Ilan is a huge fan of anime and video games. He is also an aspiring author who wishes to write fantasy novels.
Warning: Long review. Even by my standards.
A Big Franchise
Type-Moon is a well-oiled cash machine by now. Three big visual novels, over half a dozen light novel series, two or three fighting games, a multi-million online mobile game, several anime adaptations, half a dozen movies, multiple spin-offs and crossovers and a countless amount of manga serials, CD dramas, guides, and merchandise. And about 80% of all that is under the Fate brand.
When it comes to its presence in the anime medium, Fate is proudly represented by the wonderful productions that are Fate/Zero and Unlimited Blade Works, but few people tend to acknowledge another series. The series in question is of course this one: the 2006 anime produced by studio DEEN, Fate/Stay Night.
Once held as one of the best anime adaptations of a visual novel, it lost its reputation with the release of more technically polished and narratively fulfilling shows and movies. Ask someone nowadays and you'll hear very few people mentioning the 2006 as the reason they started following the franchise.
But is it? Well, it might be because of its waning production values towards the middle act or the overstuffed filler content that does little to push the plot. Maybe it's because of main character. Regardless of reason, there is a lot to talk about Stay Night, including some of its finer parts and why it's not that fondly remembered as a few years ago.
It's also a solid way to enter that huge, sprawling giant that is the Fate franchise, so let's dig in.
Format: 24 episodes
Release: January 7, 2006 - June 17, 2006
Source: Visual novel
Story & Setting
Welcome to the Holy Grail War, a (mostly) once-in-generation battle royale-esque competition where seven magic-using individuals summon historical or mythological figures to help in combat to win the Holy Grail, a mysterious object said to grant any wish the winner would like. Servants themselves are categorized into seven different classes: the brutally powerful but insane Berserker, the agile Rider, the swift and nimble Lancer, the long-ranged Archer, the magic-powered Caster, the stealthy Assassin and the knightly Saber, statistically the best of the lot.
These are the basic ropes you need to know about Fate/Stay Night’s setting and premise. Yes, there are MANY more rules and notes besides that, but those are of a secondary priority for this review and if you plan on watching it they are more or less explained in the series proper anyways.
This Fifth Holy Grail War takes place a mere decade after the Forth, disastrous War which saw massive destruction in Fuyuki City, the main setting which also serves as the fighting grounds for the Wars.
Our window to the Fifth War’s events is Shirou Emiya, a survivor of the Forth War who was adopted by a mage after the incident that cost him his previous life. It is when Shirou stumbles into a fight between Servants that he becomes a participant himself culminating in the summoning of Saber.
Now I know this a lot to take in, especially in comparison to most of my previous reviews where I simply included the plot’s summary as I went on with the script, but it’s for everyone’s benefits. Especially me as now I won’t have to throw this again in other Fate reviews.
This is the basic concept of Fate/Stay Night: you have seven Masters (usually also mages or people aware of magic) fighting each other with Servants that can be anyone from legendary Irish warriors to mythical Greek divine beings. And it’s easily one of the most interesting and unique ideas to come up in the anime medium. On paper it even sounds like these “V.S.” threads of pitting characters against each other and when the series wants to, it nails at that department.
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Unfortunately the story itself is somewhat of a mixed bag, and even during its high points it doesn’t capitalize on its ideas to their full potential. The narrative is still extremely intriguing and absorbing when it finds it footing but there are many flaws when it comes to its pacing, direction and structure.
The execution leaves something to be desired; genuinely dark and menacing scenes are off-put by fairly long stretches of slice-of-life comedy shenanigans. While lighting up the overall dark nature of a narrative is important to keep a work from collapsing into its own misery and apathy, Stay Night’s comedy ends up overstaying its welcome.
It suffers from a similar problem I mentioned in my Bungo Stray Dogs review: jarring tonal shifts. There are sometimes when it is done right, like where Shirou discusses serious matters with Rin but the latter’s flexible personality allows for some more light-hearted fun. But a lot of time Fate/Stay Night generally struggles to balance itself. Many comedic moments take anywhere between two minutes to a third or even half of an episode, and by the time the series shifts gears to the more advanced part of the Grail War, these instances simply feel like a filler about a guy having to deal with the increased female population in his house in the middle of a death battle.
To the show’s credit, I did find several scenes to be incredibly funny or at the very least amusing, but only a few of them really hold any significance relevance to the plot or the characters themselves. Had the series not pushed itself as a dark, semi-tragic fantasy of sorts or knew how to blend the hilarity into the story better, I would have been a lot more forgiving towards the comedy and (as it originated as a visual novel) romance elements.
