Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works
by Gabriella Ekens,
Hell has frozen over, pigs are flying, Kizumonogatari has a release date, and Shirou Emiya is a good character. Only one of these is true (sorry Monogatari fans) and I still can't quite believe it - I like Shirou Emiya in this anime. My issues with his characterization in the visual novel have been outlined in earlier recaps, but this episode finally sold me on something I had previously suspected but not yet affirmed: Shirou improves immensely when liberated from the visual novel's first person perspective. It's such a crowning triumph of adaptation that I could end this review here, slap an A on it, and leave it at that.
Of course, there's much more to be said. This week, we meet fellow master Ilyasviel von Einzbern. Fans of Fate/Zero will remember her as a certain character's baby girl. Now she's all grown up (at least mentally - she still looks like a porcelain doll) and gotten herself involved in the family business. Unfortunately for our heroes, that business is slaughtering people who stand between her and the Holy Grail. She sends her seemingly invincible servant Berserker after our heroes, forcing Rin to retaliate and Shirou to come to terms with his participation in the war. Besides the Saber/Berserker battle, this episode was dedicated to demonstrating Archer's power and advancing the chemistry between Shirou, Rin, and Saber. I don't mean romantic chemistry - although some of that is bubbling around Rin - but their general repartee and how that'll build into the sides they choose later on, when the conflict starts showing its teeth. Saber already seems more comfortable with Shirou, who takes a personal interest in her safety, than she ever was with Kiritsugu – a relationship whose tragic consequences serve as the foundation of this story. The chauvinistic aspect of Shirou's martyr complex has been downplayed if not eliminated altogether. The moment where he grabs Saber's hand and rushes her out of range of Archer's blow is actually pretty cute, and while I don't think they work as a romantic match, it's nice to see some kindness in Saber's life after the events of Fate/Zero. While that story was about breaking her down, this one is about building her back up, so a completely different master/servant relationship is a fine starting ground for that.
One of the best things about this series so far is how it manages to turn what could have been pure info-dumping into subtle but important channels for providing characterization and playing out conflicts. This makes sense, since grail wars are as much battles of manipulation between their participants as they are dogfights between heroes of legend. This was illustrated well by last episode's scene between Kotomine Kirei, Shirou, and Rin in the church. The scene was intended to get the audience up-to-speed on all this grail war nonsense, but film's unique ability to convey information visually (through character movement and spatial arrangement within a shot, for example) also works to illustrate Kirei's development in the interim between Fate/Zero and Fate/Stay night without mentioning it in dialogue. The show makes no bones about his villainy. From the way that his hands tremble in rage as he talks about Kiritsugu, Kirei's clearly spent the past ten years stewing in bitterness towards his spurned partner-in-sociopathy. He can barely contain how much he revels in the opportunity to take it out on his former enemies' children. In this episode, he reads bible verses about forgiveness aloud to himself while stifling laughter. Under the expert tutelage of the ham master himself (who makes a brief appearance), Kirei has gone full ham. His evil is delicious. He's also completed his transformation into his own hated father as the corrupt, manipulative official operating under a benevolent institutional mask - signaled by this incredible echo of one of Fate/Zero's most memetic moments.
Ilyasviel is treated similarly. Her politeness hides cruelty, built on an absolute assurance in her own strength. With Berserker, she holds the ace in terms of sheer firepower, so according to her twisted logic, she might as well have fun while crushing her enemies. She intimidates by never losing her casual posture, even while hunting Rin down through the wilderness. This is all child's play to her. It's heartbreaking to see that the little girl I knew in Fate/Zero grew into this cold killer. Unlike her father, she's cruel rather than ruthless, theatrical rather than pragmatic, making her more tragically evil than morally gray. Grail wars are won by the most adaptive partners, so she and her monolith of a servant probably won't meet a good end. (In a touch that I don't believe was present in the VN, she also uses the same magic as her mother, which is adorable and sad. Poor Irisviel…)
Fate/Stay night: Unlimited Blade Works performs double duty as a faithful adaptation of the visual novel and a sequel series to Fate/Zero without sacrificing fidelity or emotional continuity to either. It continues to be a deft adaptation of a story with a lot of different, often contrasting expectations to fill, and each episode makes me more excited for the next. Coming up: the servant Caster, school shenanigans, and maybe a little more information about Archer...
Gabriella Ekens studies film and literature at a US university. Follow her on twitter.
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