Reviewby Kim Morrissy,
There was once a Holy Grail War waged by seven Mages and seven Heroic Spirits in a town called Fuyuki. However, a certain Mage took advantage of the chaos of World War II to steal the Holy Grail. Several decades have passed, and the Yggdmillennia family, who took up the Holy Grail as its symbol, defected from the Mages' Association and declared their independence. In furious retaliation, the Association sent a force to deal with Yggdmillennia, but they were defeated by the summoned Servants. Now that the Holy Grail War system has changed, a new war breaks out on an unprecedented scale, with seven Yggdmillenia masters and their servants versus seven more opposing mages and their servants: black versus red. And so the curtain rises on the epoch-making Great Holy Grail War.
It's unfortunate that the international Netflix release of Fate/Apocrypha was split into two parts. After months of waiting between the first and second cours, the second part of Fate/Apocrypha picks up right where the first part left off, sparing no time to explain things for fans who have been out of the loop for a while. Even after the deaths in the first cour, this show still has a lot of active players, making it difficult to keep track of the characters. And after the mid-season plot twist, it's initially unclear who's fighting on whose side.
So perhaps it's a good thing that the second cour is overall slower and more contemplative than the first. This doesn't mean that every character gets substantial development, but you do at least get a sense of who most of them are by the end. The perspective also stays mostly with the “black” faction, making it clear which side you're supposed to be rooting for. This does result in a more simplistic narrative than the anime initially seemed to be, but it's also easier now to get emotionally invested in the characters.
Unfortunately, as the story becomes simpler to follow, it also exposes its flaws: certain themes and characterization points are harped on to no end. It's not repetitive to the extent of Fate/Stay Night Unlimited Blade Works, but it does still drag the pace of the story down. The most egregious example of this comes from the protagonist Sieg. As a homunculus with limited emotional expressions, Sieg tends to come across as flat even in the best of circumstances. The only emotions he does express are repeated every episode ad infinitum: he wants to protect everyone. This is not a revelation or even an interesting character trait, but the narrative keeps presenting this like it's new information, complete with surprised reaction faces from everyone around him.
On an intellectual level, I honestly appreciate Sieg and his role in the story. In the first cour, I was touched by his subplot about exerting free will and self-determination. I think there is something deeply moving about how he learned free will but never learned to value himself. Right to the end, he still puts his own life beneath everyone else's. But his story also worked better when it was on the fringe of the narrative, as it was in the first cour. When Sieg's story became the primary focus of the anime, it also exposed the fact that he lacks the personality and charisma to drive the narrative as a protagonist.
This also means that the second cour lacks a strong sense of narrative thrust. For entire stretches of episodes until the climax, it feels as if the story is just stalling for time. The major events and conflicts are not propelled by the characters; they feel like the product of narrative convenience. This becomes particularly evident toward the end, when characters start dropping like flies in battle, not because their subplots had reached a natural conclusion, but because it was no longer convenient to keep them in the story.
Thematically, Fate/Apocrypha also exposed more blind spots in the second half. There was clearly an attempt to depict a morally gray conflict, with Jeanne ruminating on whether she's really pursuing the right course of action by opposing Shirou. But there's no serious attempt on the anime's part to flesh out Shirou's philosophy or why exactly his wish would be a bad thing for humanity. In fact, our heroes only find out what exactly his wish entails when they're in the middle of fighting him. For all of Jeanne's self-deprecating dialogue, there's never any doubt that you're supposed to see her as the goodie and Shirou as the baddie, which renders all that philosophical talk pointless in the grander scheme of things.
Nevertheless, for all the writing missteps, I still found myself highly invested in the story and characters. Fate/Apocrypha is one of those stories where the side characters regularly steal the show. Fortunately, the spotlight shines on them often enough that it's easy to overlook the main story. As in the first cour, Astolfo and Mordred were my favorite characters. They get some great moments in the second cour too, and I finished the show feeling extremely satisfied with how they were handled.
I should also mention the ups and downs of the animation. As with most two-cour anime series, the animation in the second half does decline overall, but the final stretch of episodes also includes some of the most standout sequences from the entire show. Episode 22 in particular was regarded as something of an industry event at the time, thanks to the number of celebrity animators who worked on it. This episode looks noticeably different from the others, even to the casual viewer. The colors are flatter, character models are drawn looser, and there's a heavy fixation on digitally-drawn smoke and fire effects and geometrically-shaped debris. The individual cuts are flashy, but they also sacrifice consistency, not just with the show as a whole but between scenes within the same episode. The animation in Fate/Apocrypha is a case of “love it or hate it.”
Personally, I liked the shift in animation. I hope that it does not become maligned because the characters are not as consistently on-model as they are in the ufotable shows. There is a sense of dynamism and spontaneity to the action scenes that make them exciting to watch even when you're not invested in the outcome of the battle. At the same time, the inconsistency does take you out of the show, and the picture clarity issues I mentioned in my previous review still remain. Most of the action takes place against dark backgrounds and lighting that serve to obscure the key animation instead of enhancing it. I regard ufotable's productions as superior overall because their digital compositing work complements the animation so well. You're never left uncertain about how a fight played out or wondering how characters got from point A to B.
Fate/Apocrypha may be regarded as a weaker entry in the Fate series after all is said and done, but I cannot deny how much fun I had with it. The script may have been wonky at times, but the episodes flew by quickly. Thanks to its likable side characters and frequent action scenes, I may actually regard Fate/Apocrypha as one of the more accessible Fate series overall. While the initial setup was convoluted, it ended up being a simple story by the end, and I honestly can't fault the series for that. In terms of sheer spectacle, Fate/Apocrypha has been one of my favorite anime just to sit down and watch in a while.
Overall : B-
Story : C+
Animation : B+
Art : B
Music : B
+ Thrilling climax, side characters steal the show, great individual fight animation
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