Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works – 11/12 Review

[C12] Fate Stay Night - Unlimited Blade Works - 12.mp4 - 00009Coming up with new facial expressions for Rin seems to be one of the main-priorities of this series.

A lot of this series’ problems could’ve been avoided by having its run be 13 1-hour-episodes. I’m sure that amounts to less time than what this series will end up having with these two seasons of which some episodes are 45 minutes long but if this first half is anything to go by this series really is at its best when it doesn’t have to end an episode after 20 minutes.

Review:

This series is about Shirou. The original version focused on his struggles and the thematic through-line they provide for most of the drama. Two things have to be said at this point, though. One, Shirou’s story, even if it’s only fully explored in the VN until now, is a known one. The routes of the Visual Novel are really just different perspectives on the same dramatic struggle within Shirou. You might say that one route is better than the other but they don’t offer any incentives to people without a certain amount of investment. No matter how deep you go with Shirou’s struggle, you always end up with the same character and the only variance is the amount of questions and answers provided by the story. Two, Shirou’s struggle may not lack depth but it lacks substance. I’ve already talked about this but no matter how many detailed questions are raised about Shirou’s idealism, it’s the only real theme this story has to offer. There are a few dozen other story-points that revolve around that theme as well which helps a bit in hiding just how little this series actually has to say compared to how much it is talking about that theme. For all the nice ideas this series have it takes way too many detours by either complicating things or avoiding any notion of straightforwardness.

That said, these last two episodes have offered a huge improvement. Finally the series is ready to actually address the thematic struggle of Shirou with his convictions and ideals. At last, the series actually asks the questions it should’ve asked right from the beginning. Instead the most compelling element of this finale is how straightforward the series is. It’s insane how this series has been avoiding the obvious for so long and just played around with its incident-heavy plot. Whenever the series actually grazed the surface of its story and tried to delve into it, the characters would be struck by confusion and banality. How often did this series ask the audience and itself what the deal is with Shirou and Archer? How often did characters tell Shirou how stupid his behavior is? How often has Shirou’s motivation been questioned? These two last episodes delivered more characterization and story-bits than the previous couple episodes combined.

This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if Shirou were an inherently interesting character – but he isn’t. Shirou’s a blank slate. Naturally that’s a weird thing to say considering that he actually does have a backstory and a personality and a reason for why he does stuff. The reason, though, why he seems like a blank slate is that he never feels like a fully developed character. His motivation feels more like a vague trajectory for his character that could go into many directions depending on the circumstances. His past is more a secret that remains a VERY passive story-element until it’s revealed what’s up with that thing. And finally Shirou’s idealism isn’t a thing of the present, it’s a wish for the future. Rather than Shirou trying to be this idealistic hero and act with honor, he constantly just talks about how he wants to become a hero. Without the conviction and certainty, all his virtuous deeds seem forced and desperate. Everything I described isn’t about Shirou himself, it’s about what will happen in the end. All his character-attributes are a means to an end for the storytelling. There’s nothing personal and individual about the Shirou before he has to face the music at the end. The Shirou who has gone through the trial of this series’ finale is a character but before that? Before that he’s merely a storytelling-device. The series is so focused on Shriou’s thematic struggle that it forgets to give him a characterization outside that struggle.

[C12] Fate Stay Night - Unlimited Blade Works - 12.mp4 - 00007It’s weird that this series hasn’t made fun of Saber’s personality more often. I mean, her personality is just ridiculous in any situation other than pathos-filled battle-sequences.

But the series is generally very bad in terms of worldbuilding. Sure, there’s a rather complex mythical background-story in place for all the fighting and the series offers a bunch of terminology that can be thrown around for some flavor and ambience. What the world of Fate/Stay Night lacks, though, is weight. It doesn’t feel like a magical world. Sure, we see the Servants and their Masters engage in all these flashy, supernatural battles but those are only incidents. The world itself seems actually quite mundane. Outside the portrayed Grail-War the supernatural elements are practically non-existing. From time to time the series throws in stuff like magical ley-lines but the world as a whole doesn’t feel magical. It’s especially frustrating since the series is oftentimes hinting at this bigger world of mages but it never seems like anything supernatural outside of the immediate participants of the Grail-War matters. The side-characters of the story are mundane and also serve as plot-devices or small distractions. They have no active role within the story and actually mostly remain unaware of it but they also don’t have any power over their own role. The side-characters aren’t there because they want to be part of the Grail-War or this more supernatural world but rather are there out of necessity at best. But without those side-characters actually feeling like active participants of the story, the setting of Fate/Stay Night just feels even more isolated. Naturally, it also doesn’t help that the actual setting, this town, I mean, might as well be called “town” and nothing more. Every set-piece of this city feels generic and bland.

