Fate Stay/Night: Unlimited Blade Works – How to Make Anime Boring
July 4, 2015 1 Comment
I have never been a big fan of Fate, or even Type-Moon, quite the opposite. The stories tend to be overly complex, and set in a world that is potentially interesting, but ultimately ignored in favour of boring, one-dimensional characters that achieve very little. Fate/Stay Night Unlimited Blade Works is simply another in a line of Type-Moon adaptations that fail to create any sense of excitement or entertainment from a convoluted, and empty world. But, before I get onto that, let us look at some of the elements that mean watching a Fate anime will always be an exercise in endless frustration for me.
Now, I don’t particularly like Fate, but I do like the world and the potential that it encapsulates. A world with a constantly warring, or in some cases bickering society of magicians hidden in plain sight fascinates me, especially when the Grail War is put into the mix. While a hidden society is hardly groundbreaking, it raises a number of interesting questions and conundrums for those involved. How to battle for supremacy without revealing your existence for example? What does being a member of the most powerful magician families actually mean in terms of attitudes towards everyday life and society as a whole? And, given the strong rivalries between numerous families, why do they not attempt to destroy each other before the Grail War, rather than simply wait for an unspecified time and place? Furthermore, the existence of the Grail, in this case a demonic creation that has been designed as the ultimate vessel to store and create power to the individual and family who can control it raises other questions about mage society and how they view the world.
Unfortunately, all of these questions are based on minute strands of information from every Fate anime I have watched, and ultimately amount to very little. Which brings me to one of the central flaws that Unlimited Blade Works, and by extension the whole Fate universe and assorted anime have, the worlds that we are presented with are ultimately empty. We are told consistently that the Grail War is a clash between seven of the worlds best Magi for control over a vessel that they believe will grant them great power and prestige. Indeed, that is the very basis of the entire Fate/Stay Night and Fate/Zero story, the one constant that appears to keep the magi society from imploding. And yet, we never see these families, or even the magi society in Unlimited Blade Works, and instead are presented with seven masters ostensibly from powerful families, but largely acting on their own.
What I want to see is a clash of powers, of family attitudes, and the inner workings of a society that appears to have elements of feudalism in its structure and approach to power and who should wield it. Unlimited Blade Works, and Fate in general would be far more interesting if we were to see how this other, hidden society works when presented with a fountain of unlimited power that can effectively turn the delicate balance of power on its head. It would also be interesting to see how their actions affected the wider world around them, because heroic spirits like Lancer, Berserker, and Saber fighting and generally destroying the scenery probably wouldn’t go unnoticed for long, regardless of how good a group is at covering things up. We do get a little of this with sudden gas leaks, linked to Caster’s attempt to channel as much power into her base as possible, but it is ultimately not enough. The world of Unlimited Blade Works, indeed, every Fate anime is empty and devoid of life – we are briefly treated to a semblance of normal school life during the first half, but whereas other anime present school as both busy, but also empty, timeless, an in-between space, school of Unlimited Blade Works just feels devoid of life. Characters wander through this space without leaving any trace, people are killed or injured, yet they do nothing about it, and life goes on as normal, while the majority of the school population appears to be invisible, assuming it even existed to begin with. The same is true of Fuyuki City, an apparently bustling city without ay inhabitants, a city that can support a fairly sizeable high school, and with a diverse class population, yet without anybody on the streets.
If we are to believe that this Grail War is a profound and life changing clash between immense powers then surely that war should have an impact on the surrounding environments, leaving scars, marks, both physical and psychological within the population. In Fate/Zero the whole city appears to be completely obliterated, reduced to fire, brimstone, and mounds of corpses – yet as we are introduced to the case of Unlimited Blade Works, the city seems to have been rebuilt, but apart form Shirou nobody even remembers such a catastrophic event. This sort of setting lacks any semblance of tension; there are no consequences to mass murder, no memory of city wide destruction, no population to be threatened, it is a war without real casualties and without a true threat.
When Rin and Shirou are worried about the effect that Caster’s magic could have on the population the audience is supposed to share their concerns, but if we have never seen said population, and rarely see any other characters than those directly participating in the Grail Wear, how can the threat of genocide even generate an emotional reaction, let alone create narrative tension? This is something that Fate/Zero attempted to do, and partly succeeded. As much as I don’t like the series, it did a good job of demonstrating the competitive, even self-destructive nature that Mage society can have, and how the Grail War served as an opportunity, not only to gain immense power, but also to demonstrate who’s magic was superior. Furthermore, there were moments, no matter how brief or fleeting that we were given a vision of the collateral damage that such a conflict could inflict, and how quickly things could get out of hand when magicians, with no thought of ordinary people, started fighting each other at full force.
