The Mike Toole Show Can't Fight Fate
by Michael Toole, Oct 21st 2012
I'm in kind of an odd position right now. Like, physically, I'm writing this piece in a hotel room in Pittsburgh, using an iPad with one of those fancy portable bluetooth keyboards to bang out the text you're reading. Now, I'm digging the fact that I have a platform that's even more portable than most small laptops, but that's not the "odd position" I refer to above. The deal is, I've spent years largely ignorant of the whole Fate/stay night franchise, the sprawling story of magi and their resurrected heroes doing battle for the Holy Grail: a franchise that got its start as a fan-made PC game for grownups (yes, that kind of "adult game!") back in 2004. And now I find myself caught up in it.
The thing is, an awful lot of Fate/ fans tell me that the journey must necessarily begin with that PC game-- because despite its tacked-on sexy parts (and if you really want a sanitized version, the Japanese PS2 release is tweaked to make it safe for general audiences), it's a remarkably thorough and detailed study of heroism and bravery and sacrifice, all courtesy of doujinshi circle Type-Moon, headed by chief scribe Kinoko Nasu and artist Takashi Takeuchi. The game is a touchstone of "visual novel" software, such that it doesn't even require much interaction, beyond making some key choices to follow the story's branching paths. And me? I skipped the whole thing and went straight for the cartoons.
Yeah, I'm feeling like I've totally gotten into Star Wars, only I took the "wrong path" of ignoring the movies in favor of the comics, video games, a couple of episodes of that weird Nelvana Ewoks cartoon, and the "expanded universe" novels. Fate/stay night is something I'd known about for a long time-- I'd taken in Type-Moon's initial hit, Tsukihime, which got the anime treatment courtesy of J.C. Staff in 2003. I wasn't blown away-- truth be told, I liked Tsukihime's story, but found the anime jarringly ugly and halting-- but I was intrigued by the idea that the entire franchise had grown from a doujinshi video game. Type-Moon would follow Tsukihime with Melty Blood, a neat and fast-paced little fighting game that stars characters from a few different properties, and then with Fate/stay night. At this point, it wouldn't really be fair to characterize F/SN as doujinsoft, as Type-Moon was growing rapidly and achieving significant commercial success. In fact, F/SN quickly became the fastest-selling visual novel ever, making its transition into a larger media franchise pretty much inevitable.
So yeah, I knew about Type-Moon, and I knew about F/SN, but for a few reasons, I stayed away at first. I wasn't grabbed by the TV anime, produced by Studio DEEN in 2006. I was intrigued by the promise of the visual novel, but there was no commercial release in English and I wasn't wild about the idea of monkeying with Japanese installer executables and fan-made English translation patches. In fact, I was attracted to the whole franchise upon the debut of Fate/Zero, a highly-touted TV anime prequel, just last year-- and specifically to reports of "info dumping" in the initial episode, an approach that was met with irritation by some and rapture by others. For me, it was simple: something that divisive had to be at least interesting. And Fate/Zero, if nothing else, is damn interesting.
I haven't even outlined the whole idea behind Fate/stay night, which is simple enough-- every fifty or sixty years, several powerful mages assemble at a predetermined battleground to summon magical servants from one of seven classes-- Archer, Rider, Caster, Berserker, Assassin, Lancer, and Saber-- all for the purposes of doing battle for the Holy Grail. Now, this isn't the very same Holy Grail that Jesus used as a drinking vessel, so you can cut it out with the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade jokes. But this Grail still grants wishes and confers a kind of omnipotence, so it's a valuable and volatile artifact. The contest for it is overseen by the Catholic Church (I guess?), and the big twist? Those seven magical servants are reincarnated heroes from history and legend. After all, why use generic fantasy warriors when you can fight your battles with the likes of Heracles, Alexander the Great, Kojiro Sasaki, Diarmid O'Dynah, and Hassan-i Sabbah? To up the stakes, the Grail doesn't just grant wishes to the victorious mage, but to their servant as well, so even the long-dead heroes have a stake in the game.
Naturally, the setting for the fourth Holy Grail war is the tiny Japanese port of Fuyutsuki City. Here, the mages are almost all well-trained scions of experienced magic-using families, the servants carefully picked. In the opening episode of each of Fate/Zero's two seasons, key characters circle each other restlessly, imparting huge swaths of plot and knowledge - ahh, the fabled infodumps. They're undeniably silly, but they work absolutely fine in the context of the show-- and Fate/Zero is a show peppered with death-defying struggles, epic betrayals, and larger than life battles that make it one of the best TV anime in recent memory. Upon seeing it, I had to know more.
Like I said, most fans of the franchise I talked to told me I really needed to start with the original PC visual novel. But, as an English-speaker in North America, there was no way for me to get the software. It's been that way for Type-Moon over the years; their popular Tsukihime and Melty Blood franchises are similarly tough to obtain, at least through legitimate channels. I have friends who are in the business of publishing Japanese PC games, but market realities dictate that almost all of these games are pornographic. Is there potential for a legit, commercial English release of Fate/stay night? My sources tell me no.