Granted, Fate/Stay Night isn’t a world-type-anime where the fate of the whole world is interwoven with the fate of the characters. Instead it’s a battle-royale-anime focused on characters beating the crap out of each other in a modern setting. And the struggle is the one of the individual within that setting, in this case Shirou. In these battle-royale-animes you have one character who has to prevail against a world that is out to get him or her. Fate/Stay Night is this kind of battle-royale-anime like Death Note or Seishuu Heiki Kanojo where the protagonist deals with a hostile, modern world while the dramatic conflict is as much an external as well as an internal one that ultimately refers to the individual rather than the world as a whole. And Fate/Stay Night is very similar in that regard as Shirou’s internal struggle is the actual centerpiece for the whole story. It’s strange, though, then to see all the complicated worldbuilding that is being established via exposition here. This series doesn’t try to simplify the importance of its world so that there’s more room for character-based drama but rather adds this layer of specific rules and laws for the supernatural side of the story while also basing these on a supposedly existing supernatural society with a history. At the same time, though, this series shies away from doing actual worldbuilding as described which then leads to the necessity of infodumps. Fate/Stay Night is in this weird place where its world does matter to the characters and the plot but what the story actually wants to talk about is specifically character-drama with everything else just setting that drama up.

And I’ve complained about this before but the pacing of this series’ plot is just frustrating. Sure, you can criticize a lot of scenes for being needlessly talky but overall it’s not like you can just take an episode of this episode and declare it totally unnecessary. There are a ton of moments in this first season that are purely there to serve as stepping-stones for the plot to get from point A to point B. Also, a lot of the plottwists of Fate/Stay Night rely on establishing rules that are then surprisingly broken. In fact, a lot of Fate/Stay Night is all about building up a rather complex but straightforward battle but then constantly undermines the expectations set up by that build-up. Stuff like Caster’s Master holding his own against Saber or Caster summoning Servants of her own all rely on the notion of how the theory of what should happen doesn’t match the reality of the situation. Shirou’s struggle with his idealism also fits perfectly into that theme. And these last two episodes have done a lot in actually confronting its themes.

[C12] Fate Stay Night - Unlimited Blade Works - 12.mp4 - 00010That’s a REALLY stupid saying. He might as well add honeybadgers, grizzly bears and people stuck in traffic to that list. That’s just so arbitrary and mean to just bring women and short men together into this category of “difficult to manage”.

You could argue that the first half of the 12th episode didn’t need to be that long but the story had at least a reason to indulge in this lighthearted moment. In the previous episode Tohsaka had talked about the difference between being happy and having fun and this lighthearted “date-episode” was a clear reaction to that. And it did lead to a confrontation as it became apparent how fucked up Shirou’s personality actually is. The following confrontation with Caster goes even further in finally tackling some topics this series has needlessly avoiding until now.

Due to how wishy-washy most of the storytelling had been during this first season this first season hardly felt like the bombastic conclusion of the first half it should’ve been. Instead it feels like the fog has cleared and the series actually addresses the meat of its story directly for the first time. For most of the season there was this undercurrent of tragedy and conflict but since the series avoided tackling its actual storybeats, it never felt like the series was going anywhere. Whenever something happened it ended up feeling incidental as its impact was just further confusion, self-denial and an uncertain sense of “I guess, we simply wait for what happens next or something…”. Add to that the flawed characterization of its main-character Shirou as well as a setting that is far too complicated for how much this series invests in portraying it and you get a series that has some great ideas about what to talk about but doesn’t really know how to present these ideas.

Episodes-Rating: 7.5/10

Series-Rating: 7.0/10

Random Thoughts:

