Review: Fate/stay night: Heaven’s Feel III. spring song

Fate/stay night: Heaven’s Feel III. spring song is the third installment in the Fate/stay night: Heaven’s Feel film trilogy. If you’re here, you probably know what this means. This is not necessarily a review of specifically the third film, but a review of the experience of being a fan who waited a long time for the film series.

Major spoilers for the entire Fate franchise will follow.

THE FIRST SORCERY:
BEGINNING OF THE DREAM

Fate/stay night (no subtitle) is a visual novel released in Japan in January 2004. More specifically, it is an “eroge” – short for “erotic game” – which means it contains sexually explicit content. As of this writing, it has never been released in English, but a fan translation was completed in the late 2000s. A visual novel is a form of media where the story is primarily told through text not unlike a novel, but with sound effects, music, visual art, and occasional interactivity.

In this case, interactivity does not mean physically acting out parts of the story (let alone the aforementioned sexually explicit content) with the computer’s keyboard and mouse, or controlling a character on screen directly. It refers to selecting possible options from a list for the protagonist to take at specific junctions in the story. If the correct option is selected, the story continues. If the incorrect option is selected, a the story diverts towards a “Bad End” (read: an elaborate Game Over) which allows the player to accept a hint towards the correct option.

You may have heard of the term “dating sim”. Dating sims involve life-simulation game mechanics such as time management, stat growth, and relationship building. Fate/stay night is not a dating sim. The plot is static and any relationships within it occur in a fixed fashion. However, Fate/stay night does contain multiple romantic interests for its main character, each tied to a main story branch and acting as the catalyst for different conflicts and character arcs. Fate/stay night contains three main story arcs and accordingly three main “heroines”, to use the parlance of the genre.

The story of Fate/stay night revolves around a fictional concept called the “Holy Grail War”, where wizard lineages battle in the modern day with magic familiars called “Servants”: the spirits of figure from myth and legend summoned to physical form. The Grail is said to have the power to grant any wish, and both the “Master” and the “Servant” can claim this opportunity, should they win the war. A teenager named Shirou Emiya is inadvertently dragged into the fifth and most recent Holy Grail War, accidentally summoning a Servant who goes by “Saber”. The plot continues from here in various forms, including the aforementioned multiple branching story paths.

PART 1.1:
LE PETIT MORTE D’ARTHUR

The first story arc (or “story route”) is referred to as “Fate“, which occasionally leads to some confusion when referring either to Fate/stay night or to the wider franchise as a whole, of which nearly all installments also have titles which begin with the word “Fate”. Which is to say, that we’re talking about the Fate route within Fate/stay night the first installment of the Fate franchise. Got it? Okay. Good. Cool.

As noted previously, Shirou accidentally summons Saber, who is the main heroine of the Fate route. She is a blonde woman in a blue armoured dress who wields a sword covered in an invisible shroud, as its visage is so famous as to instantly give away her identity. You see, all Servants closely guard their true identities and go by monikers such as Saber, Archer, or Rider; if their true names were known, then their adversaries would supposedly gain information on their capabilities. In practice, this artifice exists solely to facilitate dramatic reveals in this route and the next. We eventually learn that she is actually King Arthur, who within the setting of this fiction was secretly a woman. Though outwardly collected and straightforward, Saber grapples with the knowledge of how the Knights of the Round Table collapsed, blaming her own actions and shortcomings for the fall of Camelot.

Saber being King Arthur who is actually a young woman is the most well known spoiler from Fate/stay night and has colored the entire rest of the franchise. The original draft of the story included a female protagonist summoning a male Saber; this dynamic was flipped in production so that the end product would be more appealing as a sexually explicit game sold primarily to a male audience. The whole kerfuffle is clever for certain reasons (the whole Guinevere/Lancelot thing makes more sense) and quite ridiculous for others (try not to think too hard about Mordred).

We also learn that Shirou is more intimately related to the Holy Grail War than anyone thought. His family perished in the crossfire of the previous war ten years ago, and he was adopted by one of its surviving combatants, a man named Kiritsugu who had summoned the very same Saber to do battle (he did it on purpose though). Shirou’s entire value system as a human being is rooted in Kiritsugu’s dying words of relating his childhood wish to be a “champion of justice”. As a result, Shirou is almost comically lacking in self-preservation instinct, preferring instead to throw his squishy human body at every problem he can in hopes of saving others from even a modicum of danger. This includes such self-destructive stunts as attempting to diving-save his new friend, who – as mentioned – is a powerful fighter who is certainly more capable of withstanding blows than he is.

