First Aired: October 4th, 2014 – June 27th, 2015
Director: Takahiro Miura
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.