Monday, January 5, 2015

Anime Review: Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works (television series, part one)

Despite the fact that I enjoyed Fate/Zero when I watched it a few years back, this series wasn't on my to-watch list when the fall season started since I had heard that the original Fate/Stay Night visual novel is, well, kind of terrible. And the F/SN VN is a little weird, while all three routes (Fate, Unlimited Blade Works, and Heavens Feel) are canon, Heavens Feel is the "most canon" so why watch something that wasn't going to matter as much in the long run? Plus, they did already make a movie about this route a few years ago and it sounded like that was an alright adaptation, why should I check out this one instead? But then, all of the people on my feed who had played the VN, who had said it was terrible, said that this adaptation was really cutting out sexist dialogue and other less-than-savory moments and turning it into a better story. And after seeing so much good buzz for it I was interested in it again, funny enough I think that's also exactly how I ended up watching F/Z in the first place....

Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works (television series, fall 2014)

In Fuyuki city, there is a secret contest amongst mages where seven powerful users are selected to summon familiars, drawn from the annals of history to fit a specific fighting role, and then fight in a battle royal. Rin has spent her entire life preparing for this fight and is sorely disappointed when she summons Archer instead of Saber, the absolute best servant, and is somewhat exasperated with his sarcasm.  Across town, her classmate Shirou is a mage with very low abilities and yet he manages to summon Saber with no idea how he did itAnd Saber herself is very familiar with the Holy Grail War and also seems to recognize Shirou's last name, Emiya.

As mentioned earlier, apparently there is quite a bit of sexism in the original visual novel and I would have never guessed just from watching the anime. Here Shirou seems to be concerned over Saber getting hurt because she's his partner, getting hurt is bad, and he's not enough of a mage to heal her so they really do have to be careful, there's nothing in his words or actions to suggest he doesn't think she should be fighting because she's a girl. Likewise, Shirou doesn't make any complaints about Rin fighting since she is also clearly more capable than he is in a fight and the story itself doesn't slight her, she's portrayed as an intelligent, capable teenaged girl and she squashes any dissent out of Archer within minutes of meeting him. I am told the worst of this route is yet to come but so far there's nothing problematic that would keep me from recommending this show and I don't think I could say the same of Fate/Zero by this point!

Speaking of F/Z, since these two stories really parallel each other in so many ways; one thing I did notice was that, not only are the characters less driven in this series but fewer characters are interesting. In F/Z Saber, Archer, Rider, Waver, and even Lancer were interesting and, while neither Kieri nor Kiritsugu's arcs really grabbed me, they certainly did shape both every character around them and the show itself. Here the cast is mostly children, since this Holy Grail War was only ten years after the previous one (instead of 40 or 50), and many of the characters openly admit they don't have a goal or even a wish for the grail. I believe Saber does, but her story apparently is more fleshed out in the Fate route, and I believe Ilya does too but that's it. Rin and Shirou manage to be interesting in spite of this; Rin clearly wants to win (like her father did in F/Z) but she's also self-taught and therefore lacks some of the ruthlessness you see in the other characters and that contrast between what she believes are her ideals and what she acts out is interesting to see. Shirou has inherited some of Kiritsugu's passion for "justice" but the story seems aware that even this goal is a very vague one and Shirou is learning that without a clear course of action it's hard to accomplish anything.

Since Rin and Shirou are interesting this means that Archer and Saber are interesting by extension (considering I know which heroic spirit Archer is I'm sure the story will deal more with him in the second half and I like what it's done already) but the rest of the cast falls flat. To be honest, even Saber feels a bit flat half of the time since, unlike F/Z where she was constantly engaging in ideological clashes, she hasn't changed much as a character or even opened up to Shirou. Again, I suspect that a lot of her character development was in another arc and I can justify to myself as "maybe she's so happy that she actually gets along with Emiya this time that she's staying quiet" and it doesn't bother me too much during the actual show. But as for the rest, I think part of it is because this story is structured differently from F/Z, that story had many main characters (you could argue that all 14 servants and masters were "main characters" plus some a few supporting characters) but this one has Shirou as a protagonist and Rin as a co-protagonist and not many other main characters. It's a much narrower scope and since everything has to relate back to one of those two characters it means there's simply less opportunity to flesh the others out. 

Plus, this story really does feel like the work of a more immature writer, Nasu just had less experience writing than Urobotchi and the anime writers did. We have more clearly evil and morally very-dark-gray characters here from the start and less justification for it. I should clarify that despite it's smaller scope I didn't find this story less engaging to watch for it. The standout scenes are just very different, F/Z had it's meeting of kings episode and here we just have some very fun interactions between Rin and Shirou (and the internet lied to me, Shirou is way more tsundere to Rin than she is to him, and for once the blustering and blushing is a bit cute!). The same audience can enjoy both shows but I think there will be a very clear difference in what groups enjoy which show more.

To touch on the art briefly, I remember that F/Z had a number of touch-ups in it's DVD/BR release and I wonder if that will the be the case here as well. The farther the show went on the more distorted the character faces got, ufotable's character designs tend towards simpler ones to start with but there was a lot of inconsistency and I did find it distracting. The fights looked spectacular however, the aren't covered up by as many special effects here and the choreography looked pretty cool on a lot of them, it really helped convince me that these characters are among the strongest or most cunning fighters in history. Although I wonder if I'll even own the blu-rays, like Fate/Zero this series is licensed by Aniplex and I'm sure the DVD/BR sets will command the same exuberant prices. If the second half is as strong I'd certainly like to but for the moment I'll have to be content watching streams on crunchyroll/huly (CR has the usual one week delay for free users but hulu does not, whoopee!)   

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