Over the course of several battles and quite a bit of plot otherwise, it becomes clear that Shirou is attracted to Saber’s incredible battlefield prowess, her otherworldly handsome beauty, and her familiar pining towards an impossible goal. Saber is likewise moved by Shirou’s philosophy of accepting the failures of the past and respecting the fallen by moving forward, his unerring selflessness, and his impressive cooking skills. Their partnership culminates in Shirou getting his dick blown by the super-powered ghost of a legendary Welsh warrior king mere hours after both parties were nearly killed by the ancient Sumerian god-emperor Gilgamesh dumping hundreds of swords on their heads.

This is core to franchise’s long-standing mainstream appeal. Sexy and powerful legends from your favorite cultural myths are here to fight gallantly on your behalf! And between sweaty, adrenaline-pumping battles, these folks have been dead for ages and surely pine for a bit of companionship from their new charges. Why, it’s only natural if sparks fly.

(To be clear, I said mainstream appeal. I like[d] the franchise for other reasons too. But I was a teen once, I won’t say it’s never been a factor. That would be ridiculous.)

The creators would eventually monetize this in the most insidious way yet possible: an online casino where players gamble against the machine for a shot at claiming their favorite scantily-clad history honeys to add to an ever-growing Pokedex of lascivious legends. But not for another decade or so.

Eventually, the villainous Servant Gilgamesh and his evil Master get their grubby hands on the Holy Grail at the center of the Holy Grail War, reveal its true form as Bad Stuff, and our heroes stop them with force. Saber uses Excalibur to shoot a big laser beam to vaporize the Bad Stuff and confesses her love to this Japanese teenager with her last breath. Her spirit returns to the ending promised to King Arthur, content with knowing that even though her kingdom fell, she did the best she could with what she had. Very touching.

Shirou has not changed much from this experience, his convictions instead galvanizing. He remains dazzled by Saber’s unwavering dedication to her knightly ideals, enraptured by how she remained steadfast even as her spirit was slowly crushed by the weight of her self-imposed guilt. He decides he will forever pursue the same path as his father, giving all of himself for the greater good regardless of the personal risk.

That’s route one. We have two more. Okay? Okay.

PART 1.2:
STEEL IS MY BODY, FIRE IS MY BLOOD

Completing the Fate route creates a new junction point early on in the story. Shortly after Saber first appears in the plot, she senses another Servant nearby and immediately attacks, dealing a grievous wound to the mysterious figure called Archer. Archer appears only sporadically from then on, usually to offer advice blanketed in a layer of snark, and eventually gives his life to slow an enemy pursuer. Now, the player may select a new option where Shirou magically compels Saber to cease hostilities in this moment, leaving Archer unharmed. We are now on the “Unlimited Blade Works” story branch.

Archer’s Master is Rin Tohsaka, the (of course) most popular girl at school and (double of course) secretly a magus herself, as well as (triple of course) the new primary love interest for Shirou. She is a major character in the Fate route as well – she secretly saves Shirou’s life at the beginning of the story when he is killed in the War’s crossfire, and maintains a friendly presence throughout¬† – but Archer’s increased screentime brings her to the forefront, and the pair formally ally with Shirou and Saber. Outside of the game’s context, Rin is world famous for her “tsundere” personality, her twintail hair style, and her thigh-high stockings, but you already knew that.

Rin’s fundamental character conflict revolves around her secret life as a magus. She was raised to fight in the Holy Grail War, and frequently postures and lectures on the proper conduct as such. That is: help nobody without personal benefit, live with pride as a guiding factor, and above all keep magic a secret. However, the second wolf within her demands she act with basic human decency. That one usually wins.

On this route, Archer’s baseline levels of snide, yet broadly well-meaning snarkiness from Fate morph into obvious malice towards Shirou personally. He urges Rin to betray Shirou at every opportunity, verbally dismantles and belittles his values, and occasionally outright attacks him physically. Yet, Archer also seems unable to stop himself from saving Shirou from mortal peril and even helping the boy learn magic similar to his own abilities.

The status quo shatters when Caster (Medea of Greek myth), another one of the seven Servants in the Holy Grail War, goes on the offensive. Her Noble Phantasm (that is, her Special Move) severs the magical pact between Shirou and Saber, allowing her to bind the knight to her will. Archer – citing Rin’s unwillingness to pick off an easy target like Shirou – turns coat to join the Caster’s cadre, leaving the teens high and dry.

