It’s show-time for everyone on Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works. After all the talking, the build-up, the hype generating, it’s time for everyone to put their money where their mouths are. Gilgamesh talked a big game for the entirety of this series, but can he pull his grand plan off? Shirou has come a long way from the confused, powerless little boy he was in the beginning, but can he defeat one of the most powerful Servants of all time? Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on the Holy Grail front as Saber has to make a call on whether to wait for Rin to escape the Grail or sacrifice her Master for the greater good. The episode shares its title, ‘Unlimited Blade Works’, with both the series and a previous episode but it’s earned – in every sense, this episode is a culmination of the ideas and concepts that the series has introduced since the beginning. This episode, which effectively is the series’ finale from a narrative perspective, always ties all the characters’ arcs together wonderfully, even though that means we have to part ways with some of the characters that we’ve come to love. There is even a surprising (and unexplained) guest appearance from everyone’s favourite man in red. The previous few episodes have been lethargic and gave the impression that they were in some odd narrative limbo but as it turns out, the series was just saving its best for last: this is easily one of my favourite episodes from the entire twenty five episode run and it’s hard to imagine the epilogue topping it.
Prior to this episode, it honestly felt like the Holy Grail and the subplot involving its destruction were secondary to the ‘real’ fight between Shirou and Gilgamesh – the Grail just didn’t seem all that dangerous or ominous. This episode changed that opinion a little but not enough to take the top spot from Gilgamesh, especially after he effortlessly put Shirou in his place in the previous episode. The series has received mixed response for its portrayal of certain characters, their arcs and the way it has attempted to combine routes at times but there have been absolutely no complaints about the way it has adapted the fight sequences and it’s hard to imagine that there will be any complaints on that front after this episode. The final confrontation between Shirou and Gilgamesh had to deliver – it was the fight of the series, the clash that would answer the question of legitimacy between them – and deliver it did. The fight between these two characters was perfect, from the action to the animation, and especially, to the music. As was the case in his fight with Archer, Shirou begins this fight down but not out. He has made his peace with himself and his ideals and he reiterates that commitment here. It’s great to hear the conclusions he has reached and see the consequences of his character development translate into something tangible. It’s extremely obvious that had Shirou never had that fight with Archer, he would never have been able to keep up with Gilgamesh – not just because of the skills he acquired during that fight, but also because he would have snapped mentally under the pressure of Gilgamesh’s goading. As things turned out though, Shirou knows exactly who and what he is – and what he is not. He is not under any delusions of his strength vis-à-vis other Servants but at the same time, he just knows that he can take Gilgamesh on and isn’t afraid to say it. This results in one of the most badass pre-battle one-liners of all time, pictured above.
The fight itself is nothing but pure eye candy though there are some interesting moments in it. We see the creation of the ‘Unlimited Blade Works’ Reality Marble – one sword at a time, at first, and then by the dozen. It isn’t a full, detailed explanation but one wasn’t needed. The creation of Unlimited Blade Works isn’t really about what kind of magic tricks and mechanics Shirou uses to construct that Marble but instead about the frame of mind that he is in when he does so. In that context, the Reality Marble is a representation of his commitment to his ideals and his intention to defend them. In the process of constructing the Reality Marble, we hear Shirou’s own version of the famed chant – the words are different, but more importantly, the tone is much more optimistic. Archer’s chant had words like ‘Unknown to death nor known to life’, which made him sound jaded and worn (or perhaps, I’m just attributing those qualities to those words because of what I know of Archer), whereas Shirou’s chant has lines like ‘I have emerged unvanquished from many battles’ which has a more positive twist to it. The difference is probably just academic and I’m reading too much into it, but it would be great if Shirou’s version of the chant reflected his new, healthier view of his ideals. During the fight, one might be wondering just how Shirou was summoning such a flurry of swords without running out of mana, especially when it was clearly stated that his limited was about twenty projections. It might just be that within the Unlimited Blade Works Marble, the swords are ‘pre-projected’, so to speak. In that fight, Shirou doesn’t really project new weapons; he just rearranges weapons that already exist and uses them to attack/defend. It’s a great way of visually demonstrating the resolution of the whole real versus fake debate – Shirou’s swords look visibly plainer than Gilgamesh’s shinier originals but they are just as potent. It’s also a way of illustrating to the audience that this is the conclusion that show has reached: ideals even if fake and borrowed, are no less valuable or noble because of it. Again, we’ve heard this in some form or the other before, but it’s important that this concept not be something characters just talk about but also something that has an actual effect on the plot. Finally, it also worth noting, that in light of this discussion of fakes facing off against the real deals, that from a certain perspective, Gilgamesh is the phony Heroic Spirit – he has not achieved true mastery over his weapons and techniques the way that the other Spirits have and even, Ea, his greatest treasure, cannot save him from what, by any measure, is an ignoble defeat.