Once you remove that fluff, however, you will find a surprisingly decent story underneath that, while is nothing masterfully brilliant, still offers a large dose of intrigue, mystery, drama and action.
In all honesty, one of the best things about Fate/Stay Night is that when it desires to be an incredibly atmospheric and haunting experience, it nails the mood and tone easily thanks to a script that presents several powerful confrontations and a (to be elaborated) beautifully mesmerizing score. The story is filled with intense conversations between allies and foes and some genuinely shocking and surprising twists and turns that always keep the series engaging and refreshing.
The thick atmosphere choking Fate/Stay Night’s darker pieces helps elevating the danger and seriousness of the Grail War, as well as the uncompromising nature of Shirou’s enemies and rivals.
Each Master and Servant have their own style and strategy to defeat, all while encouraging subtle interactions with one of the main characters. Some of the best scenes in the series come from some characters like Archer examining the ideals and drive behind Shirou and Saber, including the flaws in said ideals.
Fate/Stay Night takes a long look at concepts such as heroism, justice and idealism, with attempts to explain one’s reasoning to such line of thinking as well as the derived optimism that comes with holding such point of view. It’s a nice little touch overall, even if it feels somewhat underdeveloped. While some of these ideas ARE questioned, the series never really goes too deep to analyze and pick it apart as it teased it will do. In the end of the day, Stay Night acknowledges its central themes, but stops just shy of actually getting into their mechanics. (Mainly in Shirou’s case; Saber’s character themes are done much better.)
About my last issue with Stay Night’s narrative is its structure. Ignoring its paddled filler and tonal inconsistencies, Fate builds itself in a somewhat awkward way, namely its abandonment of a battle royale-style confrontation in favor of a “Servant of the week” type of story.
For a supposed seven-way battle, Stay Night feels superficially narrow, with the majority of enemies coming at Shirou one after another. To an extent I do understand that Shirou is simply an easy target for all other Masters, but it becomes ridiculous that this remains the case for almost an entire cour, with very little involvement by other Masters in the events. You’d think rival Masters would at least scheme in the shadows in the meanwhile but it ends more like their actions pause until the plot demands their activity. They all present enthralling challenges, but the progress stumbles this somewhat.
Thankfully, Stay Night does get into an overdrive in its last five or so episodes; with the final obstacle entering the fray, Fate tightens its pacing and writing as it focuses on closing loose ends. This builds into a climatic battle that, while may not be absolutely eye-popping from a technical standpoint, was still an exciting and blood-pumping way to conclude Stay Night’s main conflict.
And of course, the ending is quite beautiful. It gives a wonderful closure to Saber’s character (the only anime installment to do it in a truly satisfying way), while showcasing just how much Shirou has grown from his dull and uninteresting initial character. There is a very bittersweet feel about the whole deal, but in the end of Stay Night, despite everything this series has done wrong, it felt oddly fulfilling and satisfying.
The cast of Fate/Stay Night is led by Shirou Emiya, a high-school student who finds himself thick in the action as he is chosen as the final Master by the Holy Grail. Shirou is your typical good-natured and kind teenager with a shining heart of gold that will never let anyone get hurt, regardless of who they are. Friend or foe, he strives to save everyone in a way that will make his late father Kiritsugu proud. And that’s pretty much it.
I will say right on: Shirou is a bland lead. He suffers from a regular - if no less irritating - problem that most video game and visual novel protagonists in anime suffer; he’s the avatar with which players experience the world of Stay Night and as such the majority of his character is to be chosen and interpreted by the player themselves. And in anime form, this usually leaves the protagonist with the broad strokes of his character’s premise and design, and Shirou is unfortunately no exception.
He lacks teeth to sink into the viewer’s heart, charisma to keep people on the edge and wit or genuine emotion to feel relatable beyond the surface level. At times he even feels as if he lacks any common sense, overly relying on people he shouldn’t trust or playing honorably instead of the pragmatism required for the Holy Grail War. Hell, he even goes as far as to refuse letting his own Servant do the fight because she is a girl, despite the fact she is probably the strongest of them all. His decision making can be extremely painful or jarring to watch and you have to wonder how he even survives most of the stuff thrown at him during the war.
