Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works
by Gabriella Ekens,
WARNING: This review contains spoilers for Fate/Zero and Madoka Magica.
This one is going to be a doozy. I'm taking a cue from Lancer and burning down the house.
In all seriousness, I've finally decided to address something that I've alluded to before but never outlined in-depth: why Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works is 100% about masculinity and not just "ideals." I'll get to the brass tacks of episode 20's content shortly, but because this episode and the ones preceding it are so heavily focused on the writer's philosophical musings, I think it's important to put that stuff into context first, and to explain why it didn't work for me.
Rather than being about heroic ideals in broad, Shirou's story is about a “beta male” confronting various toxic images of idealized “alpha masculinity” (Archer, Gilgamesh, and Kirei) and rejecting them to become comfortable with himself as he truly is. I will explain these terms in more detail to fully clarify what I mean, and I do understand why people are attached to this story, but it's honestly not a comprehensive examination of idealism versus reality. It's certainly trying to be and easily could have been, but the story's baggage over gender is too heavy for me to read it as applicable to the world outside Kinoko Nasu's head. Stories about idealism should pit the ideal against the real world, but FSN:UBW fails to make its world recognizable enough to be relevant. This isn't going to be a nice review, but I'm not going out of my way to “target” anything but the work itself. This is what the story says, as I've been able to interpret it through now multiple versions. I can no longer refrain from articulating these ideas and confronting them as FSN:UBW goes downhill.
First, I need to outline Shirou's supposed conflict of idealism and how it fails as an adequate exploration of the theme. Shirou is an idealist who seeks to do good no matter how much it hurts him. This is unsustainable, so he becomes a broken, morally compromised person. For convoluted plot reasons, he is immortal, so he decides to commit suicide by going back in time and killing his teenage self. Teenage Shirou gets wise to this, confronts his future self, and then decides to continue on the same path that leaves him a broken shell of a man. This should set up a “hope springs eternal, the future is filled with despair but humanity can endure through kindness and effort” moral, but the show fails to establish an upside to his decision. There are examples of this done right: in Fate/Zero, Kiritsugu's actions kill thousands of people and ruin his life, but he's able to save one child and (we presume at the time) give him a happy life. In Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Madoka's actions don't eliminate the need for magical girls to sacrifice their lives in the struggle against entropy. Instead, she performs an act of mercy, giving them painless deaths. These moments are uplifting because they show that human decency can survive in even the most overpowering environments of futility and despair.
The issue with Shirou/Archer's story is that there's no upside. If Archer really saves anyone or improves their lives, the show doesn't emphasize it. It's all about his sorrow and regret – he languishes in fields of dead bodies. As such, there's no nobility to Shirou's decision to stick with his ideals. It doesn't seem like he's helping anyone, so it reads only as selfishness and stubborn egoism. I realize why this happens the way it does. Unlimited Blade Works is the mid-point of Shirou's story. He doesn't change his mind and become a healthy person until the end of Heaven's Feel, but Heaven's Feel isn't part of this supposedly standalone mass-market anime series, so what we get is thematically inconclusive at best and reprehensible of Shirou at worst. This would be fine if the episode didn't frame Shirou's decision as noble. He's not reaffirming a doomed pattern of behavior (which would make FSN:UBW, like Fate/Zero, a tragedy) but somehow one-upping Archer. It would be noble if Shirou proved Archer wrong in any way, but he doesn't. Instead, his justification consists of unintelligible lines like “just because you're correct doesn't mean you're right.” That's not an argument. That's “I can't argue with you, but I'm just going to keep doing whatever I want.” There's emotion triumphing over cold reality, and then there's self-destructive stubbornness. This is the latter.
Still, how does this failed examination of idealism become about masculinity? Well, thematic explorations of idealism are deeply tied to gender. Gender permeates our cultural narratives about heroism and victimhood. In many ways, the ideal hero is the ideal man, while the stereotypical victim is the stereotypical woman. What images pop up when we think of “heroes?” Knights rescuing princesses. Grizzled old men rescuing their wives and daughters. Right off the bat, it's a subversive move for Fate/stay night to make King Arthur, the Knight of Knights, a woman instead. Unfortunately, we run into massive problems immediately after this.
