Fate / Zero – 05

This episode just wouldn’t quit. It shouldn’t work as well as it does: piling character after character into what was, at least on the battlefield, a one-on-one duel between Saber and Caster, but because of the build-up in the previous episodes, each and every time someone new takes the stage, it adds a new glorious layer to the conflict.

And even if this battle only turns out to be a big tease, now six of the seven Servants have met one another, and have at least a cursory idea of what to expect form each other. We also learn that if there’s one Servant who’s going to keep a kind of noble order and balance in this War, it’s Rider.

When Lancer declines out of obligation to his Master and Saber is insulted by Rider’s offer to make them his retainers, the Master who originally meant to command Rider appears, at least in voice-form; Archibald is tickled that Velvet would actually become a combatant in the Holy Grail War, and intends to teach him a lesson.

\Rider isn’t having that. Whoever this Archie guy is, he won’t let him torment his Master (that’s his job), who is at least by his side. He calls out Archibald for hiding like a coward, and calls out any other Servants who were drawn to Saber and Lancer’s excellent duel (though if he found it so excellent, why not let it unfold rather than interrupt?)

And so two more Servants appear in quick succession: first Gilgamesh / Archer, then Berserker (true identity unknown). Gil, as is his wont, deems all other kings in his presence to be pretenders (and he has a point, he is the first of them, historically speaking). But Matou decides that now is the time to test Berserker—as well as his own tolerance as a Master.

Archer takes Matou’s bait and exposes his Noble Phantasm for all the other Servants and Masters to see, but ends up with nothing to show for it, since Berserker is not only crazy, but an extremely tough customer, turning every blade Gil sends his way into his own NP. Ultimately Tokiomi has to spend a Command Seal to reign Gil in.

I love how powerful, frightening, and unpredictable Berserker is depicted; he’s a very cool design that seems to shudder in and out of solidity, as if he’s just barely being kept together.

But what I loved even more was Gil’s attempt to save face by basically saying “You’re all beneath me; kill each other off until there’s one left and then come at me.” He’s an arrogant prick as always, but he’s surprisingly likable in this version—perhaps because he was thrown off his game so effortlessly by Berserker.

With Archer gone, Berserker turns his attention (such as it is) to Saber, whose injured hand quickly puts her at a disadvantage, forcing Lancer to save her from a potentially vicious blow. He doesn’t do it because they’re friends, or allies, but because she’s his opponent. If Berserker wants to fight her, he’ll have to get past Lancer first.

That’s Lancer’s will, but unfortunately for him, Archie has Command Seals, and uses one to override that will, ordering him to team up with Berserker to eliminate Saber.  In the ensuing one-on-one (after Lancer apologizes to Saber), Kiritsugu and Maiya have their weapons trained on Archie and Assassin, respectively.

Their careful work is ruined, however, by Rider (again), jumping between Saber and Lancer and driving Berserker into the ground, forcing him to retreat, then telling Archie to order Lancer’s retreat as well. Rider has decided that no one is going to die tonight, and nobody challenges him.

I have no doubt that Saber would have gladly fought Berserker and Lancer at once, bad hand and all. But she’s clearly grateful to Rider for his intervention this time. The primary reason for that is Irisviel: if Saber falls here, she’ll be on her own, surrounded by enemies. Rider also decides to stay out of Saber and Lancer’s fight from now own; he’ll face whoever prevails.

That’s fine with Saber; she can’t fight anyone else at 100% until she defeats Lancer and lifts the curse on her hand. It’s just as well that Berserker withdrew when he did, as a longer confrontation might have killed Matou, who vomits blood and worms in a dark alley, but remains as committed as ever to protecting Sakura by winning the war.

What of Uryuu and Caster, the only Servant who wasn’t on the field? Bluebeard observed everything from a crystal ball, and has taken a particular—and worrying—interest in Saber.

Fate / Zero – 02

“OMG I LOVE MAPS!”

