In the suitably serialised episode 0, Fate/stay night Unlimited Blade Works struggles to shake off its visual novel origins even at the prefacing stage. Think of it like a tutorial, an info dump wherein you have to wade through waves of explanation to get to the meat of the combat and narrative. It does a much better job, and perhaps has its greatest success, with the follow-up episode which presents the same events from a different viewpoint and fills in the gaps. Introducing the more optimistic and wonderstruck Shiro, as opposed to his dour and stuck-up sister-in-arms Rin, it’s altogether a better starting point with a more congenial central character.
It’s only after this point, too, that we begin to see the characters’ eccentricities. Though Rin manages to botch the summoning of her Servant – beings who behave like mages’ familiars feeding from their master’s power – she takes a while to show the quiet uncertainty in her incompetence masked by bravado. The subtleties to be sensed from being a gamer driving the narrative have trouble translating to the TV screen. It’s only the novice Shiro’s ignorance of the ongoing Grail War between the Masters, and the ambiguity of the Servants plucked from wars of myth and history, that bring some reward to the reams of exposition.
Still, although the precedent of the games presents a certain stylistic rigidity, where characters float ghostly over backdrops, this same background sets up a world where nothing is accidental or inconsequential. It all feels very deliberate, adding to a heightened sense of involvement for the viewer despite the lack of visual depth, and drawing on semi-supernatural intrigue, danger and paranoia. Grisly murders in Japan and gas leaks in New York allude to a planetary imbalance within the shimmering, painterly art, and the most innocuous are framed at an unusual angle. This fluid feel for the uncanny sometimes even persuades the strange perspective towards eeriness, especially in scenes of isolation or a battle in the graveyard.
The art direction’s languor translates surprisingly well to the series’ combat, quick cuts and the tang of blade on blade giving a speed and strength of motion that makes Naruto feel like it’s in slo-mo. It’s in these moments that unite the music’s flowing thrill, the exhilarating conflict and the art’s atmospheric shading that we get the most powerful sense of the series’ own identity, blending the best of the games into this separate entity. Capably placed to help the pace along when it needs a nudge, it’s only the lengthy conversations and odd monologue that eventually make Bladeworks vulnerable to dragging its feet. And yet, this first collection ends on a poignant enough note to inspire a look back over the previous act with fresh awareness, and to seed excitement for the next.
For our review of Part 2, click here.
English dub; promo trailers; clean opening & closing animation.