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Reaper's Reviews: 'Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works'

Ilan is a huge fan of anime and video games since he can remember himself. He is also an aspiring author who wishes to write fantasy novels.

Production: Ufotable
Genre: Action/Drama/Romance
Format: 26 episodes + 1 OVA
Release: October 4, 2014 - December 17, 2014, April 4, 2015 - June 27, 2015
Source: Visual novel

'Unlimited Blade Works'

'Unlimited Blade Works'

Something interesting that I noticed about the original visual novel of Fate/stay night is its approach to “routes” in the medium. From what I know, the way your route will go depends on the choices you make; this will determine the story which will then ship you with one of the visual novel’s heroines, depending on your interactions with them.

Meanwhile from what I gathered, Fate disregards the “choose your heroine” style of visual novels in favor of three fixed routes, that rather than being randomly started from your own decisions, are played in a specific order that gradually unlocks each one of them in a way that unfolds multiple secrets of the story and the setting with each route.

So why is that important? Well, mainly because making a “complete” anime adaptation of the Fate/stay night novel is impossible unless you rewrite it entirely for a television format. You have three distinctly different narratives that while they may share some characters and early events, evolve into vastly different beasts that focus on similarly vastly different concepts.

And so you have Fate, the introduction route that focuses on the franchise poster girl Saber; then you enter the subject of this review, Unlimited Blade Works, which focuses on one of anime’s most notorious tsunderes Rin; and finally the highly acclaimed Heaven’s Feel which focuses on the gentle and messed up Sakura.

So this was a little background mostly because I had no idea what to write in this introduction section. These are without a doubt my least favorite parts in review writing. Anyways, without any further distractions, you are invited to read my review for studio Ufotable’s 2014-15 little baby, Unlimited Blade Works.

Story & Setting

'Unlimited Blade Works' is based on and named after the second route of the 'Fate/stay night' visual novel.

'Unlimited Blade Works' is based on and named after the second route of the 'Fate/stay night' visual novel.

Let’s skip all the little details of the background this time, alright? The Holy Grail War is a secret seven-way war between mages every generation, and they can summon historical or mythical figures who act as their Servants, powerful familiars who are their key to win the magical wish-fulfilling object that is the Holy Grail.

I already wrote two reviews regarding previous entries in the Fate franchise, so if you want more information, you’d better check them out or watch the 2006 Fate/stay night series (review) and Fate/Zero (review), which this series assumes you are already familiar with. I should clarify right now that you might encounter spoilers for the aforementioned shows, so please proceed with caution.

Unlimited Blade Works is based on and named after the second route of the Fate/stay night visual novel, following the Fate route mostly adapted into its 2006 counterpart. As it builds upon what was first shown in that series, UBW quickly evolves into a swifter and more coherent story that places greater emphasis not only on Shirou’s ideals, but the flaws that inherently plague said ideals as well.

UBW is at its strongest when it explores the idea of “Hero of Justice” that the Fate franchise is so in love with. In many ways, it’s a thematic continuation to Zero’s narrative, albeit more balanced between that series’ cynical look at this theme’s flaws and DEEN/Stay Night’s more idealistic approach.

The script’s more critical eye examines the harsh implausibility of being a hero in an utterly violent and calculating world, and it finally elevates one of the 2006 series’ most common criticisms: it shoots down its protagonist’s frankly childish hopes. Like Fate/Zero, UBW somewhat deconstructs this theme and how, if anything, it might lead to even more destruction. In the end, trying to be a hero is a futile goal.

On the other hand, unlike Zero, UBW also appears to try and reconstruct the Hero of Justice with what it learnt. It strives to explain, at least in my eyes, that while indeed this may be a fairly flawed and almost impossible task, the idea of being a hero of justice is still a noble desire that forms one’s mindset. Even if something looks endless and hopeless, there is no shame in still trying to achieve it.

The story that carries all that is a generally great and well-told one. UBW starts off lightheartedly enough—well for a Fate series—with the iconic entrance of Shirou Emiya into the Holy Grail War, but quickly shifts into a fast-paced and unpredictable narrative that keeps upping itself with surprising yet cleverly prepared revelations and twists in a very bold and unshaken direction. It never quite reaches Zero’s cool and careful level of storytelling, but at its best, the series is, for the most part, a worthy successor.

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It has its moments of unexpected comedy and wacky humor, but the series balances them well enough to avoid making them overly distracting or exhausting. The slice-of-life elements, while present, are greatly downplayed and serve a definite secondary role to the exciting and lively story of UBW.

