pet who must follow orders in this strange new environment. Yet due to this intimate nature of student and familiar, they grow close to each other; in particular, a turning point in their relationship is when Saito protects Louise during a battle, stating that he’s accepted his place as her familiar and will keep her safe at all costs.
As with many J.C. Staff shows, The Familiar of Zero has an appealing art style. Characters have memorable designs and the ladies are attractively drawn. The actual animation is nothing special, however; it’s par for the course in terms of television animation, with pans aplenty. Luckily, the forest backgrounds and old-school castle architecture are a nice change of pace from what we usually get in school-based shows, including the aforementioned Maburaho. Overall, it’s a pleasing show to look at, but if you’re requiring elaborate movement, look elsewhere.
The English dub, consisting mostly of amateurs, could’ve been a colossal bomb. However, considering the cast’s lack of experience and possibly a short amount of time in which to record the lines, I thought they did a fine job. It’s not perfect, as some line reads are awkward, and Saito’s VA sounds a little old to be playing him (it sounds like a mid-20s guy trying to fake a squeaky teen voice), but overall it’s not bad at all. Louise’s VA, Cristina Valenzuela, is perfect for the character, and Lauren Landa also does a great job capturing the sultry aspects of Kirche’s character. The Japanese actors also do a fine job too.
Since this was originally a Geneon release, don’t expect much from the special material. All we get are some trailers, a few promos, and clean opens/closes. The packaging is great, however; it’s a nice sturdy artbox that houses the entire series on three discs. There are reversible covers, and the inserts contain double-page pictures of the characters in suggestive poses. So even though the special features are lacking, at least the box itself is quality.
Overall, The Familiar of Zero won’t win any awards for originality, nor is it particularly high-brow entertainment, thanks to its focus on sexual humor. But it’s still plenty of fun. The characters play off each other well, it’s appealing to look at, the European-esque setting sets it apart from other school shows, and the plots are simple but fun. It has shortcomings, no doubt about it, and veterans jaded by anything and everything will scoff at this show, but to those looking for a cute magic-themed show with admittedly overused but well-executed comedy, The Familiar of Zero is a good bet.