  • To be honest I finished the 12th episode not knowing that this series would do this 2-cours-split. I mean, it isn’t that surprising but it was kinda disappointed because after I had finished the 12th episode I actually felt like the series has finally found its groove and things would get better now. I really hope that the second half will therefore open with a bang to make up for this break.
  • If Shirou weren’t such a vacuum of personality that slowly develops one instead of starting out with one, the series would actually have time to give some other characters like Rin for example more depth. We only get to see glimpses of her situation from time to time and the rest of the time she’s just fussing over Shirou. Even when Rin talks with Archer they mostly just talk about Shirou.
  • It was nice to see that Shirou’s “power-up” didn’t immediately lead to him kicking Caster’s ass during their confrontation.
  • In general the battles are still as flashy and entertaining as always. Those sequences are always the highlights of an episode, although it got hard to give a shit at time during this series due to how boorish its storytelling was in some episodes.
  • The supernatural side of things loses its appeal, though, I feel like. When Caster confronted Kotomine and started talking about the Lesser Grail, I really just didn’t care – at all. This series really is constantly badgering its audience with its terminology and explanations and at this point it’s just tiring and I feel like I might as well just wait and see what will happens next. Of course it’s good that this series tries to uphold its internal plot-logic despite its complicated setting but seriously at some point I’m just not interested anymore in paying attention to these efforts.

 

About M0rg0th

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

Posted on December 30, 2014, in Anime, Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works, Reviews and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Yea, I felt like some of the problems you mentioned are exactly because the anime’s supposed to be two cours, until I read some of your random thoughts. Ufotable’s had always done great with Type-Moon works though, and just like Fate/Zero, I would say just wait a bit for the second cour and see how it goes, which I expect it to be just as great. The waiting and suspense is tough though.. xD

    Like

    • The weird thing is that despite this 2-cours-split this first half isn’t filled with filler really. Like the first encounter with Caster is a perfect example of that. It does establish a few important facts about Caster and how she has summoned a Servant of her own. And it showed a confrontation between Archer and Shirou. But after it was all over, the story just… kinda moved on. Rather than having this natural ebb and flow of tension, it just sort-of dissipated after that little episode with Caster was over. And then the series just introduced a new incident that would become the new source of tension. Before these last two episodes it always felt like the series was pretending to be deaf and blind whenever a scene was close to actually revealing an important character-bit.

      I guess, it does make more sense with this 2-cours-split in mind but still… what a frustrating way to tell a story.

      Otherwise… I don’t think it’s great but I like this series. Aside from the as-usual great animation, the story is more interesting so far than what the first Fate/Stay Night anime had to offer in my opinion. Personally I still think it would’ve been more interesting to rewrite the story completely and make Rin the main-character but at least we’re at the point now where Shirou actually starts becoming a little more interesting as a character.

      Like

  2. The saying ‘Women and short men are difficult to manage’ was a mistranslation of an old chinese saying. IIRC it is either ‘Women and children’ or ‘Women or petty men’, either of which would make more sense.

    Like

  3. Although it has been a long time since I played the visual novel, I still remember rushing through various parts of it as they were neither contributing to the story nor interesting by themselves. Adapting such a visual novel into an animated series already failed once (FSN), yet the second attempt so far did not impress me in terms of actual improvement compared to the original series.

    Shirou’s character is, as you mentioned, probably the main reason for the first part of the story feeling slightly off. Usually, the viewer should be able to empathize or even associate with the main character. Alas, when recalling all the scenes from the series so far, we only got to see a high-school boy being dragged into the holy grail war while trying and failing to save everything and everyone. Even with elaborating Shirou’s background based on the previous holy grail war and exploring his thoughts in various scenes, you cannot fill 12 episodes (16 episodes) with this theme providing no development.

    Compared to the older FSN adaptation, ufotable does not use as many filler scenes to entertain the audience or provide fan service which is a good thing. However, these scenes were used in the visual novel to keep the reader continuing the game. When mostly removing these scenes from the anime, it would have been a good idea to replace them by adding other elements to the story. This could be an explanation of the magic world (obv. not in the style of Mahouka) or an additional story development. I personally like your idea of making Rin the main character of the story which would have helped overcoming the issues here. Another option would be to expand the character development of Saber as it is linked to Shirou’s and Kiritsugu’s struggle with the “hero” theme.

    Like

    • “Adapting such a visual novel into an animated series already failed once (FSN), yet the second attempt so far did not impress me in terms of actual improvement compared to the original series.”

      I do like this version better than the first one but I have a high tolerance for serious pathos. So it’s more a subjective thing. But the fights are certainly better animated than in the first series. It has at least that going for it.

      “Alas, when recalling all the scenes from the series so far, we only got to see a high-school boy being dragged into the holy grail war while trying and failing to save everything and everyone. Even with elaborating Shirou’s background based on the previous holy grail war and exploring his thoughts in various scenes, you cannot fill 12 episodes (16 episodes) with this theme providing no development.”