That said UBW is not without its fallacy in the story department. It gets away from many difficult situations it placed itself by contrived draws from its villainous characters and convoluted means to kill some of its cast-off, sometimes just for the heck of it.

The amount of Bond villain stupidity can be staggering at times, mainly in the form of Caster and her overly complicated plans even when she has the leads under her feet, but this is also apparent in the two greater antagonists of the story, who similar to Caster had multiple chances to eliminate Shirou but nope. Let him live to fight another day, or just take forever in breaking him beforehand as part of your righteous plan. Give me a break.

Secondly, UBW is somewhat of an oddball when it comes to its purpose, placement in the Fate series, and accessibility. At times it looks like UBW seems to bile itself solely as Zero’s sequel, which frankly is correct, and it fits that series’ timeline well enough with little to no inconsistencies. A fair amount of background information relies on already having Zero under your belt and UBW ultimately concludes familiar themes touched upon in the former.

That said, it is awfully clear that UBW is not the complete story. It leaves off several lingering questions and aborted character arcs hanging such as Sakura and Kirei, so fans of Zero will obviously feel underwhelmed and disappointed at lackluster subplots. In this case, it seems to encourage also watching 2006's Fate/stay night which at the very least closed most of its ends loose.

And finally, it tries to appeal to newcomers in a novel but unsuccessful attempt to reintroduce plot elements and character details that people who watched either of the aforementioned shows would be already familiar with. So on a whole while a great story, UBW tries to juggle its placement a tad too hard. This is far from off-putting, but I heavily recommend watching both the 2006 F/SN and 2012’s Fate/Zero before touching UBW, because how much you will get from it is kinda dependable on your familiarity with the Fate franchise as a whole.

As for the ending, it’s epic, ambitious, and emotional, and finishes the long saga masterfully. My only issue with the finale is that it wraps some things up with a very obvious case of deus ex machina which is, amusing on the studio's effort, the name of the penultimate episode. It’s not a deal-breaker, though, and at the very least gives some satisfaction due to the sheer coolness and style presented there.

The Characters

Shirou’ character development is far more substantial than before.

Shirou’ character development is far more substantial than before.

One of the bigger issues people had with the 2006 Stay Night series is that its main protagonist Shirou Emiya was a terribly bland and thick-headed character. UBW doesn’t completely overhaul his character, but in this series, Shirou has that level of depth and development that felt lacking in Deen’s adaptation. He has more flavor to his personality, and his conversations elevate a more sarcastic touch in tone, which also makes him far more entertaining than previous incarnations of his character.

Shirou’ character development is also far more substantial than before. His ideals and mindset not only get challenged, but also mocked, examined, and crashed by other characters. We get to know why Shirou acts the way he does, the reasoning behind his life decisions, and a fairly good look at his inner workings, which weren't really touched before. His progress to a more capable person and acceptance of his ideals’ flaws is nothing short of endearing and admirable.

Another important character is Rin Tohsaka, who this time around takes the role of the female lead and love interest. Rin herself was already a fairly interesting character in the 2006 series, had a decent characterization and a fair share of awesome moments, but UBW spices her up in a similar way to Shirou. She is not as strict as she was previously, her more childish quirks surface more naturally and her overall demeanor is more playful than what was previously established.

While some of her tsundere tendencies grow old, they are still kept well below what I’ve grown to expect from most anime days. Rin is headstrong, attaching and likable, and it is her who provides many character moments with spice. Her romance with Shirou is nothing new or innovative, but it’s sweet and compelling enough to get interested in their growing chemistry and eventual relationship. The dynamics between them are so entertaining to watch, especially how each affects the other’s development.

But the real star of UBW is without doubt Rin’s snarky and shrewd Servant, Archer. I always liked Archer; he is one of the most interesting characters in the entire Fate franchise, but it is really UBW where the true brilliance of his figure is shown in its entirety.

I won’t go into full details as a lot of Archer’s role and background are late-game spoilers, but what was originally a somewhat aloof yet cool-headed warrior turns out to hide a hefty amount of baggage intimately linked to the series’ principal concept. He provides the perfect contrast to the ideals Shirou represents and ends up being the centerpiece of the entire series, which again, without going into spoilers, uncovers a lot about him. He’s level-headed, logical, ruthless, and cynical—and an absolutely terrific character to watch.

So the main cast is great and well-realized, but what about the supporting cast? Well, that depends.