It doesn’t help that he is somewhat of a static character. The progress is there, but it is so unnoticeable until the final few episodes where he finally starts to come to his own. Part of this stems from the driving force behind his actions - his misguided and overly idealistic view on heroism - but while his motives are questioned, they never really evolve beyond taunting his views. It feels like he was set to reconstruct the idea of “hero of justice”, but without enough deconstruction to trigger this actual development.
Thankfully when the main lead fails his co-lead tends to cover up for them, and in that case Saber is more than qualified. As a character, Saber is far more complex and dynamic than her partner, and the one who mostly gets her ideals crashed on the dust. Initially a stoic and stubborn Servant focusing solely on protecting Shirou and winning the Holy Grail, Saber slowly allows her emotions and potential to care show beneath her iron facade as she lives in a modern-day Japan.
She is revealed to be a tragic figure whose actions in the past caused both her and her country great grief, and a major theme of the character is to finally forgive herself for her misjudgment and restore her now-gone resolve and confidence. Her development, barring a few disappointing inclusions of shallow comedy and romance bits (a la Shirou walking on her as she showers, bizarre kendo fights with Taiga, etcetera), is overall superb, and the resolution of her character arc is fantastic. And as I mentioned, this take on the visual novel is the only installment in the Fate anime franchise thus far to really give a satisfying finale of sorts to Saber.
Rin Tohsaka completes the trio off; another Master in the war, she commands the Servant known as Archer, who is arguably one of the series’ coolest characters. Rin is presented as one of the more competent Masters within the war, as well as one of the few who have a solid or at least well above average skill in magecraft. While her team-up with Shirou is more out of plot convenience than any solid justification, Rin has a damn good chemistry with her allies, and while she attempts to be as ruthless and demanding as some of the other Masters, she constantly remains a more human and relatable character thanks to her reluctance and self-questioning, which allow for a fairly flexible personality possessing of a sense of humor and wit. Similar to Saber, Rin is not only a complex figure but a dynamic one as well, with her being shown over and over again to be just as fragile as she is fierce and smart, alongside an affable nature that makes her likable.
The supporting class is comprised from rival Masters, their Servants and associates of Shirou. Their importance range from pivotal players, to major arc villains, to more or less glorified cameos, but each of Shirou’s foes receives just enough screentime to give weight to their personalities, morals and motives.
Some of them, like Berserker’s Master, the albino Illyasviel von Einzbern (or Illya for short), get ample amounts of screentime to examine their (quite psychotic yet endearing) character and relationship with Shirou. Others, like Caster and Shirou’s former best friend Shinji get to work as major arc antagonists, with divided results. And of course you have characters like Assassin, Rider and Lancer who end up being little more than mauve shirts with little depth, even if the former and the latter got some pretty great scenes.
Stay Night struggles to balance between the impact and size in the role between each of its “main players”, partly due to its status as an adaptation of only a third of the story. On a whole, with successor series like 2014’s Unlimited Blade Works and 2018’s Heaven’s Feel, this is not such a bad thing; the main leads get focus and all Servants and Masters get time to shine. But on its own, Stay Night’s cast feels somewhat incomplete.
Is it a bad thing? Being the introduction to a multi-layered narrative with multiple branches and spin-offs, no, not really. Is it a tad disappointing? Yes, but I still praise Stay Night for pulling the effort to at least leave me with good impressions and high expectations about future usage of these characters.
Oh, but I have to address that Taiga is an annoying character who stands in the middle of the tonal issues I have with Fate. If there’s one character who should have been reduced in terms of overall role, it’s her.
Animation & Art
Even during its time of airing, the overall level of Fate/Stay Night’s animation was at best somewhat above average, but most of the time never really was technically impressive, and while 2006 wasn’t the best year in anime, it still had beautifully animated gems like Death Note, Code Geass, Ergo Proxy, Ouran Host Club and Haruhi Suzumiya, and they all hold up today a lot better than Stay Night.
I’m not particularly fond of studio Deen, as my review of KonoSuba (review; review #2) implies. Deen has a very nasty habit of taking on multiple projects at once and wasting their already skimp budget in the first few episodes, Fate being no exception, having been produced when Deen worked on over a dozen other shows. That said, the production values improve considerably during action sequences, with some entertaining conflicts fueled by smooth animation and crisp artwork that intensify as time goes on. The last two episodes on a whole look more fluid and detailed than the rest of the show even during their calmest moments.
As far as the art goes, character designs are appealing and varied with inspiration from many myths and cultures, resulting an overall recognizable figures and attires, even if Type-Moon’s design templates can feel a little limited at times. The backgrounds tend to be fairly detailed and for the most part their choice of colors breathes into the series’ atmosphere wonderfully.