Rin and Shirou make a desperate push into Caster’s base, only to witness Archer backstabbing Caster himself, her usefulness outlived; he only wanted her ability to break pacts to free himself from Rin’s command to leave Shirou unharmed. Killing Shirou personally was Archer’s true goal all along, because…. dundundun, they were the same person all along! Archer is Shirou, from the far future of the “Fate” route, having devoted himself so wholly to heroism that he became a legend worthy of being summoned across time and space by the Holy Grail.

Shirou Emiya believed in saving people that he decided to keep saving people forever. The problem with being a Servant is that your day job as an immortal spirit of martial prowess is to occasionally manifest as a spectre and kill people whose actions will butterfly-effect and threaten the entire metaphysical world. Archer wanted to save everyone, and now all he does is kill people over and over, all the time, non-stop.

It doesn’t really feel like the greater good when you’re the one pulling the trigger. After an eternity of doing the one thing he didn’t want to do, Archer would really rather just kill himself.

This is the other big spoiler (and the one that was deployed to originally get me interested in the franchise). It’s why the two have similar magical abilities, why he’s been relatively kind towards Saber and Rin despite being a total dick to everyone else, and it’s why the Unlimited Blade Works route can only be played after you complete Fate route. Archer’s self-hatred has less pathos without seeing its start firsthand.

Archer and Shirou have a climactic confrontation where they smash their ideologies against each other in addition to their swords. Being the main character, Shirou wins, partly by siphoning Archer’s eons of fighting experience into himself and partly by acknowledging that even though their shared dream is ultimately self-destructive and futile, its selfless intent is still noble and worth striving towards. Archer fades away content both with his own choices and with knowing this new Shirou will have allies like Rin who will keep him on a better path.

The evil Gilgamesh – final boss of the “Fate” route, if you forgot – is still putzing around in this new timeline, and serves much the same role of crashing the party, stealing the Holy Grail, and attempting to unleash the dark presence within it upon the city. With Rin’s assistance, Shirou channels the most powerful form of Archer’s magic – the eponymous “Unlimited Blade Works” – to defeat Gilgamesh, and Saber once again uses her last breath and her giant laser sword to destroy the Grail, ending the war.

Rin ultimately takes on Shirou as an apprentice and they move to London to study magic. Shirou continues to strive towards his dream of being a champion of justice with a somewhat more tempered, less recklessly suicidal mentality. Everybody moves on with their lives. Two down, one to go.

Yeah, it’s a pretty long game. The primary English fan translation clocks in at around 800,000 words. Award-winning CRPG Disco Elysium has around 1,000,000 words, though you wouldn’t be seeing all of them on any given playthrough. The Lord of the Rings trilogy (including The Hobbit) is about 576,000 words, and the entire Game of Thrones series (so far) is about 1,770,000 words. Take a deep breath; we’re almost there.

PART 1.3:
CLOSING A CAN OF WORMS

Completing Unlimited Blade Works unlocks a handful of new options in the early parts of the story, mostly before Saber even appears. They revolve around spending time with… another character who has been in the story the entire time but whom I haven’t mentioned: Sakura Matou, Shirou’s underclassmen who, uh, has a key to his house and regularly spends her mornings and afternoons there. The obvious implication is that she has a huge crush on him, and the secondary implication is that she really doesn’t want to be at home. She is hence the main heroine of the third route.

I’ve until now neglected to mention Sakura’s older brother and Shirou’s “friend” (read: That Guy We Hate But Still Hang Out With For Some Reason), Shinji Matou, who also participates in the Holy Grail War as the proxy Master of the Servant Rider (guess who her real Master is, hm?). He’s a total scumbag on every level, a sniveling coward who berates his own Servant over his own shortcomings as a magus and gets removed from the picture pretty early on each time. So, you can kind of extrapolate how he treats Sakura from there. Suffice to say the work itself is somewhat clearer on the subject than this writing.

Directing Shirou to spend more time with Sakura moves the plot onto the “Heaven’s Feel” route. The two of them grow closer during the day as the Holy Grail War progresses at night. As it becomes clear that Shinji is somehow even more ineffectual than usual this time, Zouken Matou – ancient patriarch of the Matou line, who has eluded death by transforming his body into a swarm of vampiric bugs – joins the battle. He defeats multiple combatants with the assistance of an enigmatic shadow creature which can swallow Servants whole and corrupt them to his own ends. Even Saber falls to this monster.

We learn Sakura Matou was born as Sakura Tohsaka, Rin’s younger sister. Their father gave her over to the Matou clan as a child out of a misguided desire to allow both of them to compete in the Holy Grail War. She goes through torturous magical procedures daily that transform her physiology to be compatible with Matou magecraft and allow her to be controlled by Zouken. To protect her, Shirou insists she stay at his home permanently, but she falls ill and must remain in bed all day.

