First of all, I’m sorry for the delay; there was a mini-crisis in my life that ended up throwing me for a loop and as a result I haven’t had the chance to post anything here for the last two weeks. This particular post will be diving into the Fate/Stay Night visual novel, with FULL SPOILERS. That’s a warning to anyone not knowing what kind of scope I’ll be looking at, best also an invitation to everyone who’s been holding back in previous posts to let loose with the spoilers and information. I should also apologize for the length of this post; at first, I wanted to take a very quick, cursory look at the visual novel but then the more I got into it, the more I felt like I wanted to write about everything about it; the characters, the story, the themes, the world-building and so on. After a brief debate with myself about whether I could overcome my inherent laziness and write that long a piece without it spiraling hopelessly out of control, I decided to give it a shot. All the thoughts and opinions presented below are just that – thoughts and opinions, and not factual statements. I have read the VN front to back (so to speak) all of once (though I did revisit certain scenes) and I will not be trying to claim that I’m some expert on the subject or that my interpretations of certain characters are backed by some kind of authority. To keep this from turning into a massive wall of text, I will be interspersing it with pictures; specifically, Fate-related pictures from all over the place (I figured VN screenshots weren’t going to cut it). Lastly, I also want to thank anyone who has been waiting for this for their patience and apologize again for the delay.
Looking back, one of the biggest challenges I faced in reading the Fate/Stay Night visual novel (VN) was coming to terms with the concept of ‘routes’, especially within the context of the story. Each of the VN’s three routes (‘Fate’, ‘Unlimited Blade Works’ (UBW) & ‘Heaven’s Feel’ (HF)) are centred on and feature the same set of characters but just when you leave one route thinking you’ve got a solid grasp on the story and the characters, the next route comes along to make you question it all. You might leave ‘Fate’ thinking you know all there is to know about Shirou and the Fate/Stay Night world but by mid-way through UBW, it’s clear that you knew nothing at all – delve on it enough and it’ll make you wonder if you ever really understood the characters in the first place. As such, I feel the VN is better understood instead in terms of divergence points and possibilities; after all, different circumstances do bring out different aspects of us and it’s only natural that the characters behave differently as well. On the simplest level, each of the three stories in the VN follow the same overarching narrative structure – Shirou gets tangled up in the Fifth Holy Grail War, suffers to varying degrees before overcoming increasingly insurmountable odds to emerge triumphant at the end. The natures of those triumphs vary, as do the odds he has to overcome, but in the broadest sense, that is the essence of the story. What elevates the story of Fate/Stay Night from good to great is the way the author uses the different routes, and different characters, to examine different aspects of a central theme: ideals and aspirations. Understanding each route’s relationship with those concepts is absolutely crucial in appreciating what Kinoko Nasu has pulled off in Fate/Stay Night but ideas explored in the VN are too complex to properly explore in a single paragraph so instead, we’ll trace their development, route-by-route, taking some time to stop and think about the various strengths and weakness of the routes along the way.
I discussed the ‘Fate’ route at some length here, and some of what I say here will overlap with what I’ve said there, but I do feel that the completing all three routes gave me a better understanding of just what it was that ‘Fate’ was trying to accomplish. Each of the three routes has a character that Shirou must confront, whether in a literal sense or in the sense that he must address the differences between him and the character in question. By route, those characters are Saber, Archer and Kiritsugu. This might seem strange since Saber is very much in Shirou’s side, while Archer is largely antagonistic and Kiritsugu is entirely absent, but bear with me for now. In ‘Fate’ Shirou has to confront Saber, not because he has something to prove or an ideal to uphold, but because he sees her attitude and outlook on life as dangerous and self-destructive and because he cares about her enough to want her to be happy. We will talk in greater detail about their relationship and how it develops as well as what purpose it served in the greater scheme of things but first, let’s talk about ‘Fate’ as a story.
