[Anime] Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works – Review


fsn ubwTitle: Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works

First Aired: October 4th, 2014 – June 27th, 2015

Studio: Ufotable

Director: Takahiro Miura

Rating: 8.0/10

Adapting anything from a massive popular franchise can be a risky gambit at the best of times. On one hand, you have a guaranteed viewership and an established fan-base but on the other, high expectations and extreme scrutiny are par for the course. Fortunately, animation studio Ufotable is an old hand at adaptations. With two highly acclaimed adaptations, of TYPE-MOON works no less, Ufotable brings experience and expertise to the latest anime adaptation of Kinoko Nasu’s fantasy juggernaut, Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works. Though never stated explicitly, at least part of the motivation for a new adaptation of a visual novel more than a decade old was to erase the stain of the disastrous 2006 studio DEEN-led adaptation. However, Ufotable’s project isn’t a full-fledged makeover of its ill-fated predecessor; Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works focuses on the character-driven second route of the visual novel, ‘Unlimited Blade Works’ (UBW) instead of the world-building first route, ‘Fate’. Therein lies the dilemma that Ufotable faced – by skipping the first route and jumping straight into the second, it alienates newcomers to the franchise but explaining each fantastic element introduced in ‘Fate’ would slow the story to a crawl. Ufotable opted for the former more than the latter but nevertheless, even as a standalone story, Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works counts excellent character development, exciting action sequences and intelligent storytelling among its strengths and those strengths are inalienable even in the intimidating face of the sheer depth of the franchise’s universe and mythos.

The story begins innocently enough. Emiya Shirou, a high-school student, finds his life thrown into chaos when he unwittingly becomes embroiled in the 5th Holy Grail War, a periodic ritual in which seven supernatural, super-powered entities known as Servants, help their human Masters secure the omnipotent, aforementioned Holy Grail. In its premise, the story really doesn’t have anything to set it aside from your usual run of the mill fantasy anime. It is only when the story first begins to explore the characters and their various motivations that the story begins to set itself apart from the rest of the pack. UBW does something that many stories set out to do but significantly fewer manage to accomplish; its action scenes and fight sequences mirror the characters’ own conflicts and struggles. In some sense, the real battles in this anime aren’t fought only on the field but often on a philosophical and ideological level. In essence, the story of Fate/Stay Night is only ostensibly about the Holy Grail – the battle for the artefact ends up taking a definite backseat in favour of Shirou’s character development and evolving frame of mind. The story benefits from this prioritization, however; the character development ensures the audience’s emotional investment and gives the story a depth beyond its admittedly impressive action sequences. Indeed, classifying the anime with the typical genre tags of ‘action’ and ‘fantasy’ is misleading and, arguably, a disservice. Surprisingly large sections of the anime are devoted to the characters’ musings on the purpose of altruism and the conflict between what is genuine and fake but far from slowing the story down, these sections offer introspection and highlight the fact that the characters’ actions are motivated by more than just what the plot requires at the time. Of course, this is not to say that the story doesn’t suffer from its slower moments – often, the episodes following a major confrontation or battle will feel sluggish and drag a little but it isn’t until the final section of the series that this becomes problematic. On the whole, UBW tells a solid story – compelling and exciting, with some truly surprising twists up its sleeves.

As is often the case in well-told stories, the characters are the lynchpin that holds it all together. That is especially the case with Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works given the heavy emphasis on the character’s development and their views of the world. The series doesn’t feature a particular large cast but it is sizable enough that it was clear from the offset that screen-time would not be equitably distributed. Emiya Shirou, our protagonist rightly receives the lion’s share of the story’s attention but his development is interesting in that while he does go through the usual process of starting out weak and then becoming strong, the true sign of his development is in his character and how both his circumstances and the people he meets force him to change his perspective on life and its value. Shirou starts the story being very much a passive observer and appears rather dull as a result but somewhere around the story’s middle section, he finds his agency and begins taking a much more active role in the story. The anime leaves out a good bit of Shirou’s thoughts and reflections and both character and story suffer as a consequence, but in the moments when it matters most, the series properly showcases Shirou’s growth. Among the other equally intriguing characters are Tohsaka Rin, Shirou’s classmate and another participant in the War as well as her cynical, dismissive Servant, Archer. Both characters feature prominently, and of the two, it is the latter that really begins to shine in the story’s second act. Archer, from the beginning is a reluctant ally at best and from the story’s very beginning there is an ideological clash between the self-sacrificing, idealistic Shirou and the jaded, pragmatic Archer. It is fascinating watching that dynamic evolve over the course of the series and seeing how their disagreements force them to re-evaluate their respective positions. There are also a handful of characters who appear solely for comic relief or who appear frequently without really being developed. The most unfortunate of these is Shirou’s petite Servant, Saber. Saber’s lack of development is the inevitable outcome of the anime adapting the UBW route – Saber’s story is explored in a different route and as a result, the role she plays in this part of the story is purely functional. It’s a pity that Ufotable didn’t try to work around that since it could have been interesting to see what she had to say about her allies’ various philosophical stances.

Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works isn’t just really a direct one-to-one adaptation of the visual novel source material, however. There are a good many changes that director Takahiro Miura made and these changes, as tends to often be the case, are a mixed bunch. On one hand, the decision to remove Shirou’s internal monologue reflects a move towards a more ‘show, don’t tell’ approach to storytelling which, while ambitious, is a worthy goal despite the results. On the other hand, the anime also expanded the stories of certain characters that the visual novel deemed unworthy of even needing a backstory, a welcome move that answered questions that fans might have had regarding events just prior to the beginning of the War. On the whole though, it feels like the changes had an uncertain effect on the story, weakening some sections and strengthening others. Of course, the adaptation’s real value to the fans was in bringing the story to life onscreen. From the gorgeous animation to the vivid fight scenes and a selection of nostalgic music straight from the visual novels, the adaptation brought alive a number of scenes that had previous existed only in fans’ minds and that alone ought to be worth more than any number of the minor issues in the anime’s execution.

Of course, this is not to marginalize the concerns that both long-term fans and newcomers to the series have with the anime. Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works is a character piece masquerading as an action/fantasy anime but that is far from obvious even a few episodes in. Without taking time to really think about a character and the implications of some of the things that the characters say early on, it is far too easy to simply miss out on a great portion of the story’s depth later on. It would not be surprising if casual audiences found themselves completely baffled and out of the loop when the characters’ ideological differences became a plot point instead of just what such viewers would consider background noise. The blame in such cases should be shared between studio and audience but in this particular instance, it falls more on the former than the latter. Ufotable could have been more deliberate in the way that introduced and explored certain elements in the series; they seem to have either assumed that their audience consisted mostly of fans familiar with the source material or with viewers who were willing to put the effort in to try to understand each episode’s subtext. In the end, it is difficult to recommend Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works to a total newcomer to the franchise, simply because without the wealth of information that the source material provides, it is just far too easy to miss this particular story’s point – yet, it is almost a must watch for long-time fans of the visual novels who can better appreciate the adaptation’s intricacies.

Advertisements

22 thoughts on “[Anime] Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works – Review

  1. Thanks for all the weekly reviews the past few months, reading them was really enjoyable. I hope you continue doing weekly reviews for currently airing shows. I heard you’ll be doing reviews for kara no kyoukai so I’ll be looking forward to them. It’s actually my favourite type moon series. When will you be doing them?

    Like

  2. It was fun reading your weekly reviews of the series. Specially about your theories on who is the red man. It reminded me of myself when I was reading the VN. They had to explicitly state it before I finally got it. I grew to like the cooking scenes like a prisoner suffering from Stockholm syndrome. It helps that they are the few times that the sword that is Emiya Shirou acts like a human. Enabling his secret desire to be a stay at home house husband is also a plus. I’m also surprised that there is no mention of the Taiga dojo’s which really are why Taiga is great. It took me until almost the end of the Fate route to discover that dying in the VN meant a trip to the comedy duo.

    It was also interesting to see how someone would view the story going in blind with UBW as their first foray into the franchise.

    As for recommendations, Heaven’s Feel route obviously though I prefer UBW overall, the last route shines in its own way certainly better than the Fate route, specially the final few days is absolutely spectacular.

    Also adding another vote for Kara no Kyoukai, I think being one of the earlier works of the author it gets too rambly at times even compared to Fate Stay/Night but I still liked it, the fifth movie stands head and shoulders above the rest though. Apart from the 7 main movies there are I think two more that are in the vein of the epilogue of UBW, a chance to wrap things up and say good bye to the characters.

