Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works
by Gabriella Ekens,
Shirou Emiya has no right to be called a magus. He can only perform one type of magic, and even that ineptly. But in spite of that, he's been drafted into the Holy Grail War – a conflict between seven mages controlling seven legendary warriors to obtain the wish-granting artifact of legend – with the strongest piece, the sword-wielding Saber, as his ally. That's hardly an advantage, however, when up against experienced mages like Rin Tohsaka, a beautiful, standoffish young woman who has dedicated her entire life towards preparing for this war – and she's the one who saved his life. With five other factions more ruthless than either of them preparing to overtake Fuyuki City, will Shirou Emiya make it out of this alive? Or will his commitment to heroism drag him so far into the conflict that there are only two ways out – victory or death?
I have a tumultuous relationship with the Fate/Stay night franchise. I love the series' prequel Fate/Zero and have… complicated feelings towards the visual novel, of which this series is an adaptation. I played through most of it in the aftermath of Fate/Zero, looking for a continuation of that story, and… did not get that. It's understandable, considering that the visual novel was written first! It has a right to be its own thing! Still, what I didn't expect was some of the worst writing and most heinous misogyny I've seen in a widely acclaimed product since the last time I tried to read a Brett Easton Ellis novel.
However, my feelings towards this adaptation are so far uncomplicated - it's really excellent. For as much as I criticize the Fate/Stay night visual novel, I do ultimately consider myself a fan of the franchise. There are some great ideas buried beneath the narrative chaff. After all, it's a story about battles between mythic heroes to unlock their deepest, most unachievable desires. That premise has the potential to provide insights about humanity at both its most intimate and epic, as well as just be a rip-roaring good time. I like to think of the VN as an unpolished diamond coated in three inches of compacted dirt, and ufotable has brought out the buffer here.
Many of the VN's issues with pacing and prose have been eliminated in the shift to film, while the content remains true to the source material's strong points. Aspects of the VN that I hadn't picked up on earlier, (either because they weren't there or because the writing/translation is so wretched,) like Rin's nuanced character and immediate, genuine chemistry with her servant Archer are front-loaded here, rendered snappy and endearing by punched-up dialogue and expressive character animation. This adaptation taught me that my previous conception of Rin Tohsaka as a textbook tsundere was off the mark. She's a principled young woman forced into an unnatural position of pragmatism by her family's legacy and a serious case of daddy issues. She's strong, smart, and determined to succeed, but the position she's inherited doesn't really align with her true self. Even actual main character Shirou Emiya - king of dumb scrub protagonists, disliked even by Type-Moonies - is likable here, which is a narrative miracle that might remain unsurpassed for the duration of my anime-watching lifespan. Having passed its trial-by-Shirou, I'm excited to see where this show goes from here, especially as an adaptation of the Unlimited Blade Works route. It has the strongest thematic material and least dubious content of all three arcs, making it a great choice as the successor story to Fate/Zero. So far, Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works (TV) does seem to be playing itself off as a continuation of that story. Several things that they include, such as Rin's awkward interactions with classmate Sakura Matou or tragic antihero Kiritsugu Emiya's heartbreaking first meeting with his adopted son, may have been pulled from the Fate/stay Night visual novel, but are executed differently here, to have more impact for viewers seeing this as a direct continuation of Fate/Zero.
The weakest part of Fate/Zero was easily the direction. If it wasn't in the middle of a battle scene, the series gravitated toward talking heads spouting dialogue at each other in mono-color rooms, sometimes for episodes on end. Fate/Stay night: Unlimited Blade Works (TV) rectifies that problem by making the direction much more engaging, even during talky scenes. An apparent upgrade in budget and a director switch from Ei Aoki (Aldnoah. Zero, Garden of Sinners 1: Overlooking View) to Takahiro Miura (Garden of Sinners 6: Oblivion Recording) are probably responsible for this. Locations are lush and detailed, while characters move expressively during even the most mundane conversations. This undercurrent of energy explodes during battle scenes so dynamic and impactful that the servants come off as the imposing, superhuman beings they're meant to be with every blow. The effort definitely isn't wasted – an impressive amount of character information is conveyed through the specific ways in which they move. The servant Lancer is imposing, bestial, and yet poised, while Shirou's friend Sakura seems to be permanently walking on eggshells. It says more about them in an instant than what the visual novel could convey through dozens of lines of repetitive prose.
It's not a brick wall of exposition like Fate/Zero's opening, but Fate/Stay night: Unlimited Blade Works (TV) does assume some familiarity with the source material going in. So if you don't already know what the phrases "grail war" or "command seal" mean, do some wiki'ing or watch Fate/Zero first. (You won't regret it - it's really excellent.) So far, this looks like it could be the definitive version of an otaku epic, polished to a spit-shine in every respect, and I can't wait to see more. More like "Fate/stay right here and watch this show right now," because it's really good and you totally should, am I right?
Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
Gabriella Ekens studies film and literature at a US university. Follow her on twitter.
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