As you might know, I recently began watching Death Parade which, three episodes in, looks to be a very promising show. However, since the show airs only once a week, I felt there was space in schedule to cover another show and thus that troublesome question of what to watch emerged again. Nothing airing in the current season has really caught my eye and in all honesty, I’ve only watched one anime series in its entirety so I’m not certain I’d know what to watch either. After looking around the internet for recent, well-received shows, one particular show caught my eye: Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works. I’d heard about it before, actually but the density of the show’s lore and its universe put me off a little. This newest anime adaptation seemed very well-received though it did come with the warning that it was not meant for people new to the Fate series. Not to be deterred, I decided to try the visual novel but abandoned it about halfway through the first route because a.) it was just too verbose and b.) the translations just didn’t read well in my mind. I figure if there’s something in the new adaptation that I’m just not getting, the almighty internet can provide some salvation. It should go without saying that there are spoilers beyond this point, by the way and sadly, I don’t know enough about the series to tell you the scope of the spoilers being discussed so it might be best to not go beyond this point if you want to be really safe.
Anyway, now that the preamble is out of the way, let’s talk Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works. The first episode, actually the zeroth episode, is a prologue and it is every bit as slow as the prologue from the visual novel. For those of you that have never read the visual novel in question, suffice to say that it is arduous to get through and large portion of readers (players?) never get through it just because of how utterly dull it is. The adaptation alleviates the problem greatly by cutting out a lot of the drier bits of the prologue. It ends up working out, this episode despite being a full hour long, does exactly what a well-written prologue should: it introduces us to the setting, the premise (though the whole Holy Grail War thing isn’t fully explained yet) and most importantly, the characters. The most important characters don’t really make their appearance just yet, but this is just a prologue – there’s plenty of time for the series’ stars to shine.
Let’s talk about the setting first. The magic of the system isn’t really explained – or rather, it hasn’t been explained so far. That isn’t a problem in and of itself since I’m not really interested in the magic but rather what it is used for but it is going to be a problem if the technical details of this magic system become plot points – will Archer lose to Lancer (to some future point) because of some minor, obscure by law in the magical mechanics of the world? I would hope not, because something that directly affects the plot on that level ought to be explained early on in the story – and really, we could have cut a good bit of the random school stuff in this episode if time was needed to explain the mechanics of this world. The fact that Rin expected to draw Saber but ended up with an amnesiac Archer seems like a pretty big deal though I expect they will explain what exactly went wrong sometime later in the story. Still, I know from my brief, ill-fated sojourn into the visual novel that this show’s universe is a bitch to explain and Ufotable is taking care to explain the truly crucial bits like the mechanics of the Servant-Master relationship and the Command Seals. To be fully honest, based on this first episode, the setting seems to be the least accessible part of the show and I suspect that at some point down the line, I’m going to forget something essential and wonder why things aren’t making sense any more.
Where the show shines, so far at least, is in its characters. Tohsaka Rin, who really should be the lead character, is extremely entertaining to watch. It’s refreshing to see someone who should know better cave in to anger and frustration and her servant, Archer, makes for a great counterbalance with his self-assured arrogance and haughtiness. The dynamic between the two begins as one of grudging respect but by the episode’s end it seems to have evolved into a more mutual trust in their abilities. Their motivations remain opaque though. Rin’s motivation of wanting to win for victory’s sake feels a little too simplistic for a character like hers but it’s to be expected that she would not show her hand right away. The episode opens with her parting from her father and she mentions a duty she has waited ten years to fulfil, so it seems fair to assume that she wants to win for more than just the title of victor. Similarly, this Archer without a name is a true enigma –we don’t know who he is or what he can do or why he seeks the Holy Grail but there is a swagger about him that I really enjoy watching. He isn’t an absolute stoic – he gets annoyed, he loses his temper but despite that he gives the impression of a character that is always in control of himself, a true badass. The last character we really see in any depth is the Lancer in blue. Like the Archer, he has some kind of otherworldly confidence though being an otherworldly being perhaps that isn’t too surprising. I’m a little surprised that I don’t recognize either Archer or Lancer (whose name I’m supposed to know but have forgotten). Surely there are only a handful of archers in history and fiction renowned enough to become Heroic Spirits? In any case, I think the characters are more than compelling enough to make up for my confusion regarding the mechanics of the magic system in this show.
Similarly, I also like how multi-layered the plot is. On a macro-level you have the quest for the Holy Grail which is really just a set-up for all the smaller scale conflicts that are going to erupt between the individual Servant/Master combinations. There is the matter of who is threatening the school as well as a whole butt-load of questions like who is Lancer’s master? Who is Saber’s master? Since Rin knows that all the other Servants have been summoned already, who are they and what are they up to? Generally speaking, I prefer plots that are character driven, plots in which the actual events of the plot are secondary to the development that these events force from their characters and the evolution in the relationships between characters that these events lead to. Still, a more traditional plot where the story holds the audience’s interest more than the characters is fine too and honestly, it’s too early to tell just what kind of style this show prefers. From what I recall of the visual novel, we get to see a lot, perhaps too much, of the inside of Shiro’s head so it seems like character development won’t necessarily be forced into the backseat either.
One thing I haven’t mentioned about this episode is that it is gorgeous. It’s hard to capture the beauty of well-done animation in a picture obviously, but I hope from the above that you can see that the studio creating this adaptation, Ufotable, has not scrimped on the production budget at all and the results are clear to see. The fluidity of the animation, the beauty of the character designs, the general choice of the colour palette and the overall artwork are all just incredibly on point. The music too is brilliant – the track playing during Archer’s post summoning scene really caught my ear as did the ending song that played at the very end of the episode. I expected the prologue to open slowly and painfully but honestly, this is much easier to understand and get through than the visual novel ever was so it looks like I’ll be back next week for episode 1!