One thing that does annoy me about the overall technical side of the series is the usage of lighting filters at the edge of the screen, especially during scenes occurring at night. To me it looks like the production team added these filters to cover up imperfections in the animation and backgrounds, but they end up being more distracting and eye-glaring than helpful.
Oh, and of course there is a scene involving a dragon made completely of CGI. Bad CGI. Very bad CGI, even for a 2006 anime. It’s meant to replace the sexual encounters from the original visual novel, but I question why this out of all things over something more simplistic like reworking the sex scenes into more romantic encounters or just keeping these scenes considering this is an R-rated series. We may never know.
The soundtrack is where I can praise this series with almost no setbacks. Kenji Kawai may not be as well known as Yuki Kajiura or Yoko Kanno, but his score for Fate/Stay Night - mostly lifted from the original visual novel with some tweaks - is a melancholic and highly atmospheric work that form much of the series’ tone and mood when shit finally hits the fan.
From the main theme “Night of Fate” to the beautiful yet oddly mundane “Kishi Ou no Hokori” and the soulful and tear-gathering “La Sola”, Kawai’s work may not be as rich and varied as other soundtracks, but the beautiful elegance that the score translates through its haunting vocals and almost dreamlike melody is striking and unforgettable without need to resort to bombastic and eye-scratching tunes, even if Kawai did make some beats like that.
Both openings, “Disillusion” and “Glittering Tears Change To Stars”, were done by Sachi Tainaka; the former follows suit with the rest of the soundtrack in style (fitting, as it is a remix of the visual novel’s opening), while the latter is a more typical J-Pop song that nonetheless starts with energy and then builds slowly before regaining its momentum for the chorus. The ending “Anata ga Ita Mori” by Jyukai is no slouch either, and this calm, soothing song provides a gentle closure to each episode.
The English dub is a mixed bag for the most part. There are some actors, like Shirou’s Sam Riegel and even Kirei Kotomine’s Jamieson Price, that simply don’t click right with their character, and they unfortunately sound more like the actors simply talking over a voice recorder rather than giving believable and emotional performances that bring the characters to life. On a whole, the general quality of the voice acting, even by other big names such as Liam O'Brien as Archer, is somewhat only above average. To be fair, though, it’s still one of the better Sentai Filmworks dubs, even if it’s not saying much.
That is not to say that there aren’t some standout works here; Kate Higgins does a wonderful job as Saber, as does Stephanie Sheh’s ridiculously chilling Illya. Their performances are not only two of the best across the entire English dub crew, but also good on their own. Overall, the dub has its hits and misses but if you prefer English voice acting, you will have little issue getting through this one.
Fate/Stay Night is a good anime with excellent ideas and moments that is unfortunately held back by an avalanche of issues, big and small, that end up bogging down the whole experience, ranging from visuals to the writing itself. Its ambitious premise and unique setup are undone by long stretches of time focusing on mindless filler that breaks its otherwise masterful atmosphere while its main character Shirou can become a ridiculous analogy to the chief problem of the series: it fights itself through many steps and hills.
In spite of its mismanaged tone, dwindling production values and uneven storytelling, however, there are merits to Fate/Stay Night; its main story is still an engrossing and compelling journey with a colorful supporting cast, and it’s undoubtedly a fine introduction to the Fate franchise and the Nasuverse as a whole. You won’t come out of it completely awed and might even be a tad disappointed, but you will find yourself curious with the concept’s potential and the setting’s intriguing mixture of history and fantasy, and a whole pile of excellent continuations and spin-offs to enjoy.
- Decent introduction to a larger franchise
- Saber and Rin lead a solid supporting cast, even if most of them don't get too much time
- Beautifully composed and used soundtrack
- Severe issues with pacing, filler and structure of the story
- Shirou is a bland and static protagonist
- Animation grows considerably lackluster over time
& the Ugly:
- No amount of glorious production values by Ufotable will make us forget the CGI dragon
As far as alternate recommendations go, why not check the 2008/9 series A Certain Magical Index? It has a few bumps in the road and it takes a while to grow on you, but its sci-fi/urban fantasy setting is interesting enough to warrant a watch.
As for my second recommendation, try Shakugan no Shana, funnily enough another series produced by J.C. Stuff. From what I've heard it has great action and lovable characters, so might want to check that out.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2018 Raziel Reaper