Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
DVD 3 - Master & Servant
Saber strikes off on her own briefly in order to face off with Assassin, who guards the steps to the town temple, and Shirou is less than pleased. The clash of wills leads both to a deeper understanding of the other, solidifying their tentative partnership. In order to prepare him for his role, Rin and Saber begin to train him in the realities of magical and physical battle. Shirou has a brief but puzzling encounter with Illya, Berserker's Master, while Rin coldly rejects the advances of Rider's Master, Shinji, who—in an attempt to prove himself—begins a series of increasingly intense confrontations with Shirou and Saber.
It was partway through the second volume when it became clear that it was time to stop waiting for Shirou to spontaneously sprout a personality and begin focusing on the far more interesting Saber, Archer, and Rin. And they were more than enough to keep the story afloat. Heck, Saber alone is worth the price of admission. So it's ironic (and strangely appropriate given the show's stubbornly unhurried pace) that the abandoned hope is fulfilled immediately thereafter in this third volume.
The supporting cast of one-note stereotypes and their tiresome antics have always been one of the show's great drawbacks, so it's a relief that the cast has been stripped to its core players for this stage of the story. Saber and Shirou take center stage, almost to the exclusion of all other characters, as the trust and understanding between them grows. Narrowing the cast has downsides of course; Rin only gets token screen time, while Archer is woefully neglected. But Illya is thankfully showing the first signs that she's more than yet another giggling little-girl villain, and Fuji-nee's only substantial appearance is a gut-punch flashback during Shinji and Shirou's confrontation that precipitates an unprecedented reaction from Shirou. The confrontation between Shirou and Shinji demonstrates just how far Shirou has come in reconciling his desire to protect people with the necessities of battle, as well as the satisfying results of his training with Saber and Rin. He says and does some rather shocking things, which boots his rear another notch or two up the Interest-o-Meter.
Rider and Saber's battles also provide the show with its first decisive Servant clash, and the results are positively exhilarating, cementing Saber's status as one of the coolest heroines to come down the anime turnpike in quite some time. The stripped-down focus of these episodes also pushes the pacing of the show firmly over the line dividing "sluggish" from "deliberate," while Shiro's acclimatization to the necessities of combat and his relationship with Saber leave one, for the first time, feeling optimistic about the various possibilities for future drama.
The series' focus on atmosphere hasn't abated in the least. The settings—Shirou's lonely, sprawling mansion, a dead forest of skeletonized trees, the eventide hallways of the school—are as evocative as ever, and as always the entire show takes place either in ghostly moonlight or the golden opulence of sunrise and sunset. For every mildly unsightly shortcut taken, there's a moment of breathtaking animation prowess to balance it out, particularly during the swift, dynamic Servant battles. A retreating dolly down the blood-red school hall as Shinji calls out to Rider is a standout, and the moment in which Saber finally unsheathes her sword is spectacular in the truest cinematic sense. The common budget-preserving tricks of focusing on incidental scenery while events occur off-screen, and mouth-obscuring off-center compositions actually boost the show's overall atmosphere. The Servants are still stunning in their elaborate battle dress—exotic, exciting and beautiful, regardless of sex or narrative importance. Archer is still the most attractive of all, making his sadly truncated role in this volume all the more painful, while Saber's seamless color scheme, beautiful, smoothly functional armor design, and fierce yet feminine strength pushes her beyond merely appealing to something approaching iconic.
Kenji Kawai shows his experience here; everything from the portentous chiming of the ominous main theme, to the full-bodied action score and use of quietly insinuating wordless vocals is carefully tuned to support every aspect of the series. The music is so perfectly suited to the visuals that it doesn't even matter that the score is virtually continuous, with nary a moment of silence.
The quality of the dub hasn't changed much since the first volume, which means that it will still satisfy the majority of dub fans, but will convert no one. It retains terms like sempai and Fuji-nee, rarely strays further from the subtitles than lip-flaps require, and is sufficiently well-acted. Shirou's intensity during battle comes across well, even if he's a little weak-sounding the remainder of the time.
There're only two extras on this disc. The Music CM's are actually little music videos for the TV-Sized intro and outro themes, while Rider's Diary is an English-only (strangely, all the on-screen text is in Japanese) account of Rider's private impressions of her Master, and is absolutely priceless.
This volume packs in three spectacular battles, multiple instances of incremental character development, and enough pure atmosphere to patch a hole in the ozone, all without once betraying the series' coldly deliberate pacing. The only thing it has to do now is keep it up. Oh, and give us more Archer.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ Shirou gains strength as a hero; weak supporting cast is blessedly MIA; Saber is as overpoweringly cool as ever.
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