Last time I saw Deen’s Fate/stay night, over two years ago, it was my first experience with the Fate franchise. Despite the series’ relatively poor reputation, I walked away with a fairly positive opinion, positive enough that I went on to check out Fate/Zero, the Fate/stay night visual novel, its sequel Fate/hollow ataraxia, and more on top of that. But I have never gone back to reexamine the anime that started it all, until now. It’s been a while, so this will be a good test. Has the internet community and my own accumulation of knowledge rendered me a more jaded viewer, or will I still find much to enjoy? I’m probably more interested in that than you are.
As always, the review is provided in video format and transcribed directly below. I would like to note that my reviews are written first and foremost to be experienced as videos (that is, read aloud), so no guarantees that jokes, grammar, or anything else will transition entirely smoothly to text.
In a cycle that has already repeated itself four times over, seven Mages, called “Masters”, each summon one “Servant” with which to do battle; each Servant being a powerful mythological figure given life once more, from well-known names like Hercules to more obscure characters like Ireland’s Cú Chulainn. Additionally, every Servant has been summoned into a mold, a class so to speak, the seven classes being Saber, Archer, Lancer, Caster, Assassin, Rider and Berserker. The last Master and Servant standing are awarded one wish, anything they desire, from the omnipotent Holy Grail. Hence, this conflict has been dubbed the “Holy Grail War”. This version of Fate/stay night point-blank explains that premise to the audience in the first minute of the show, which is a little lazy, but there’s nothing to be done.
This Fifth Holy Grail War, like its Fate/Zero predecessor, takes place in Japan’s Fuyuki City. Our protagonist is high school student Emiya Shirou, a boy who barely knows about magic at all, much less the impending deathmatch that will soon engulf his life. After a string of bad luck, Shirou witnesses a battle between Servants and is nearly killed in the process. When all seems lost after one of the combatants comes after him to eliminate witnesses, Shirou unintentionally summons his own Servant, Saber, who happens to be the most powerful of them all... if she were paired with a proper mage who could properly supply mana, which Shirou is not. Nonetheless, the newly formed pair have no choice but to enter the Holy Grail War, Shirou hoping to prevent an evildoer from obtaining the Grail and wreaking havoc, while Saber seems to herself have a wish she wants granted. Along the way, while they make many enemies, they also find friends, quickly allying with another Master-Servant pair: honor-student Tohsaka Rin and her red-clad Servant, Archer.
I said as much in my review of Fate/stay night’s prequel, Fate/Zero (which, jeez, is like a year old now), but I do think the premise of the Holy Grail War is inherently a strong one, as it combines the stories of new modern characters, the Masters, with their Servants, heroes that already have their own fabled legends, lives that they led with pride or regret, which very much does come into play as the plot progresses. This can be something of a double-edged sword, since if by chance you are not familiar with the myths in question, that part of the show will go over your head entirely, but I don’t think it would be fair to fault the series for lack of knowledge I have as a viewer.
Otherwise, the plot itself is a surprisingly slow burn. It takes a while for the ball to really get rolling (I’d say until about Episode 8), but once it hits that point, enough is consistently happening to hold your attention; there’s a constant introduction of new Masters or conflicts with which our heroes must do battle. One thing I can certainly praise is that every character is distinct in both design and personality, even if the latter is occasionally somewhat simple. Most characters have a thing that is very much their thing, but they are not utterly defined by it. Shirou is the generic helpful protagonist, but he has a reason to be, events in his life that he feels a need to atone for. Saber is proud and chivalrous, but hides a great deal of regret and lingering doubt, specifically in regard to her former life. (Her identity probably wouldn’t be a spoiler for most people, but it is presented like a reveal in this series, so I will shy away from mentioning it specifically.) Tohsaka, the Master whom Shirou allies with early on, is smart and strategic, but not as unemotional as she believes she could and should be.
This characterization even applies to many of their enemies, as with for example Illyasviel von Einzbern, a Master who often seems to be simply a sadistic, spiteful little girl, which overshadows some playfulness and/or emotional instability. All the other characters, of which there are quite a few, even if not particularly deep, are at least, as I said, distinct, and not people I would call easily forgettable.
As such, the show becomes a reasonably effective mix of action and character, that unfortunately does fall prey to some classic shounen trappings. There’s a fair amount of baseless shouting, charging at the opponent, plus a handful of convenient power-ups (that are eventually justified by the story but still can’t help feeling convenient), allowing Shirou to win because he is the main character and has to win. However, in my opinion, after a point, the plot moves with enough momentum that you are unlikely to spend too long worrying about this before it moves on to the next thing.
Now if you were not aware, this version of Fate/stay night is (mostly) an adaptation of the visual novel’s first route of three, the Fate route, which focuses on Saber as the heroine. This route also happens to be the most, shall we say, basic Fate/stay night storyline, which is responsible for some of those typical shounen things I mentioned. The other routes have some manner of plot twist or event that renders the story a little more than just “good guy fights all the bad guys”, and while this story does have some mild twists, it never stands above that “good guy-bad guy” level.
However, being the only Fate route adaptation, it does offers perspectives and fights that are not available in any other animated Fate series, and likely never will be, like Archer vs Berserker and a true Saber vs Gil showdown. The story of Fate/Zero plants seeds that are relevant to all three routes of Fate/stay night’s saga, but ironically the route that is least connected by plot elements is the one that ufotable recently adapted, Unlimited Blade Works. Both this Fate route, and the upcoming Heaven’s Feel, have much more tangible connections to the pieces that Zero put in place (or rather retroactively introduced, since I would recommend watching this before Zero.)