      Yeah, Shirou isn’t a good character in this first half. After all, think about Shirou without his traumatic past and his motivation to become a hero. You’ve got basically nothing! His characterization becomes better purely because the story is actually focusing on his past and his motivation. At the same time, though, that’s also the reason why the story may have some depth but is also narrow-minded at the same time. There’s not a lot this series could talk about in this first season. Like I’ve said in another review of this series: This series’ story can hit the nail on the head only a few times at best. The rest of the time this series just has to stall. There just isn’t enough meat to this story to make every episode as meaningful as it should be!

      “Compared to the older FSN adaptation, ufotable does not use as many filler scenes to entertain the audience or provide fan service which is a good thing. However, these scenes were used in the visual novel to keep the reader continuing the game. When mostly removing these scenes from the anime, it would have been a good idea to replace them by adding other elements to the story.”

      Agreed. I wouldn’t have welcomed these typical anime-jokes but then again, yeah… comic relief IS a great tool to balance out the pacing and tension of a story.

      “This could be an explanation of the magic world (obv. not in the style of Mahouka)”

      Hmm, TypeMoon-stories usually aren’t big fans of intricate worldbuilding. Those stories are less interested in the mechanics of the supernatural but more interested in the effects of those. At best, you get a sort-of historical component of “Hey, this isn’t the first time someone pulled that shit!”. And I quite like the notion of portraying magical stuff as this mystical stuff you don’t completely understand.

      In the case of Fate/Stay Night, though… That series can stand to do a little bit more worldbuilding. And I don’t even need an explanation for that stuff necessarily. What I want is just a bigger presence of the supernatural outside the Grail-War-Conflict. The Grail War feels supernatural but the world surrounding it certainly doesn’t.

      “I personally like your idea of making Rin the main character of the story which would have helped overcoming the issues here.”

      Not necessarily because you do need to rewrite F/SN in a BIG way for that to work. And if you get a shitty writer you might end up with something that’s worse than the original.

      But other than that… Rin is already a more substantial character than Shirou just by being a somewhat typical Tsundere. Then… I don’t know, maybe something like instead of focusing on Shirou’s ideals and all the dramatic hogwash they produce story-wise, you make it about Rin’s responsibility as a talented mage from a traditional mage-family. Something like “Should Rin be a mage if she doesn’t want to be one?”, “Does her being a very talented magician mean she HAS to become a magician so that this talent doesn’t go to waste?” or “How important is it to do what you should do rather than what you want to do?”. I mean, it’s rather easy to come up with ideas for that but just remembering what happened with the second season of Psycho-Pass… Fucking hell, I don’t think you can take anything for granted when it comes to anime-production no matter how good something should be.

      “Another option would be to expand the character development of Saber as it is linked to Shirou’s and Kiritsugu’s struggle with the “hero” theme.”

      Yeah, that sounds like a good idea as well. It would also serve as a nice way to tie F/SN to Fate/Zero and turn F/SN into a sequel rather than let Fate/Zero be a prequel.

      Like

  4. Would just like to point out a few relevant details as someone who read the VN; I’m not covering anything in particular here, just addressing your general points.

    First off, the VN had some serious pacing issues in general. The reason this feels like an oddly “episodic” take on the story is because ufotable decided to remove a lot of the time spent on “random” filler… which, coupled with the fact that we don’t have Shirou’s somewhat-unreliable narration anymore to blur just how much time is passing/has passed, makes it rather hard to keep the plot moving in between those encounters. A good example of this happens towards the end of the Heaven’s Feel route: without getting into spoilers, something happens to Shirou that makes it hard for him to focus, think, and remember things properly. To show this, the VN “skips around” even more than usual at that point, skipping from walking through the Einzbern forest in the early morning to being back at Shirou’s house in the evening. This effect worked in the original format, but in the upcoming HF movie adaptation, trying to do the same thing will just exacerbate the already-noticeable pacing issues ufotable is having. And of course, the same thing happened on a minor scale in all three routes to get the same idea across: the reason we don’t see much of Shirou walking places or things happening en route to some destination or another is because people don’t remember the “transition” of driving or walking someplace nearly as well as we can remember what happens at the place.

    The fact that Shirou has nothing but his hero-obsession (and therefore isn’t much of a character otherwise) is actually a definite plot point, and will continue to be a big part of his interactions with Rin and Archer in particular in cour two. Only problem is, though, because of the way this season cut off, we haven’t gotten to see much of anything in regards to that. Well, besides the fact that the people close to Shirou actually recognize that he’s messed up and without actual character, that is. This was another thing that worked better in the Visual Novel, simply by virtue of the fact that Shirou was our narrator: it’s quite a bit easier to relate to a character when the narration is literally what’s going on in his or her head.

