Characters with Character: Kirei Kotomine
Many stories have at least one villain, and a villain must have a motivation that puts him or her upon a path that runs opposed to our heroes’. These motivations could be anything from a desire for power to revenge, and for a memorable villain these motives can be used to give the character depth. Out of all the motivations a villain can have, the most usually scorned is that the villain does what he does simply because he’s evil. It is understandable why since that usually results in a character with little depth and often times one that can’t even be taken seriously. Type Moon’s Fate/Stay Night provides a rare exception to this rule in Kirei Kotomine.
Warning before we continue, I will be discussing (and showing) spoilers for both Fate/Stay Night and its prequel light novel recently adapted into an anime Fate/Zero. If you have not played the game and want to experience the (excellent) story without being spoiled, buy it now here or here, install the game, patch it into English (your choice if you want to seek out the voice patch), play all three routes, watch Fate/Zero, and come back (feel free to play F/SN again after watching Fate/Zero, I sure did).
One of the things that makes Kotomine so fascinating as a character is how his backstory makes for an interesting nature versus nurture story in which nature ultimately wins out. Born “broken” as a few characters in the game call him, Kotomine could only find joy in things most people would see as negative, particularly the suffering of others. However, because his father was a man of the church Kotomine was essentially raised to be a good man and through that grew up knowing he was abnormal but could not really find a way around it. It’s this upbringing of his that sets the stage for an inner struggle that helps to not only give credence to his eventual step into villainy, but also to give him the character depth necessary to make him both believable and memorable.
The details provided about Kotomine’s backstory during the Heaven’s Feel scenario help in properly establishing the disorder he was born with so that it doesn’t come off as a cheap way of backing up his motivations in the game. The player learns how Kotomine, prior to the game’s events, really put every effort into trying to become normal from devoting himself to the church in hopes that God would show him the way to getting married and starting a family. In the end both only resulted in giving him indulgences for his twisted personality from finding pleasure in seeing the depression and self-loathing of church attendants brought on by the sermons he spoke to only finding joy in his wife’s dying of a terminal illness and the anguish it caused their daughter.
Left like that, Kotomine probably would just come off as an interesting villain, but one that could be interpreted as an “I’m evil, but I feel ‘so’ terrible about it” kind of villain. However, Kinoko Nasu avoided this by writing it that rather than feeling guilt over finding joy in these things, Kotomine’s disorder conflicting with his upbringing brings about a feeling of bafflement (and to some extent anguish) instead which will end up tying into a question he considers his entire life which I’ll get to later. In the case of his mass readings, particularly on December 31 as in his eyes his preaching’s effect on people gave him the power to ruin both the past year and the New Year, his bafflement was in how thankful the parishioners were to him after the mass even after being reduced to such a sorry state.
Kotomine’s reaction to his wife’s death is a bit more complex and requires some explanation. The woman he chose to marry was someone he knew had a terminal illness from the start, but it’s debatable if that’s the reason he chose to marry her or if it was because she was the only choice he had as not even Kotomine himself could figure it out. Still, despite the illness, his wife was, in Kotomine’s eyes at least, a saint to him, knowing of his disorder and accepting him. Until her death she did all he could to change him, but to no avail with Kotomine even admitting to her as she was dying that he was unable to love her. She noted however that he was crying as he said this and soon after died believing that she had managed to change him. In reality, the reason for Kotomine’s tears was because he was unable to kill her himself.
The main bafflement he has as a result of this is the recurring thought on his wanting to have killed his wife at that time. Kotomine is never able to determine if this thought is one of regret at a missed opportunity or some form of regret at having those thoughts towards someone who he loved (or tried very hard to love). He eventually gives up on trying to find an answer to that question because in his mind finding a definite answer would make her death worthless, which is something he didn’t want even if their time together couldn’t change him.
Kotomine’s giving up on finding an answer to that recurring question actually ties in to the only solution he could find at that time. In despair at not being able to change even with starting and losing a family and unwilling to take his own life, Kotomine concluded that joy and pleasure must be sinful as his finding that in other people’s pain could only be seen as such. Until the events of Fate/Zero, he would devote himself to his work in the Church until gaining a Command Seal that would designate him a Master in the Fourth Holy Grail War, all the while seeing himself as an empty man devoid of any real desires.
