Worldbuilding is something I get unusually excited about when it is done a certain way. I’ve often ranted about shows like Kekkai Sensen, which depict the supernatural chaos, yet systems of government designed to efficiently counter the chaos. There is a multitude of minor elements of world-building that excite me but it is exceedingly difficult to put into words why. The closest I get is saying that I love the idea of order applied to an unnatural society
Kinoko Nasu, the creator of Fate/ Stay Night, Garden of Sinners, and Tsukihime, has written works tailor-made to cater to me. He has created a modern fantasy universe the complexity of which rivals the works of Rowling and Tolkien. In fairness, the Nasuverse is bloated, with so many alternate universes and different creative minds, but there is still beauty in the chaos.
This past summer, studio Troyca’s Lord El-Melloi II’s Case Files gave me this episode-to-episode joy built entirely on showing off how cool the world is. What I thought would be another misfire in an already packed franchise turned out to be one of my favorite shows this year.
I had really low expectations going into Lord El-Melloi when I first caught wind of it. “Episode 0” – as it was called – did little to truly excite me. An incomprehensible plot focused around curses, the mechanics of which were scarcely presented or explained satisfyingly. Even if we could agree it was, we barely have any context for anything. Not the setting nor the motives of the characters. All we had was the appeal of seeing Waver Velvet all grown up.
You could have told me that the series proper was made by a completely different writer and I would have believed you. It begins following Waver after the events of the fourth Holy Grail War in an Indiana Jones-style adventure in the middle east. It’s a flashback told as the Waver in the present finds themselves propositioned by a young heiress to the El-Melloi family, Reines.
Turns out Reines is not old enough to run the estate and wants Waver to take up the family name until she is of age. After all, Waver was the one who stole from her older brother Kayneth and fought against him in the Holy Grail War. She sees it as him paying back debt as well as an amusing experiment.
Waver takes on the responsibilities but on the condition that he is known as Lord El-Melloi II, out of respect for his old teacher. He is very much plagued by memories of the war and wishes to participate in it again to see his old friend Iskandar. In the meantime, he works his way up the ladder, teaching a class on Modern Magecraft Theory and solving puzzling cases.
Waver was always way too ambitious for his own good, getting himself involved in the war simply to prove himself. Through the course of the battle, Iskandar taught him how better to aspire to greatness and inspired him to face impossible odds. Now he is far more serious and mature but there is an innocence about him as if he is a boy trying to be a man.
Granted he never fails to present himself as a diligent gentleman, but every once in a while a bit of the old him slips through the cracks. It helps that Daisuke Namikawa, who voiced Waver in Zero, returns, portraying both sides of him perfectly. Raines plays the part of little sister well, plotting and clever, always breaking through the Lord’s exterior. Not that it is particularly difficult to crack judging by his eccentric class of mages in training who frequently frustrate Lord El-Melloi.
Despite not sharing the namesake, the other main character of this series is Gray. She is a mysterious girl who feels indebted to Lord Melloi and serves under him as an assistant. However, she also possesses a magical weapon named Add which is a magic-absorbing scythe.
Gray fascinates me because despite arguably being just another Saber lookalike, she is far more than just that. She is shy, hiding her face out of respect what memories her appearance brings about in her mentor. More than that, she is cool for how she comes to be honest with herself about what being in her lord’s service entails and what she will do for him. As he is grappling with how to move on from the past, she is conflicted between helping her lord achieve his dream and protecting him from the harm sure to come.
I do wish the series was longer as to better explore her backstory outside of exposition. Weirdly, this 13-episode series adapts the middle of the source material. After establishing Waver’s status, it cuts ahead to him being a fully-fledged teacher with Gray already in his debt. For as much as I already like her, I would have enjoyed an episode to see her origins for myself.
The supporting cast of El Melloi are not always memorable as they were likely intended to be, but those that leave a mark do so in a big way. However, I can’t say that there was anyone who was wasted. The first half of the series is episodic, introducing new characters from all walks of life.
Lord Melloi’s students, government officials, mages of renown, and more. Even characters like Kairi and Caules who I only knew from Fate/ Apocrypha play roles in the story and are utilized far better. The coolest part is that almost every single character introduced factors into the second half.
The second half of the story is where the show’s subtitle, Rail Zeppelin, comes into play. The Rail Zeppelin is a magical train on which a black market auction is held that deals in Mystic Eyes, one of the most powerful forms of magic in the world. This already stellar premise is made especially more delectable once abnormal occurrences hinder the train and a murder is committed.
At this point, the show turns into Murder on the Orient Express by way of Harry Potter. A murder mystery built up to with an assortment of characters whose opposing positions in this magical world are immediately apparent. The drama is palpable thanks to a script which by this point already soars at world-building.
While I’m not sure everyone will take a liking to it in the same way I do, I find the aesthetic and world of Case Files to be astounding. In a fictional universe often bloated and hard to parse, this show explains or simply displays magical techniques frequently and almost educationally.
