Anime Reviews: Fate/Stay Night [Unlimited Blade Works]
Placing a greater emphasis on action, Unlimited Blade Works bests its predecessor with vibrant visuals and an intense story, even if it does rush itself.
Title: Fate/Stay Night [Unlimited Blade Works]
Production: Studio DEEN
Film Length: 105 minutes
Air Dates: 1/23/2010
Age Rating: 13+ (strong violence with moments of gore, brief suggestive content)
Summary: Shirou Emiya is an optimistic youth who leads a fairly normal life--that is, until one night, when he finds himself caught in a battle between supernatural warriors on the school grounds. Finally, he is cornered by one of the fighters, a man called Lancer, and stabbed in the heart. Some time later, he is found and healed by Rin Tohsaka, a fellow student who appears to have been fighting Lancer, but Lancer pursues them once more, forcing them to take shelter in an old shed. Just as things are looking dire, Shirou somehow summons a warrior of his own: Saber, a sword-wielding knight sworn to serve him as a Servant in the war. Though they fend off Lancer, Shirou now finds himself entwined in the Holy Grail War, in which he must fight for supremacy to win the Holy Grail. To make matters worse, Rin's Servant, Archer, seems to have a bone to pick with Shirou, unrelated to the Holy Grail War...
The Good: High-flying visuals and action; intriguing and exciting story; well-suited for Fate fans
The Bad: Starts off on the wrong foot; rushed and condensed; confusing to Fate newbies
The Ugly: Gilgamesh proves that people really do die when killed!
Given the TV series that preceded and the film placed in front of me, I'm getting a major case of whiplash. I mean, holy crap! This is actually good! Great at times, even! If Fate/Stay Night discouraged me from checking out the original visual novel, this movie sure as hell does the exact opposite. How could this have happened? What did Unlimited Blade Works do differently? Well, you probably know where this is going by now, so let's get into it.
First of all, look at this! LOOK AT IT!! The animation in this movie is vivid and energetic and, of course, extremely pleasing to the eyes. Similarly, the artwork is quite vibrant, doing the original character designs a great deal of justice. On a related note, like I said of Fate/Stay Night, the character designs themselves are unique and interesting, and when the action is fast and furious, it's a visual smorgasbord. As icing on the cake, the action choreography is likewise exciting and varied, making each fight memorable and impressive--in particular, Shirou's inevitable showdown with Archer is a very satisfying clash worthy of being the film's centerpiece. Honestly, I really can't think of anything negative to say here.
And hey, this is one of those few occasions where a very plot-heavy film can get away with having constant action, so you can be assured that, not only is the action exciting, but the story itself, as well (likely because the story itself is primarily told through the action). I am making a grand understatement when I say that Unlimited Blade Works deviates greatly from the original TV series, and thank God for that!
There are plenty of twists and betrayals and revelations throughout, and each one is like a breath of fresh air--not only because it keeps the film interesting and alive, but also because it doesn't fall into the trap of sappy melodrama and insulting fanservice like Fate/Stay Night did (okay, there is a scene where Saber wears less than usual, but given her circumstance at the time, it didn't come across as distracting). In the end, it's a story told through exciting combat sequences, with some exposition here and there, accompanied by memorable twists and iconic face-offs. I can most certainly get behind this.
And luckily, I'm not the only one; for many fans of the Fate franchise, Unlimited Blade Works was a massive treat. The film's namesake arc in the visual novel is among the most popular within the fanbase, and for this segment of the story to finally be told was basically a Fate fan's dream come true. Unfortunately, though, the flip side is that this film is also not very kind to those unfamiliar with the workings of the series, and the reasons why are tied into the film's shortcomings...
The first thing that might turn Fate newbies away is the film's first 10 minutes, which start off with the generic high-school rom-com stuff that permeated all throughout the TV series and is most certainly not pulled off any better here. The last thing I want to see in a movie titled "Unlimited Blade Works" is whatever-her-freakin'-name-is the teacher up to her slapsticky shenanigans to force awkward comic relief down our throats, and I'm sure that it won't be anyone else's cup of tea, either. Fortunately, this nonsense doesn't last long, but it's also not the biggest issue of the film.
That would be its pacing. While the story is easy to pick up on and the action scenes are masterfully done, everything in between is rushed along so quickly that, if you were to blink, you'd probably completely miss where and when you're supposed to be. I'm not exaggerating when I say that in an early scene, when we suddenly see Shirou on his way home from school and stumbling into the Holy Grail War after a completely unrelated scene, I thought my copy of the film was incomplete somehow and there was a scene missing, but nope! We just cut right to the chase with no explanation whatsoever.
Now, since I'm familiar with both Fate/Stay Night and Fate/Zero, I was able to follow it, but...well, like I mentioned earlier, those who are just coming in will be totally lost. They'll have no idea what the Holy Grail War is, what the Holy Grail even does, what Command Seals are, how magic--or, in particular, the Servants--operate, and when rules are broken and characters operate outside the normal methods, it just becomes more confusing for new viewers. It's great that the film doesn't waste time and offers plenty of action, but would it really have hurt to give newbies some explanation to draw them in? Oh, well.
Regardless, this is still a hell of a lot better than the Fate/Stay Night TV series was. At least Unlimited Blade Works is merely a good action film with some pacing issues, rather than an ugly trainwreck of confused genres and reprehensible writing. If you're still new to the Fate series, I'd recommend you first visit the visual novel or check out Fate/Zero, but if you're already a Fate fan and you want to check out just one of the anime adaptations, definitely check out...Fate/Zero. It seriously is the best anime in the franchise, but if you're dead-set on an adaptation of Fate/Stay Night specifically, I would recommend this film all day long. It's not perfect, but it's likely exactly what you're looking for.
Final Score: 7 out of 10. It may not be kind to the uninitiated, and it certainly wastes no time to reach the end, but Unlimited Blade Works delivers intense action, stunning visuals, and a memorable story that, at the very least, puts its 2006 TV counterpart to absolute shame.