It slowly becomes clear that Sakura is the Shadow, channeling whatever evil presence lurks within the Grail. She is rapidly losing control of its powers, indiscriminately devouring civilians at night and rendering the Holy Grail War a secondary concern. She begs Shirou to kill her for the sake of the greater good, but he chooses to abandon his heroic ideals – the driving force behind both of the previous routes, if you weren’t paying attention – for the sake of protecting only those dear to him, swearing he will love her no matter what.

 

The inevitable happens: Sakura becomes fully possessed, killing both her brother and grandfather and threatening even more widespread destruction. Shirou, Rin, and Rider mount an offensive to save her if possible and kill her if not, battling a corrupted Saber and the monstrous spawn of Sakura’s magic. Shirou uses Archer’s power to replicate Caster’s ability to sever magical pacts, freeing Sakura. The Holy Grail War is permanently dismantled, and everyone moves on with their lives. Happy times for all.

Full completion. The player receives a Tiger Stamp for every unique “Bad End”, unlocking comedic bonus scenes.

PART 1.4:
ALL THE WORLD’S EVIL

Certain people can and will take umbrage with the way I summarized the game for various reasons.¬† I’ve left out entire major characters from this writing; characters who appear in all three routes and do incredibly important things in all of them. I’ve left out story specifics that I myself consider core to the experience. I’ve written things factually incorrect about the plot for the sake of speed and thematic clarity. The fandom is notorious for quibbling over details like this in comment sections of places that do not warrant such discussion. It might even happen here.

Others might quibble over which route is the best one, or worse, which one is more “canon” than the rest. All three routes are mutually exclusive, you see. The cast all end up in completely different places at the end of each one; some are alive at the end of one route and long dead in another. Some refer to this as pretentious, “uncreative” writing, a failure to “unify” all of the ideas contained within the work. Sequels, spinoffs, and I are content to effectively ignore questions of canonicity – this is a video game, not a religion – but they remain a matter of debate.

This screen changes over time as the plot unfurls.

Others still rank the battle scenes and argue over which route has the coolest fights, imagining hypothetical clashes not unlike debating who has the highest power levels in Dragon Ball. “You see”, one might say, “Lancer only unleashes his full strength when fighting Archer in in Unlimited Blade Works route and easily wins, so if he used his Noble Phantasm repeatedly, he would be able to defeat even Saber.” Someone else might counter by saying it doesn’t matter if Lancer could defeat Saber, because he lacks a technique powerful enough to defeat Berserker, et cetera, et cetera. These talks are only spurred on by the visual novel’s “Status” screen, which has profiles for each Servant and outlines their abilities like a Dungeons & Dragons character sheet, complete with relative scores and vague numerical values that have little bearing on the plot itself.

But, of course, the internet collective is nothing if not horny, and often any talk of the individual routes devolve into “who is the Best Girl” arguments. The “Waifu Wars” continue to this day. One specific member of the western fandom (who will go unnamed, but you either know them or you don’t) was so heated in their obsession with Sakura that they personally attacked with intense fervor anyone who disagreed; they were banned from multiple forums after a series of back-and-forth doxxing incidents. Some stand back and assert that the “shipping” in each route is secondary to the differences in plot and backstory revelations, implicitly casting negative judgement on those who would be guided by the promise of anime titty.

With all of these angles in mind, I’ve seen multiple discussions that include a variation on the phrase, “If you’re only going to watch one route, which one should it be?” (We’ll come back to this phrasing later.) Everyone has their personal favorite – including me – but my honest response is that there are three routes and you’re meant to experience them in order. If you’re playing the visual novel from scratch, you literally cannot do so otherwise. It’s Fate, Unlimited Blade Works, Heaven’s Feel.

Together, the three comprise a single work called Fate/stay night.

THE SECOND SORCERY:
MULTI-DIMENSION REFRACTION PHENOMENON

On July 27th, 2014, I stayed up until the early hours of the morning on the west coast of the United States to watch the live stream from Japan announcing new Fate anime productions. When they announced the Heaven’s Feel film project, they brought Sakura’s voice actress – Noriko Shitaya – out on stage. She cried tears of joy live on camera. At the time, I was more excited about the confirmation a few minutes earlier that the UFOtable produced Fate/stay night TV anime announced in 2013 would adapt Unlimited Blade Works.

