Reviewby Caitlin Moore,
Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works
Complete Blu-Ray Box Set
Every sixty years in Fuyuki City, unbeknownst to most people, a group of mages gather, summon historical figures, and fight each other to the death in a Grail War, the survivor of which summons the Holy Grail and has their wish granted. Ten years ago, the fourth Grail War went terribly awry, destroying much of the city and killing hundreds. And now, fifty years too early, a new one is about to start. Sixteen-year-old mage Rin Tohsaka, who lost her father in the previous one, prepares by summoning Archer, who doesn't remember his identity but is bitter and cynical. Her schoolmate, Shirou Emiya, was raised by the ostensible winner and has only limited magical capabilities, but finds himself embroiled in the epic conflict when he accidentally summons Saber.
Before there was the blockbuster mobile game Fate/Grand Order, before there were dozens of novels and games and various other offshoots, there was Fate/stay night, the first commercial release of the newly-incorporated Type-Moon visual novel studio. The game, with three branching main routes in which protagonist Shirou Emiya pursues three different girls while fighting in the Holy Grail War, was phenomenally popular from the get-go, and an anime adaptation of the game's first route soon followed.
The TV version of Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works didn't come out until years later (there was a movie version, but was too condensed and has largely been forgotten) and, since the previous adaptation came out before simulcasting became popular, let alone expected, it was many people's first exposure to the original game's story. I'm one of those people – I'd watched the prequel Fate/Zero just before, but only had a passing familiarity with Shirou, Rin, and the rest of the colorful cast of characters. I first watched the show as it was coming up and, while I enjoyed most of it, the last few episodes left me feeling as bitter and cynical as Archer himself. Now, five years later, I'm revisiting it, this time as a full-series Blu-ray set. What I liked about the show, I still liked, and the parts that embittered me are still frustrating, but a bit less so when watched in succession instead of spread out over a weekly format.
There are two areas where Unlimited Blade Works truly shines: its action, and its characters. The story of Fate/stay night, or at least of this route, isn't particularly remarkable. Stripped down to its barest bones, it's more or less a standard modern fantasy battle royale work with a couple twists and turns where it turns out that there's something deeply wrong about the thing everyone has been fighting for. The Grail is little more than a Macguffin and has nothing to do with Christianity or Arthurian Legend. There's nothing particularly interesting about the world's magic system, other than the re-imaginings of historical and legendary figures that have made Fate/Grand Order such a global phenomenon.
The action, on the other hand, is unassailable. The concept of legendary figures duking it out is super fun, and Unlimited Blade Works delivers. The Servants are divided into seven classes, with one of each summoned for the war: Saber, Archer, Lancer, Rider, Caster, Berserker, and Assassin. In fiction, this keeps their historical identities and thus their abilities a secret; in practice, this means each one has a different specialty, making for a lot of varied and interesting fights. Sure, it's a little silly that Archer doesn't actually fire a bow very often, more frequently using two curved shortswords, but that doesn't change that most of the battles are fun to watch.
This is enhanced by animation studio ufotable's innovative use of painted-over CG imagery to choreograph battles and animate shots that would be tricky to do by hand. The action sequences often feature swooping, spinning, rotating cameras, creating a sense of scale and motion that would be hard to accomplish by traditional animation alone. Every punch, kick, and sword parry is imbued with a sense of impact, avoiding the weightlessness that often plagues CG-heavy anime.
While the animators may have given the action its weight, the character writing is what gives it depth and meaning. Rin and Shirou's relationship especially is the beating heart of the show, a complex relationship between two complex people. There's no heartfelt confessions under the cherry blossoms or love letters in shoe lockers; instead, their mutual attraction is expressed mostly through dialogue and character acting, in small things like Rin showing up to school early to check in on the archery club's practice, even before the war started. Their partnership makes both logical and emotional sense, as each is able to offer the other something they otherwise lack.
Rin tends to get described as a tsundere and Shirou a dumbass, but these reductive labels truly do them a disservice. Rin is emotionally guarded because her guardian for the last ten years was neglectful at best and often hostile, but feels safe enough to open up around Shirou because of his kindness and nurturing personality; Shirou is naive and stubborn, sometimes frustratingly so, and caring to the point of self-harm. What's wonderful is that very little of this is explicitly stated, instead leaving it to the audience to make these connections.
The secondary characters are a bit more mixed, but for the most part engaging as well. This is where one of the shortcomings of Unlimited Blade Works as a standalone work surfaces, since it's technically the middle chapter of a trilogy. Secondary characters who seem like they'll be important disappear, interesting enemies are dispatched too quickly offscreen, and a few plot threads are left dangling. What becomes of Sakura with Shinji, her absolute monster of an older brother? Is Shirou's friend Issei really nothing more than a background character, bookending the series?
Still, the ones who do receive development are generally interesting, if not universally so. Because of the nature of the Grail War, most of them are antagonists, but have their own motivations and backgrounds. Ilya, Shirou's adoptive father's natural daughter who he left in Europe, seethes with resentment about her abandonment. Shinji is a perfect psychological portrait of a predator: weak, cowardly, entitled, and constantly attacking more vulnerable people to make himself feel powerful. The Servants have their own complicated histories, since one doesn't become the stuff of myth and legend without harboring some regrets.
Everything sails along smoothly for about three-quarters of the series, until the limits of adapting a visual novel to anime catch up to it. A multi-episode battle ends, and instead of a cool-down period before launching into the climax, a character spends literally an entire episode standing stock-still and delivering a monologue, making the story lose all of its momentum. The information he's giving and the views he's expressing are all thematically important, but it's a complete drag to sit through. Watching week-to-week, that episode and the ones that followed it were excruciating. It started arguments between me and my now-husband that continue to this day.
They're not so bad in retrospect, watching the episodes in succession, since what took a month now took a couple days, but the story never really fully recovers. Suddenly, characters are much more prone to speechmaking and, to make matters worse, the main cast spends most of the time separated, robbing us of the chemistry that made it so enjoyable to watch. The last episode, which is pure character-driven denouement, makes up for it somewhat, but even that wasn't enough to make me think back on the end of the show fondly for the last five years.
Aniplex's blu-ray set is nice enough, with a solidly-constructed box holding the two disc-cases and a small booklet of character art and disc listings. The extras are mostly what you'd expect: PVs, clean openers and closers, and so on. The most notable one is “sunny day”, a ten-minute OAV episode presenting an alternate ending for Shirou, Rin, and Saber. It's nice, but ultimately insubstantial.
The blu-ray also includes the dub, which was new to me. I gave it a shot; it was solid enough, and hearing Crispin Freeman is always a treat, but I did end up switching back to the Japanese pretty quickly. Kana Ueda as Rin is iconic, and the character just doesn't feel the same without her distinctive voice. Plus, it's hard to argue with a cast that includes the likes of Junichi Suwabe, Ayako Kawasumi, and Tomokazu Seki. If you're a person who prefers dubs for any reason, you'll probably enjoy this, but fans on the fence will definitely want to go with the Japanese track this time.
Watching Unlimited Blade Works for this review has, for the most part, rehabilitated the show in my esteem. I'm still not sure I can recommend it wholeheartedly with a clean conscience, but I no longer feel like it wasted my time. It has flaws, including some very serious ones, but there are a lot of things I was able to appreciate and notice this second time around.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : B
+ Well-animated, well-choreographed, weighty action; The concept of a magical war fought by historical figures summoned into present day is fun; A core of strong character writing and acting
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