The Fourth Grail War is where Kotomine finally accepts his true nature, beginning with his interactions with the summoned Servant of Tokiomi Tohsaka, a fellow Master and a mage that the church has assigned him to serve (the Church and the Mage’s Association have an agreement with one another when it comes to managing the Grail War). This Servant encourages him to embrace pleasure rather than reject it, giving Kotomine the necessary push that would lead him down the path of villainy. These interactions make for an interesting look at two characters with completely different viewpoints and are written well enough so as not to diminish Kotomine as a villain as the actions he takes from pursuing his curiosity about the other Masters to utterly destroying one of them for fun are all his own and not something that can be put under “the devil made me do it” trope (insert Star Wars Episode 3 joke here). I do however find it interesting that the aforementioned Servant to give Kotomine this advice is Gilgamesh, who in his mythological story loses the fruit that will grant him immortality to a snake.
To make a long story short, Kotomine does get killed in the war by the last remaining Master Kiritsugu Emiya, but the Grail, corrupted in the previous war by the Servant Avenger ( a little more on him later) preserves both his life and Gilgamesh’s (who at this point had become Kotomine’s Servant after Tokiomi’s murder at his hand). This ends up setting the stage for the next Grail War, the events of Fate/Stay Night, in which he ends up manipulating both the daughter of Tokiomi, Rin, and the adopted son of Kiritsugu, Shirou. While the Fate and Unlimited Blade Works routes portray him as a pretty one dimensional villain who ultimately dies in a way ironic to his killing Rin’s father, it’s in the Heaven’s Feel route that not only portrays him better as a written character but also provides a conclusion to his story that actually ties him well with Shirou.
To begin with, one of the things I liked about Heaven’s Feel was how it portrayed Shirou as a more human and believable character than in the previous two routes. This route does the same for Kotomine in a few ways. First it reveals most of the background information I just discussed and second it shows him act in a role other than as a manipulative villain in his allying with Shirou against the new threat posed by Zouken Matou/Makiri and his plot concerning Sakura (the main heroine of that route (unless you count Ilya…and Rider) and the Holy Grail. Thanks to that alliance we actually get to see Shirou and Kotomine actually talk to each other from a genuinely funny scene (always comes to mind whenever I see mapo tofu on a menu) to an interesting bit of character dynamic that makes for another interesting look at two characters with opposing viewpoints interacting that comes off as an opposite of Kotomine and Gilgamesh’s interaction yet at the same time ties in with it in how Kotomine rationalizes allowing the birth of something that could very well destroy all life it comes across.
This brings us to the third part, in which we learn about a question that Kotomine has been pondering his entire life: whether or not his birth was a mistake. In the aftermath of the death of his wife, part of his deciding joy must be a sin was his deciding that it was a mistake, but the events of Fate/Zero open that question up again as he eventually begins to ponder whether or not something born evil can really be considered evil if it’s just following its nature and doing what feels right to it. He ends up getting a chance at finding an answer in Avenger, a Servant summoned by mistake during the Third Holy Grail War that ended up becoming part of the Grail after its defeat and corrupting it. This is because Avenger’s identity is Angra Mainyu, a spirit of pure evil and destruction from the mythology of Zoroastrianism (to any who have played Prince of Persia (the one that doesn’t have anything to do with the other games) you’d probably remember it as Ahriman, the main villain of the game) so his influence ends up corrupting the grail, and his summoning is a mistake mainly because there can only be seven servants: Saber, Archer, Rider, Caster, Assassin, Lancer, and Berserker (in Avenger’s case he replaced Berserker) and up until then the Grail could only summon heroes whose alignment would be good.