This first normal-length episode Fate/Zero leaves out a few faces so it can spend more time with others, starting with the first meeting between Waiver Velvet and his Servant, Iskandar (AKA Alexander).

The contrast in personalities is wonderful, as Iskander immediately pooh-poohs Waiver’s “small” goal to get people to treat him fairly and take him seriously despite not being from a grand old family.

Alexander, meanwhile, wants to re-conquer the world as soon as possible. That means winning the Holy Grail War first, so at least he’s motivated. He also enjoys reading atlases, as I do.

Illyasviel von Einzbern : Good Anime Kid

We return to The North, where Kiritsugu is enjoying his last hours with his young daughter Illyasviel, hunting for Chestnut buds. Saber watches from inside and can’t help but think she must’ve offended her Master in some way for his demeanor to be so different than it is with Ilya.

Iri, however, chalks it up to Kiritsugu and Arturia “never being able to see eye-to-eye”…because…she’s shorter than him? Both he and Iri expected a male King Arthur, after all; for the King of Kings to appear as young woman was a shock. But perhaps that’ll wear off and they’ll establish a rapport, in time.

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Meanwhile, in an episode where Sakura’s tormentor Zoukan is mercifully absent, we meet a new contender for Worst Guy in Zero: Uryuu Ryuunosuke, a serial killer who “prefers little boys and girls”, and has been using their blood to paint magical circles.

His grisly rituals end up ‘accidentally’ summoning Caster, who calls himself “bluebeard” after pretending to free one of Uryuu’s captives, only to jump him in the genkan with eldritch tentacles, teaching his new Master a lesson about the ‘dynamism’ of terror; Uryuu blushes with glee at his new Servant. Wonderful.

“There’s no such thing as TOO much hair gel.”

The last Master featured in this episode is Kirei, who I thought would be a little more discrete in his alliance with Toosaka Tokiomi, but wastes absolutely no time sending his Servant Assassin on an extremely ill-advised mission to eliminate Tokiomi.

I loved his ‘shrug, don’t worry about it’ when Assassin asked Kirei if he’s sure he wants to do this. Assassin shows off some moves in taking out and dodging various magical security devices, but before he gets near the house, he’s run through by a number of weapons belonging to none other than Gilgamesh, Tokiomi’s Servant, for whom Assassin was never anything other than a bug, squashed and left to die face down on the ground.

I had nothing against Assassin, but his quick exit was an unexpected surprise, to the point I wonder if he’s actually gone. As for Caster, he’s a sadistic dick but I still like him better than Uryuu, who looks to be another wild card. They’re both pretty grating, though.

Fate / Zero – 01 (First Impressions)

“Your Dad and I are just going to slowly orbit you for a while. You don’t mind, right?”

I have watched the UBW anime, but not the original Fate/stay night. I intend to watch and assess stay night’s prequel Fate/Zero on its own merits, forgetting/disregarding wherever possible what transpired before or after, since. That being said, having watched UBW I’m not a complete novice to the Fate franchise, so I know the basics of the Holy Grail War and its Servants.

Zero takes all of the limited information I know and recontextualizes it and expands my understanding of its players, all of them operating ten years before the events of night. Things obviously feel familiar to UBW for the most part, but they are still, in fact, quite different. Dare I say, more significant…and more emotionally resonant?

“Hey Rin! Here’s hoping the next time we meet I don’t have white hair and a face full of bugs!”

I’ll admit I was a little lost in the woods as I watched flashback after flashback to the present day of Zero, in which Irisviel von Einzbern and Emiya Kiritsugu’s newborn child Illyasviel, or Kotomine Kirei’s father Risei and Toosaka Tokiomi informing Kirei that he’s to ensure Tokiomi’s victory.

But as I carefully watched and took a few notes, the complex network of characters and relationships—both good and deeply troubled—gradually took shape. Rin, Sakura, and Illyasviel are all players I’ve known and seen, but this is the story of how their older relatives assembled and summoned their Servants to fight the Fourth Holy Grail War.

