Reviewby Theron Martin,
Blu-Ray - Collection 1
This 24-episode 2006 TV series was originally released in singles in 2007 by Geneon Entertainment USA, but many of those are now difficult to find. The boxed/complete sets released in 2008 and 2009 by Funimation are even harder to find, doubtless due in no small part to renewed interest in the franchise resulting from last year's American debut of the Unlimited Blade Works movie and the 2011-2012 Japanese debut of prequel series Fate/Zero. Thus Sentai Filmworks' acquisition of the defunct (in the American market) series and rerelease on Blu-Ray is quite timely; it fills a fan demand for a now-hard-to-obtain title and allows those hooked into the franchise by the second TV series to see what the original fuss was all about.
For those new to the franchise, the anime version of Fate/stay night is an adaptation of the first of three paths presented in the epic visual novel of the same name by Type-Moon, which has proven to be one of best-selling adult visual novels to date. (The movie adapts the second path and the third path has never been animated.) Despite all of the adult content being washed out of the series – indeed, the first half has barely any prurient fan service, and what it does have is very tame – its origin as an ero game is evident, as the basic structure and pacing of the first several episodes has very much the same feel as playing through the set-up stages of an ero game. It also has the haremlike structure typical of such games; by the end of this half Shirou is regularly sitting down to breakfast with two fellow female students, a young female teacher, and a female Servant who has a teenager's appearance, is cohabitating with two of them, and has occasional associations with a fifth girl and another female Servant. Only one of them at this point has clear romantic interest in Shirou, but more will fall into place as the series progresses.
At this point in the story, though, the romantic elements take a decided back seat to the Grail War. Though hardly novel, the mechanics in play here, which gradually get explained over the course of several episodes, are nonetheless interesting. Seven individuals, most of them a Magus to some degree, have been chosen by the Grail to be Masters and are allowed to summon a Servant, who is typically an Epic Hero or historical figure who takes on one of seven proscribed roles – Saber, Archer, Rider, Caster, Berserker, Lancer, or Assassin – and who fight each other on behalf of their Masters under the understanding that they also get to make their own wish on the Grail at the end. Masters are each given a trio of Command Seals which can be used to compel their Servants to obey even against their own wills, and Servants replenish themselves either by drawing mana from their Masters or by collecting it from living victims. Each Servant has a Noble Phantasm which is essentially his trump card and a different balance of abilities; Berserker specializes in overwhelming brute force, for instance, while Saber is a melee specialist who can muster a devastating energy strike and Caster is a magic-user. Defeating a Master is as good as defeating a Servant, so the Masters are at risk as well. Put it all together with a mix of more minor rules and considerations and one has a fine basis for all sorts of magical battles.
In function, though, the series spends so much time establishing the particulars and monkeying around with developing character relationships that it leaves itself little time for significant battles. Prior to the final scenes of episode 12, nearly all of the battles are minor skirmishes which merely give the combatants some room to show off their capabilities. Nothing conclusive happens until two Servants go at each other for keeps in the waning moments of episode 12, and little except that last fight is as satisfyingly flashy as one would expect for a series built around fantasy battles.
The first half of the series fares better on the characters it establishes, though its record is hardly perfect. Shirou aspires to be heroic to a boneheaded degree, so much so that he sometimes seems to have a death wish, and can be more than a little sexist in his behavior towards Saber. This can be quite annoying at times, although those who have seen Fate/Zero, and thus can judge Shirou's behavior against what Kiritsugu was trying to accomplish in the previous Grail War, may find him less irritating. Saber makes a fine foil in the form of a woman fiercely devoted to pride and duty who must struggle with a constantly contrary Master, while Rin regularly steals the show as the sexy, highly-competent, and very level-headed teen Magus that Shirou teams up with. Archer fits well as a Servant whose level of presented respect varies dramatically depending on who he's talking to, although we never get more than some very vague hints about his identity, hints which lead in a direction so seemingly improbable that no one will likely figure out his identity without looking at spoilers. By contrast, Sakura does not have much of a presence, though the bloodthirsty cuteness of Illyasviel and the hyper Taiga make up for that. While the series outright states who Lancer and Berserker are and regularly drops hints about Saber's identity (and all but reveals it in episode 12's final scenes), it remains frustratingly obtuse about who Rider is, enough so that her identity cannot be easily locked down just from the animated content. (Hint: pay more attention to her physical characteristics than how she acts or what powers/skills/weapons she uses.)
Despite only being a little more than seven years old, Studio Deen's artistic effort has not aged terribly well. Too many of the character designs in particular have too much of an artificial-feeling computerized sheen to them, which can be distracting, and Shirou is, frankly, one of the least handsome male leads to come along in a harem-like set-up in quite some time, and Sakura is somewhat dumpy. Fortunately the series offers some extraordinary designs to balance them out, such the noble appearance of Saber in her battle gear, the cruelly sleek Lancer, Rider's unrestrained sexiness (especially in the catlike way she moves), or Rin's irrepressible hotness, especially in her red-and-black outfit. Battle scenes feature some flash, but their animation and visuals reflect a much ,imore restrained budget which hurts the series by comparison to Fate/Zero or especially the more contemporary Moribito. Animation shortcuts are, in fact, fairly frequent in regular scenes, too. Bloodletting and graphic violence are significant but not overly strong, making the TV14 rating feel appropriate. Overall, the visuals for the series are good enough to entertain but not good enough to impress.
The soundtrack is less consistent. Although it hits some suitably dramatic numbers for some of its action scenes, in others it flounders with underwhelming synthesized sounds and is mostly innocuous at other times. Neither opener “disillusion” or closer “Anata ga Ita Mori” make much of an impression, either.
For this rerelease Sentai Filmworks has retained the original Geneon English dub produced by Bang Zoom! Entertainment, which is for the best. Although none of the English voice actors shine, they all perform at least competently and most seem to fit their roles well enough; Kirk Thornton sounds a bit off at Kiritsugu in the flashbacks (and correct pronunciation of his name is sometimes an issue), but that is a minor flaw. The performances are helped greatly by an English script which remains quite faithful while still sounding smooth.
Sentai's Blu-Ray rerelease does not simply use the original Geneon prints, as this release retains the original Japanese opening and closing credits and provides Sentai's standard English translation and English credits at the end. The Blu-Ray print is not free of the minor defects commonly seen in Blu-Ray releases of mid-2000s or older titles, and while it does provide a bit of an upgrade in picture clarity and color saturation, it is not a big one over the original Geneon singles. The lossless DTS HD Master Audio 2.0 tracks do not give much of a sound upgrade, either, and curiously, the Japanese track has a bit better dynamic range in this case. Sentai has dropped the smattering of minor Extras seen in the original single releases, as this time around only company previews are offered.
As with Fate/Zero, the first half of Fate/stay night is its weaker half, so newcomers underwhelmed by the events playing out here need only be patient and the better content will come. Those who come into this series having seen Fate/Zero will already have a good sense of what's going on (although doubtless they will have as-yet-unanswered questions about how another Grail War can be happening so soon after the last one) and will understand certain points like the relationship between Rin and Sakura better and why some of the Master/Servant pairings are so fitting, but this was the original so watching that one first is not necessary for following along just fine with the story to this point. This is, however, more of the kiddie version of the story, as these are mostly teenagers rather than adults at play, hence allowing for more space for typical teen tomfoolery.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B-
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : B-
+ Some sharp character designs, interesting set-up, a couple of good battles.
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