    After that if you’re interested in more stories like Kara no Kyoukai, i’d recommend the Tsukihime vn. Although for the love of all that is good in life don’t watch the anime under any circumstances. If you want to know more about the 4th Grail war, Shirou’s dad and how a rather infamous bad end in Heaven’s Feel would turn out, you could watch Fate Zero. It even fleshes out Gilgamesh which was one of your complaints about UBW and the vn as a whole.

    After all that there’s still Fate/Hollow Ataraxia which is mostly comedy and slice of life about the 5th Grail War. And finally there’s Carnival Phantasm around 12-14 episodes of more comedy centered around everything I recommended above. However like the UBW series, you’ll enjoy it more if you did read the works its based on.

    Lastly, I do agree that Shirou-Rin as the cannon pairing too.

    Like

    • Thank you! I kind of spaced out during the Tiger Dojo bits because I just wanted to go back and fix my choice. Also, I really don’t like Taiga all that much

      Carnival Phantasm sounds fun, might check that out at some point.

      Like

      • Well, Carnival Phantasm is comprised of huge amounts of Fate and Tsukihime references, so my suggestion would be to only watch it after finishing the Fate and Tsukihime VN, and preferably F/ha. It’s a lot of work, but if you’ll miss a huge amount of stuff if you didn’t experience it all, as it is really something meant for the fans.

        Like

  3. Very fair review and I can’t really debate anything you’ve said. I think a mistake that a lot of Anime only people (as well as Ufotable themselves I guess) made is that each route of the VN is not a standalone story, so it isn’t surprising people have gotten lost or been disappointed at the lack of depth and closure for certain elements and characters of the story, as most of these are expanded upon more in the other 2 routes or in the prequel and sequel.

    This only further cements my view that this adaption was made for existing fans and not for new ones. Despite all that it has definitely succeeded in satisfying a large portion of the fan base as well as introducing more newcomers into the franchise.

    I look forward to reading your thoughts on KnK!

    Like

    • “This only further cements my view that this adaption was made for existing fans and not for new ones.”

      Yeah, it only cemented my view that Ufotable intended for Fate/Zero to be first 😛

      At this point i’m just kicking the Fate fanbase beehive and seeing how it reacts when I say Fate/Zero first, its always entertaining especially on Reddit. But I really want to see an honest discussion on the matter of how do you just the Fate/Stay Night UBW anime. Do you judge it as standalone? Supplementary material to the VN? Sequel to Fate/Zero? All of the ways you can judge it comes with it’s own problems, which is one of the major faults of how Ufotable chose to adapt it. By adapting the middle route they made it hard to access to new fans. But by throwing in Fate/Zero elements they make it hard to watch it after only reading Fate/Stay Night. But at the same time, Fate/Stay Night doesn’t work well as a continuation of Fate/Zero since it doesn’t address unanswered questions from Zero. Maybe we’ll have to wait to see how they adapt Heavens Feel, are we going to get more Fate/Zero references, if any route is good for that it would be Heavens Feel.

      Like

      • Having seen Deen’s Fate.Stay Night adaption would also have helped. It is a bad adaption, but does do the same world building as the Fate route does in the visual novel.

        Like

      • “By adapting the middle route they made it hard to access to new fans.”

        Ufotable definitely dug themselves into a bit of a hole with this, while they have tried to rectify it somewhat by releasing the Fate route for free prior to UBW release, this only helped Japanese fans. I don’t think there is any good place to start if you’re going to choose to go anime only since you’re going to miss details and get spoilers no matter which show you choose to start with. The best way to get into the series is definitely by reading the VN.

        “But by throwing in Fate/Zero elements they make it hard to watch it after only reading Fate/Stay Night.”

        Honestly almost every (if not all) references to Fate/Zero were in the original VN so I don’t buy the whole “it was meant to be watched after” argument. Anyone who chose to watch UBW after reading the route wouldn’t find anything amiss.