The supporting cast of UBW suffers from a similar issue that the 2006 series cast had, although to a lesser magnitude. The vast majority of them gets sidelined in favor of the leads, and some, like Rider and Sakura have it the worst, with the former lacking that subtle interaction with Shirou she had in the previous series and the latter being absent for most of this series’ second half. Hell even Saber—the poster girl of Fate—isn’t as important or prominent as one would expect, which also kinda undermines leads her character arc from Zero to nowhere.

It was inevitable considering this series focuses less on the Holy Grail War like Zero did, and more on the personal themes and character development of the main cast. And for the most part, I am somewhat fine with it as Shirou, Rin and Archer are wonderfully written. That said, it is also where UBW’s flaws as an attempt to be both a standalone entry and a direct sequel to Zero surface.

The biggest example is Kirei Kotomine, who was the main antagonist of Fate/Zero. In UBW he’s more or less just there in the background, and he never really does anything important. Same as the 2006 series he is the one who explains to Shirou (and the audience) about the Holy Grail War, but aside from several laughing and scheming scenes his character never really goes anywhere and loses relevance a good few episodes before the finale. And this is really depressing considering he was one of the driving forces of Fate/Zero’s endgame.

Aside from Kirei, Saber, and Sakura, you also have Illya, who after being one of the more interesting foes in the 2006 series and having the roots of her character planted in Zero, has a supposedly significant scene in the beginning of episode 4 and some background thrown early into the second half of UBW, and then she is just cut off? I mean, sure she still has some relevance as a plot device but similar to Kirei, her character is wasted.

There are some characters who do get generous amounts of time and development, however, and one of them is definitely Caster, who serves as a major antagonist. In both the 2006 series and 2010 UBW movie, she was more or less a flat character and any hints of depth were somewhat shallow. Here, however, she gets a lot more screentime and meat for her background, and is painted more as a tragic and emotionally broken figure, alongside her relationship with her Master which frankly is quite heartwarming considering he is often stoic and aloof.

Now as for Berserker, Lancer and Assassin, they’re mostly just there for action scenes, but they do get enough screentime to establish their characters, mainly the latter two. Assassin, similar to Shirou and Rin, also got a snark upgrade to the point he manages to laugh having his rib-cage crushed off. Meanwhile, Lancer keeps proving why he is one of the franchise’s most likable characters, with his laid-back attitude and genuine code of honor.

The only characters that really get as much as screentime as Shirou, Rin, Archer, or Saber end up being Shirou’s former friend Shinji and everyone’s favorite gold-wearing jerk, Gilgamesh. Honestly, there really isn’t too much to either of them; Shinji is the same hot-tempered and ego-driven coward, while Gilgamesh is the same arrogant, possessive and elitist Servant he was. As two of the series’ most important antagonists, they unfortunately fall somewhat flat, and Gil even lost some of the hidden depths he showcased back in Zero, which was disappointing.

Also, to finish this section, Taiga is still an irritating character.

Animation & Art

Ufotable just has this way with exceptionally crafted environments that are empowered by rich, metallic colors and careful usage of lighting.

Ufotable just has this way with exceptionally crafted environments that are empowered by rich, metallic colors and careful usage of lighting.

Remember how I gushed over Fate/Zero’s production values in my previous review and called it one of the best-looking anime of the last decade? Well, UBW makes Zero pale in comparison. There was only a two-year gap between the two series, but Ufotable proves just how much you can improve in such a short time, and my god is it glorious.

Action scenes are a dazzling spectacle that always goes all-out in an attempt to top itself over and over again. There is an astonishing amount of quality that goes into each fight and the fluidity of the animation is simply jaw-dropping, which at this point very few anime productions that are not theatrical release can actually pull off similar to what’s going on in UBW, and this doesn’t even include the masterfully added special effects like shimmering lights or vibrant afterimages from weapons.

And as with Zero, backgrounds are simply gorgeous and lifelike, both in daylight and especially during nighttime. Ufotable just has this way with exceptionally crafted environments that are empowered by rich, metallic colors and careful usage of lighting. Oh, and let me just express how amazed I am at the reflections evoked by floors in most scenes.

Audio & Sound

'UBW' features solid, if unspectacular, audio and sound.

'UBW' features solid, if unspectacular, audio and sound.

The majority of the soundtrack for UBW is either remixes of the tracks found in the original visual novel (As is the case with most VN adaptations), or tracks found in Fate/Zero. However, most of the new stuff was composed or tweaked by Hideyuki Fukasawa, who is generally more of a game composer than an anime one.