Characters like Shirou, as boring as he otherwise is, talk about their ideals, and in Shirou’s case he talks about becoming a hero and saving people, but without a populated, busy world, his ideals, and everything he says seem hollow, and as empty as the world he lives in. Similarly, without the presence of Magi society, and the inclusion of the families and those who circle around them, the Grail War seems like a pointless squabble between a group of generally unlikeable people. Only at the very end of the series, during the epilogue are we even provided a brief Mage society, and the influence that the Mage’s Association holds. Until that point Mage Society is kept hidden, as if its existence is entirely meaningless to the Grail War, despite apparently being central to it. But now let us focus on the characters in all of their cardboard cutout glory.
A good character doesn’t necessarily have to be truly multi-dimensional, they can be fairly one-dimensional, and yet still be interesting to watch; unfortunately none of the characters in Unlimited Blade Works are the least bit interesting. Many of the servant/master pairs barely even feature in the story, often appearing to attack Shirou/Rin, and then disappearing again, just to die or drop out later on. Illya has more impact than most characters, as the major conflict during the first half revolved around her attempt to destroy Shirou, which produced a couple of very nicely animated fight sequences. Sakura and Rider are almost nonexistent, and the other servants appear from time to time to either annoy Shirou and Rin, or try to kill them. There isn’t much to say about the majority of the cast because they ultimately have little to no impact on the narrative and the series outcome – they exist without ever quite being significant, even when they are supposed to be as is the case with Illya. This comes back to how empty the world of Unlimited Blade Works is, and how little impact any of the central characters actions appear to have on the world around them.
Then we come to Shirou and Rin – Shirou is boring, a dull one-dimensional character with some potentially interesting character traits who ultimately remains the same from start to finish, unchanging, and eternally boring. His goals and ideals at the end are exactly the same as they were at the beginning of the series, so his character goes through no progression and no development. His various encounters with other characters like Rider, Saber, Rin, and Lancer ultimately mean nothing as they have no impact upon how he views himself and the world he lives in. He He might as well have spent the entire series sulking in his house while writing a book on the existential existence of Shirou for all the good his presence does. His presence however leads to one of the worst series of episodes ever animated – a five episode arc where he and Lancer argue about whether or not it is right to be a hero and if humanity should be saved. It is pure drivel, the sort of writing I would expect from somebody who is half asleep and suffering from an absinthe hangover, because it is terrible. That arc takes roughly five episodes to basically say ‘I disagree with what you are saying! Oh yeah, well I disagree with what you’re saying as well!’, only with a lot more fluff and guff thrown in for good measure.
Rin on the other hand could be an interesting character were it not for the world that is devoid of life. Her motivations and even existence are integrally tied into the Mage’s Association and Mage society, so without those influences on the story her entire character and the way she is supposed to develop falls flat on its face, going nowhere. Her character swings between a self-reliant individual who knows exactly what she wants and how she will go about acquiring it, to a damsel in distress whom Shirou must save. And I personally feel that Rin would be far more interesting if were able to see how her, and other distinguished Mage families interacted, especially given her fathers actions during Fate/Zero. Even Saber, an apparently strong servant is rendered entirely pointless throughout much of the series as she is captured and then shoved into a wedding dress by Caster.
It is during the epilogue that I was finally given a glimpse at what could have been, with Rin and Shirou attending Clock Tower where they are both studying magic under the protection of the Mage’s Association. During these segments we are provided with some concrete vision of what mage society is (much like everyday society, but with magic), and the presence of Luvia also demonstrates how competitive this society is. That scene in particular adds an element of comedy, something that the entire Fate franchise sorely lacks. It also demonstrates the possibilities of what might have been if the mage association and mage society took centre stage, and the Grail War was portrayed as a true clash for the ultimate power. We might have had a real sense of dread and danger when the reality of the Holy Grail was revealed, and we learn that it is a demonic vault of curses and dark energy with the ability to destroy humanity. Without a fully populated world, and a narrative that set out the true costs of taking part in such a conflict, the series lacks any real tension, and while it had flashy visuals, the story was ultimately empty and devoid of life.
I know this is wishful thinking, and I am effectively asking for a Fate series that took the basis of this Visual Novel, including all the information on Type-Moons wikia page to create an original story that weaves all of these elements together. Something like this would never happen, largely because my opinion as somebody outside of Japan matters very little, but also because the fanbase is such that no studio, writer, or director, regardless of what they might truly want to do, would even so much as consider creating such a story. What we are left with is a perfect example of how to make anime boring, how to take an interesting, even exciting concept and create one of the dullest, poorly written stories you will ever likely watch. It looked and sounded very good (although the production noticeably slipped during the second half of the series) but that alone cannot make up for poor writing, terrible characters, and a story that lacks any real tension or sense of urgency. In the end the impression that Unlimited Blade Works left me with is one of abject boredom and frustration, it isnt a well thought out of executed series, and to make matters worse there is the potential to be a good, interesting, and engaging story, if only somebody was willing to take the plunge and make it.