Fate/Grand Order THE STAGE Babylonia: The Absolute Frontline in the War Against the Demonic Beasts

by Richard Eisenbeis,

In their ongoing time-traveling adventures to prevent the extinction of mankind, the shield-wielding Mash Kyrielight and her partner mage Ritsuka Fujimaru are transported to Mesopotamia at the dawn of human civilization. But this time, it's not heroes of myth and legend they face but literal gods bent on the eradication of mankind. Yet, there is still hope. One man stands unflinching against the gods themselves, determined to protect his city and the last vestiges of humanity left inside. He is Gilgamesh, the King of Heroes.

15 years ago, the visual novel Fate/stay night was released in Japan. Since then, it has exploded into a franchise with dozens of games, books, anime, and manga. There have even been musicals, the latest of which, Fate/Grand Order THE STAGE -Babylonia: The Absolute Frontline in the War Against the Demonic Beasts-, began playing in Japan late last month.

At its most basic, the original Fate/stay night is the story of seven modern day mages paired with seven heroes from myth and legend, all fighting it out to receive a wish from the holy grail. The wildly popular smartphone game, Fate/Grand Order, takes this premise a step further. It follows Mash Kyrielight, a young woman infused with the power of an ancient hero, and her partner mage, Ritsuka Fujimaru, as they travel to the past and correct errors where a wish from the grail has knocked history so far off course, it threatens to lead to the complete extinction of humanity.

In the game, there are seven of these “singularities” that the pair has to visit and overcome. The 2017 musical, Fate/Grand Order THE STAGE Camelot: The Sacred Round Table Realm, was the story of the Arthurian-themed sixth singularity. This year's, Fate/Grand Order THE STAGE Babylonia: The Absolute Frontline in the War Against the Demonic Beasts, adapts the story of the seventh.

As Mash and Ritsuka near the end of their mission to save history, the pair find themselves transported back into the Age of Gods—a time where magic was abundant and it was the gods who ruled the Earth, not mankind. While in the normal timeline the Age of Gods slowly but steadily became the Age of Man, inside the singularity, three gods have decided to band together and wipe out mankind.

And while the trinity of gods has been largely successful, the city of Uruk still stands as a bastion of humanity. Its king, the legendary Gilgamesh, has used his countless treasures to protect the people even against the divine threat at his gates. He has even summoned heroes—namely the grand wizard Merlin and the mysterious “Anna”—to help him in the battles to come. But now the gods are ready to deploy their ultimate weapon, a powerful divine creature made in the form of Gilgamesh's deceased best friend, Enkidu.

Clocking in at about 3.5 hours in length, Babylonia is a solid adaptation of the game's plot. The key notes of the story are all there, but that's not to say it's an exact reproduction. The plot has been streamlined to the point where some of the ancillary heroes—namely Ushiwakamaru, Leonidas, Benkei, and Jaguarman—have been cut from the story entirely. Speaking of the characters, their costumes really make the show. From Merlin's layered robes and Leonardo Da Vinci's steampunk arm to Mash's massive shield and Ishtar's even larger bow, they are all perfect matches from the game.

The sets, on the other hand, are rather abstract at first glance but no less phenomenal. Instead of being a series of realistic rooms or outdoor backdrops, the stage is filled with a series of modular platforms and connecting stairs that can be rearranged into many different combinations. To further add to the illusion, the background and the textures placed on the set are all done through projection mapping. This means you can use the same set pieces to make Gilgamesh's balcony or the underworld itself and have each look completely different.

The best use of this comes in the climactic battle against Tiamat—a giant monster bigger than the hall the musical is held in. Instead of trying to scale it down or rewrite the plot to avoid the scenario, the raised platforms on the set act as the Chaldea control room in the present, filled with digital screens showing the progress of the battle. Then, the ground level of the stage shows Mash, Ritsuka, and their allies in the past as they defend against the god's attacks and retaliate with their own. This musical is a testament to how projection mapping and set design can elevate a production.