To be honest, I wasn’t particularly taken aback by UBW’s soundtrack. For the most part, it’s serviceable and with some decent tracks, but unfortunately, it lacks personality. Kenji Kawai’s work on the 2006 series was chilling and atmospheric, while Yuki Kajiura’s work on Zero was epic and intense. Meanwhile, most of Fukasawa’s original works don’t leave quite the mark.

That is not to say there aren’t some goods to be found; Archer’s personal theme is a slick and sinister mixture of rock guitar and bells, while the theme “EMIYA” is electronic disco music with a sick sense of beat. There are also insert songs in the form of “This Illusion” (the original version of the 2006 series’ opening theme) and the incredibly empowering “Last Stardust” by Aimer, which is by far the series’ best piece of music.

As for the theme songs, I found both ending themes by Kalafina to be rather forgettable. Meanwhile, the openings fare much better with “Ideal White” by Mashiro Ayano serving as a rather uplifting and action-heavy song while “Brave Shine” by Aimer has one of my favorite intro seconds in any opening and its melancholic music is fantastic.

The English dub is fairly decent overall, although some acts of localization can feel somewhat off. Bryce Papenbrook gives Shirou an amusingly bratty voice like most of his performances with a touch of sarcasm, while Mela Lee’s performance as Rin makes the character sound so fun and energetic. The two have a really good chemistry, even if both take a few episodes to get into their characters. I’m rather saddened to see Saber receiving yet another voice actress, now with Michelle Ruff (who voiced Aoi Tohsaka in Zero), but either way, she does a great job.

Kaiji Tang’s Archer is simply awesome to listen to; Tang’s voice gives the character a sense of authority and smugness, and it’s just so much fun to watch him mocking or taunting other characters. Beyond the main cast, you also have Tony Oliver as Lancer, Stephani Shae who returns as Ilya, and in his (at the time of this review) latest television anime role, Crispin Freeman as Kirei. So yeah, the cast is pretty much solid and if you like English dubs you will enjoy this dub too.

Final Verdict

'Unlimited Blade Works'—just like its indomitable protagonist Shirou—doesn’t let any of its flaws hold it back from achieving something truly wondrous.

'Unlimited Blade Works'—just like its indomitable protagonist Shirou—doesn’t let any of its flaws hold it back from achieving something truly wondrous.

With Unlimited Blade Works, both creator Type-Moon and studio Ufotable cemented themselves as important figures in the current anime industry. Kinoko Nasu’s writing may have its fair share of flaws and contrivances, but his works explore their themes exceptionally well with UBW being one of his best thanks to its thoughtful dialogues and charismatic characters. And studio Ufotable made UBW into one of the most visually stunning anime series ever produced, with a technology that rivals even the best of theatrical releases.

I can’t go on and say that UBW is perfection beyond any other studio’s league, because it undoubtedly has a handful of rough edges in the final product. But while it may not succeed to fulfill all of its grand ambitions, Unlimited Blade Works—just like its indomitable protagonist Shirou—doesn’t let any of its flaws hold it back from achieving something truly wondrous. It might be just one part of a much larger story, but what we get in UBW is almost peerless in its execution and quality, and it’s almost too greedy to ask more of it.

The Good:

  • Engrossing narrative with a surprising amount of depth that manages to expand on both Fate/Stay Night 2006 and Fate/Zero and mixes the best of the two shows' themes
  • Main cast (Shirou, Rin, Archer, okay even Saber) was very well-written with dynamic personalities and strong chemistry with each other
  • State-of-the-art visuals with fluid animations, intense action scenes and gorgeous scenery

The Bad:

  • Story is prone to occasional contrivances and deus ex machina moments, mainly to save Shirou's butt
  • Awkwardly tries to be a sequel to Fate/Zero, a continuation to the Fate route/the 2006 series, and a standalone work in its own right, which leaves some unanswered questions
  • The majority of the supporting characters don't really get much of character development or even screentime

& the Ugly:

  • "The Archer class is really made of archers!"; "Just because you're correct doesn't mean you're right!" Type-Moon adaptations really love redundant lines, huh?

As far as recommendations go, this one was long overdue, but Kara no Kyokai, or The Garden of Sinners if you prefer the English title like I do. One of Nasu's earliest works, this was also Ufotable's first work within the Nasuverse. Kara no Kyokai stands as one of Nasu's best works, and I can't recommend it enough.

The second recommendation is Drifters, adapted from a manga by the same author as Hellsing. Similar to the Fate series, Drifters involves historical figures fighting each other, although unlike Fate which mostly sidelines these battles, Drifters go all-out with them, so if you were a little disappointed with UBW, you may find your niche with this series.

© 2018 Raziel Reaper

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