Review

by Kim Morrissy,

Fate/stay night: Heaven's Feel I. presage flower (movie)

Synopsis:
Fate/stay night: Heaven's Feel I. presage flower (movie)
10 years after the Holy Grail War—a battle waged by Masters and Servants over the wish-granting container, the Holy Grail—another war breaks out in Fuyuki City. Shirou Emiya—the adopted son of Kiritsugu Emiya, who was a participant of the previous Holy Grail War—resolves to fight, carrying out Kiritsugu's dying wish. Shirou attempts to protect Sakura, a girl from the Matoi family who has been by his side for over a year. But once the Holy Grail War starts, there's a change in the air of Fuyuki City. Murders abound across the city, and the atmosphere grows ominous. The battle starts to go awry as secret maneuvers by unseen forces are put into play.
Review:

Fate/stay night: Heaven's Feel I. presage flower is the best Fate anime so far. Yes, it's even better than Fate/Zero. This is not something I say lightly—Heaven's Feel really does live up to the hype. My only problem with recommending this film is that it's not accessible to people who aren't familiar with the Fate and/or Unlimited Blade Works routes of the visual novel. It's also only part one of a trilogy, meaning that it remains to be seen whether some of the storytelling decisions in this film will pay off by the end.

One of the challenges of adapting the Fate/stay night visual novel into anime is the density and verbosity of the original text. Much of the characterization is presented through exposition and monologues, two literary devices that don't tend to work as well in a visual medium. Previous adaptations have struggled with this. ufotable's previous Unlimited Blade Works TV adaptation could certainly be described as preachy, especially in its slow second half, while Studio DEEN's UBW movie attempt cut so much context that the story became incomprehensible. Heaven's Feel is the best attempt so far at finding a middle ground, although some of its cuts may prove controversial.

Let me begin by saying that I agree with the changes in this Heaven's Feel adaptation. They have resulted in a tighter, more compact movie that is perfectly tailored to the cinematic experience. Having said that, I do feel obliged to address problems that others may have with this film.

First of all, none of the characters beyond Shirou, Sakura, and Shinji have much focus in this film. The movie skims over anything that was covered heavily in the previous routes of the visual novel, focusing only on the new material from Heaven's Feel. This means that most of the other characters involved in the Grail War are barely introduced or explained in this iteration. Shirou's encounter with Saber and initial fight with Lancer are relegated to a montage that plays over the opening credits, and it's never explained how and why Shirou teams up with Rin. If you're not familiar with these early events from the Fate and Unlimited Blade Works routes, you'll need to read the visual novel or watch one of the previous adaptations.

Assuming you are familiar with this material, the pacing of Heaven's Feel makes sense. Think of the earlier routes as a prologue to this one; the other characters have had their story told, so the pendulum now swings to Sakura and the Matoi family. Heaven's Feel builds on the viewer's knowledge and existing assumptions about the characters from earlier routes, sometimes turning those expectations on their head. If the story skims over some material, it's because those events are exactly as you remember them—everything else that gets focus is different and new, even the things you may have thought would be familiar. It's no flaw of Heaven's Feel that it requires a pre-existing investment in the franchise, because its use of dramatic irony is its most potent storytelling feature.

Cutting material from earlier routes is easy enough to justify, but the movie also cuts entire scenes that were present in the Heaven's Feel route of the visual novel. In particular, Illya's role in this film has been reduced drastically. Her relationship with Shirou received major focus in the early parts of the visual novel route, but it's barely touched upon in this film. I assume that Illya will get more focus in the second movie, which will adapt the part of the story where her scenes with Shirou receive their dramatic payoff, but this could also be a case of too little, too late. I think that the inclusion of her cutesier scenes probably would have disrupted the dark and moody atmosphere of this film, so I can understand why her parts were cut, even if I can't say at this point whether that was a good idea.