Avenger ends up becoming a part of Kotomine’s lifelong question during the events of Heaven’s Feel as the events of that route lead to the Grail giving it life as an “incarnation of All the World’s Evils” (as the game describes it). Kotomine essentially wants to see this new creature born, even if it does mean it’ll probably kill everything on the planet including himself, because it will be something that will be evil in nature like him. Up until this point Kotomine has seen himself as unique in his desires, which seem to support the notion of his existence being a mistake, but with the impending birth of Avenger from the Grail he now has a chance to see how something born evil will react to the world that it’s born into and compare it to his own. The reason this all helps his character is because this is as close to a personal wish that Kotomine ever has (aside from his earlier desire to be normal) because it the Fourth Grail War he didn’t have a wish at the start and even after he betrays Tokiomi his main motivation from there on was basically to have fun .
This is basically where the part about Kotomine’s character tying in with Shirou’s comes in. The character reveals about Kotomine in this route establish him as someone similar to but at the same time very different from Shirou. They’re both empty beings as a result of their backgrounds, each trying to find some sort of happiness. The difference being that Shirou’s aims are to do good for other people as opposed to Kotomine’s joy coming from the suffering of others. By the route’s climax the two are actually in a similar position, while they both have a personal desire, Shirou to save Sakura and Kotomine’s to see the birth of another being like himself, it’s not something that the Grail can grant them (revelations about it aside) and is therefore something they have to fight each other to the death for. While in the end Shirou wins, Kotomine is able to find some satisfaction at his life’s end because he was at least able unleash his frustrations and envy he had towards normal people.
Interestingly, Kotomine’s being drawn to both Shirou and Avenger in Fate/Stay Night and Kiritsugu in Fate/Zero may also be signs of a twisted desire for companionship with those who have something in common with him. When the fourth Grail War begins, the first thing to catch Kotomine’s interest is Kiritsugu after going over intelligence gathered about him and from those (limited) details determines that Kiritsugu must be a person similar to him. Unfortunately for Kotomine, he soon finds that Kiritsugu is neither empty like he is and even has companions who he has genuine bonds with, which ends up planting the seeds of hatred and envy that will influence the wish he will make upon the corrupted grail. Kotomine’s being drawn towards Shirou could be an unconscious one considering their differences and while part of the reason the two of them interact so much in this route is a combination of circumstance and so Kotomine can manipulate Shirou, there’s no denying that in their interactions Kotomine is surprisingly truthful towards Shirou and by the end the two don’t really hate each other even if circumstances have forced them to fight to the death.
Unlike the case with Roa in Tsukihime, Kirei Kotomine hasn’t faded into the background and is both well remembered and regarded by the Type Moon fanbase when it comes to the villain characters of Fate/Stay Night. While I admit Fate/Zero probably helped to extend his character relevancy, the fact that he makes a bigger impression than most of the Servants as a villain in the Heaven’s Feel route and its prequel story is a testament to how well written he is as a villain. His backstory not only manages to give him the necessary depth that he was lacking in the other two routes, but it also makes an effective motivation for a villain out of the much derided “because he’s evil” motive. Considering his presence in all of the spinoff material (and yes, I realize he’s not in Ataraxia, but considering much of the events of the that fandisk are connected to him I’ll count him as “present in spirit”) from Fate/Unlimited Codes to Fate/Extra*, it’s practically undisputable that Kirei Kotomine is a major part of Type Moon’s Fate series and is well worthy of that place. Now having written so much about the serious side of Kotomine, it’s time for me to take a look at his funnier side be it battling the other Masters and Servants of Fate/Stay Night and Zero together with Gilgamesh and Lancer in a game of hanafuda all to reach the local hot springs or overseeing a Grand Prix version of the Holy Grail War…yeah, Type Moon is weird.
*On a side note, if you want a good sample of the Fate series, Fate/Extra was recently released in English for PSP (don’t worry, it’s available on PSN) by Aksys. It’s an alternate universe to the original game where the Holy Grail War is fought inside a virtual reality with more than seven Masters and Servants and many of the returning characters are completely different from their F/SN versions. The story’s really good, though the RPG gameplay can get a bit monotonous outside of boss fights. I do recommend playing it, though I must say you’ll find it a bit more enjoyable if you’re familiar with the Fate series…also I want it to do well so Aksys can license its upcoming sequel of sorts Fate/Extra CCC where one of the Servants we get to choose is none other than Gilgamesh (the official thread for it is here).