I am the bone of my sword.
What’s the Story?
The Fifth Holy Grail War is about to take place in Fuyuki City, a magical death match between seven Masters and their Servants, who just so happen to be legendary heroes from across time summoned into the present day. One of these Masters is Shirou Emiya, a rather mediocre mage who can barely use magic. Still, Shirou has a dream, to become a hero of justice, but as events escalate that ideal is called into question more and more often. Can Shirou hold true to his desire to save everyone, or will he be crushed under the weight of realisation when he learns just where his chosen path will lead? And just who is the mysterious Archer, and why is he so determined to see Shirou dead?
I’m going to start off with the animation, because I think it’s the best part of this anime. The animation on display here is jaw-dropping. It is beautiful and cinematic, in fact I have seen films with a lower quality of animation that this series. The fights are utterly gorgeous, filled with dynamic action and an amazing soundtrack to back them up. It’s not just the action that’s great though, that quality is spread through everything, from the picturesque backdrops to the little things, like facial expressions and body language. After watching this series I don’t know if I can look at other series the same way, they all pale in comparison to this show.
That brings us round to the rest of the components of the series, and unfortunately that’s where a couple of problems crop up. For one, this series can be really slow and long-winded sometimes. Now this wasn’t much a problem for me (during the first 13 episodes anyway) as I just enjoyed looking at all the pretty images, and I do enjoy spending time with these characters (except for Shinji, who can go be devoured by some hideous monster blob thing and never come out again. Too good for him I say!). The show often feels very mellow, letting its characters just talk and be themselves. I know this won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but I honestly never got bored even when the characters were just sat around talking about meaningless things.
Let’s talk about the characters for a moment. There are a lot, and I do really like them all (except for Shinji as I mentioned. Is it so wrong that I daydream that Sakura has poisoned those apples in the epilogue episode?) Each character has their own motivation for why they want the grail, as well as fully fleshed out back stories. It helps them all to be relatable and understandable (I won’t call them realistic as some of their back stories, and sometimes even the long-winded way they talk, is far beyond anything ‘real’).
Our main character though is Shirou. Honestly before I started watching this show I was terrified of how I’d react to Shirou. I’d heard some real terrible things about him from the 2006 anime, and I feared that might carry over to here, but much to my surprise, I really like this guy. His idealism about being a hero of justice could so easily have been annoying, but what keeps him in the likeable camp is that the world doesn’t coddle him. The world is constantly telling Shirou that he’s naive and that “to save one person, you have to sacrifice another”. I like the struggle that gives him, though I’ll get into my issues with his resolution to this problem in a few paragraphs. I also adore this relationship with Rin, they have great chemistry together and the way their relationship grows feels very natural. It’s just great to watch the two of them interact.
The first major problem for the series comes in when you realise one fact, this story belongs solely to Shirou. Every other cast member, including Saber and Rin, are practically inconsequential compared to the Plot God that is Shirou. It’s a real shame when you consider that you have such great characters as Illya and Rin, and they’re stories barely get explored. Some characters don’t even get an episode of exploration, and it is especially painful when you realise that you clearly have to watch Fate/Zero to understand several of the back stories and plot elements, such as Rin’s connection to Sakura and I really don’t like the fact that Gilgamesh’s identity is just dropped in without any warning or drama (the show just expects you to know who he is and only gives the briefest of explanations for those not in the know).
The series starts to really fall apart in its second half. For one, that long-windedness and the slow pace finally started to grate on me. It takes three whole episodes to take down Archer, don’t get me wrong the fight looks cool, but when they stop every five minutes to repeat the same damn speech it does tend to spoil the tension somewhat. Also I’m not that keen on the solution. Yes, now Shirou can see the faults in his philosophy, yet he shall continue to walk down the path he believes is right. I’m perfectly fine with that, it’s just that the anime makes no attempts to show us how Shirou will avoid the same fate as Archer. Is knowingly walking into a painful future any less bad than ignorantly doing so? It makes Shirou sound like an idiot, or that he just hasn’t fully learnt his lesson yet. All I’m asking for is a couple of examples as to how Shirou comes out of this situation any better than Archer, does his new determination stop his loss of faith, or allow him to focus more on the people it helps? Will it change his path and lead to less killing, and more saving? The answer needs to be more specific.
That’s before we even get into what happens to Saber and Rin during the second half. I love both of these characters, they’re strong-willed, have their own values and methodologies, they’re really great characters, and yet the second half of this anime treats them like damsels in distress (in the worst way possible), which I find really demeaning and disrespectful. Saber spends most of the second half practically useless, either stood on the sidelines, or tied up in that stupid fanservice dress (well I can’t actually call that fanservice as that implies it serves the fans, which I don’t believe it does). Then there’s Rin, who gets tied to a chair while Shinji threatens to rape her. Ugh. Rape is a really heavy subject matter, and if you’re going to bring it up you can least deal with it properly. You have to deal with the psychological terror it inflicts and how horrible an act it really is, and not just throw it around as a threat because rape is something that happens to women, right? (the feminist in me is really struggling to not punch my laptop right now, and the general human being in me is struggling not to track down the writer and punch him). These scenes are fairly small in the grand scheme of things, but they leave such a bad taste in my mouth that it sours several episodes to the point where I struggle to watch them.
At least the series ends on a suitably epic note. Shirou’s final battle against the Big Bad of this route is exhilarating and a real moment to cheer for, just suspend your disbelief for about ten minutes when you see Shirou jumping around like Mario (and where exactly is he getting all the mana to pull off all this stuff?) And yes, it is a little disappointing that they just throw the same generic looking swords and axes at one another (you’re meant to have the template for every hero’s Noble Phantasm Gil, get creative!). In all honesty though, I just don’t care about that, the action is so fast (and beautifully animated) that I get lost in a swell of adrenaline. And they don’t stop every five minutes to talk about Shirou’s issues!
For crying out loud, I’ve being talking for forever about this show. What is it about the Fate series that has me talking ad infinitum? Anyway, I do recommend this series, despite its flaws whether they be some criminally underused secondary characters, mistreatment of its female characters or a lack of proper resolution to the story’s central issue, this is still an enjoyable ride for the most part. This is a blockbuster anime that is that is both gorgeous and thrilling, just be prepared for the letdown in the second half.
Chris Joynson, aka the Infallible Fish, is a writer, blogger and lover of animation living in Sheffield. The blog updates every Friday.