Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works
by Gabriella Ekens,
Rin Tohsaka isn't a tsundere. I'm not sure how she became the poster child for this particular fetishization of a female defense mechanism, because it really doesn't fit her – she's been remarkably kind to Shirou since the very beginning, and open with her feelings towards him since she realized them. Any aggravation Rin's expressed seems like an understandable consequence of hanging around Shirou Emiya, crown prince of irrational feelings-denial, a boy who refuses to sleep in the same room with his servant at the risk of being murdered because women make him uncomfortable. Who wouldn't tease that guy? Anyways, Rin's a cool lady, and one of Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Work's big successes is conveying this while also not making her "too good" for Shirou. They're a cute couple, and Shirou strikes just the right balance between soft-hearted and hard-headed to make him charming. Their chemistry is the show's foundation, and they knock it out of the park.
Their date was adorable. It was pure fanservice, but in the best way: totally benign and based in character. I related strongly to the joy that Third Wheel Saber received from food, and liked how grumpy Shirou had some fun for once. I'm glad that unlike other properties, they admit to the romantic pretense here, and made it relatable. The crux of Date Activities is mostly meandering in and out of stores with the other person (and maybe the mythological being they're obligated to have around them at all times.) Unfortunately, this fluff was the best part of the episode, which is a problem because quite a bit happened after it.
After the date, the team was ambushed by Caster, who used her Noble Phantasm, Rule Breaker, to steal Shirou's command seals and take control of Saber herself. Archer rescues them, minus Saber, and they spend the night at Tohsaka's house. Archer says that he still doesn't know his identity, but that he has memories of Saber. Rin suggests that his bitterness is a façade and that he actually cares deeply about other people, which he rebuffs. Now formally out of the war, Shirou tries to convince Rin to let him keep helping her, but she rejects the offer and runs off with Archer. Newly armed with the strongest servant, Caster kicks Kotomine Kirei out of his church in order to prematurely summon the Holy Grail there.
It's becoming more noticeable that this adaptation might be too lush for the simplicity of the source material, and that the writers are struggling to fill in the gaps. Despite the dressings of an epic conflict between heroes of legend, Fate/stay night's meat is a simple story about a young man learning that he doesn't have to embrace toxic, self-destructive ideals of masculinity in order to be a man. It's full of colorful characters, but few are anything other than accessories to Shirou's story. Compare this to Fate/Zero, which filled 24 episodes by making each of the seven masters, their servants, and the various hangers-on fully fleshed out people with their own coherent inner workings and understandable (if not sympathetic) motivations. By contrast, Fate/stay night is very much the Shirou show, and while that isn't a problem on its own, it becomes one when they try to pour this story into a container that it doesn't fit. It results in dilution and repetition – a product that's weaker than it could've been.
For a short time, it DID seem like they were going to divert from the source material by making Saber's character a continuation of Fate/Zero rather than a literal transcription of her VN identity, but it seems like that was struck down at some point. The gestures were there early on, with cues like Saber's recognition of Ilya and the name Emiya, but the direction was so awkward during later scenes that should have been about her that they almost seemed deliberately obstructive to exploring any thoughts she may be having.
This dearth of source material is most evident in the pacing, which has been decelerating steadily over the past few episodes. Fate/stay night has never been fast-moving, but for a while it followed a dramatic rhythm made up of two or three quieter setup episodes building up to a drama and action spectacular. It was effective, too - previous climaxes have included the fights with Ilya, Caster, and Souichirou, highlights of the entire series. However, things are starting to get muddled. This episode was a bunch of fluff, a game-changer, fallout, nothing, and then a cliffhanger. All are treated with the same gravity, which makes it difficult to read what's important and what isn't. The trouble here bodes ill for next season, which takes place over four days rather than the first season's eleven, during which meaningful encounters start happening one after the other. I'm worried about what they're going to put in these twelve episodes, considering that we're already more than halfway through the plot and I'd expect the latter half to be even more lavish than the first.
Another issue was that this was a double-length episode. I realize that these are a privilege that few other properties can afford, but the extra time here was more distracting than helpful. There were quite a few added scenes this episode, and the best one was the shortest – Taiga's visit to Kiritsugu's grave. I'm not a Taiga fan, but the revelation of her unrequited feelings for Kiritsugu and her devotion to his memory really humanized her character. They've cut down other useless scenes in the past, but for some reason this time they kept in the one between Caster and Assassin. It took up five minutes, was not entertaining, and provided no useful information. We already know that Caster is after the Grail, has feelings for Souichirou (who she tries to keep in the dark about her actions), and that Assassin guards Ryuudou Temple. The fact that she's trying to take over Kirei's church would have been apparent in the next scene – an added one– where she arrives there to take him out with her skeleton mooks. They also prematurely reveal Lancer's master and Caster's identity through this. I don't object to it, I'm just not certain why, and don't plan to engage with this information in a review until it's more relevant to what's going on onscreen. Otherwise, it was an okay scene, although damn, Kirei, why are those skeletons that Shirou took out without problems tiring you out? You've let yourself go, man. Lay off the wine.
The season also ended at an earlier point than I expected to in the story – at Rin telling Shirou to give up after losing his command seals rather than the more obvious upcoming cliffhanger. While I know what they're doing with it, (framing Rin's choice between humanism and ruthlessness as one boy over another,) I'm surprised that they didn't go the extra few steps to fill the episode out more substantially. It resulted in some bad padding. The dramatic turnaround meant to carry us over into the next season occurs right after fifteen minutes of comedy/fanservice, which dulls it, despite a promising start. They changed the location of Caster's ambush from Shirou's house to a magical water dome on the expressway, a setpiece with great potential for action. They could have featured Caster threatening our heroes with surges of water, whirlpools, gusts of wind, or chunks of broken road – something other than the usual Adobe After Effects spam they use for magic. Instead, she brought out more skeleton warriors from her attack on the school, but made of water this time. Threatening. (They also look terrible – blurry CG models going through walk cycles in the background.) After that introduction, the scene devolved into a shot-reverse-shot verbal confrontation between Shirou and Caster. While the topic is relevant to Caster's character – she was treated badly in the past, and feels that she can treat others badly to get what she wants now – it's information that's already been conveyed several times over, and it could have easily been cut down. The production values were also up and down here. During Archer's rescue there are a couple of dramatically over-shaded shots (like the screencap above, where even Saber's ahoge is crying,) but also those hideous CG “water skeletons” and some inconsistencies in when water is flowing.
Like Kotomine Kirei and his blonde friend, the honeymoon years are over for me and this show. I've become accustomed to its strengths, and its weaknesses are growing more visible. It seems to have frontloaded its content, and is beginning to struggle with presenting what's left. However, for as much as I've dwelt on the negative in this review, Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works' first season has been a success because it nails fundamentals of theme and character while being an entertaining action spectacular, the anime equivalent of a good blockbuster film. Hopefully the next season will stick the landing.
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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