Other works have handled the relationship between heroism and gender well. Let's go back to the most relevant example in FSN's prequel, Fate/Zero. That work succeeded as a study in idealism because it depicted men struggling with toxic conceptions of masculinity. Kariya's flaw can be read as a selfish attachment to the image of men as women's providers and saviors. He failed to realize that Aoi, in choosing to marry Tokiomi, was a culpable party in her own daughter's victimization. Aoi did not want to be saved, and Kariya's repressed anger toward her for resisting his “help” contributes to his tragedy. Kirei's complete inability to relate to women betrays the degree to which his upbringing in the Church, a patriarchal institution, destroyed him as a person. Kiritsugu is a wounded child who pretends to be a stoic renegade (an archetype straight out of Batman's book), but surrounds himself with strong women as a place of safety. You can similarly evaluate most of Fate/Zero's other male characters. My point is that Fate/Zero's study of ideals works largely because it resists the objectification of women. It consistently undermines the common, self-serving ways in which men preoccupied with heroism use women to try and give their beliefs context. Kariya views women as objects to be saved, Kiritsugu views them as objects of sacrifice, and Kirei as pawns or agents of failed salvation (through his disastrous marriage).
Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works does not do anything like this. At this point in the show, previously dynamic and vivid female characters have been made into spectators and sacrificial lambs for Shirou's conflict, which entirely dominates the stage at the expense of anyone else's humanization. The problem isn't that Fate/stay night is Shirou's story, it's that Shirou's story is not a very good examination of “heroic idealism” because it completely buys into the demonstrably false assumptions about gender these heroic ideals were built on. You break down chauvinistic ideals by pitting them against reality, and FSN:UBW decides to concern itself with women while failing to portray them realistically.
In feminist (or even antifeminist) rhetoric, “alpha male” describes the socially-prescribed masculine ideal. They are physically, socially, and sexually dominant. It also denotes a lack of “feminine” characteristics, such as submissiveness and emotional reciprocity. If you aren't this ideal, or are seen as possessing an insufficient amount of masculine traits by some inconsistent standard, you're an inadequate “beta male” who gets the leftovers in terms of economic, social, and romantic opportunities. Of course, this is a toxic dichotomy. In order to be a healthy person, you need a balance between stereotypically masculine and feminine traits – a sense of control over your own life but respect for other people's boundaries. Shirou is a “beta male” because he's an introvert who enjoys housekeeping (stereotypically feminine work) and messing around with systems. He pines after the unapproachable hot girl, Rin. Eventually, she chooses him over more conventionally attractive men like Archer and Lancer. FSN is a fantasy that teaches young men to be comfortable in their own skins, deliberately combating the weaknesses of the alpha ideal with the strengths of the beta's balanced traits. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that on its own – the problem begins when the story promotes the bad attitudes about women that cross over the alpha/beta dichotomy. For example, the idea that women prefer “alphas” while discriminating against “betas.” In reality, women are individuals with no generalized preference for partners, and both groups can equally alienate potential partners through their toxic behavior. While perceived “alpha males” steamroll through other people's boundaries, “beta males” adopt a victimization complex that makes them overlook the ways in which they may victimize others, most often women.
