Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works – 11/12 Review
Coming 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.
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.
It’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.
That’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.
- 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.
Posted on December 30, 2014, in Anime, Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works, Reviews and tagged Anime, Fate/Stay Night, Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works, reviews. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.