As noted in my definitive 2020 franchise retrospective, “The GLORIO Decade: The State of Fate“, Tsukihime‘s success meant the Fate/stay night visual novel landed with a big splash, and a mainstream animated adaptation was a matter of course. The first one – animated by Studio DEEN – began airing in January of 2006, two years after the visual novel released.

Artbooks and interviews (chiefly 2019’s Fate/unpublished material book) detail early drafts of an anime-original route with a few new characters replacing those from the visual novel. Ultimately, these ideas were canned (mostly to be re-used later in Fate/Grand Order) and the DEEN anime roughly follows the Fate route, with some broad additions from the other two that don’t overly affect the story progression. For example: we get the reveal about Sakura’s past, and Caster kidnaps her as a way to include a short leg of the Unlimited Blade Works plot in such a way that slots in well enough.

The DEEN anime is totally fine. It was cool to hate on it for a few years there, mostly around when the UFOtable Fate/Zero and Unlimited Blade Works anime were airing, but fan opinion has broadly turned back towards the “yeah, sure” end of the spectrum. Its Kenji Kawai (Ghost in the Shell, Ip Man film series) penned soundtrack is still quite good, standing out even more these days considering how thoroughly Yuki Kajiura’s sound has taken over the franchise. It introduced the now iconic Japanese voice cast. (I personally have a soft spot for the Geneon dub, as it was the first Fate product I was ever exposed to.)

Geneon began releasing this version westward towards the end of 2006. The fan translation of the visual novel was still in progress at this time, but the Unlimited Blade Works route wasn’t fully complete until March of 2008, and the rest wouldn’t be done until November. For this length of time (further, even; I would argue until as late as October of 2011), the DEEN anime was the primary vector by which Westerners came to know the franchise, especially if you weren’t internet savvy enough to download the translation patch and find a copy of the visual novel.

The English dub went for “If you’re hurt badly enough, you die.”

It was easy to make judgements about the franchise based on the 2006 anime alone, an adaptation of a portion of the original work. I’ve noted above that during the Fate route, Shirou undergoes little character development, asks his ancient warrior companion not to fight on the grounds of it being too dangerous, and acts in outright self-destructive ways. A questionable translation of a late episode also gave us the “people die if they are killed” meme. Shirou consequently gained a reputation of being a misogynistic moron who told all women to “Fate/stay in the kitchen”.

Years of being derided in this way and others (as noted, the Fate fandom has a reputation for getting worked up over minor details and is often ruthlessly mocked as such) has irreversibly turned me into a creature who associates personal enthusiasm with shame and social ostracization. I therefore learned to instinctively shame others for being enthused and have taught myself to never become excited about anything.

DEEN released a film adaptation of Unlimited Blade Works in 2010, ending their involvement with the franchise. Time has been somewhat less kind to it, mostly because it was released in much closer proximity to 2011’s Fate/Zero anime. Personally, I feel as though attempting to cram an entire storyline into less than a quarter of the runtime of the TV version was doomed from the start. Still, it was Unlimited Blade Works; if you already knew what was going on, the movie was… adequate. It hit all the big plot points. If you hadn’t read the visual novel, it bordered on incoherent.

In July of 2013, a bit over a year after the Fate/Zero anime ended, UFOtable announced it was producing a new TV anime adapting Fate/stay night. There was a certain amount of fan debate at the time over which route, if any, it would adapt. There were arguments to be made about all three, and certainly to be made about some kind of amalgamation or original route, as well. On July 27th, 2014, I stayed up until the early hours of the morning on the west coast of the United States to watch the live stream from Japan announcing new Fate anime productions. They were doing both Unlimited Blade Works and Heaven’s Feel. UBW would start later that year – I wrote posts recapping and covering every episode, so my thoughts from the time are well documented – but Heaven’s Feel wouldn’t start until 2017.

I’d been a Fate fan for five years at the time of this press conference. It would be another five before all three routes were fully adapted.

Key art from various Fate anime over the years.

THE THIRD SORCERY:
DRINKING FROM THE CUP OF HEAVEN

I first heard about Fate/stay night in public school. One of my at-the-time friends knew about the Archer thing and was telling me about how it was a cool twist, but that it was only hinted at in the show itself. I didn’t pay it much mind, but I did look up Fate later and saw that it was an ero-game with an anime version that removed all of the 18+ bits. The idea that a Thing With Fuckin’ In It had a story worth telling totally separate from The Fuckin’ seemed like a strange concept at the time.

