Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works (2014-2015) is like a gorgeous blimp that falls apart in mid-flight but somehow manages to land safely.
Let’s provide a little context here. Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works (henceforth UBW) is a series produced by studio ufotable, known for their gorgeously animated Garden of Sinners movies and Fate/Zero TV series. It adapts one of the three playable routes in Nasu Kinoko’s 2004 Fate/Stay Night game. The first half of UBW aired in the fall of 2014, amidst massive hype, and after a winter hiatus, the second half aired in the spring of 2015. UBW’s premise is a Battle Royale for a magical Holy Grail, fought between seven mages who summon legendary heroic spirits as servants to fight as proxies. As I mentioned in my positive impressions of the first half, UBW has an interesting premise that promises to deliver a compelling story.
If only its execution lived up to that promise.
The main theme of UBW’s story, as the second half makes clear, is a discussion of ideals, choices, and regrets. At first glance, this is an interesting concept, and many of UBW’s characters are set up nicely to explore this theme. The protagonist Shirou’s ideal is to become a “hero of justice”, to “save people from suffering” (whatever that means). The Servant Archer once shared the same ideals, choosing to sacrifice his personal happiness for them, but has since become disillusioned. Even Saber—whose ideals to save her country resulted in heartbreak in the prequel Fate/Zero—gets some sort of closure in UBW.
Unfortunately, this concept suffers from sloppy storytelling. Although the first half hints at these themes, it spends most of its time having Shirou alternate between bickering with the female protagonist and fighting enemies without having his ideals challenged. It’s not until halfway through the second half that UBW finally decides to pit Shirou’s ideals against Archer’s cynicism—by having them yammer back and forth, repeating the same arguments, for four insufferable episodes. UBW tries to use Archer’s backstory and disillusionment to show the flaws in Shirou’s ideals, but the story is only hinted at through brief, incoherently narrated flashbacks. Hence, the audience is unconvinced, as we feel no emotional impact from his story. It’s the same difference as being told a cake tastes good, and actually tasting it for yourself. With Archer’s arguments falling flat, Shirou’s ideals also ring hollow. In the end, UBW fails to articulate its main theme coherently.
For a better exploration of this theme, look at Madoka Magica. Each protagonist’s ideals are embodied in their wishes. Through Homura’s and Sayaka’s arcs, and through Kyouko’s succinctly-narrated backstory, we see the protagonists’ wishes inevitably leading to unintended consequences, and directly challenging their original ideals. We understand and empathize with these ideals, and the characters behind them. This makes Madoka’s thematic exploration much more impactful.
Granted, a story doesn’t have to spend all its time exploring a single theme. However, the remaining elements of UBW are not particularly well-executed either. I’ve written before that the female protagonist, Rin, was an interesting character with conflicting motivations in the first half. Unfortunately, in the second half, she all but loses her independence and agency, and instead goes along with Shirou’s ideals. The second half also features a backstory for the Servant Caster, which heavy-handedly demonstrates a villain born out of betrayal, as well as a backstory for the mage Ilyasviel, which also heavy-handedly shows the tragedy of machine-like perfection and a bond developing between outcasts. In particular, I felt UBW had the potential to create a compelling story for Ilyasviel by spreading it out beyond a single rushed episode, and relying less on dialogue to convey emotions.
I’ve talked enough about the disappointing execution of UBW’s themes and characters. Why don’t we talk about the visual presentation? This being studio ufotable, the fights have to look good, right? True, the backgrounds and action scenes still look pretty, but in a season dominated by talking, the fights are few and far between. Before the final three episodes, the most notable visual highlight for me was Archer’s Unlimited Blade Works spell. This spell summons a Martian desert of sterile browns and greys, strewn with swords standing almost like crosses to mark Archer’s fallen dreams: a perfect visual metaphor for his despair and disillusionment.
However, UBW seems to know how to stick a landing. The final enemy is a cartoonish villain with a comically absurd motivation, which allows the viewer to sit back and watch as the show pulls out all the stops to animate a beautifully choreographed fight scene. UBW ends on a pleasantly optimistic, peaceful slice-of-life epilogue, almost succeeding in covering up the fact that the central thematic thread—Shirou’s self-destructive ideals—remains unresolved.
So would I recommend this series?
– If you are a die-hard Type-Moon fan, or want to spend more time with these characters, you’ll likely love it (and you’ve probably seen it already).
– If you want to enjoy some gorgeous action scenes courtesy of studio ufotable, then you’ll probably like this show.
– But if you want a coherently written story, or a nuanced exploration of heroic ideals, choices, and disillusionment, there are better shows out there to watch.
Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works is available for free legal streaming at Crunchyroll.