The episode isn’t just all about Gilgamesh and Shirou, though their fight is very much the primary focus. In the background, the artefact that started this entire mess, the Holy Grail, is festering. There were some interesting remarks about an incorrectly summoned Servant, from Rin, Saber and Gilgamesh. This undoubtedly involves more detail about the nature of the Holy Grail than the story requires at this point but it would seem that the Servant the characters are referring to are not Saber (who was incorrectly summoned by Shirou) or Gilgamesh (who wasn’t even summoned this time), but something else entirely. We might have a clue in the form of the enormous monstrosity t that emerges from the muck but given that Saber pretty much one shots it (at the cost of her life), it’s unlikely that we need to concern ourselves with it for now. Saber’s Noble Phantasm, Excalibur, is glorious but it’s unfortunate that we are only able to see it in action once. Rin blows all three of her Command Seals to ensure Saber takes the Grail out and boy, does she ever. It seems that in an attempt to save itself, the Grail tries to replace Gilgamesh with Shinji (despite being Ea’d the last time it tried) but that does raise the question of just what Gilgamesh is at this point. Is he still a Servant? Or has he become human or whatever he was before he became a Heroic Spirit? It would seem like more of the former based on his remarks as he was being pull into the Grail black hole.
Unfortunately, the destruction of the Holy Grail comes with a price and we have to part ways with the series’ most stalwart Servant – Saber. Saber, for all her loyalty and dedication didn’t really get a particularly emotional send off. Shirou’s final words to her were more along the lines of ‘Thanks, you were swell, sorry I couldn’t do more.’ What Saber needed to be saved from isn’t entirely clear in the anime and it’s surprising that Shirou even knows given that she never really tells him about it. Still, her end is satisfying enough – she ‘dies’ knowing that she protected her two friends and Masters and that she did her duty to the full extent of her abilities. It was a nice touch seeing her surprise when Shirou declared that he will face Gilgamesh alone, especially considering that not too long ago, she was giving Shirou sword-fighting lessons. I suppose this is also as good a place as any to bid adieu to the series’ final villain, Gilgamesh. In all honesty, he was disappointingly underwhelming, and that’s difficult to do when you’re as ridiculously overpowered as he is. What disappointed me wasn’t that he didn’t give our heroes a run for their money but rather than he never really seemed to have a compelling reason for doing what he did. Still, he was an entertaining villain and his arrogance made his fall all the more satisfying.
We had a surprise appearance from Archer this week and I can honestly say that I did not see that coming. On hindsight, it was a little strange that a character we spent so much time with got as poor a ‘farewell’ as he did when ‘died’ but this week’s conclusion to his story is much more satisfying. We will need an explanation of just how he was able to stick around after what looked like his death, but perhaps next week’s epilogue will clear that up. Under normal circumstances, I would be crying foul and claiming deus ex machina but it really didn’t feel like Archer’s reappearance changed all that much in the larger scheme of things. He saves Rin but Saber was being forced to destroy the Grail, so one way or another, the Grail issues would be resolved though obviously, this particular outcome is preferable, since Rin lives. As for his headshot on Gilgamesh, given that Shirou was willing to chop his arm off to see Gilgamesh die (and he would have done it too, that crazy bastard), Archer’s arrival just saved us from seeing two characters being de-armed in one episode. More than his intervention, his farewell to Rin showed us that it wasn’t just Shirou who changed during the course of this war – Archer’s final smiling farewell to his Master was very reminiscent of Shirou’s own smile and for perhaps the first time in the entire show, you could really see that they were the same person. I have mixed feelings about Archer and Shirou not having a final conversation but perhaps they’ve reached a point where there really isn’t anything to say that they haven’t already.
And so, with that, we have reached the effective end of the story. There is still an ‘Epilogue’ episode next week but that’ll probably just tie up the last few threads – what happens between Rin and Shirou, Shinji’s fate and maybe we’ll even see the rest of gang (Fujimura, Sakura, etc). Given the way things turned out, a happy-ever-after vibe would be in order. Looking back at the first episode and seeing how things turned out, this particular war turned out to be much bloodier than I expected. Coming into the series, I felt like it would be a little lighter in tone – Servants would be ‘defeated’ but not outright killed and Masters would just quietly bow out once they are defeated. It’s hilarious how wrong I was, of course – the only survivors were Rin, Shirou and Shinji, out of a group of fourteen. Since I don’t expect the epilogue next week to introduce any new material, I’ll spend most that write up discussing a few things that have been bugging me. I’ve finished the Fate route, at long last, and while I did enjoy it, I do also have some problems with it (hopefully, I won’ get flamed too hard, but I think it’s good to discuss any work’s strengths and weaknesses, regardless of whether you enjoyed it or not). I’ll also talk a little about my thoughts on this anime, specifically as an entry point to the franchise and as a standalone work.