Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works
Limited Edition BD Box Set 1
Fifteen years after the last Holy Grail War, mages are once again gathering to summon mythical Servants, prove their strength through battle or treachery, and claim the legendary grail. Shirou Emiya has no place in this battle - though he wishes to become a hero who would make his adopted father proud, he has no talent for magic, and little hope of surviving a mage's battle. But when fellow mage Rin Tohsaka's own battle spills into his life, Shirou will end up drawn into the war regardless, summoning the powerful Saber and competing for victory or survival on the grand stage.
Unlimited Blade Works is a tricky one to approach, both structurally and due to its place in a broader, creakier canon. The show technically adapts the second of three routes included in the original Fate/stay night visual novel - Fate, Unlimited Blade Works, and Heaven's Feel, all of which occupy separate timelines but all of which also feed into each other knowledge-wise. The Fate route was adapted into a somewhat maligned anime close to ten years back, so you could technically consider UBW a sequel - but if we're talking in terms of sequels, then it's likely more appropriate to consider UBW a sequel to Fate/Zero, which was envisioned as a prequel to the visual novel, but adapted by the same studio who are currently handling Unlimited Blade Works, and which is full of information which enriches the viewer's understanding of UBW.
So, yes. Somewhat confusing.
Fortunately, the solution here is pretty simple - your best bet is to watch Fate/Zero first, as it maintains style congruity with UBW and enriches the context of the story, but it's also perfectly fine to jump in right here. In spite of all of Unlimited Blade Works' contextual complexity, its actual story is very easy to grasp, and the show itself tells you everything you need to know. The Fate universe is one where mages lurk in the background of everyday life, conspiring and gathering power and seeking to compete in the Holy Grail War. The Grail War is a competition between seven chosen mages, where each summons a powerful Servant called from history's long line of heroic figures, now partitioned into classes like Saber, Archer, or Berserker, equipped with a Noble Phantasm super-weapon reflective of their identity, and ready (each mage hopes) to fight on behalf of their Master. The victor of the war receives the chance to possess the holy grail itself, and with it the power to reshape the world according to their wishes.
Caught within this busy, treacherous universe are our two heroes, Rin and Shirou. Rin is the daughter of a great mage family, and she owns that heritage - in her father's absence, she is working hard to become a mage worthy of the grail. Shirou's relationship with magedom is much more shaky - he's never had a talent for it, his adopted father advised him against pursuing it, and he ends up summoning the servant Saber completely by accident. The relationship between Rin and Shirou, along with their two servants Archer and Saber, is at the core of Unlimited Blade Works - as the story wanders around through confrontations with other Masters and various negotiations, betrayals, or plans to protect their school from collateral damage, their contrasting ideologies and emotional bond keep the story centered and emotionally honest.
Unlimited Blade Works' writing is a mixed bag, but both Rin and Shirou individually and their scenes together demonstrate the script at its best. A lot of this comes down to the show's relationship with Fate/Zero - as the daughter and son of Tokiomi Tohsaka and Kiritsugu Emiya respectively, each of them strongly reflect their parents' influence while also coming across as strong-willed and fully realized people, and their conversations are a constant clash of individual temperament, inherited philosophy, and personal values. Rin is full of brash self-confidence, but her sense of self reflects her somewhat adversarial relationship with her father, and the way her priorities are complicated by Shirou's values make for some very natural character development. Shirou's philosophical naivety and obsession with heroes and justice reflects all his father must have sheltered him from, but his simplicity helps give the show focus, and fortunately his frankly dumb beliefs aren't coddled by the world itself. Unlimited Blade Works offers a rare chance to see how the influence of specific well-articulated characters might be felt across generations, and the show rises to the opportunity. Some of Unlimited Blade Works' best moments are actually its most subdued ones, as Rin and Shirou bounce off each other and either enjoy or resent each others' company.
Beyond the core character work, Unlimited Blade Works' writing gets a whole lot murkier. A combination of overly busy worldbuilding and affected, utterly self-serious dialogue makes the show's more dramatic moments often verge into self-parody, with characters' discussions of honor and power levels feeling more like a price of entry than an asset. This can't be understated - unless you find dialogue like “impressive - I should have taken your head seven times, but it remains attached” either thrilling or at least funny, Fate's writing will present some roadblocks. And beyond the individual lines of dialogue, in contrast to Fate/Zero's complex narrative web and clear themes, Unlimited Blade Works is both more simplistic in plotting (it only really follows two Masters as they wander about their days) and more half-baked in ideas.
On the narrative side, though the show's extremely methodical (read: sometimes very slow) pacing works to the benefit of its characterization and dramatic tension, the frequent betrayals and dramatic turns can sometimes feel based more in videogame logic than anything tangible. Characters will defeat others with powers they've only just introduced, rules of mage combat will be established only to be broken, and villains will repeatedly pull that “I'll get you next time!” trick before spiriting themselves away. And on the thematic front, the show's reflections on justice and the meaning of a hero never really rise above the identities of the characters expressing them. The treacly fantasy writing attempts to dress up personal disagreements as philosophical battles, but the ultimate effect often just comes off as needlessly obtuse or totally incoherent. We know Shirou's naive, we don't need lofty speeches from every other character expressing that fact.
