Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works is quietly beautiful. Regal even. The first episode gives us peaceful landscapes and well paced introductions for all of protagonist Tohsaka Rin acquaintances and daily routines before introducing us to her other life. Her magic life.
If I had not been told that UBW was part of a larger, multi-series franchise, I would never have known. The world is shown to us without info-dump or talking head exposition characters and it is all very absorb-able.
This 47-minute slow burn method is most definitely for the best, given how many characters UBW appears to be throwing at us. We’ve met nine of Rin’s fellow students and one teacher, with Rin’s relationship to each being implied through interaction as often as it is strictly spelled out.
We’ve also met 3 ‘Servants,’ which are essentially familiars that help their mage-masters compete in a battle for the Holy Grail, which will grant its winner any wish, and through all of this we’ve learned about the world’s magic. Runes, gems, classes of Servant, the importance of timing, rings of binding and command, what fuels servants — a ton of stuff!
Yet I never felt blabbered at nor disconnected.
UBW opens with a dream or a memory of young Rin saying goodbye to her father. Her isolation in the world, the magical-ness of that world, and her stranding in her family mansion are all clear through the setting, the filters and vibe.
Then teenage Rin wakes up and goes to school. She remarks on how empty it is — how no one seems around — and we know something is afoot. Something magical.
Then Rin learns her clocks are all an hour ahead and that a perfectly reasonable explanation for the emptiness is around, but the mood stays and we know, as Rin knows, the world is still off without being told directly.
Though hinted at strongly in school, we don’t see Rin dabble in magic nor learn what that magic is until later. At home, she is warned that her time is up and only two Servants remain: Saber and Archer. Saber is the only one Rin wants.
Rin performs a ritual, we learn a little bit about magic and can guess the meaning of other parts of it, and her Servant is brought forth. Upstairs. And he’s made a bit of a mess.
Unfortunately, Rin has forgotten her clocks being ahead and has mistimed the height of her magics (mana) and her new Servant has come in a bit off. While he doesn’t let this on immediately, he is not only testy but not entirely sure who he is.
However, he is certain Rin is the only Master for him. Albeit, after Rin expends an unnecessary amount of magic and wastes a valuable resource she should have saved for later.
After some bonding, some probing of each other’s bounds, we become comfortable with Archer, Rin’s servant as much as she does and, for his benefit and our own, Rin skips school and shows Archer around her town.
The following day we learn a little bit more about magic and the world we will be viewing. This time in the form of an evil barrier being built around Rin’s school, most likely by a novice but dangerous regardless. When activated, it will liquefy all the humans inside and allow their souls to be eaten by a Servant.
Later that night, while attempting to destroy the barrier, Rin and Archer meet their first enemy. Battle ensues and it is lovely.
The battle ends quickly, but not before displaying animation skill saved for the best sword fighting anime sequences you will ever see, and an innocent is killed. Rin drains her pendant to revive the student (who we must wonder how and why he was there in the first place) but realizes later that the student will remain a target.
With Archer at her side, Rin dashes off to rescue the student again, or thwart her enemy along the way, only to run into Saber the servant she wanted to summon.
Then the episode ends.
UBW is not very colorful in anime terms but it drips with detailed environments, depth of field focus, and a patience with everything that is enviable. That greatness aside, UBW’s magical fighting puts almost every anime to shame. It’s fluid, impactful, vibrant and the integration between the mage and her familiar is exciting.
The music, which is unobtrusive but masterful orchestral work, is good too.
If I were willing to nit pick, I might ding UBW for Archer’s amnesia. It’s a bit …trope-y… but, I get the sense that it, too, is something we’re not being told about. The very fact that ‘Archer’ wields 2 swords and has yet to pull out a bow, and how he occasionally responds to his enemy and his master leads me to suspect he knows more than we do. More than Rin.
In short, Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works is nothing short of fantastic and utterly mind blowing as an opener to a show. Have an hour? WHY AREN’T YOU WATCHING IT RIGHT NOW?