On a separate occasion, I was using chat program AIM to talk to someone I knew online. They were talking about the 2006 Kanon anime, produced by Kyoto Animation. I remembered that this was also on the list of “Things With Fuckin’ In ‘Em That Had The Fuckin’ Removed Later” and communicated as such, as well as noting that it appeared to be a not unheard of concept when it came to anime. Such as Fate/stay night, for instance. They were incredulous – they knew of Fate/stay night as some kind of action show, whereas Kanon was a romance, and therefore conducive to having some of The Fuckin’ – but decided to investigate for themselves. Some months later, this person was extremely into Fate and nagged me to watch the DEEN anime until I did so.

Which is to say… somehow all of the joy and anguish this franchise has caused me was actually self-inflicted. Wow, that’s deep or something… ahem.

My personal golden age for the franchise was short-lived. When Aksys brought Fate/Extra for the PSP westward in 2011, contemporaneous with the free NicoNico simulcast of the Fate/Zero prequel anime, it felt like a huge milestone victory. We were finally getting access to content in an official, timely capacity. It was happening.

Fate/Zero Original Image Soundtrack Cover Art

And it kept happening. As far as Fate/Zero goes, I’ve elsewhere described it as a perfect storm, poised for massive popularity. It came out swinging and catapulted Fate as a franchise into the mainstream western anime fandom. It became the new “starting point” for anyone interested in the franchise as a whole, and I’d argue it still is. (Here I must pause to acknowledge Carnival Phantasm, which technically began airing before Fate/Zero did. It is a comedy-focused anniversary celebration anime that lampoons both Fate and Tsukihime and is a personal favorite spinoff. It is, however, broadly outside the scope of this post.)

Fate/Zero was a strong franchise entry, no doubt about that. It works as a strong prequel, taking what we knew from Fate/stay night and adding enough embellishment to not only stand on its own two feet but add depth to the original work. It’s also hyper violent and deeply cynical, akin to what the Sci-Fi Channel in the 90s (or Netflix in the present day) thought anime was about. Blood and sex! Rape and murder! Trenchcoats and explosions!

As a prequel, Fate/Zero leads into the same base starting point that all three routes spring from and assumes familiarity with information from the visual novel. It glibly reveals Saber’s true identity and Sakura’s entire backstory, and Kiritsugu is blatantly a thematic stand-in for Archer. Without knowledge of F/SN further down the timeline, plot points seem to come out of nowhere, when in reality they’re simply subject to dramatic irony. But whatever, we aren’t here to talk about Fate/Zero. It’s fine, we know it’s fine, we can move on. The important part is that it was not only an expansion on the source material, but a judicious and careful one. Its additions were small and intimately tied to the original story.

This is a rough estimation – I do not have a perfect memory – but all we had in English when I was at the peak of my fandom were the DEEN adaptations, the visual novel, Tsukihime (plus related works like Kagetsu Tohya), and the Garden of Sinners movie series. There were basic summaries of Fate/hollow ataraxia (I haven’t even touched on what F/HA even is and don’t plan to), and an ongoing project to translate the Fate/Zero novels. Plus the occasional translated artbook tidbit or short story, you know.

It was a lore-hound’s dream, with these parts of the franchise moving the windmills of imagination with hurricane force gales. The wider franchise had a modest but respectable amount of content to peruse, interconnected in interesting ways but almost never directly; there were just references, tidbits. “Magic Eye Killer” glasses, puppet bodies, a name here or there. There was no pressure to build up to some kind of grand unified climax either, it all just added breadth to the world. Take the 27 Dead Apostle Ancestors, for instance: a stack rank of Dead Apostles (that is, a lore term for vampires) who are not necessarily the most powerful or influential, but who pose the most threat to humanity as a species. Most have never gotten more than a paragraph in passing, but that was enough to speculate.

The very premise of the Holy Grail War is an empty frame ready to be used, filled again in another time and place with a fresh portrait. The limited cast of Servants, the regimented separation of their “Classes”, and the occasional obscure choice of figure all beg fans to grab this Fate-shaped stencil and graffiti all over their favorite myths and legends. What kind of Servant are they? What’s their Noble Phantasm? What would be their strategy to win the Holy Grail War?

The seven main “classes” for Servants: Saber, Lancer, Archer, Rider, Caster, Assassin, Berserker.

This is core to the franchise’s appeal. A wide, open-ended imagination space leaves plenty of room for more, and fans were all too willing to jump right in and start coming up with ideas. I certainly was. There was always more info to find somewhere: old, rare Comiket doujins from before Type-Moon was even Type-Moon; snippets of concept art in the corners of books; rumors of old, scrapped plans for adaptations, magazine interviews.

