Fate Stay/Night Unlimited Blade Works – Words Over Action
October 20, 2014 2 Comments
Every time I see a new Type-Moon series I am filled with dread and a lingering feeling that regardless of my hopes and wishes I will ultimately be presented with a series that is more about dense, often nonsensical dialogue than actual animation. This has been my relationship with Type-Moon anime for a number of years now, every series, with the possible exception of Canaan waves its fascinating, intriguing world before my eyes, only for it to disappear behind a dense, impregnable wall of dialogue. This has been the case for the last few Type-Moon anime, including Fate/Zero, Kara no Kyoukai, and ultimately the first Fate/Stay Night. All of them are series (or in the case of Kara no Kyoukai a number of short films) that present an interesting world where the boundaries between the spirit world and everyday life are weakened, melding into one another until they become indistinguishable.
I truly like the Nasuverse, with Fate’s setting, characters, and mix of everyday life and the supernatural fascinating. The Holy Grail War is especially interesting when we look at the Holy Grail not as this wonderful artifact of purity – the cup that would grant eternal life – but instead a demonic object that creates an everlasting war in order to fulfill its thirst for blood. The Grail War within the Nasuverse is ultimately a battle for dominance set within a society that is filled with distrust and destruction. Mages are hardly benevolent individuals, and every single character that we meet in Fate/Stay Night, and Fate/Zero is in some respect selfish, distrustful, and perfectly willing to sacrifice others in order to achieve their goals, with the possible exceptions of Shiro and Rin. I even like the idea of summoning past heroes to do the bidding of these masters, figures from history and fantasy with immense power, but also incapable of going against their masters, regardless of their own feelings. That the whole war seems little more than a demonic ritual of blood and slaughter is both fascinating and disturbing, especially when it is often described as something more, something that may even be sacred and good.
Even Kara no Kyoukai, a series apparently set in an alternative universe has some interesting concepts, and again is set in a world where the barrier between the spirit world and ours doesn’t really exist. The characters all live between these two worlds, meandering back and forth depending on their mood, their work, and the necessities of living. So the same themes and ideas are present throughout the Type-Moon universe, or perhaps it is better to describe it as a multi-verse given the different, often parallel timelines found within their writing, and games. All adding up to a world that is potentially very rich in symbolism, ideas, characters, and settings.
However, all of this seems to be forgotten, even ignored when we get into the thick of these series. With the release of the latest Fate/Stay Night anime, following the Unlimited Blade Works route, I am once again presented with a conundrum, and my central issue with anything from Type-Moon – all of their stories are boring, dull, incomprehensible, about as interesting as watching paint dry. Well, not quite, because the stories all remain interesting, at least initially, but those aspects of the Nasuverse that interest me, the demonic elements of the Grail War, the complicated nature of the Master/Servant relationship often seem to be ignored or forgotten about in favour of dense, incomprehensible dialogue. I didn’t especially enjoy Fate/Zero, describing it as ‘Midlife Crisis the Animation’, a series where serious men in grey or black coats talked about serious topics, in a serious manner, while very serious things like buildings collapsing and large fires happened all around them. It was a very serious series, to its detriment – and by taking itself too seriously failed to notice the absurdity within much of the dialogue and even some of the characters actions.
One of the central problems I find with these adaptations is the lack of movement – yes there are action scenes, often spectacularly animated by ufotable, but the series’ largely feel static, and action artificial. Characters spend more time talking at one another while the camera simulates action through its positioning, constant movement, change of perspective. What action we do get is often broken up, usually at the climax with internal, even external monologues that are supposed to carry weight and meaning, but ultimately serve to dispel any tension and break the stories flow. There may be a reason for the characters actions, from the physical to the mental and auditory, but the reasons seem vague, even counter-intuitive, and instead of adding weight to a narrative serve only to break it up and ruin its flow. In fate/Zero we were presented with heroes such as Saber and Lancer who were as dull as their masters, so caught up in their own sense of honour and justice that they seem incapable of attacking anyone. Again, there is an element of reason in their actions, but such things are taken too far, with these characters becoming caricatures, unable to truly fight, and thus showing that they lack the necessary skills to truly win this war. The heroic spirits, along with their masters make up a group of dull characters that are prone to melodramatic outbursts and angst.