        “Fate/Stay Night doesn’t work well as a continuation of Fate/Zero since it doesn’t address unanswered questions from Zero. ”

        I assume you’re meaning UBW here as by the end of the VN all your questions regarding Fate/Zero should have been answered. If that’s the case then that’s the problem I addressed in my previous comment of people judging each route as a stand-alone story. Regardless I think the real issue here is that Fate/Stay Night wasn’t meant to be a continuation of Zero, so isn’t written as such and anyone going in expecting as much will be disappointed.

        “Do you judge it as standalone? Supplementary material to the VN? Sequel to Fate/Zero?”

        I think the best way to judge this adaption would be as a supplement to the VN as that is all it really is. It’s not a replacement for the VN route, it isn’t a sequel to Fate/Zero and it definitely isn’t a standalone piece of work. I agree with you that a lot of the problems stem from how Ufotable chose to go about adapting it, and also from the problem of VN’s being nowhere near as popular in the west as they are in Japan so a lot less people have read, or are willing to read, the VN.

        Like

        • “Honestly almost every (if not all) references to Fate/Zero were in the original VN so I don’t buy the whole “it was meant to be watched after” argument. Anyone who chose to watch UBW after reading the route wouldn’t find anything amiss.”

          Two big things come to mind. First of all the specter appearing to Illyasviel is something undebatable as something you cannot understand without having seen Zero.

          Then you have Saber’s character arc and the conclusion of it, which only makes sense for Zero watchers considering you would’ve had Saber’s conclusion in the Fate route/not known who Saber was exactly by only watching UBW.

          “I assume you’re meaning UBW here as by the end of the VN all your questions regarding Fate/Zero should have been answered. If that’s the case then that’s the problem I addressed in my previous comment of people judging each route as a stand-alone story. Regardless I think the real issue here is that Fate/Stay Night wasn’t meant to be a continuation of Zero, so isn’t written as such and anyone going in expecting as much will be disappointed.”

          The problem i’m saying is that its a mixed basket, you have to watch Fate/Zero for the specter scene to make sense. Yet at the same time you can’t go into Fate/Stay Night thinking its a continuation of Zero, when it clearly has a tone shift and is different from the nihilistic themes of Zero.

          Yeah, I think ultimately I would have to agree with you that it’s just supplementary material to the VN + Fate/Zero readers/watchers.

          Like

          • “Two big things come to mind. First of all the specter appearing to Illyasviel is something undebatable as something you cannot understand without having seen Zero.”

            I don’t think it is important to know who or what the specter is to make that scene work. People who have not have seen Fate/Zero will probably interpreted the specter as a way to visualize Ilya’s internal struggle. I assume by having seen Fate/Zero beforehand you unintentional use Fate/Zero information to interpreted the scene, but that doesn’t mean the scene doesn’t work without that knowledge.

            “Then you have Saber’s character arc and the conclusion of it, which only makes sense for Zero watchers considering you would’ve had Saber’s conclusion in the Fate route/not known who Saber was exactly by only watching UBW.”

            I don’t think that reasoning leads to the conclusion that Fate/Zero HAS to be seen to understand the resolution of Saber’s character arc in the UBW adaption. Reading the Fate route from the visual novel or seeing Fate/Stay Night adaption by Studio Deen accomplishes the same thing.

            In conclusion to appreciate Unlimited Blade Works by Ufotable it is recommended to have some background knowledge of the Fate series. This can be gained by reading the Fate route from the visual novel, seeing the Fate/Stay Nights adaption by Studio Deen or by reading/seeing Fate/Zero, but it is not necessary to have seen Fate/Zero before it.

            Like

            • “I don’t think it is important to know who or what the specter is to make that scene work. People who have not have seen Fate/Zero will probably interpreted the specter as a way to visualize Ilya’s internal struggle. I assume by having seen Fate/Zero beforehand you unintentional use Fate/Zero information to interpreted the scene, but that doesn’t mean the scene doesn’t work without that knowledge.”

              Go back to that episode and look at Reread’s confusion at it, or the episode discussion page on reddit. No one interpreted it like that, because that way is false and leaves plot holes. Such as why would Illya all of a sudden realize that Kiritsugu killed her mother? Why would she hallucinate seeing Kiritsugu pointing a gun at her without outside influence. I can get even further into why this scene only makes sense with Fate/Zero, but that would be spoilery territory for Zero.