In practice, this means that both franchise fans and the franchise itself have… a reputation. Ask our mutuals and you’ll get the answer that Fate fans are weird obsessives over pointless minutiae. That the franchise is tediously mired in unimportant details and get contradicted at the drop of a hat. That it supposedly forgoes any semblance of “good writing” for the sake of exposition dumps. They purport that the franchise drowns its own potential in stuff that nobody cares about.

Gaius Julius Caesar from Fate/Grand Order. I don’t know why he looks like this either.

The beaten down, ashamed part of my brain wanted to type “some of this is very true” here – and I obviously did so, albeit surrounded by scare quotes – but I will confidently state that these people are wrong and fundamentally misunderstand the draw of the franchise. They’re the same people demanding a canon route, after all. What they don’t get is that the best of the franchise is considering the gaps and how they might be filled in. I believe that seeing the gaps actually filled is doomed to ultimately be dissatisfying. Making the connections and painting them in yourself is the fun part, whether or not the lore actually exists or not. Not that it stopped the creators.

Fate/Grand Order is the disappointing end result of this; a smartphone game where players can gamble an electronic currency (purchasable with real currency) for the chance at receiving cards representing various Servants and concepts from the universe. There are over 300 Servant cards covering various mythologies, ranging from world-renowned to locally obscure to flat-out original characters. In theory, seeing a bunch of cool new Servants should tickle the nose of my inner lore hound. In practice it means I can no longer imagine what Boudicca or Julius Caesar would be like as Servants because there are already official versions out there, and they’re really terrible versions. I ain’t even talking about the Saberface clones in bikinis shit here, I’m saying full on just having bad takes on perfectly good Servant candidates. What a waste.

This is why I fundamentally enjoyed Lord El-Melloi II’s Case Files {Rail Zeppelin} Grace note and didn’t enjoy Fate/Grand Order – Absolute Demonic Front: Babylonia. The former picks a few points of reference and builds the web of lore outwards. The latter gets trapped like a fly and tangles itself up.

Put another way, I want the holes in my cheese. Swiss isn’t supposed to taste like cheddar.

THE FOURTH SORCERY:
THE WHYDUNIT

Considering the way the franchise and my personal fandom has progressed, the Heaven’s Feel films were doomed from the start to disappoint me.

The DEEN anime had it easy, they could just get away with adapting Fate route, and it was fine. It justified itself in comparison to the visual novel with a killer soundtrack and a now-iconic voice cast. UFOtable got off easy at first too: Fate/Zero had some really cool moments and all they had to do with their UBW TV show was bring it up to the same level of audiovisual quality. The benchmark for an UBW adaptation was low and with that post-F/Z money, surpassing it was a given. And it was cool! They fixed the stuff that DEEN messed up. They put in some cool anime-original stuff that expanded the story while respecting the source material. It’s good, it justified itself.

But over the several years of watching the three Heaven’s Feel movies one by one, the creeping dread began to sink in. Why was I even watching these? Was I really that desperate to see more Fate media in a post-FGO world? Was it just brand loyalty? Was I ever even excited about these in the first place?As the credits rolled on the final film, I only felt empty. How did Fate/stay night: Heaven’s Feel III. spring song justify itself to me? Why should I, someone who has already experienced the story in as close to its original form as I can in my native language, have bothered to watch this series of films? Having seen them, what did I gain?

Sure, those movies are audiovisual feasts, but it’s not as if the voice-patched, updated version of the visual novel I played through had a nonexistent or poor audiovisual experience. It was good, it was fine. It was the only way to experience Heaven’s Feel. For over a decade (look I know the movies took several years to release sequentially, I’m not stupid, we’re looking at them as three parts of one complete story that is itself one-third of a complete story), if you wanted to know what happened in the last route, you either played the visual novel or you asked someone who had.

That was then. Now, let’s say someone had an interest in the Fate franchise. Where would they start? This question is a can of worms in its own right, of course, and we won’t get into it. Suffice to say now there are animated versions of all three routes. Unless the individual in question is the kind of freak who explicitly seeks out the source material in addition to the mainstream adaptation, they have no reason to read the visual novel. Why would they? Netflix is right there.It’s probably a good thing more people can experience Fate in a broad sense and judge it more easily. Most people would never read the Heaven’s Feel route. But three movies? That’s doable. They’re more accessible, they’re more visually impressive, and they’re better paced. But they’re still adaptations. There’s so much that’s left on the cutting room floor between the original and the anime, and I don’t just mean that it’s cut into three separate anime over 15 years. Part 1 of this post uses something like 2500 words summarizing the plot and I still left out entire major characters and plot points. Even if you expand a route out to 24 episodes, you’re going to necessarily miss out on some nuance and texture.