And yet, in spite of the obvious downsides of lousy dialogue and graceless plotting, Fate's choices actually kind of work for the show we're dealing with - this is a self-indulgent action spectacle, and the action is definitely spectacular. Having apparently leveled up since Fate/Zero's often floaty and too CG-dependent battles, ufotable's work on Unlimited Blade Works is a wonder. Battles between servants sing with fast-paced animation, rapid camera cuts, and well-used digital effects. The whole show has a strong, cinematic style marked by a realistic background aesthetic, thoughtful shot composition, and a digitally enhanced sheen, but ufotable absolutely cuts loose during the fight scenes. Characters bounce and collide with a real sense of weight and motion, cameras slide and shake from the impact of titanic collisions, and animation integrates gracefully with CG to create tense, exhilarating battles time and again. Unlimited Blade Works fights are essentially what you always wish anime fights would look like - the epic collisions of mythic figures untethered by reality or even limited animation, careening off each other and unleashing secret powers and projecting deadly intent with their every movement. Servants are supposed to be mythological heroes infused with magical power, and Unlimited Blade Works makes you feel that in your bones.
UBW's music fits the “anime blockbuster” tone of the production - generally understated and often absent altogether during the lighter daily scenes, swelling in orchestral fury during the big dramatic highlights. There's ominous chanting and urgent strings and even some direct matching of song notes to dramatic fight beats. It's not the most distinctive soundtrack, but it's certainly well-suited to the material. The Japanese voice acting performances are excellent, unsurprisingly - these are characters honed by their voice actors through retelling after retelling, and classic affectations like Rin's casual scorn or Kotomine's ominous pronouncements feel familiar and assured.
Unlimited Blade Works comes in a classy chipboard case containing five disks and lots of extras. The show itself is spread across four blurays that also contain various trailers and the textless opening/closing, and there's a fifth CD featuring the show's solid-enough orchestral soundtrack. The collection also comes with a collectible Weiss Schwarz playing card (“while supplies last,” according to the packaging, so if you're interested you'd better get on that), as well as a 24-page production booklet. Unless you're really into sorta generic action movie music, the booklet is the real prize here - it's stuffed with an explanation of the overall project, interviews with director Takahiro Miura and producer Hikaru Kondo, character designs of the main cast, and key frames from a couple of the early battles of the series.
Of these, I found the interviews far and away the most interesting part of the collection. Highlights revealed here include the fact that Nasu maintained a hands-on approach all throughout the production, constantly offering suggestions or requests, and how it was the fan reaction to their work on the Realta Nua cinematics that prompted the idea to create Unlimited Blade Works. Later on, the two discuss how much of the production's strengths came down to the staff they could rely on - how Koji Eto was partially responsible for the show's fantastic backgrounds, and how action scenes were actually tailored to the staffer who'd oversee them.
These interviews aren't limited to general comments on the series production; the two even offer small exchanges relevant to each episode, where, for example, you learn that Kirei's episode two church-walk was in fact an intentional callback to the very silly circle-walk from Fate/Zero (Kondo refers to it as a “history comes full circle thing,” which seems maybe a little charitable). The interviews offer a strong impression of both how much ufotable's creators brought to the story, and how much they weren't able to bring. I couldn't help but feel a little heartbroken by their comments on episode eight, where they state “there was an idea in the plotting stage to have a Rider vs. Saber battle on the roof. But Mr. Iwakami, the producer, said that we should stick to the original.” Alas, what could have been.
Unlimited Blade Works come with both English and Spanish subtitles, along with an English dub. The dub is certainly a changeup from the original in a variety of ways. Bryce Papenbrook does a solid job of capturing Shirou's upbeat and wide-eyed personality, but Mela Lee's Rin doesn't quite have the hard edge or snark of the original. She certainly captures the tone of a girl from a high-class family, but Kana Ueda's performance tends to undercut that impression with a constant aggrieved, oddly casual undertone, and that's not as strongly present here. Other voice actors offer alternate but reasonable takes on their characters (like Kari Wahlgren's somewhat more mature-sounding Saber), although some classic performances, like Jouji Nakata's wonderfully imposing Kotomine Kirei, simply can't be matched. The dub script is generally fine, though sentences can sometimes feel a bit labored and overburdened with adverbs - but given this is Unlimited Blade Works, that's actually somewhat appropriate. Overall, the dub is a solid performance that should please those that prefer their anime in English.
The last additions to Unlimited Blade Works' bluray release concern the episodes themselves - a few bonus scenes here and there that add a little context or explanation to the proceedings. There's a conversation between Rin and Archer in the first episode that gets into the topic of reality marbles, and another in the third where Rin and Shirou discuss being mages. These scenes don't vastly change the experience or context of the series, but they're fine additions that fit evenly with the original content. Overall, this collection is an above-average but not truly remarkable Aniplex release; if you love the show and can stomach their pricing, it's a fine buy.
Every element of Unlimited Blade Works is polished, and the ultimate effect is an impressive, consistently entertaining ride. The writing is definitely the weakest link, but that's much less of a problem when you're being dazzled by fights like these.
Overall : B+
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B-
Animation : A
Art : A-
Music : B
+ A highly entertaining action thrill ride, marked by top-tier fight direction, excellent digital effect integration, and even some nice character work.
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