I thus found myself gaining lots of insights into the kind of families and personalities those familiar faces came from. For instance, I had no idea Shirou and Illyasviel have the same dad…or that Sakura and Rin are biological sisters.

“What is this bullshit…A5? I wanted LEGAL.”

Watching this epic introduction jump from one party to another as they begin to circle one another and size each other up is, in a word, thrilling (I say that despite the mundane-ness of the image above). And without exception, I found myself invested in everyone for very different reasons, even though I know they’ll all be at each others’ throats and most of them will have to lose and/or die.

Kirei and Kiritsugu may think each other the most underhanded, dangerous men alive (in a masterful dual-monologue in which the two shit on each other for what seemed like five solid minutes), but I never felt the compulsion to take a side, because both men have their reasons. I also never felt like the show was trying to make me take a side.

The exception to that is, of course, the clearly demented Matou Zouken, who needs go fuck off immediately to hell with Sugou Nobuyuki and/or some similar assholes. It’s good to see Kariya sacrifice his freedom, health, and maybe life to keep poor Sakura out of the fighting. I also appreciated the layered characters of both Rins’ dad Tokiomi and apparent wild card Waiver Velvet.

“I like what you’ve done with the lighting in this place.”

This episode is long and talky, but it’s length well spent and talks that kept me interested. Call it a crash course in Fate, only with a little bit of prior knowledge, and far more comfortable and entertaining than a crash course has any right to be. This is setting the stage done right.

Speaking of that stage: once all the talking and sizing up ceases in this first episode, it’s time to start summoning some Servants, and the inter-cut scenes between Saber, Archer, Berserker, and Rider’s awakenings form a compound momentousness (just as Assassin’s intro was stealthy and low-key, as befits an assassin).

In short, I was pleased with this opening. The fact that nobody so much as laid a finger on anybody for nearly an hour only reinforces my confidence in this show’s narrative chops. Timelines and venues may jump around, but it’s just people talking-talking-talking in rooms, to one another, to themselves, about each other…then summoning some Servants. It just…worked.

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Fate / Apocrypha – 02

While still not quite exciting enough to fully recommend, the second episode of Fate/Apoc is nevertheless an improvement, as things move from the explanation of the mechanics of this new Grail War to all of its various players. There are many little scenes in which a master and servant introduce themselves.

That interaction ranges from Gordes yelling at his Black Saber, Siegfried, to Celenike licking her new “toy”, Black Rider AKA Astolfo, 12th Paladin of Charlemagne. The servants are represented not just from historical heroes, but a fictional monster like Frankenstein’s, or Jack the Ripper.

Kairi meets and gets to know Red Saber AKA Mordred, “son” of Arthur. Kairi gets off to the wrong start when he calls her a woman, but as long as she’s able to pull an Excalibur-like sword out of the stone and become King, she’s willing to work with the guy. Aside from Caules testing Black Berserker (Frankenstein)’s power, Red Saber and Kairi’s raid of the Yggdmillennia stronghold of Trifas is the only sustained action we get.

It’s a quick fight, only meant to test both sides of the conflict, and Red Saber and Kairi find a nice rhythm. I also liked Saber’s ability to add and shed armor according to the situation (she seems prefer wearing as little as possible)

We’ve got two Sabers, two Archers, two Assassins, two Berserkers…you get the idea. But there’s also a “watchdog” in Kotomine Shirou, who is planning to kill the fifteenth servant to make an appearance in this war: Ruler, who bookends this episode and is established as being Jeanne d’Arc (the second one I’m watching after Baha Soul) and being on her way to Trifas.

We’ve yet to met her master, but as he and she are listed as the two main characters (and displayed as such in the promo art) this is still very much another piece-introducing and arranging episode. Other than the deliberate pace, the animation still sticks out as lacking compared to ufotable works, but at the same time the characters seem to have a lot more “punch” to them, particularly the more fiery Red Saber.

