Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works
by Gabriella Ekens,
It's time for school shenanigans part two: things get real. Mitsuzuri has gone missing, Kuzuki-sensei makes more ominous appearances, and Shirou continues not even trying to hide his command seal. This is the episode where Shirou finally realizes that his pre- and post- grail war lives are incompatible, and he can't just keep pretending that nothing is happening. Rin certainly isn't okay with it. After sacrificing so much for him in the early going, it's a real insult to her that he doesn't seem to value his own life enough to try and preserve it. So when he lingers at school after another day without Saber, she tries to take him out and prove that she can stifle her feelings enough to win this war. However, their battle is cut short by another master's attack, which leaves a fellow student in need of their immediate care and finds them vulnerable to a sneak attack by an enemy servant: a beautiful purple-haired woman who fights with a chained dagger. They escape the battle with their lives intact and declare a more permanent truce between them.
The theme train marches on, and this week it stops at Rin-and-Shirou station. The episode revels in the tension between what people want to be and what they really are - a theme central to both their character arcs and relationship. Shirou's greatest weakness and secret strength is that he is exactly what he appears to be. He's illiterate not only to the codes of the grail war, but anything regarding what it means to be a mage. He doesn't keep secrets and he doesn't understand why he should. He doesn't want to hurt anybody, so why would anybody want to hurt him? For these reasons, Rin is both frustrated and fascinated by him. Shirou is a reflection of her own deepest impulses and beliefs unimpeded by her personal traumas and rigid inherited identity as a magus. In this way, Rin's confict with Shirou is a conflict with herself. She'll eventually have to choose between her obligations as a magus trained to win a monumental deathmatch and her own personal happiness.
I think that I finally understand Shirou and Rin's real chemistry. At their cores, they're very similar people who happen to have near-opposite personalities and family traumas. It's no coincidence that they both had flashbacks to their relationships with their fathers this episode. Kiritsugu (inadvertently) exacerbated Shirou's sense of personal nobility to unhealthy levels, while Tokiomi suppressed Rin's. The shock that Rin expresses when Shirou reveals that his father didn't want to train him in magic says it all. According to the values of mage society, this is an act of treachery, an atrocious betrayal of the magical ethos not to pass on accumulated knowledge/power to one's offspring. Mages are agents of power, and the only aim of power is in its continuation. "He put being a father ahead of being a mage," Rin says to condemn Kiritsugu, although she seems recognize the statement's awfulness as well. Still, she stands by it. She has to, in order to justify her own life so far. They'll both have to overcome quite a bit of daddy-related baggage to find happiness in life, and I'm excited that they're headed towards finding it with each other. I'm rooting for these two to overcome the imposed cycle of death and despair that being a magus entails. If this series is reaching for a theme, it's breaking past the destructive inherited cycles of values, obligations, and pain that were elucidated so well in Fate/Zero.
Fate/Stay night: Unlimited Blade Works is better than Fate/Zero at making its individual magical styles visually distinct. Magic fighting wasn't all that prominent in Fate/Zero, where the servants did much more one-on-one fighting and the masters spent most of their time in hiding. The two masters who did see a lot of combat were physical/weapons-based guys who used magic as a sort of invisible enhancer. Other than that, only a couple of styles were shown off, and I didn't get much of a sense of how they worked. (I recall being fond of Kayneth's fighting mercury blob, though.) This time, I have a good sense of how Rin's, Shirou's, and Ilya's magic styles work, not only technically but tactically, without any bulky exposition. Rin corners people with laser shots to use pre-prepared blasts of big magic, Shirou strengthens whatever he has around him at the moment, and Ilya sends out drones to minimize what she actually has to do. Otherwise, this episode was visually impressive in a subtle way. It's the clearest indication so far that director Takahiro Miura knows how to direct non-action scenes, mostly through emotionally resonant compositions and mixing up the lighting used between locations. The servant battle was fun, and for as much as Shirou's improved, I'm still automatically a fan of any scene where he's threatened with injury. I hope we get more of this servant than the VN gave us for this route. (Also, the purple-haired servant really shouldn't be able to fight in a shirt that loose without her boobs falling out. She needs a sports bra. Maybe that's why she's so grumpy?)
Overall, this week was once again low-key, but more focused visually and narratively than the previous one. I've settled into how likable Shirou is in this version, and am already invested in his love story with Rin. Next time, Ryuudou Temple, the servant Assassin, and maybe even the mystery of how servants keep their clothes from falling off.
Gabriella Ekens studies film and literature at a US university. Follow her on twitter.
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