Lord El-Melloi II Sei no Jikenbo Review

4th Place in Top 10 Anime of 2019

Title: Lord El-Melloi II Seo no Jikenbo: Rail Zeppelin Grace Note / The Case Files of Lord El-Melloi II
Length: 14 x 24 minute episodes
Genre: Mystery, drama, magic
Year of release: 2019

In 2004, one brazenly sexual game about historical/mythological spirits doing battle changed the anime landscape. Since then, the Fate franchise has broadened its horizons from salacious sex scenes, Holy Grail Wars and philosophical jargon; the battle royale has been reimagined several times to mix-and-match the hero summoning for noir-like drama, war, perverted comedies, sketch comedies, mobile games, sci-fi… the list is endless. But, until now, that list has forgone the detective mystery genre: enter, then, Lord El-Melloi II, with a black jacket lazily thrown around his shoulders to the tune of the harpsichord soundtrack – an old-school detective to solve the case.

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Make no mistake, our Lord is indeed an old-school detective. Unlike other noir crime-solvers, however, we know his backstory from the get-go. Fate/Zero is the prerequisite watching material for Lord El-Melloi II, for this is where our Lord was made. As a student mage, Waver forced his untalented self into a Holy Grail War by summoning Alexander the Great. Waver’s story was the major emotional core of Fate/Zero, as he grew up in the steed of a legend and wanted nought but to be recognised by him as an equal. Years later, Waver has survived, and, despite his uselessness, overtakes the title, house and seminar of his former teacher, Kayneth El-Melloi Archibald. There’s a lot of nitty-gritty characterisation lying within Waver and El-Melloi II, and the series expertly digs into this to become the most compelling character study of the year.

This is, fundamentally, the story of a man longing for his boyhood, so I can forgive some elements of weak characterisation in the supporting cast. They are no less fun, though, with well-defined traits and, in a surprising twist for a noir, a great ability to mix the complex overtones with comedy. As El-Melloi is pestered by his colourful class, smart storyboarding really enables the series’ funny side – and it’s damn funny, and appropriately timed. The Fate franchise has a lot of nonsense in it, and El-Melloi’s Case Files has a sense-of-self and brilliant cameos that makes it a blessing compared to the more usual serious affairs. Yes, I too am a little sad that the series didn’t find time to delve too far into the eternally smug Reines, Waver’s childhood relationship with Melvin or the amusing twins, Flat and Svin; these would be nice treats, but not missteps. The only real misstep in this regard is Waver’s apprentice, Grey, whose relationship with the titular Lord is not as defined as it needs to be, and walks an uncomfortable line, but this is a minor caveat in such a strong piece.

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As strong as the dramatic portion of Lord El-Melloi II is, the mystery aspect could use some fine-tuning. Because the Fate franchise has a lot of ridiculously convoluted systems, and these mysteries are magical in nature, keeping up is an almost impossible task, particularly as the series moves from its episodic, stand-alone episodes to the 6-episode-long titular arc. Whereas most mysteries set themselves after the ‘howdunnit’ to solve the ‘whodunnit’, El-Melloi II smartly crafts stories around the ‘whydunnit’, which makes this awfully more palatable. This mantra sometimes feels like a contradiction during apologetic explanations on these various magical rituals, and particularly during a major arc’s introduction of a previously unmet perpetrator, but the ‘whydunnit’ really is the heart of the series. Even if it’s hard to follow, understanding the motives is laid out bare – and is so fundamental in talking to the character drama.

Despite all the talking and minimal action scenes, Lord El-Melloi II really channels the adrenaline. The pacing of the series, particularly during the extended Rail Zepplin arc, is gorgeously realised. Tip-toeing back and forth, until all the pieces are in place, results in gut-churning tension and a race to the finish line – and the cathartic silence afterwards. Such composed orchestration is a rare thing, but series director Makoto Katou (Yagate Kimi ni Naru) achieved something truly impressive. Though he is not short of assisting hands, thanks to Fate/Zero’s original director, Ei Aoki, storyboarding key episodes and supervising the series to seamlessly merge the series atop its predecessor. I had some fears about the CGI, mind you, which was a little jarring on the back of the art, and the scant action scenes’ storyboarding could look a little flat, but these are minor flaws from Studio TROYCA’s strong effort. Yuki Kajiura, too, has put in yet another incredible piece (a feat I didn’t expect, considering her overly-modest, by-the-books, redundant work in recent times), which shines consistently throughout the entire series and particularly during the epic climaxes and the quiet, restrained introspection through to Waver’s childish heart.

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It is at the finale, though, that El-Melloi II really solidified that it is, indeed, one of the best shows of the year. Epilogues are a tricky thing to get right, particularly when there’s so much room for more storytelling, but in 20 minutes of pure fulfilment, the series shows us the monumental, yet minute, distance it has made with one, final goodbye. Yet, much like Waver, I’m struggling to say goodbye myself.

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