That is to say, there is significant time here spent developing and deepening Saber’s character and internal conflict. In Unlimited Blade Works, she is more or less hand waved away, any interesting nuggets from Zero almost entirely forgotten, and that is because that route was not Saber’s story. This route is Saber’s story, and in that regard, it is a much more satisfying resolution to her character. In other words, if you want meaningful Saber progression in a Fate/stay night anime, this is the only place you’ll find it.
This series also explains some other things that Unlimited Blade Works conveyed poorly if at all, especially for franchise newcomers, like the roles of Avalon and Kotomine Kirei in the plot. Anyone familiar with the series will already know what I mean, so let’s move on.
The soundtrack is composed by Kenji Kawai. He hasn’t actually done much else that I have seen and have a strong opinion on (I haven’t seen Higurashi, for instance), but Fate/stay night was a solid musical outing. The lighter stuff during slice of life scenes isn’t all that great, but the dramatic and epic tracks are rather excellent, including the seemingly obligatory “Emiya” remix. Special shoutout to “Unmei no Yoru”, which you can hear in the background right now, and often plays during climactic scenes to increase that pump factor. The first opening also warrants special mention for “disillusion”, a remix of the visual novel’s opening theme, and a calming, powerful tune that I loved before I even realized that that’s what it was. I don’t mind the second opening either, but it’s much more forgettable, plus they made a strange decision to animate some scenes in this second opening that are not actually in the Fate route. Weird.
A Weak First Third
At the story’s beginning, Shirou is pretty insufferable. His generic helpful, good-natured personality leads him to take actions that are outright Idiotic, like going on a date because he operates under the assumption that no one would actually attack in broad daylight. Thankfully, stuff like that does partially bite him in the ass. Shirou also constantly puts himself in harm’s way for no reason, without asking for help from the powerful Servant he has at his command. The reasons for this comes off as horribly, unabashedly sexist, refusing Saber’s help by saying things like “girls shouldn’t be waving weapons around” and “it’s not right for girls to get injured.” Shirou, you asshat. She is a magical being, magnitudes more powerful than you, and even if she wasn’t, what the hell, man?
If I recall my time with the visual novel, Shirou’s internal monologue makes it clear that he only says these things as a bad excuse, in service to his extraordinarily helpful nature in that he doesn’t want anyone but himself to do things, but this is not at all communicated by the anime. Nonetheless, in time, Shirou does realizes the obvious error of his ways, and becomes a more tolerable character, still annoyingly selfless but allowing others to actually fight with him.
Besides an aggravating lead, the beginning of the show fought with a couple other problems, mainly that (a) not much happens, and (b) there are some tonal inconsistencies between when stuff is actually happening and when it isn’t. The former I chalk up to the fact that this Fate route is the introductory route to Fate/stay night, so the story is meant to ease you in with character introductions and exposition, which can unfortunately come off as simply slow in an anime. The latter, the tone issues, come down more to the execution than inherent problems with the setup (considering I didn’t feel this was at all an issue in the later Unlimited Blade Works).
Essentially, it’s hard to be in the mood for slice of life scenes with exaggerated anime comedy when most of our cast was in a life-or-death situation only a scene or two before. This becomes far less of an issue as the series progresses and the plot only gets more serious, eventually ditching the slice of life entirely, but that doesn’t change the fact that the start of the show is pretty weak.
Additionally, this anime was produced by Studio Deen, and while Deen has recently shocked audiences with its shows of quality, Fate/stay night was produced in 2006, and in terms of production, falls prey to Deen being Deen. When I re-watched the first episode or two, I started to doubt my memory because, while not great, the show looked alright, but I was quickly proven correct, because the budget seems to deteriorate the longer it drags on.
Most fights, I would say, have a noticeable lack of realistic motion, tending to be more like pictures with speedlines along the edges, and some flowing hair or cloth, than actual animated movement. Naturally, there are exceptions to every rule. A few fights look perfectly fine (or even good), but the majority do not. I will say though, the art itself is usually solid, and stylistically more faithful to the visual novel than the later ufotable adaptations. (They also have a neat habit of adapting images directly from the visual novel, and I’m just a sucker for little touches like that.)
So to sum up, my main problems are a slow, unimpressive beginning (about the first third), and Deen being Deen. Otherwise, I actually had a good time, and my roommate, who has never seen anything Fate before, would agree. (I’ve never mentioned it, but I’m in college and have a roommate.) Is it the ideal Fate/stay night experience? No, but is it still enjoyable for people that will not or cannot read the visual novel? I’d say yes.
So after taking everything into account (as well as my own subjective enjoyment), on a scale from F to S, I would give Deen/stay night a B rating. Sure, it’s not an amazing show, but I do think it gets a bit of an unfair rap. If you recall, I mentioned that this is mostly an adaptation of the Fate route, and that’s because they do splice in some elements from the other two (which might irk some people), but I didn’t actually mind, since it was all for the sake of making this work as a more complete standalone story, and in that regard, it did its job.
The 2006 adaptation of Fate/stay night is currently available for legal streaming from Hulu, Viewster and the Anime Network. I maintain my original opinion that it’s not that bad, but I would say, if you’re gonna watch it, watch it first, before any other Fate material.
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