Review: Fate / Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works – Season 1

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The story of warring mages competing in a periodic formal duel for possession of the Holy Grail, Unlimited Blade Works is the newest iteration of much loved action-fantasy visual novel Fate / Stay Night. After their critically acclaimed prequel series, Fate / Zero, finally ended the run of mediocre Fate anime adaptations in 2011, studio ufotable are looking to make lightning strike twice by revisiting the original material for this tv adaptation, armed with both a high budget and a top-notch staff.

Sole survivor of a disastrous fire in his infancy, Fate‘s high-schooler protagonist, Emiya Shirou, grows up desperate to follow the path of his magic-using adoptive father and become a hero who can save the lives of others. Unwittingly drawn into the fifth ‘Grail War’, however, he struggles to save his own life when he becomes a target for the six other competing masters, locked in a deadly scramble for the all-powerful cup. Yet, he is not alone, surviving by the skin of his teeth until he manages to follow the others’ example and summon a ‘Servant’; the magical manifestation of a legendary figure who will fight on his behalf.

Adapting the original game’s second ‘route’, Unlimited Blade Works is not quite a sequel to the original Fate / Stay Night, but rather an alternative version of the story, showing what would have happened if Shirou had made different choices. Relationships and alliances are much changed, radically altering the dynamic of the plot; characters who were once significant are now bit-players and vice-versa. Most notably, Shirou’s servant, the pure-hearted warrior-woman Saber, is no longer to the forefront, with the focus now shifted to her enigmatic but abrasive rival, Archer.

Having come to the Fate franchise relatively late, I haven’t seen the middling 2006 tv series or the much derided film that followed in 2010, but lessons certainly seem to have been learned over time. It’s debatable whether Unlimited Blade Works brings anything new to the table with its story, but the manner in which it’s told is as good as you could possibly hope for. In fact, so effectively does this new series preserve the tone and intent of the source text, while cutting out its infamous exposition, that it may actually have improved on the original.

Purists will maintain that not going through Stay Night first omits significant character development, but in practice, it’s not that noticeable and shouldn’t trouble newcomers wanting to start here. If anything, UBW is the stronger story; it lacks the melancholic edge of Saber’s arc, but shorn of his chauvinistic streak and butting heads with his ideological opposite in Archer, Shirou comes across a far richer and more likeable main character. There is also much to enjoy in his volatile alliance with Archer’s master, cult favourite Rin Tohsaka, a quick-tempered young woman whose position somewhere between Shirou’s idealistic do-gooding and Archer’s more pragmatic approach makes her a perfect foil for both of them.

It’s also tempting to apply the word ‘perfect’ to UBW‘s visuals. I don’t know what kind of backroom deals must have been struck to finance the production, but the artistic fit and finish of this tv series would shame most feature films. No expensive has been spared on the many, fluid action scenes and character designs have been subtly updated, with a more angular modern flourish, but the care lavished upon the show is most immediately apparent in the backgrounds. Despite taking place against the usual ‘anime’ backdrops, these have been sumptuously painted with the sort of attention to unnecessary detail that you simply don’t see at the television level. The grace notes even extend to film-camera style trickery, with shallow focus and aged stock-effects subtly continuing the cinematic experience.

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If you’ve already looked ahead at the score, you may be slightly surprised, but frankly, so was I. The truth is that Unlimited Blade Works is an extremely difficult series to fault and a pleasing reminder of what can be achieved in the medium, given the necessary time and funding. Admittedly, there’s no escaping that this is another show about magically powered teenagers and if you just can’t face the thought of that, the series is unlikely to change your mind, lacking the darker, more adult tone of Fate / Zero.

Given some evidence of padding at the final hurdle, it also remains to be seen whether the producers can maintain this degree of success into the potentially difficult second season, but the outlook so far is overwhelmingly positive. Season one of Unlimited Blade Works is now complete and can be legally streamed in its entirety, for free, on Crunchyroll.

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