Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
DVD 1 - Advent of the Magi
Shirou is a self-styled Champion of Justice. Not of the mask-wearing, cape-sporting variety, but of the quietly helpful, self-sacrificing, unyieldingly principled variety. The only survivor of a tragedy that cut a swath of destruction through his town ten years earlier, he witnesses an altercation between two supernaturally skilled warriors, and is soon drawn into a battle between seven magi and their seven Servants, resurrected legendary warriors from around the world. Paired with a powerful female Servant known only as Saber, Shirou must take his place as the seventh, and last, of the magi.
Fate/stay night is a reviewer's dream. Not because it's indisputably great (or deliciously bad), but because its pros and cons can be boiled down to one of each: a surfeit of atmosphere and a dearth of involvement. To be sure, there are other positive and negative aspects—the historical hook of the Servants for instance—but the vast majority of these first four episodes falls into one category or the other.
The spooky atmosphere of supernatural menace is largely the achievement of the show's more technical elements, with some help from the script (nothing keeps you on edge like a show that kills its protagonist at least once in the opening set of episodes). All of the visuals are cued towards replicating this atmosphere: the proliferation of empty nighttime settings; the perpetually slanting sunlight and long, deep shadows; scenes that suddenly shift crimson as if filtered through blood; even the striking, sometimes frightening Servants in their eye-catching, fanciful costumes. The size of the budget (large) gives everything an extra boost, particularly during the kinetic combat scenes in which the Servants demonstrate their lethal capabilities (once Saber begins moving, it's easy to believe that, with the right Master, she could indeed be the most powerful of all). Underscoring everything is Kenji Kawai's haunting, subdued soundtrack. Ranging from simple, creepy melodies to borderline ambient noise, and peppered with pseudo-religious choral chants, and fragile, wordless arias wreathed in empty-cathedral echoes, it permeates important scenes until they ooze quiet dread. And everything unfolds at a deliberate pace (Saber doesn't make her grand entrance until the end of the second episode) that perfectly mirrors the overall atmosphere.
But, other than the meticulously established atmosphere, there's little in these first four episodes that engages or involves. How could you not like a cast whose lead aspires to become a "Champion of Justice"? Well, start by making him as dull as ditchwater. Then pair him with a female lead whose most salient features are an abrasive surface and an inexplicable soft spot for the limp lead (that will inevitably be expounded upon later). And then sprinkle it liberally with an assortment of female stereotypes from ye ol' anime vat-o-romantic-rivals (the subservient doormat who cooks for the main character, the outgoing best-friend athlete girl). Yuck. The only spices in the mix are the Servants (mainly Archer and Saber) who owe their appeal as much to their air of mystery and delicious visual representation as to any inherent personality traits. Character-building scenes of everyday life, due to the characters' total lack of magnetism, bog the story down, occasionally transforming the pace from "deliberate" to "dull;" a process that is greatly abetted by clunky exposition-laden dialogue, and long rule-establishing info-dumps. It isn't entirely devoid of narrative interest—the introduction of Saber to Shirou's household promises to stir things up a bit—but it is hardly enough to retain one's interest throughout the entirety of the volume.
Geneon's dub does a creditable job of transferring the show into English. Most of the casting choices are dead-on, and the script is very faithful to the original, straying just enough to keep the English dialogue from becoming any more unwieldy than the Japanese dialogue is. The script even retains some Japanese honorifics (e.g. Fuji-nee and sempai). To fault the English cast for their toned-down delivery and the unconvincing dialogue is to fault them for creative choices made by the series' creators.
Extras are sparse on this disc: a cursory collection of character artwork, and a textless version of the opening, a welcome addition as it allows an unobstructed view of the quality visuals that accompany the unremarkable (if appropriately downbeat) opening song. No textless closing is provided for the more memorable closer (memorable more for the coordination of music and visuals—a slow, single backward dolly—than for the music itself).
A combination of superb atmosphere and failed characterization, Fate/stay night is the very definition of a mixed bag. With any luck, the characters will grow over the next 20 episodes; it would be a shame to waste the obvious effort that went into drawing, animating and scoring of this dark fantasy. Perhaps once there is no more info to be dumped there will be enough time—and enough quality writing—to actually invest oneself in the story and characters.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C+
Animation : B
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ Superbly atmospheric.
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