Obviously, the only avenue left was going back and watching all of Fate/stay night. No, my friends wailed, don't do that! Why would you do that? In retrospect, I can see their point-- watching Fate/Zero and then Fate/stay night is a bit similar to watching the Star Wars movies in chronological order - the dramatic weight is kinda titled in the wrong direction as a result. Also, Fate/stay night, even at its heaviest moments, is fairly light fare-- it starts with an exceptionally safe harem blueprint, with earnest hero Shirou, who just happens to live alone, playing house with comely classmate Sakura and overly-concerned teacher Taiga. But Shirou knows magic, he has classmates who know even more magic, and soon enough he's drawn into a strange confict and paired with a servant, the fierce, green-eyed Saber. The entire thing feels like such a cleaner, simpler rendition of Fate/Zero that I'm tempted to brand it Fate/Zero Babies and end each episode with Saber deadpanning "Goooo bye-byeeee!"
What kept my interest in Fate/stay night is that it gradually breaks out of the harem trap. We start off rolling our eyes at Shirou's coterie of would-be girlfriends and his relentless goody two-shoes act, but he soon reveals a hero complex that's so intense he seems suicidal at times. We learn more about his classmate Rin Tohsaka, who has a sad history and a servant of her own. We meet other magi, and other servants. Most of all, we learn more about Saber-- the big twist about her identity is tipped in Fate/Zero, but it's still fun to see her reveal her powerful sword as the one and only Excalibur, and as she bonds with her newfound master and friend Shirou, she romantically states that while she may wield the sword of legend, Shirou is her scabbard! HEY NOW, stop that snickering!
There are a few other bits of Fate/stay night lore in the English-speaking world. The Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works movie features an alternate retelling of F/SN's plot that gives more time to Tohsaka (who's very cool, and kind of underused in the main Fate/stay night story) and her servant Archer, and is also a Studio DEEN joint. Sentai Filmworks' blu-ray, at $15 or so at most outlets, is good value for money, but if you don't at least use Fate/stay night to fill in the backstory, you're gonna be a bit lost. Fortunately, Sentai are re-releasing Fate/stay night on DVD and blu-ray in January, so you won't have to shell out big bucks for the out-of-print Geneon and Funimation releases. As many of us know, the magnificent Fate/Zero is available in a pair of subtitled-only, agonizingly expensive box sets. While I like the series and would be happy to own it, sorry Aniplex-- I'll be holding out for a priced-down version down the road. Rounding things off, intriguingly enough, is a pair of PlayStation Portable games.
Fate/Unlimited Codes, which our own Todd Ciolek talks about at length here, is a fairly by-the-book fighting game, with development courtesy of fighting game champs CAPCOM. I tried it out on my PSP-- it was one of the only bits of software I bought on the PSN store-- and found it surprisingly deep and difficult. I grew up on now-classic 2D fare like King of Fighters '98 and Last Blade, and was pleased at the variety of combos and cancels. The game is stocked with many of the anime and visual novel's characters, plus some intriguing alternate versions. More of these alternate versions show up in Fate/Extra, which, while fun, is really just a souped-up rock-paper-scissors framed in the world of Fate/stay night. I did like the scary alternate version of Saber, who wears red and is based on a less virtuous legendary hero than the one from the visual novel.
Bringing it home, I think it's the attention to detail in the legendary servants' backstories that really sells the Fate/ world for me. One of the first things that really made me sit bolt upright and take notice of Fate/Zero is when the sinister Caster appears, murders a child, and then tells his new master to call him Bluebeard. Holy shit, it's the infamous French serial killer Gilles de Rais! What really makes Saber my favorite servant (and, I suspect, the favorite of many other fans) is how well she falls into line with Arthurian legend. Nasu's fact-checking on Saber's background is delightfully thorough and really sells the character for me-- there's a part late in Fate/stay night, a flashback to the final conversation with Sir Bedevere, that could've been lifted straight out of Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Artur.
So that's why, in spite of a somewhat convoluted track record and the maddening absence of the original source material from English-speaking sources like Steam and Gamestop, you really oughta check out the Fate/stay night universe. For me, it sits on the same shelf of madly entertaining Arthurian fiction as T.H. White's The Once and Future King. Up til now, the Fate/ franchise has enjoyed a lot of dominance in Japan, but I think it still has a lot of promise. One has to wonder if, as was with the Pendragon himself, Fate/stay night is "Rex quondam, Rexque futurus" - king once, and king to be again.
I'll leave you with three things: First of all, I'm doing a weekly streaming show on Wednesday nights. If you like crazy old anime or the kind of panels I do at cons, point your browser here at 11:30pm ET on Wednesdays! Second, my good pal (and ANN's pal in general) Jim Vowles of Otakon tells me that they haven't sold as many tickets to the Otakon Music Festival as they want to. If you're in or near Baltimore, come join me in checking out JAM Project, a truly legendary anime song band whose legendary power is legendary! Finally, here's your topic of discussion: the whole fun of the Fate/stay night world is picturing your own favorite mythical and historical figures, and trying to imagine what kind of super powers they might have if they were summoned for the Holy Grail War. So tell me readers, who do you want to see in the next Holy Grail War? Since they've used heroes of Irish myth twice, I'm hoping to see Finn McCool next time!
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