Given prior knowledge of entries in the Nasuverse, one could understandably buy into the drama even more. However, the script does a good enough job conveying the importance of its concepts that newer viewers can be grabbed as well. When a character from the Holy Church walks into a room full of mages and everyone freaks the fuck out, there is a sense of unease that can be easily felt.
The chaotic power struggle of power within the world of mages is fleshed out and tamed through the introduction of characters who serve to represent the rival divisions of government and the competing philosophies therein. Adashino of the Policies department has friction with Lord Melloi over how philosophy and how best to approach cases of a magical nature.
In a world in which the whodunit and the whydunit are suggestions to matters of magic-based investigations, Lord El-Melloi puts those questions at the forefront of his methodology. His investigations are his own form of conquest in a field befitting his skills. Iskandar would be proud.
The series is a non-stop conveyor belt of cool ideas brought together by a strong aesthetic and sound. Concepts like Mystic Eyes are expanded on further, making them honestly one of the coolest things in the universe. Additionally, all sorts of out-there magic are shown off.
For example. Reines in one episode pours a bag of crystals onto a table and as she carves a line through them with her finger, time distorts, isolating her and the one she is conversing with. There is also thought put into individual styles of magic for each character and the interactions between different magical styles never ceased to strike me as clever.
Troyca’s animation may not reach the same heights as Ufotable, but its still damn impressive in its own right. Visuals are perhaps this show’s greatest asset. From the warm color pallet to the fashion to the English backdrop, the word I think of when this show comes up is “classy.” Where other seasonal favorites get me excited week-by-week for the winding narrative and characters, Case files put a smile on my face each time it showed me something new.
Jun Nakai was previously the character designer for Gate, Silver Spoon, and Mardock Scramble among others. Here, he has translated the original character designs by Mineji Sakamoto with some liberties that paid off beautifully. His designs are often elongated, the characters possessing slightly stretched faces that are as emotive as they are angular and striking. If fits well in continuity following Fate/ Zero without copying that show’s style.
The aesthetic I praised before is equal parts visuals and sound. As this is a continuation of Fate/ Zero, Yuki Kajiura was brought back for the soundtrack. She continues to offer the best sound possible for this animated universe. I wasn’t even necessarily phased by the sameness that becomes apparent the more you listen to her work.
Rather, her soundtrack here brought to mind Hanz Zimmer and Lorne Balfe’s work on the Sherlock Holmes films. Heavy on strings with a driving rock beat. There is a sophisticated and adventurous feel to it that makes the Holmes comparison all the more fitting. The opening forgoes an artist tie-in song and keeps things consistent with an original theme by Kajiura. The ending only exception with a tonally appropriate track by ASCA, titled Hibari.
I don’t claim to be an expert on mystery stories, though it is a genre I would like to delve into more extensively. When people talk about the genre I will hear a sentiment that a good mystery will leave the clues necessary to solve the case throughout the story. That way the audience can try to solve the case at the same time. Recently, Glass Reflections on YouTube expressed disappointment with the series because he claimed it broke this rule.
While I disagreed with many of his other points, I couldn’t necessarily counter this one. I’ve never thought too much about how I consume those kinds of stories and why they were as exciting as they were. After looking into it, it seems many writers agree that perspective plays an important role in crafting mysteries.
Withholding information can be excused should the story follow events from a first-person perspective. As one not well-versed in the craft, this rule brings up certain questions. Should all mysteries be possible to solve as a viewer before the characters do? What are the exact priorities of a mystery story?
In my case, I ponder if there is an objectionable quality of Case Files that I’m not privy to? I went back and watched episodes trying to piece together what clues were offered. Certain elements of the why were explained by Lord El-Melloi himself, but the clues that would lead someone to conclude who the perpetrator was were more often than not there.
I will concede that the final arc’s reveal of the perpetrator seemed a bit unearned. Granted just because I didn’t guess who the killer was doesn’t mean there weren’t clues, but it didn’t seem as though much of the reasoning was expressed to the audience. Still, as a viewer who wasn’t trying to reach the finish line before the main character, the story kept me guessing who was behind the numerous crimes again and again. And when the curtain rose each time, I was more often than not satisfied.
The ending of the story may have been unceremonious, wrapping up loose ends and character arcs that I wasn’t necessarily invested in. As stated previously, the show only adapts the middle of the source material. There is more to be learned about Gray and even a villain still at large. While Waver himself reaches a personal milestone by the end, this is only the beginning and if a sequel is confirmed, I’m more than excited to see how it ends.
Lord El-Melloi II’s Case Files: Rail Zeppelin Grace Note is available for legal streaming on Crunchyroll.
Leave a comment below telling me what you think of Case Files and tell me what you look for in a mystery story.
This was originally going to be the mid-season first impressions of Fire Force, but that 12th episode got delayed, so here we are. I’m not to hurt about it though since Case Files turned out to be such a delight. Weekly posts are such a rare thing for me that I’m getting giddy just thinking of all the things I can write. Thank you all for reading and I’ll see you next week (I can actually say that now).