Fate/Stay Night has less of this, largely because the characters are high school students, rather than adults who think they are teenagers. They all have ‘interesting’, often disturbing pasts as anyone who watched Fate/Zero may know, and the UBW route follows straight on from that, rather than go down a different story route. Some in many respects the new Fate series is already off to a better start, if only because the characters are arguably more interesting and less prone to lengthy monologues on the state of life, the universe, and everything. Japan’s apparent obsession with high school and junior high students in anime is also very interesting when we take the characters of Fate/Stay Night and look at their family backgrounds and their standing within the world of magic. Some characters, like Rin and Illya are burdened with the expectations of their families and past; they must carry on the family tradition regardless of the cost. Shiro follows a similar path, and tries to live up to his adoptive father, Emiya Kiritsugu, by becoming a true hero. In all these cases we have the new generation attempting to hold up the society built by the older generation, despite the problems they face, many of them created by their parents.
This mirrors many of the themes found in other anime, specifically those with a school setting, adds a potentially interest aspect to the Holy Grail War, whereby the children of those who failed must continue their parents fight, irrespective of their own wishes and feelings. Here we have a new generation forced to continue the war of their parent’s generation without the choice to refuse, while they are watched over by Kotomine Kirei, one of the principle antagonists of the last Grail War. So the current generation has to live with the disapproval, and the ever-present hand of authority (Kirei) of the last generation and have little hope in breaking this endless cycle. These are the sorts of themes that interest me, and are ultimately the themes that are forgotten about or ignored within the Nasuverse. Instead we have talking, endless, dense, inconsequential talking, with characters explaining every little detail of the universe, its laws, and possibly where you can get a nice bowl of ramen. Absolutely nothing in Fate/Stay Night is left to chance or the viewer’s imagination, and we are forced to sit through endless exposition and tedious dialogue rather than allowing the animation and music to do its job. That is not to say that dialogue and exposition isn’t important, providing it is done correctly. We just have to look at Wall-E as an example of simple explanations about the state of the world, while the animation, music, and Wall-E’s cute presence does the rest.
The wonderful animation by ufotable (with the exception of a few suspect pieces of CGI), coupled with an excellent soundtrack work wonders, when they are allowed to do so. They create an atmospheric series set in a cold, dark world, even the sun, while colourful, adds little in the way of warmth to any scene, and instead further emphasises the desolate nature of a city in the midst of a demonic war. Much of the dialogue outside of simple conversations between certain characters is both dense, and boring, sometimes feeling as if it was written by someone trying to cram as many meaningful words and ideas into any given sentence. This is where the Nasuverse goes wrong for me, where it takes itself too seriously, and believes in its own grand, spectacular nature to such a degree that it becomes overbearing. There is the sense that acknowledging the preposterous nature of many Nasuverse aspects would be a terrible idea and somehow take away from the grand setting that we are presented with.
I would probably enjoy these series far more if they could acknowledge some of their flaws – yes they are grand, spectacular stories set in a world of demons and gods, but they are also a little silly in places. The lack of comedy, or even the acknowledgement of comedy ultimately hurts the stories, and coupled with the dense dialogue serves to create something that eventually gets tedious and dull. What has made watching these first few episodes of Unlimited Blade works so frustrating is the world with all its intricacies is once again waved in front of our faces, only to be snatched away and replaced with characters explaining things to one another. We as the audience are not allowed to think for ourselves, and instead have to have characters go through every little detail of the story, the Grail War, and their reasons for being there. I also found the initial prologue to be drawn out to the extreme – not that I have any problem with showing how the main characters summon their heroes, and even like the idea of showing two different perspectives of the same couple of days.
And yet, the amount of time devoted to something that could have arguably been done within a single slightly longer episode further reinforces my attitude that the fate franchise, and by extension Type-Moon takes itself too seriously. This does not mean that I hate the series, far from it, I find the universe fascinating, and many of themes present throughout previous anime have intrigued me, my issues lie with the way these adaptations are produced, the emphasis on dialogue and exposition over everything else, and a sense that these series take themselves far too seriously to the point of unintentional parody. All of these elements combined serve to turn an otherwise fascinating universe into one that is dull, plodding, and lacking energy, thus spoiling a story that is at times a grand journey through a world brimming with magic, demonic energy, and a battle for supreme power. In the end, the same issues that put me off Fate/Zero have arisen in the latest iteration of the Fate universe, and no amount of wonderful animation, and good music can change that fact.