I am not exactly on top of this anime frenzy game, FSN UBW happens to be the most recent thing that I watched. I think I still owe Fullmetal Alchemist, Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion, and Gundam 00, but I haven’t exactly have plans to review them soon. Perhaps over the next couple of weeks? For now, allow me to review Unlimited Blade Works just to freshen up!
I have watched the original Fate/Stay Night long ago, and while I liked the setting, I felt like it didn’t deliver. The setting aside everything looked poorly executed. So as I watched UBW I actually didn’t have high expectations.
I was more than pleased.
Fate/Stay Night is about the clash of seven magi who summons legendary figures as Servants that are catagorized into different classes based on their abilities, and their ultimate objective is to reach the final prize, a Holy Grail, which can supposedly materialize any wish. One seemingly ordinary and untalented guy, Shirou Emiya, gets dragged into this conflict that normally involves only the noble magical families.
Unlimited Blade Works is one of the possible storylines for Fate/Stay Night and its central focus is on the character value development of Shirou Emiya, along with Rin Tohsaka. UBW was a huge improvement in terms of story-telling compared to the Fate route anime. The duo are iniitally up against insurmountable odds (such as the almighty Berserker, Gilgamesh, Sasaki Kojiro-Assassin, Caster), with Archer not revealing his history and Shirou with his inexperience and lack of magecraft talent.
The story progression is extremely intriguing as everything seems to be in disarray and mysterious at first (all without throwing the viewer off track!). Then various conflicts come into action, such as the inital unpredictable animousity and lack of synergy between Ron and Shirou, the introduction of Shinji as an opponent along with his Servant, the seemingly unstoppable Caster and Berserker x Ilya combo. Aside from the reconcilation of Shirou and Rin initially, nothing seems to be going for them as every move they can make is nearly outmatched by their superior opponents. All of the obstacles look unsurmountable, and there is no deus ex machina on the protagonists’ side (minus arguably Saber’s Excalibur, which costs a lot of prana).
Still, they proceed to fight their way to a rather satisfying ending ever.
Also, the mysteries embedded within the anime are also presented and solved beautifully, although quite a lot of the backstory remains untold due to it being an adaptation of a visual novel. The most notable plot twist off my head is that the fact that Archer is in fact Shirou from the future, who came back with wishes to change his ending, to end his eternal misery of being a sword which will never see end. The revelation was not explicit, but rather light was slowly shed on it, to the point that they could not pretend it wasn’t there. If I were entirely new to the series, I would have been pleasantly surprised.
Then, we bring our attention to one of the main theme of the anime. The clash of ideals, one of a disillusioned adult who wishes to correct his youth, and one of a naive youngster who strives to be a selfless hero. The main idea is that a being as a selfless hero is meaningless and self-defeating at its core, and was a product of inheriting someone else’s dreams rather than one’s original ideals. Another theme is that of authenticity vs counterfeit, which is reflected in Gilgamesh’sGate of Babylon, which stores uncountable amounts of original Noble Phantasms, (weapons used by Servants in the series) against Shirou’s Unlimited Blade Works, which essentially produces infinite copies of swords. Before I spoil the series too much, just be reminded that UBW is no short of philosophical musings that is quite unlike the average anime.
UBW isn’t perfect. According to a lot of friends who are avid fans of the series, UBW was even terribly made, but I wasn’t receptive to those because I went through an anime dry spell right before watching, so I am easily satisfied. But if I were to nitpick, I would find the characters somewhat shallow. Shirou Emiya is my second least favourite male lead by far due to his lack of depth as a character (Kirito from SAO takes the first place). To be fair, he did grow a lot through the anime as he became more open about his cognitive dissonance but it was very frustrating to bear with his lack of sense, or rather density. He is just hardworking, somewhat capable with house chores, above average physical prowess (initally) and has a knack of surviving dangerous events, and had nothing much beyond that. He seemed entirely unreceptive to the emotions and wishes of others aside from his late adopter father. I felt like that is due to the plot placing him together with a lot of females, and lowering his emotion receptivity helps redirects the viewer’s attention to the lore of the Nasuverse rather than the social mechanics going on between Shirou and others. But as a whole, Shirou is very boring, and aside from his magical affliation with swords, I did not like the character very much. Rin on the other hand has a very vibrant and noticeable character, showing a range of emotions, reasoning skills, and magical capabilities. All in all, Rin made an excellent female lead, although the tsundere-ness was overplayed and got very annoying. Saber’s character remains greatly unexplored beyond her unwavering loyalty. Shinji was nothing short of annoying and disgusting. Gilgamesh felt very shallow for a final boss. But because of the huge amounts of supporting characters with average personalities and backstories showing up, Lancer and Caster being two outstanding ones, the show as a whole didn’t feel lacking in the character department until you start reflecting on them critically.