At first, it seems obvious that what holds ‘Fate’ back as a route is its pacing. After all, the excruciatingly slow start makes the first half of the route a chore to work through and even if the payoff is great, it isn’t enough to totally erase the stain left by the slow start. Yet, the more I think about it, the less I feel that this infamous slow start is what keeps ‘Fate’ from being compared to UBW and HF, though I certainly agree that it doesn’t help matters. What really holds ‘Fate’ back is that it is just too bland a route; compared to HF, ‘Fate’ reads like a fairy-tale. ‘Fate’ is essentially a narrative straight line – Shirou has an ideal in mind, strives towards it, achieves it and is rewarded for it. In story-telling, regardless of medium or genre, the impact of a story’s happy ending depends on how hard the characters had to fight to reach it. In both UBW and HF, the characters are dealt harsh, crippling blows and must overcome numerous seemingly insurmountable setbacks before reaching that elusive light at the end of the tunnel. It doesn’t feel that way in ‘Fate’ – sure, there are some difficulties here and there but they never feel so absolutely overwhelming that a positive outcome is out of the question. Yet, while Shirou’s relatively easy path through ‘Fate’ is a cause of ‘Fate’ coming across as a simple and straightforward route, it is also the effect of several other narrative choices that Nasu made. The choice of Kirei and Gilgamesh as final antagonists is fine at first, but in UBW and HF, you realize that both characters had so much more to offer than ‘Fate’ revealed and so sort of wish that, if ‘Fate’ was to be their only time to be the primary antagonists, they would have gotten a chance to do more within the story. Still, both Gilgamesh and Kirei are sufficiently tough opponents that Shirou and Saber’s victory over them did feel like incredibly satisfying, even if the ending was bittersweet (though Last Episode fixes that).
All of this might sound overly critical of ‘Fate’ but I don’t mean it like that. ‘Fate’ serves a different purpose from the other two routes – it is meant to introduce us to this universe, a guide us through the basics of how things work in it. Perhaps there was a little much exposition at certain parts of ‘Fate’ and certainly, that slow start that people keep referring is an issue but I don’t think it is fair to expect the first route to provide as complex and emotionally compelling a story as UBW and HF. In fact, the main reason that both those routes are as successful as they are is because they are able to take advantage of the legwork that ‘Fate’ put in, from setting up the character’s core personalities (though we learn much more about certain characters later) to establishing the basic rules of magic in the world (which mean nothing since every character is apparently capable of defying some rule or the other). In the process of doing all this, ‘Fate’ is able to tell a good story – not a great, mind-blowingly awesome story – but a solid, thoroughly enjoyable one. This solid, thoroughly enjoyable story centres not on Shirou, as the other routes’ stories tend to, but on Saber. The many psychological issues that make Shirou who he is are not really introduced to us in ‘Fate’ and as a result, Shirou too comes across as a little bland; naïve, ignorant of the Holy Grail War but almost aggressively idealistic, his character in ‘Fate’ is far too weak to really carry the story. Yet, at first, it seems that Saber is the same – she is passive for a large portion of the route and it is only when we spend some time on her backstory and her motivations that things really start getting interesting. The relationship between Shirou and Saber starts off as a little strange and more than a little awkward but it is only towards the middle/end of the route (or arguably, all the way in UBW) that we realize just how compatible and alike the Master and Servant are. After all, on the surface of things, the clueless amateur magus seems to have very little in common with the majestic, legendary King Artoria. ‘Fate’ deals with the struggle to reach an ideal or to be ideal. At the beginning of the route, Saber doesn’t really see herself as a person nor does she see herself as important or her life as precious. Instead, she is the very embodiment of her ideals; the chivalrous knight, the dutiful king, the loyal Servant. In that sense, she is ideal but despite her adherence to that code, she could neither save her country nor truly understand her people. It’s hard to call her an ideal king based on that, isn’t it? Yet, she did everything right which means that if there is a problem, it lies with her ideals themselves.