    So tl;dr version: I think most of the issues you’ve pointed out are definitely there, but they’re translation issues because of both Nasu’s writing style and the format of the original media. The second season should probably be easier to adapt so long as we get enough of Shirou’s POV at crucial moments (Day 15’s “Answer” and Day 16’s battle especially), and hopefully ufotable will also be able to do a better job of arranging the story after taking a few months off from actual weekly episodes.

    …And the last post here was a week ago. I have no idea why I typed this, nor how I got to this blog to begin with, but oh well, might as well post since I’ve already written what amounts to a short essay.

    Like

    • “The reason this feels like an oddly “episodic” take on the story is because ufotable decided to remove a lot of the time spent on “random” filler… which, coupled with the fact that we don’t have Shirou’s somewhat-unreliable narration anymore to blur just how much time is passing/has passed, makes it rather hard to keep the plot moving in between those encounters. […] The fact that Shirou has nothing but his hero-obsession (and therefore isn’t much of a character otherwise) is actually a definite plot point, and will continue to be a big part of his interactions with Rin and Archer in particular in cour two. Only problem is, though, because of the way this season cut off, we haven’t gotten to see much of anything in regards to that. Well, besides the fact that the people close to Shirou actually recognize that he’s messed up and without actual character, that is. This was another thing that worked better in the Visual Novel, simply by virtue of the fact that Shirou was our narrator: it’s quite a bit easier to relate to a character when the narration is literally what’s going on in his or her head.”

      I’ve had this discussion with another VN-reader before about Shirou and how this series’ pacing is impaired by both the adaptation-choices and his general characterization being a “trajectory” rather than a solid fundament.

      First of all, this series tries to be closer to Fate/Zero in terms of tone and atmosphere. I would say it succeeds on both counts. At the same time, this reveals a few problems when it comes to the plot and the characterization of Shirou. In the case of the former you really notice that the lack of “filler” makes the first half a rather dull thing to sit through. I’ve said this before but this series’ story can hit the nail on the head only a few times at best – and it saves all that nail-hitting for the second half. So this first half is busy distracting and diverting our attention. Without the filler-scenes it doesn’t really succeed to do that.

      In regards to Shirou… He has his hero-obsession which gets some nice thematic action in the second half (in the VN, I guess, it depends on the arc, of course). But what I don’t like is that his character is all about preparing that thematic discussion. When Shirou gets suddenly involved with the Grail-War, he’s IN the Grail-War. There isn’t a whole lot holding him back from committing to that thing. Sure, there are some (more or less) normal characters who aren’t part of that world but that normal life comes to him. He isn’t really going out there trying to have a normal life. The filler-scenes distract from that before it becomes a topic of discussion what the deal is with his ideals but this first half really doesn’t do enough in showing just how messed up Shirou is.

      “A good example of this happens towards the end of the Heaven’s Feel route: without getting into spoilers, something happens to Shirou that makes it hard for him to focus, think, and remember things properly. To show this, the VN “skips around” even more than usual at that point, skipping from walking through the Einzbern forest in the early morning to being back at Shirou’s house in the evening. This effect worked in the original format, but in the upcoming HF movie adaptation, trying to do the same thing will just exacerbate the already-noticeable pacing issues ufotable is having. And of course, the same thing happened on a minor scale in all three routes to get the same idea across: the reason we don’t see much of Shirou walking places or things happening en route to some destination or another is because people don’t remember the “transition” of driving or walking someplace nearly as well as we can remember what happens at the place.”

      Yeah, including the visual element makes things feel far more immediate. You can use a couple lines to describe someone getting from point A to point B but in a movie or TV-Series? You can only come up with some stylistic choices and even though this season has been visually great, I don’t think the direction is sophisticated enough to actually address that properly.

      You would need stuff like Shirou walking alone through streets with a percussion-heavy soundtrack in the background while he seriously stares off into the distance to show off just how obsessed he is with being a hero for example (and you would need to reconstruct the whole series’ script around this stylistic choice). But then you would go away from this typical shounen-show-stuff and you would expect the audience to read scenes on a more complex level beyond just having some guys beat up other guys.

      Naturally you also have the fanboys who want to see a faithful adaptation and thinking about that, the team behind the whole thing isn’t even allowed to be too radical with how they adapt the material.

      That sort of adaptation-stuff is always dicey when it comes to big franchises like the Fate-Series.

      Like

Please Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: