#1 Classic isekai shenanigans
Saito used to be just another directionless teenager living in suburban Japan, until a faithful day when he discovered a magical portal. Upon touching it, Saito was sucked inside and spat back out in the courtyard of the Tristain Academy of Magic. He has been teleported to the magical world of Halkeginia, where nobody has ever heard of some silly country called “Japan”.
He was summoned to this world by Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière—the academy’s worst student ever—who needed a magical familiar and somehow ended up with Saito. After forcing him into a contract, Saito instantly learns to understand Tristain’s language and comes to accept that his dull life in Japan might be gone for good. As he tries to make the most of his new situation, it soon turns out that Saito possesses remarkable and rare abilities. Powers which could prove to make him one of the most formidable people in Halkeginia.
It’s a classic isekai story about a young, Japanese man becoming a big shot in an exciting fantasy world. It might be a bit milked-out at this point, but it was still relatively fresh in 2006 and still holds up very well today. Halkeginia is an interesting world, the fantasy characters are lively and endearing, and it hasn’t been tainted by the rampant incest that the isekai genre has endured in recent years.
#2 Fantasy politics
Saito’s introduction to Tristain is a rocky one. The country is a feudal society where the nobility, on top of all their other benefits over the commoners, also gets to learn magic. As a summoned familiar, Saito doesn’t even enjoy the most basic of rights. He’s basically just a pet to the wealthy aristocrat Louise, who (initially) doesn’t even recognize him as a human being.
This begins to change over the course of the story, as Saito first earns popularity among the servants of the academy and then begins to prove his worth to the noble mages who study there. He’s heroic, quick-witted, determined, and has a sense of justice to him that comes with not being born in medieval Europe. When Tristian is then plunged into war and conspiracies threaten the nation from within, Saito and Louise become integral to saving the small, coastal nation.
Across its 4 seasons, The Familiar of Zero tells a story that tackles political & societal topics. One of the first episodes, for example, deals with Saito developing a crush on a maid, only for her to be sold off to a wealthy nobleman. And not just to clean his house, if you catch my drift. Saito desperately tries to rally people to his cause, only to be met with confusion. As he begins to realize that nobody cares about lowly commoners, he gets into even more trouble as he tries to resort to violence instead.
#3 Classic harem shenanigans
Despite putting so much effort into the politics of its world and building storylines around that, The Familiar of Zero is still mainly a harem comedy. As Saito continues his heroics and saves the lives of many people, several prominent characters find themselves falling for him.
What I like in this setup is that The Familiar of Zero makes it very clear that Louise and Saito are the star couple of the show, but keeps them separated in ways that are at least somewhat sensible. Both characters like each other, but keep their distance because they struggle to gauge the other’s position.
Saito worries that Louise would never love him back because of their difference in status. He misinterprets her tsundere personality as confirmation of this fear, so he decides to pursue other women. Louise, in turn, thinks of this as cheating and punishes Saito harshly, permeating the misunderstandings and keeping the two apart.
The other girls in The Familiar of Zero are all quite enjoyable characters and diversely designed. I took a particular liking to Kirche—a dark-skinned seductress with fire magic. I like these playful, sexy characters that also step up to play a serious role in the story when they are needed. The Familiar of Zero maintains this good balance between great fanservice and genuinely developing the female cast, meaning the girls are much more than just eye candy. They are likable heroines with fantastic moments throughout the story, but sometimes people walk in on them while they were just trying out a bunny-girl costume. It happens.
#4 Real world relics
An interesting side-story to everything happening in Halkeginia is how it seems to interact with the world that we know ourselves. Saito, as it turns out, is not the only thing from our world that has found its way to Halkeginia by way of portal mishaps. He begins finding familiar, modern-day objects that the people of this land worship as poorly-understood, magical artifacts.
Saito gets to interact with these in interesting ways and I like how their reveals are foreshadowed. You keep getting hints about what these items may turn out to be, until it’s finally revealed at the most comedic moment possible. I am obviously not going to spoil these fantastic moments, but keep an eye out for them and look forward to the Staff of Destruction.
#5 Guiche and Montmorency
With a cast of girls all stumbling over each other for Saito’s attention, there is no shortage of women who could be said to be “best girl”. Strangely, it’s actually one of the girls detached from the harem that ended up being my favorite.
Montmorency Margarita la Fère de Montmorency is a young aristocrat girl studying at the academy and one of the first characters to be introduced. She is also the girlfriend of Guiche de Gramont; the handsome son of a famed general and easily the most hilarious bastard in the entire series. Every scene with these two in it had me smiling with joy.
Guiche is a narcissistic pretty boy who is initially introduced as a minor antagonist. He then develops into a reliable friend who frequently gets to show off his good side. He is, however, a flirtatious womanizer who is enchanted by every girl he meets. Montmorency is his one true love and he always comes crawling back to her to beg forgiveness, only to slip up again when the next mademoiselle catches his eye. Montmorency has to constantly keep him in check and gets even more to worry about when war breaks out and Guiche is drafted to fight alongside his father.
They are both fantastic characters and it’s a fun idea to have a couple with their own problems exist besides a regular harem.