That, to me at least, captures Saber’s struggle – she has suppressed her own humanity to become this ideal version of herself but it didn’t lead her to that perfect happy ending and now, the humanity she suppressed wishes to take back her actions and return to a point where she never chose those ideals in the first place (which in this specific case, means leave a certain sword stuck in a certain stone). It is the same humanity that develops feelings for Shirou that she tries and fails to ruthlessly supress. In essence, that’s what ‘Fate’ was all about to me; it’s about accepting your failings along with your strengths. Shirou tries to convince her that even if the result wasn’t what she wanted, that doesn’t mean that she should regret and resent everything prior to the result itself. Saber has all these emotions, like her feelings for Shirou, that would steer her away from that perfect path; after all, she can’t be falling in love or going on fun dates as a Servant in a Holy Grail War. Her ultimate choice comes down to choosing between the past and the present, but also between choosing to continue to abide by the ideals that betrayed her or choosing her own humanity – if she chose the first option to either question, then she would have taken the Grail but the story ends with her choosing to let go of the past and embrace her feelings and given the happy (if bittersweet) ending to ‘Fate’, it seems like the VN is telling us she made the right choice. The relationship between Saber and Shirou was a good way to show the conflict between her ‘perfect’ self and her inner emotions but the relationship itself felt a little rushed – somehow Shirou falls head over heels in Saber (so much as that he waits an eternity to be reunited with her) in just under two weeks? All in all, ‘Fate’ introduces us to all the key building blocks of the VN. Most of essential reveals happen here; the types of Servants, some of their abilities and how the Grail and the Grail War work.
Unlimited Blade Works
Even though I know it’s an exercise in futility to compare ‘Fate’ to UBW, it is hard not to. UBW comes right after ‘Fate’ and for a large part of UBW’s early story, the conclusions from ‘Fate’ are still in our heads. We still remember the Saber we came to know and love from ‘Fate’ and so it seems strange to see her take such a passive role to see Rin move to forefront. Likewise, UBW quickly begins injecting more and more of Shirou’s emptiness into the story – it starts off with things we already know, like Shirou’s dreams of becoming a superhero and saving everyone but more and more, it begins drifting into a more negative area with Shirou questioning whether his ideals can even be achieved. The catalyst for that change is Archer who, as a result of getting significantly more face-time in UBW, emerges as one of the most interesting characters not just of UBW but of the VN as a whole. In ‘Fate’, Shirou had to confront Saber’s unhealthy relationship with her ideals and actions in order to come to terms with his own relationship with them but in UBW, it is Archer who Shirou has to face down, both in a literal, physical sense and in a narrative one. I have written at considerable length about the dynamics between Archer and Shirou and each character’s respective relationships with their dreams, so I will try to avoid rehashing as much of it as I can.
Where ‘Fate’ kept the characters from experiencing either the highest of highs or the lowest of lows, UBW plunges them a fair bit deeper. There are shifts in power; for a while, Berserker seemed unstoppable, then Caster took that position and Gilgamesh after her, but all three Servants fell eventually. One of the things that makes UBW such an amazing piece of character development is Nasu’s willingness to drag Shirou through the dirt – compared to ‘Fate’, Shirou has a really rough time here. He loses Saber and soon after, Rin loses Archer; he is rendered useless and helpless but somehow he overcomes all of that to challenge the King of Heroes himself. Yet, his fight with Gilgamesh is only the icing on the cake; the actual cake itself is his confrontation with Archer. If the theme of ‘Fate’ is centred on the struggle to be an ideal, then UBW questions the ideal itself. Archer, in a perverse sense, is Shirou’s ideal – he is logical conclusion of Shirou’s mindset at the beginning of the route and he represents a very possible, likely corruption of Shirou’s dream; Shirou’s unquestioning adherence to his idealism resulted in Archer being betrayed by them. UBW complicates matters in a way that ‘Fate’ never did – ‘Fate’ basically said that if Shirou could struggle hard enough to reach his ideal, he would be rewarded by becoming that ideal but UBW says that even if he achieves that end goal, there is no happy ending waiting for him. Archer is sad and cynical and not exactly the kind of person anyone wants to grow up to be and the message is clear; knowing that this is the outcome, are you still willing to cling to your ideal? Do you really even understand what your ideal means? Shirou’s reply to these probing questions doesn’t come easily but when he is finally able to piece his reply together, what results is easily the VN’s most emotionally satisfying moment. Shirou is able to carry the momentum of his triumph over Archer over into his fight with Gilgamesh, making the final stretch of UBW absolutely riveting.
More than any other route, UBW conveys that idea that there is something noble about overcoming yourself. Shirou becomes truly powerful the moment he sheds his self-doubt and completes his self-realization. There are parallels between Archer and Saber as well as between Archer and Emiya Kiritsugu who isn’t properly introduced until UBW. Archer has much of his father’s pragmatism and like him, was forced to sacrifice the few to save the many – in direct conflict with Shirou’s original dream of saving everyone. There are a bunch of parallels and connections between these four characters – Shirou, Saber, Archer and Kiritsugu – though these connections are not fully exposed until we reach ‘Heaven’s Feel’. In essence, they each have high ideals but find that the real world isn’t quite as forgiving as they believed. Yet, all of this is apparent only by the time HF rolls around. UBW itself does not bring the real world into the equation yet but questions the intrinsic value of ideals and aspirations. It is easily the most entertaining of the three routes, with frequent battles, including some of the best in the VN like the aforementioned Gilgamesh vs Shirou and the less physical but no less compelling, Archer vs Shirou. The more even distribution of action ensures that the pacing is fairly good throughout though the real high point of the route is the way Rin and Shirou’s relationship develops. To a fairly large degree, Rin is the anchor that is going to keep Shirou’s ideals rooted firmly in reality but at the same time, she doesn’t offer quite the same depth as a character as Saber does, though she is a compelling and capable enough character in her own right. The other blessing UBW received was a series of highly competent antagonists; Caster, Archer and Gilgamesh all presented a definite, serious threat to our heroes at various points and in the story and each of their defeats was a highpoint of UBW. More than anything, UBW owes its success to ‘Fate’ – we are more emotionally invested in the characters by the end of the UBW and that emotional investment is absolutely crucial to UBW’s payoff as a story. Indeed, the action in story feeds off of the characters’ mental states which makes UBW as much a character piece as an action packed fantasy-adventure story, if not more so.
And then there is ‘Heaven’s Feel’. HF is the real game-changer, in every sense of the word. ‘Fate’ represented pretty much the best case scenario for the character, especially Shirou; casualties were minimized, and everything went off a lot more smoothly and less painfully than it should have, given the circumstances. UBW rocks that boat a fair bit, but HF truly capsizes it. Heaven’s Feel is an absolutely brutal story not just for the events that take place in the story but also because of the way these events happen to (and because of) character we have come to care deeply about. It feels to me that ‘Heaven’s Feel’ exposes the dark underbellies of all these characters and we finally see them for what they truly are. More than either of the previous routes, it feels like HF is the story that Nasu really had in mind when he conceived of Fate/Stay Night. It forces the player to experience a wider range of emotions than they might know they had; from heart-warming happiness, to disgust and horror, to soul-crushing sadness, to moments of crazy hype and heroism. More than anything, it brings the most grim aspect of all to the story – reality. Reality is something that ‘Fate’, and to a lesser extent, UBW, ignored but HF forces the characters, and by extension, us, to confront. Can Shirou’s ideals hold up in the face of having real, pressing choices to make? It’s all well and good to talk a big game when there’s nothing at stake, but will Shirou really deliver when it comes down to it? As it turns out, no, he will not but that’s actually perfectly fine as we will see shortly.
Before we talk about how HF ties all three routes and the VN together, let’s talk a little about how thoroughly my impressions of the characters changed as a result of the events of this route. This section will be fairly long since this is the first time I’ve ever spoke about ‘Heaven’s Feel’ and so much happens in the route that there is an actual fuckton of things to talk about. Let’s start with Rin, shall we? One choice in UBW has Rin quite mercilessly take Shirou down and out very early on in the route but prior to ‘Heaven’s Feel’ that is the closest the story comes to acknowledge the cold pragmatism of Rin’s character. HF reveals that she is ruthless – if we chose to let Sakura die midway through the route, Rin shows shockingly little mercy and throughout the route, we see her quite willing to kill Sakura if that’s what it takes. What makes her actions and attitude particularly upsetting is that we find out at the end of the route that she does care deeply for Sakura and in its own way, her taking her sister’s life was her own way of showing her cares for Sakura. Yet, coming off of the heels of UBW, that kind of cold-hearted demonstration of affection is quite shocking even if it is well substantiated within the story.
Then there is Kirei, who we finally get to really meet and understand after two full routes of just thinking of him as a corrupt priest with skin-deep motivations. His character is particularly easy to understand – he seems to thrive off of other’s misery but there isn’t any real, deep psychological motivation for it. It is his personality, and that’s all there is to it – it makes him a refreshingly honest villain and explains why a lot of the time, in prior routes, he seems to enjoy making the characters suffer over actually taking steps to ensure his absolute victory. There is something quite appealing about an antagonist whose motivations are so, for the lack of a better word, pure – he wants his opponents to suffer, simple as that. One of the reasons that ‘Heaven’s Feel’ is such a great story is because Kirei makes surprisingly frequent appearances and keeps it all very real. It is especially hilarious (in a somewhat black humour way) to see Shirou in a state of absolute distress, freaking out and panicking while Kirei calmly eats some spiced tofu and tells him he should be scared, very scared. That Kirei goes to rather extreme lengths to prolong the series of catastrophes in HF as long as he can is nothing short of amazing and his contributions to the cause of drama, not to mention how incredibly badass he is (Kirei vs True Assassin anyone?), in HF elevate him to one of the best characters in HF, possibly in Fate/Stay Night.
The last character who’s really different is Ilya. In ‘Fate’, she was mostly used for comedic effect, a sudden, jarring introduction to Shirou’s household harem while in UBW she is used to bully us into emotionally investing into Berserker’s defeat. In HF though, it feels like we see her real character, beyond just the comedy and light-heartedness. It was incredibly touching to see her care so deeply for Shirou and heart-rending to realize that the siblings (which is what they are, technically) will never get the happy ending that they deserve. It makes her sacrifice for Shirou all the more tragic – she moves past Kiritsugu abandoning her in the past and moves past her desire for revenge and comes to care enough for her younger brother to sacrifice herself for it. She comes across as mature and wise, a far cry from the Ilya of ‘Fate’, but not so much so that she is a total party-pooper. This is one of the places where the whole notion of the routes begins to bother me; a series of wrong choices can lead to Ilya killing Shirou (however reluctantly, or regretfully) in Heaven’s Feel but prior to that both characters seemed to get along well enough – so what exactly is the real interpretation of Ilya’s character? I’m making my peace with this by thinking that this is her character – that the conflict about whether to kill Shirou for revenge on Kiritsugu or to save him is a key component of her character and the choices in the game allow us to explore the consequences of either side of that decision
At this point, you’re probably thinking, ‘Huh, Ilya’s the last character that’s different? Aren’t forgetting, um, some major character changes in say, Sakura?’ Why yes, I haven’t ignored her though Nasu certainly did for two-thirds of this story. Of course, Sakura’s true character comes as something as a surprise as well – the soft spoken, if occasionally stubborn shrinking violet has quite the horrifying past and more than a touch of anger, resentment and darkness within her. There’s a problem though – when we are told Sakura’s past is deeply troubling and thoroughly messed up but as it gets worse and worse, it also gets more and more distant from something we can empathize with. That she went through that degree of physical, mental and sexual abuse is absolutely disgusting, not doubt at it, but you reach a point where it becomes so much that it is difficult to really connect with it on an emotional level – almost we get numb to it. Nasu could have stopped well before that point and left Sakura just as sympathetic as she was before and saved us some mild trauma but having said that, I do recognize that there is a high level of plot significance to a lot of her abuse. What fascinates me about Sakura as the female lead of HF is that she is not inherently a ‘nice’ person like Saber or even Rin (who is less ‘nice’ than Saber, actually). Sakura is a victim – especially compared to Saber and Rin – but at the same time also an antagonist. Even before she totally breaks down, she is broken enough to think that he is helping Shirou by ripping an arm off him to keep him from fighting – that’s not just strange, that’s downright disturbed. The end result is that despite being a lot more sympathetic and pitiful than Rin or Saber, we do not end up rooting for her nearly as much as we do those prior heroines. A large part of that might be because Sakura’s salvation comes at a cost – Shirou has had to sacrifice his ideals and dreams as well as his body in order to save her and even though we know that Sakura is a product of her fucked up environment, we can’t help but ask if she is really worth it at the end of the day. Still, the decision to save one at the cost of the many is the cornerstone of what HF is all about and it centres on the ticking time-bomb that is Matou Sakura.
That actually brings us to the character of Emiya Kiritsugu, who we learn isn’t really anything like the person Shirou thought him to be before the Holy Grail War. In a sense, the true Kiritsugu is revealed to us in HF to exactly the same degree that the other characters are unveiled. Understanding Kiritsugu and his own path towards his ideals is crucial not just because he is the character that Shirou must confront in this route but also because it will help us understand what makes HF such a powerful story. Kiritsugu, if Kirei is to be believed (and HF shows us that Kiritsugu is nothing if not brutally honest in such situations), was not a good man, at least not in the conventional sense of the word. He fought to make the world a better place, yes, but he did it in exactly the opposite way that Shirou would prefer to – he had no compunctions about making necessary sacrifices, much like Archer. Kiritsugu looked to the Grail as his salvation, as the vindication of all those he was forced to sacrifice for the greater good but was betrayed when the Grail turned out to be corrupt and incapable of granting him his impossible wish (which I feel parallels Archer too, in some ways). Suddenly, we see the reasons why Kiritsugu always said that a hero cannot save everyone and why his philosophy of sacrificing one to save the many was reversed. Remember how happy he was to find Shirou alive after the fire – the fire showed him that he could not keep sacrificing the few and it seems he thus decided that he would focus on saving those he could.
This brings us to Shirou in HF. The Shirou we see in ‘Fate’ is almost comically heroic compared to the Shirou in HF – in ‘Fate’ he fights Angra Mainyu by himself and emerges triumphant and unscarred. That Shirou became his ideal, he was the superhero that saved everyone but in HF, he goes the exact opposite route – he chooses his own happiness (represented by his love for Sakura) above the happiness of the world in general. Sakura’s nightly rampages would consume increasing numbers of innocents and Shirou knew it but still chose the person he cared about above that. Yet, we cannot bring ourselves to really condemn him for it – after all, in his place, would any of us really sacrifice our loved ones for the unknown, unseen faceless masses? Shirou’s choice quite clearly mirrors his father’s, as Kirei points out, but where Kiritsugu always chose the many over the few, Shirou chooses exactly the opposite. It is interesting that despite choosing the allegedly selfless choice, Kiritsugu was a cold and calculating man but Shirou who chooses to be selfish is more human and empathetic. This brings us full circle to ‘Fate’ – Saber’s choice to embrace her own humanity is technically selfish since it indirectly results in her forsaking her country to its fate but it is also seen as the correct decision in the context of the VN.
I’ll end this ultra-long post (seriously, 5300 words and counting) by talking about some questions HF left me with and my opinion on the final route as a whole. Zouken is a great antagonist – I don’t like him as much as Kirei, but as far as pure villainy goes, I think Zouken has it covered. He is creepy, utterly unsympathetic but is powerful enough to command some respect from us and the protagonists. True Assassin was something of a disappointment though his dismissal at Kirei’s hands was still rather satisfying to see. My gripe here is that all these elements feel so isolated – where was Zouken during ‘Fate’ and UBW? Clearly Sakura knew what Saber was the second she saw her in both those routes but we never do find out what happened to her in those routes. Between the Shadow, True Assassin and Zouken, HF felt like an alternate universe version of Fate/Stay Night – I keep imagining this version where all the various protagonists and antagonists are active at the same time. For example, the Sakura/Black Grail subplot is active at the same that Gilgamesh is deployed and active while Kirei too is doing his own thing. Saber was absent for all of HF but how much more awesome would this combined route be if all three heroines were playing active roles in it? It’s an idle wish, nothing more, but fun to think about. In any case, this has been an extremely long post but I’m looking forward to any comments of stuff I missed out or misinterpreted (there has been a lot to take in) and I hope you enjoyed this post as much as I enjoyed playing through the VN!
Final note: to anyone wondering, Kara No Kyoukai 5 will be out on Wednesday, that movie is long (and very confusing).