Aside from that, there are some scenes that were outright weird until I did some…further reading on it. It turns out that the Fate series was meant to be erotic (the visual novel is actually an eroge!), which explained one of the awkward scenes where the dialogue and context heavily implied that Rin and Shirou were about to go at it but were only transferring magic circuits. It wasn’t a huge minus that it was not included or anything, but I thought if adult scenes were to be excluded might as well not imply it at all. The ordeal just looked out of place and confusing to younger or newer viewers.
Also, I thought Shirou’s physical prowess was buffed unreasonably when he was fighting Gilgamesh. In fact, the power levels or strengths of the characters was never fully explored and some fights can be logic defying even for anime standards. We have Rin who somehow have some of the largest amounts of magical energy as a magus at the very beginning, and can share seemingly half of them with Shirou, which was enough to power a Reality Marble that can rival Gate of Babylon. Then it was heavily implied apparently not all Servants are equally valuable, with Rider being near to useless and Saber somehow being the most powerful. I don’t know what else I could talk about, but the progression of the fights and outcomes are not very convincing. Getting back to the Shirou vs Gilgamesh example, logically speaking Shirou is supposed to stand little chance against Gilgamesh even in close qaurters combat. But let’s just let that slip and proceed to the good parts shall we?
Stunning Art and Graphics
There is one thing that UBW is unmatched at, and that is the gorgeous art and graphics. I had never looked forward to fighting scenes so much in an anime. Fights in UBW are clean and fast, all moves are flashy, calculated, and the effects are beautiful- the best I have seen in any anime. Saber versus Assassin and Archer versus Lancer are some of the most breathtaking fight scenes by far. Not to mention that Saber activating Excalibur in UBW is also extremely gratifying to view. The color scheme is also vibrant, ranging from the gold radiance of Saber, Excalibur and Gilgamesh, to the bright scarlet of Rin and Archer. If you are a sucker for good anime fight scenes, as of now it doesn’t get better than what you can find in UBW. This department is where UBW is truly cutting edge. 11/10.
The design and art of the characters are also pretty solid and distinctive, allowing them to be memorable even for their lack of interesting traits. All the effort put into the artwork was enough to redeem UBW from a lackluster anime to a excelllent one for me.
UBW’s ending is pretty good. It is wierd to put this here as it seems that I am trying my very best to defend it, but UBW’s ending even after Gilgamesh’s defeat is very satisfying to watch and I actually felt sorry it had to end during the two endings. The ending depicts the life of Shirou and Rin (and Saber in the alternate Good ending) into the future. The anime’s tone suddenly becomes lively, and somewhat real. The pacing seems to be in sync with reality and everything has a familar and comfortable ambience, even if it is my first time viewing it. It felt like having a drinking session that involved rich-tasting wine and having a hangover, but waking up to a pleasant cup of coffee with intricate latte art.
As a whole, I do not foresee UBW making into any of my Top 10 lists for anime, unless I create one simply for action and fights. If you are into a lot of high quality fights, look no further than UBW. Even for the average viewer, I would not call UBW a waste of time, especially if you are already a fan of the Nasuverse works, such as Fate/Zero or Kara no Kyoukai. The animation and art alone should get any anime watchers excited. It does have serious flaws in raw comparison to some of the top ranked anime, but I don’t think those aspects make it a waste of time. Really, a lot of critics will not see art as a redeeming feature, but I am ready to bet that very, very few people truly emphatize with that view. UBW’s scenes are simply too breathtaking for that.
I nearly forgot, the OST is actually pretty good. Do give them a try even if you dismiss the entire anime.
Honestly, the bottom line is simply being able to bear with Shirou Emiya. Chances are you will still spend some good time just watching this anime, and pondering for yourself if Shirou’s ideals are, ideal.