Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works
by Gabriella Ekens,
I've come to terms with the fact that Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works will not be the series I wanted it to be. We're beginning to run into what I call the “visual novel adaptation conundrum,” a term for when the events of one arc don't lead to a cohesive thematic resolution in isolation. It's becoming more clear that this anime will not be including material from the other arcs that are necessary to turning Fate/stay night into a completely satisfying standalone story. It makes sense in the context of the source material - there, Shirou's character development only lands when the three arcs are perceived in aggregate. This is extremely difficult to adapt to any medium besides visual novels, which are unique in their ability to portray multiple equally valid narratives within the same text.
Fate/stay night as a whole is a story about a young man's moral maturation into a functional member of society. Over three arcs, Shirou grows from someone whose fixation on the impossible task of “saving the world” leads to self-destruction to someone who embraces the moderate, healthy goal of ensuring happiness for one person he cares about deeply. My ideal Fate/stay night adaptation would contain the Fate, Unlimited Blade Works, and Heaven's Feel routes in sequence with only a certain time-traveling character as their impetus and connective tissue: Puella Magi Madoka Magica's structure via Fate/stay night. (Now I wish that Gen Urobuchi had written this TV series following the adaptation of his Fate/Zero novels.) However, this would be a massively difficult and potentially audience-alienating endeavor beyond even ufotable's other Type-Moon adaptation, Garden of Sinners, so I get why it has never been attempted. I understand why Fate/stay night resonates with so many people, and am impressed by Kinoku Nasu's vision for experimental story structure, even though I still take severe issue with other aspects of his storytelling.
That said, I'm still having a blast with Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works. This episode was more setup, but it was engaging and furthered the characters' established trajectories. After his humiliating loss of Rider against the fourth master, Shinji has gone crawling to Kotomine Kirei, who promises to equip him with another servant. Shirou ascertains that his friend Issei isn't the fourth master, and runs into Rin by the Matou's mansion. There, they spy on a mysterious blonde man who has appeared at the doorstep to have a conversation about family and adoption, which seems to be in reference to Shirou's relationship with Kiritsugu.
This adaptation continues to clean up problematic aspects of the source material in surprising ways, in this case turning two lame jokes into genuinely funny sequences. The first gag was Shirou's assault on Issei, which fixes their overlong exchange of dialogue from the VN by turning it into an almost purely physical encounter. The second gag came when Rin pushed him against a wall while spying on the Matou's visitor. Shirou's interior monologue about Rin's breasts was cut down to one abrupt shout of “boobs!,” making the whole thing a lot sharper and more palatable.
The direction makes it clear that lines have been drawn. This episode emphasized shots where Rin was in the composition with Shirou and Saber while speaking to Archer, who was confined to a separate shot. This indicates that she's fully aligned herself with Shirou's faction, and Archer might just be playing a game of appearances until he can escape his master's will. Oddly, Shirou seems more aware of this than Rin, as shown by the suspicious glance he shoots Archer when the servant mentions the possibility of the fourth master being Caster's “puppet.” It's interesting how the blocking changes when different characters are present. When the conversation is between Rin, Shirou, and their servants, Rin tends to be grouped with Shirou and Saber with Archer isolated to his own shot. When it's just Rin and Shirou talking, they're each in their own shots, and the camera dwells on the distance between them. When Saber and Taiga talk about Shirou at dinner, he's present in shot, but blurry, slightly off screen. He's an object rather than a participant in the discussion. Takahiro Miura's direction always extracts subtle meaning out of conversations.
The biggest issues were weird plot-necessary stuff held over from the visual novel, like the idea of school being open after a major accident where most students came out okay by “only” getting anemia. That would never happen in the real world. It's not as bad as Shinji coming out of his encounter with the fourth master alive last episode, but there's still some messy “this has to happen for the plot to work” finagling going on right now.
Overall, if Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works has a thesis, it's conveyed in Shirou's final line this episode. Responding to a condemnation of his idealism, he says “How can you know unless you try?” It's a haunting phrase in many ways, but I suspect its full ramifications won't be explored in this adaptation. However, it also rings as a challenge to me – how can I know how this show will turn out before it's complete? Like Shirou right now, I'm committed to the journey.
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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