              “I don’t think that reasoning leads to the conclusion that Fate/Zero HAS to be seen to understand the resolution of Saber’s character arc in the UBW adaption. Reading the Fate route from the visual novel or seeing Fate/Stay Night adaption by Studio Deen accomplishes the same thing.”

              But its redundant if you see DEEN adaptations first (I dont know why you would since it spoils key things about UBW), or read the Fate route. Seeing Fate/Zero and then UBW is the only way that makes sense.

              “seeing the Fate/Stay Nights adaption by Studio Deen ”

              No, thats just never something you should recommend. Not only is is a crappy experience because it fails as an anime as well as an adaptation, but it also spoils UBW and is all around not necessary for any of the scenes in UBW. Fate/Zero on the other hand is a pretty good experience, a VERY faithful and good adaptation of the light novels, and spoils some points of Heavens Feel BUT the UBW relies on Zero knowledge for those two scenes.

              I feel like people always look for DEEN’s adaptation as an out when talking about the anime-only order so that Fate/Zero doesnt have to be recommended when its twice as bad as a starting point.

              Like

              • “Go back to that episode and look at Reread’s confusion at it, or the episode discussion page on reddit. No one interpreted it like that, because that way is false and leaves plot holes. Such as why would Illya all of a sudden realize that Kiritsugu killed her mother? Why would she hallucinate seeing Kiritsugu pointing a gun at her without outside influence. I can get even further into why this scene only makes sense with Fate/Zero, but that would be spoilery territory for Zero.”

                I wasn’t following reading Reread’s blog at the time. Seems I was mistaken in my assumption. Ugh I had hoped Ufotable had kept both viewing orders intact, but it seems they have made it very difficult now with the specter scene 😦

                “But its redundant if you see DEEN adaptations first (I dont know why you would since it spoils key things about UBW), or read the Fate route. Seeing Fate/Zero and then UBW is the only way that makes sense.”

                I was only talking about the Fate/Stay Night series by Deen not the UBW movie. From what I recall the series didn’t outright spoil much from the UBW route. It only hints a bit to Archer identity and something about Sakura, which only gets any significance if you have seen Heaven’s Feel.

                Like

                • I just checked the post from Readernreviewer’s blog about the specter scene and it doesn’t look like he is that confused about the scene. Not all of his speculation are correct of course, but it does seem the lack of Fate/Zero didn’t prevent him from contextualizing and interpreting the scene.

                  I do notice again that the scene does something which is suppose be relegated to the Heaven’s Feelroute and shouldn’t have started this early. I do find that a bit annoying, because Liked how the visual novel played around with that idea. Ufotable should have just scrapped that anime-only scene.

                  Like

                • “I was only talking about the Fate/Stay Night series by Deen not the UBW movie. From what I recall the series didn’t outright spoil much from the UBW route. It only hints a bit to Archer identity and something about Sakura, which only gets any significance if you have seen Heaven’s Feel.”

                  The Fate/Stay Night series is what I was talking about as well. During the Caster arc they spoil the fact that Kuzuki is Caster’s master which you’re not supposed to know at all in the Fate route. They also hint at Archer’s identity much more than necessary by adding a bunch of scenes from UBW, like the Kanshou and Byakuya projections or the Berserker vs Archer fight (which was cool, but hinted a little too strongly at Archer’s identity IMO).

                  “I just checked the post from Readernreviewer’s blog about the specter scene and it doesn’t look like he is that confused about the scene. Not all of his speculation are correct of course, but it does seem the lack of Fate/Zero didn’t prevent him from contextualizing and interpreting the scene.”

                  Sure it didn’t stop him from interpreting the scene, but it was a bit confusing and a little “What the fuck” since they dont explain it at all in UBW nor is it relevant for Unlimited Blade Works in any way.

                  “I do notice again that the scene does something which is suppose be relegated to the Heaven’s Feelroute and shouldn’t have started this early. I do find that a bit annoying, because Liked how the visual novel played around with that idea. Ufotable should have just scrapped that anime-only scene.”

                  I kind of agree that it should’ve been scrapped. I guess if they were intending to foreshadow to Heavens Feel for the Fate/Zero watchers then it kind of makes sense, but its completely unnecessary and alienates every other viewer.

                  Like

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

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