The snide. low-hanging-fruit response here is that everything cut for the anime versions was obviously not important for the story. I personally disagree with this, but I’m also out here unironically saying that people should just read the visual novel before they watch any Fate anime produced after 2010. Of course I’d pointlessly gatekeep like that, right? I subconsciously want people to walk the same path I did, even though it’s been permanently paved over. I’m the old man yelling at a cloud, telling people they should be walking to school uphill both ways. These are nothing but the ramblings of an entitled fan.

Still, I’ll concede the anime aren’t all bad. Here are the top five things that the anime adaptations of Fate/stay night definitively improve on, in no particular order.

  • Heaven’s Feel 1 Presage Flower has an extended prologue that spends time to build Shirou and Sakura’s relationship prior to the events of the plot.
  • Episode 25 of Unlimited Blade Works is primarily anime-original material that serves as an epilogue to the core cast and shows how the events of the story will affect them in the future.
  • The battle between Saber Alter and Berserker, while primarily off-camera in the visual novel, is nearly ten minutes long in Heaven’s Feel 2 Lost Butterfly and is completely wild. They knew it was a slow point in the story and delivered hard on the movie’s primary action scene. However, the battle between Rider and Saber Alter in Heaven’s Feel 3 Spring Song, while equally impressive in an animation sense, is less good because it was A) expected, and B) necessarily had to ignore the Sparks Liner High End. What is Sparks Liner High? Guess you’ll have to read the visual novel!
  • The opening credit sequences in Unlimited Blade Works depict a handful of battles that do broadly occur over the course of the plot, as well as some that do not. However, because the latter involve Lancer fighting Berserker and Caster respectively, and Lancer is stated in the visual novel to have battled against and retreated from every other Servant in the Grail War offscreen, one could argue that those fights did happen. Wow!
  • Episode 12 of the Geneon English dub of the 2006 anime is – to my knowledge – the only time Saber has shouted “Excalibur” without splitting it up into “Ex” and “Calibur”.

THE FIFTH SORCERY:
REDSHIFT

On Friday, April 30th, 2021, a friend of mine streamed their (banked up, non-paid) gacha rolls in Fate/Grand Order to myself and several of our mutual friends. We were the only two who had any familiarity with the franchise. We all laughed along at the various weird characters, items, and concepts that popped out of the slot machine, it was an enjoyable time. Nevertheless, I felt a jab of stress and shame at each one, like I was being forcibly dragged out of the pool and having my trunks yanked off.

I recognized almost every card. Most of them joked constantly about how they had no idea what was going on. Every time, my brain silently unfurled the nested trees of explanations for each one, and I’d have to actively choose to not engage. How does one explain the difference between a Demi-Servant, a Pseudo-Servant, and just a regular Servant when the other party barely has any idea of what a Servant even is? What would even be the point? They wouldn’t have cared anyway.

This is just what it feels like to try and share the franchise with anyone. I’ve watched parts of Case Files of El-Melloi II with multiple people, and it’s a deeply conflicting experience. I’ve been here for years, I’ve learned to let it just wash over me. But when I’m asked what the “Child of Einnashe” is, where do I even start? At what point does the amount of knowledge needed to even understand a Fate work cross the line where no fan can be expected to learn it all?The franchise exists in this kind of tedious limbo of perception where people think it’s weird and makes no sense even though it also has deep, interconnected lore. But attempting to navigate that lore makes it seem huge and impenetrable. It’s impossible to explain to anyone because the responses are “that’s stupid”, “that’s complicated”, “that’s confusing”. If you want context, you have to put the time in with the franchise, but what’s the payoff there? It took this long for the original Fate/stay night visual novel to get fully adapted into a form that I can easily share with other people and all I can see are the shortcomings. Those movies were for them, not me. My irrational devotion to The Brand has gone unrewarded.

The franchise is moving away from me, and as each passing wave of new content hits, my feelings shift toward a tired apathy. If I look back on all the time I’ve spent with Fate, all I can see is that it’s caused me more pain than pleasure. I just don’t want to deal with it anymore. The poison’s already in me, but… I’m not dead yet. Maybe someday those folks over at Type-Moon will put out something that I can proudly, unironically enjoy without having to justify or explain myself. But considering it took this long to make these movies? I’ll probably be waiting for quite a while. Guess that’s just my fate.

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