That finally brings us to this episode's content. That is to say: the Rin-molesting. There are no more shots of her thighs, but Kirei does inappropriately poke at her boobs. He's really pointing to her heart, you see, which he plans to cut out and use as a vessel for the grail. Just ignore how her boobies flop when he touches them! Flop flop flop. Ugh. Really, the worst part of this “Rin gets kidnapped” bit is how it's annihilated her character. In the first half of this series, she was an assertive young woman who took charge of her own romantic desires. She was the one who pressured an embarrassed Shirou into finally becoming an item. She fought off Shinji on multiple occasions. Now she's patiently waiting as a bunch of dudes fight over her. All of them, friend or foe, alpha or beta, somehow reinforce her status as a sexual object. Kirei provides us with that boob shot. Shinji is less a character than a narrative tool to set upon female characters when they aren't in enough sexual peril. Lancer is there to make sure that Rin isn't “really” assaulted (while also reinforcing her desirability.) Shirou is validated by Rin choosing him, and Archer has provided an eternal fountain of un-personing for her recently. (Rin was betrayed, almost raped, and almost murdered, multiple times, but let's have her talk about Archer's problems.) The narrative is playing hot potato with Rin's sexuality in a way that's not about her at all, only Shirou and the perceived male spectator. It's okay that the show depicts sexualized images of her in distress because another, nicer man will show up to disapprove of it. That doesn't negate the fact that this show expects the viewer to derive pleasure from images of a woman's body in a state of nonconsensual sexualization. I've tolerated it in the hopes that maybe they'll do better next time, but those “next times” just keep happening. FSN:UBW is not "just for superfans." This is mainstream entertainment. Fate/Zero averaged sales of 50k a volume while FSN:UBW V.1 got 37k, in a market where 10k is considered exceptional. Type-Moon is now producing some of the most mainstream anime entertainment. It gets these sales by courting men and women – Fate/Zero marketed to women extensively – and it can no longer afford to discount them, regardless of the original visual novel's content.
(This is all without even getting into Saber, who spends the entire episode dutifully watching as Shirou and Archer work out their fee-fees. I know that she and Shirou are tight and she made him a promise, but her friend and current master is being almost-murdered in the next room. It's not like Saber is even doing anything in this fight – she just promised to be its witness for some reason? FSN:UBW episode 20 drinking game: drink every time they cut to a shot of Saber watching from the sidelines. By the end, you'll be almost as wasted as her character is in this show.)
Ultimately, the presentation of all this is the real killer. This marks the third straight episode of Shirou and Archer standing around monologuing the same information at each other. The only difference is that this time they're fighting while they talk (and occasionally touching butts as seen in the screencap), until Shirou reaches his idiotic conclusion. This is entirely ineffective storytelling. For one thing, Archer doesn't seem like a person. He's supposed to be a weary old warrior consumed with regret to the point of desiring death, but he's never expressed any emotion beyond smug self-assurance. Let him feel, dammit. This is a fundamentally emotional story about letting go of childhood idealism. The obvious solution to this problem is to let the other characters do things around them. That would both fill out some runtime and actually show us what FSN:UBW has spent the past three episodes telling us. For example, maybe go into Archer's romantic relationship with Saber and how he was a positive influence on her life? (If this is Archer from the Fate route, which is debatable.) That might make his actions seem like something other than a total waste of time. Maybe let Rin confront them about everything that's happened lately? Let's get some accountability up in here! (Archer is an older version of Shirou, her current boyfriend, and he gave her to Shinji to be raped. That could definitely stand to be addressed by somebody. It wasn't even part of some sort of “sacrifice the few to save the many” deal! What the hell, bro?) Anything would be better than watching Shirou reenact Christian rock album covers over fields of dead Africans that Archer supposedly had to murder in order to ensure world peace.
To make matters worse, every character besides Shirarcher (sriracha?) has now become irrelevant. The past few episodes have been dedicated to escorting them out of the story for little thematic purpose. First Ilya, then Caster, now Lancer and Kirei. They're probably only keeping Saber around because she's the poster girl. Gilgamesh, who's supposed to be our main villain, has also received zero development. That would be a good way to develop Archer – why does Gilgamesh hate the dude so much? The show should explain it, not leave it as some lore tidbit to be dredged out of a wiki. Right now, Gilgamesh could be replaced by Biff Tannen. He's the rich, sexually entitled, meanie-jerk that Shirou beats up to prove his adequacy.
At one point, I thought that Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works might be good, and its first half still is! The first half of this show has the decency to be fun, but now I'm convinced that there's no way to make FSN work via a straight, polished adaptation. It's thematically and structurally broken. There's potentially something there, but you'd need to go down deep and rearrange its guts first. As it stands, FSN:UBW is a fascinating case study for what makes or breaks a work dramatically. It's a shame that I'd rather dissect it at this point than actually enjoy watching it.
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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