But of course, sets are nothing without the actors to make use of them. Akari Nanawo (Mash), Takuya Ide (Dr. Romani), and RiRiKA (Da Vinci) all reprise their roles from the first Fate/Grand Order musical but the rest of the cast is new--including the main leads. In the game, the player character Ritsuka Fujimaru can be either male or female. While the anime adaptation, Fate/Grand Order: First Order chose to go with the male version, the musical has gone a different route: it has both. Certain showings of the musical have the male Ritsuka, while others have the female version. When you buy your ticket, you're able to choose which you'd like to see. In my case, I saw the female Ritsuka (Mioka Sakamoto)—and while she did a fine job at the role, she was greatly overshadowed by the rest of the cast.

The goddess pair Ereshkigal (Umino Kawamura) and Ishtar (Saori Yasaka) are interesting characters to see portrayed on stage because of their connection to the greater world of Fate, i.e. both of them inhabit the body of Fate/stay night heroine Rin Tohsaka. And while the goddesses are firmly in control, Rin's personality certainly shines through. Thus you have two actresses tasked with creating a performance that is recognizable as both a mighty immortal goddess and one of the franchises most iconic characters. Even more difficult, these performances have to be noticeably different from one another as they are portraying two different goddesses, and the pair pull it off brilliantly.

But the one who really steals the show is the face of this whole era: Gilgamesh. In Fate/stay night, Gilgamesh is one of the main antagonists. He is pompous, arrogant, and looks down on everyone. But in his own time, protecting his own people, these are not character flaws. Rather they are what's needed in a man who won't back down even when facing off against literal gods. Haruki Kiyama plays the role perfectly. Through his performance, you are able to see the relationship between Gilgamesh's patronizing attitude and his sense of duty when it comes to those beneath his banners. By the end, it's obvious why he is called the King of Heroes.

The other big acting standout is Saki Akai's Quetzalcoatl, but this is not due to perfect execution of a complicated role like with Gilgamesh. Rather, it's that Quetzalcoatl (along with various background cast members) puts on a several minute long pro wrestling match in the middle of the musical. In full costume—including a giant headdress—Quetzalcoatl does hip tosses and suplexes galore, showing what happens when a goddess is determined to bring an end to humanity one wrestling match at a time.

Unfortunately, not all the performances are so great. Gorgon (Asana Mamoru) and Ekidnu (Shōgo Yamazaki) are so over-the-top evil that they have to take breaks for maniacal laughter--literally. It's so overdone that it makes them feel like comic relief more than a credible threat. The only other acting issue is that Akari Nanawo's Mash (who plays the part perfectly in both voice and action in all other instances) can't quite hit the notes she's expected to. Needless to say this is a problem when the show is a musical.

Which leads us to the elephant in the room: the music. To be blunt, the soundtrack fails on two important levels. As stand-alone songs, few are anything more than forgettable. Only the comical duet between Merlin and Dr. Romani (which has a whole extra level of fun if you know Romani's secret) and Da Vinci's J-pop battle song stand out in any meaningful way. And as songs in a musical, the soundtrack is even worse.

At its best, music penned for musicals tells the story through song. Conflicts are resolved mid-song. Characters' greatest personal revelations happen mid-song. But in this musical, the story tends to grind to a halt so that one character or another can pontificate through song for a few minutes with no resolution. It's terrible for the pacing of the show and rarely advances the plot. Honestly, it would be better if this were a play instead of a musical.

But let's be frank, anyone wanting to see this musical isn't coming for the music in the first place. They're coming to see one of the best story arcs in Fate/Grand Order retold on stage with real actors. And in that way, Babylonia certainly succeeds, the sets, costumes, and performances really do bring the characters to life and the adaptation in general makes it a great way to enjoy the story--whether you've played the game or not. And as this musical was so popular that it got livestreamed to movie theaters throughout Japan for those who couldn't get tickets to the actual venue, it's likely this isn't the last of these musicals we're going to see. (Here's hoping the next one is the “Guda Guda Imperial Holy Grail War!”)

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