Unlimited Blade Works Movie Review
I should start by saying I’m a pretty big Typemoon fan. I really enjoy the artwork, the characters, and the connected universes (Carnival Phantasm always cheers me up). So when I heard they were making a movie about the second story path in Fate/Stay Night, I was immediately hooked. Combined with the fact that it then got licensed and dubbed in English made me a very happy camper. So, does my fan-boyish bias affect how good the movie actually is? Read on to find out.
Quick history lesson. Fate/Stay Night is a story about seven mages summoning seven ancient warriors to compete in a battle royale for the Holy Grail. Originally, it was a visual novel with several paths a player could take, or in the case of the game, a different love interest to pursue. The original tv series combined the storylines a bit, but mostly followed the first story and the love of Shirou and his servant Saber. Unlimited Blade Works is the second story arc and focuses on the relationship between Shirou, Rin and her servant Archer.
Okay, on to the movie…
We jump right into the thick of the fighting from the first episode of the series and covers it all at a brisk pace. Knowledge of original series is pretty essential to understand what’s going on. We’re quickly introduced to the cast and plot
The characters in the original series each get a decent story line and characterization. You really get a sense of the egos of these heroic spirits as they clashed in mortal combat. Each brought their own motivations to the table and had their own reasons for fighting for the grail. Even the characters that didn’t get much screen time dropped little hints that there was more to them (Rider’s mask breaking for instance). It really made the world feel deeper than what we’re shown and encourages the audience to explore it of their own accord.
Fate/Stay has a really large cast. Here’s a handful.
This is glaringly absent from the Unlimited Blades film. We never get a sense of why these characters are fighting each other, or, more importantly, why certain characters betray one another. We basically go through the main story arcs present in the original story (Spoiler Lightning Round):
- Shirou and Rin team up to fight Berserker
- Rider sets up a barrier at the school (killed minutes later off camera)
- Shirou gets hypnotized and walks to Caster’s hideout
- Archer shows up to save Shirou, then stabs him
- Caster ambushes the group at home and captures Saber
- Team Shirou goes to rescue, but Archer switches teams and joins Caster
- With no servant, they see if Illya will help
- They arrive just in time to see Gilgamesh rip Illya’s heart out (literally)
- A bored Lancer shows up and decides to help Team Shirou
- Lancer fights Archer while Shirou and Rin take on Caster and Soichiro (again, to save Saber)
- Archer breaks off the fight with Lancer in time to stab Caster/Soichiro in the back (again, literally)
- Archer takes the opportunity to try and kill Shirou but is stopped by Saber
- Archer kidnaps Rin and runs off; Shirou, Saber, and Lancer track them down to Illya’s castle
- Shirou and Archer fight while Lancer gets to be a big damn hero and saves Rin
- Shirou wins and Gilgamesh shows up
- Gil creates the Holy Grail at the temple (like the thing from Akira)
- Rin gives Shirou a power boost (see Mana Dolphin)
- Shirou fights Gil
- Archer shows up to get some last saves in
- Team Shirou saves the day
Now imagine all those points with the fights drawn out and you pretty much have the movie. We sprint through these plot points and several more to get us from A to B but spend a lot more time watching the fights than exploring characters or story.
The big reveal in this route of course is that Archer is actually Shirou Emiya. In the future, Shirou became the guardian of the Earth. Each time he was summoned by the planet, he had to kill someone to prevent its destruction. After years and years, he’s so embittered by the whole ordeal that he decides to participate in the 5th Holy Grail war in order to kill his younger self and create a time paradox.
Of course, most of this is glossed over in the movie. We’re given just enough info to get by and know that the two characters are the same person. In the series, this is never explicitly stated though it’s subtly hinted at. There are a couple visual cues that also point to the connection (notice how their shirts are the same but opposite colors).
I do find it rather ironic that Shirou, being one of the most disliked character of the series, hates himself within the context of the story?. Throughout the movie Shirou and Archer are constantly bickering until it finally comes to blows. It’s a battle of wills with Shirou having to prove to himself (both of them) that he will not become a bitter and jaded warrior that Archer is. He proves this by stabbing him.
Of course, the other main character for this movie is Rin Tohsaka. Rin initially fits into the typical tsundere character (lashes out angrily but has a hidden soft side) though she’s fairly tame in this movie. She has a couple big fights but otherwise plays a very passive role. She acts as the main love interest of Shirou but they don’t have a whole lot of chemistry (again, mostly cause they don’t spend time on it). Their relationship is mostly Shirou trying to be a hero and Rin calling him an idiot for doing so. The insult doesn’t carry as much weight as it did in the series since Shirou’s a pretty competent fighter this time around (they cut out the parts where Saber helped train him in swordplay). We’re meant to believe that because Shirou falls in love with Rin, he won’t become Archer. Though the movie makes it feel like it’s Shirou and Archer’s fight that really determine that rather than anything Rin did. Like much of the rest of the cast, she doesn’t have much of a character beyond her relevance to the plot.
Many of the other characters get glorified cameos, though they’re often introduced as if they’re important. Rider, for instance, seems like a competent contender for the Grail and then is killed off screen 5 minutes later. These kind of events work in a branching story system like the original VN, but not so much in a single story. While people complained about how the anime series combined storylines, it was a really good idea. By combining them, each character that was introduced gets a reasonable conclusion. The movie tries to introduce the same number of characters, but doesn’t dedicate enough time to each for us to really care about them. Rider, Assassin, Taiga, Sakura, Soichiro and Illya all show up for an introduction or are used for one plot point before getting killed/never seen again. Even Saber just stands around while Shirou and Archer duke it out. It was really disappointing for all these character to appear and then have no presence beyond cardboard stand-ins.
Visually, the movie is pretty stunning. Battles are dynamic and explosive and each blow has a great sense of impact. The animation is top notch throughout. The backgrounds are all richly painted and vibrant, but the characters have an odd washed out look. Reds in particular never seemed like true reds, which is odd considering it’s the main color. There are also some odd framing decisions. Some shots were taken right from the original VN artwork, but it often leaves the characters as small little specks in one corner or another, making it really awkward when they’re talking to each other.
The English dub of this movie was really nice to watch. Nearly the whole cast return to reprise their roles with the exception of Saber. The returning cast did a fantastic job of slipping right back into their characters considering it’s been over 5 years since they played them. Michelle Ruff (Euphemia – Code Geass, Rukia – Bleach) replaces Kate Higgins (CC – Code Geass, Sakura – Naruto) as Saber, which I have mixed feelings about. Kate’s version of Saber managed to convey the quiet dignity of a ruler who shoulders the burden of her country by herself and never asks for help. Michelle captures some of that, but instead goes for a more passionate Saber whose fighting prowess is fueled by her emotions. Michelle does a fantastic job, but Kate’s will always be my favorite. Fate/Stay Night had one of my favorite English dubs and it was great to see the crew together again.
Ultimately, I feel like Unlimited Blades is the weakest entry in the series so far. Too much emphasis was put onto making the fights pretty and not enough time was spent with the characters and plot. If they had either extended the movie by a bit or done it in a 2-3 episode OVA series it would have been a lot stronger. It’s not all bad, the animation for instance is top notch, but from a series that has such complex characters, it was really disappointing to see them neglected. I’d only recommend it to fans of the series, and even then only those diehard fans that already know the story.
For those that are gently interested I recommend my AMV. Hope you enjoyed the review. I’ll be doing the rest of the current Fate/Stay series in the near future.