The film also cuts pretty much all of Shirou's monologues, for better or worse. This is mostly a good thing, as nothing drags down the pace of the story more than Shirou's repetitive musings, but the film may have actually gone too far in this case. For instance, when Kirei spouts an uncomfortable truth about Shirou's father figure, we see little of Shirou's reaction to this, just a shocked face that only lasts for one scene. Shirou doesn't really dwell on what he learned throughout the film, despite the fact that it should have been a major turning point for him emotionally. In this movie, he comes across more as someone who reacts passively to events than as a character with his own strong viewpoint.

Thankfully, enough of Shirou's characterization is preserved in his interactions to mitigate this problem for me. It helps that Heaven's Feel showcases some of ufotable's best examples of nuanced character animation. The way Shirou responds to Shinji and Sakura speaks volumes about his relationships with those characters, from his forced smiles to the gentle way he tries to move around Sakura. Heaven's Feel will rightfully be remembered first and foremost for its action animation, but it gets those quiet character scenes right too, conveying the weight of what its characters are feeling even when they leave things unsaid.

This brings me to the biggest reason why you should watch the Heaven's Feel movie. Regardless of your feelings on the film as an adaptation, there's no denying that it's a fine work of cinema. This film was in development for a long time, and it's evident from watching the final product just how much time was spent on refining it. There's an extended car chase scene featuring elaborate 3D environments, where the entire cityscape was rendered in CG just for this one sequence. That's the result of months of diligent modeling, and it pays off fantastically—this scene could have come straight out of a Hollywood film, and the rest of the movie is not far behind.

Heaven's Feel could not have achieved its sense of cinematic scale without an epic soundtrack. You can usually expect excellent work from Yuki Kajiura, but this score features less of her iconic choirs and synths (although they are still a mainstay) in favor of more orchestral tracks. There are also more slow and eerie-sounding tracks, along with some pieces that feature a cacophony of stringed instruments. This mix of sounds captures the horror and pathos of Heaven's Feel poignantly. The sound design is also worth mentioning in its own right; whenever two swords clash, their reverberations ring out as if they're colliding right next to you. There were moments watching Heaven's Feel when I genuinely felt chills down my spine.

It's hard to recommend Heaven's Feel to anyone who isn't invested in this franchise, but even if you weren't a fan of previous adaptations, you should absolutely watch this movie. On a technical level, it's a crowning achievement for ufotable, a studio that has already brought the action scenes in Fate to new heights. The story is also a significant improvement over the other Fate routes, being closer in tone to Fate/Zero than anything else. It may even be darker than Fate/Zero, and it's certainly gorier. If you're not put off by strong violence and you have any modicum of interest in the story of Fate/stay night, check out Heaven's Feel as soon as you can. If the next two films prove to be as strong as the first one, we may finally have the most definitive Fate/stay night adaptation.

Grade:
Production Info:
Overall : A
Story : A-
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A

+ Could be the best Fate adaptation yet, good pacing, excellent soundtrack and visuals
Inaccessible for people who haven't watched or read the other routes of Fate/stay night, some important characterization is lost

Director: Tomonori Sudou
Script: Akira Hiyama
Storyboard:
Takahiro Miura
Tomonori Sudou
Unit Director:
Atsushi Ikariya
Takahiro Miura
Kei Tsunematsu
Music: Yuki Kajiura
Original creator: Kinoko Nasu
Original Character Design: Takashi Takeuchi
Character Design:
Atsushi Ikariya
Tomonori Sudou
Hisayuki Tabata
Art Director: Koji Eto
Chief Animation Director: Tomonori Sudou
Animation Director:
Kōji Akiyama
Ai Asari
Shunya Kikuchi
Tetsuto Satō
Ricardo Shimabukuro
Keita Shimizu
Teiichi Takiguchi
Shun Yamaoka
3D Director: Kazuki Nishiwaki
Sound Director: Hikaru Kondo
Director of Photography: Yuichi Terao
Producer:
Atsuhiro Iwakami
Hikaru Kondo
Tomotaka Takeuchi

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