Fate / stay night: Unlimited Blade Works – 20

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Remember, I don’t know anything about stats or paths or ends or zeros or kaleids, nor do I have any plans to branch out and learn. I judged this episode the only way I could; the same way I’ve judged every episode of UBW: on its own merits. And I judged it to be another mostly thrilling important event and important revelation-packed powerhouse.

But it wasn’t perfect. In fact, there were a couple times when Archer’s lengthy, repetitive monologues threatened to drown the central battle’s momentum.

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What saved this episode was the awesome wrap-up of Rin’s predicament, which didn’t take up nearly as much time, but packed plenty of punch. When we left her, Lancer was apparently dead and Kirei was preparing to rip her heart out.

To my delight, Lancer wasn’t quite dead yet, and he not only kills Kirei (we hardly knew ye…at least on the show…so ‘bye bye Kirei, but scares Shinji off with a little prick to the shoulder after yanking him off of Rin once more.

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I never quite understood why he wanted to rape Rin so badly, but it wasn’t in the cards thanks to a particularly chivalrous Lancer, who refuses Rin’s thanks, as things merely “worked out.” But from there it’s clear Lancer won’t be getting back up again, and Rin tells reiterates her dispassionate view of Archer, thinking his regrets are justified, but at the same time knowing she’s not the one to judge or save him.

All she can focus on is herself and moving forward. Lancer sets himself and Kirei on fire as Rin departs. His fitting final rhetorical wish before he vanishes: that Rin look him up when she’s got a few more years on her. I’ll miss you Lancer, you magnificent bastard.

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My take is if Shirou survives his fight with Archer and continues on a path with her and Saber, that would be peachy. But again and again he projects his twin daggers and again and again Archer shatters them, telling him he’s no match for him.

Still, every time Shioru crosses blades he learns a bit more and his skills get a bit better, and even though he’s taking a lot of hits and losing a lot of blood, he keeps fighting even when Archer transports them back to the UBW.

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He literally fights until his body stops working, and his mind enters “hell”, both the hells his future self created and participated in, and the hell-fire from which Kuritsugu saved him. In this psychic limbo, he remembers something Archer forgot: how happy Kuritsugu looked when he saved him; a feeling Shirou wanted to experience for himself.

Unbeknownst to Shirou, Kuritsugu saved his life by somehow infusing him with Saber’s scabbard. That same scabbard heals him in his present UBW fight, and he gets back on his feet.

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Thus the fight will spill at least partway into next week, with Shirou proclaiming he doesn’t mind being beaten by someone else, but he’ll be damned if he’ll let himself be beaten…by himself. That’s only the last of several great shonen moments Shirou gets this week.

With his body, spirit, and resolve all in good repair for the first time, here’s hoping the “sham” beats the “original”, regardless of whether he can change his mind, proving the borrowed wish of becoming a hero of justice is still a wish, and a powerful one at that.

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Fate / stay night: Unlimited Blade Works – 19

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For that rare cohort of viewers of whom I am a member, the realization that Archer was Bitter Future Shirou cam gradually, but even after watching the OP for the first time since learning it for certain, there were plenty of clues for a novice to follow, and naturally, it all holds up quite well. I also liked how relatively casually it’s finally revealed to our Shirou, because like us, spoilers or no, he kinda had an inkling at this point.

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Oh hey, here’s Matou Shinji, being about as awful as one can be, though I guess it isn’t really his fault, it’s just who he is: a wholly despicable, irredeemable punk with designs on making Rin his sex slave, or something. My skin was crawling like a house centipede, so I was relieved when my favorite bro Lancer marked his arrival with a vicious punch that, if I’m honest, I kinda wish had fractured Shinji’s skull.

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Lancer left Shirou to rescue Rin because his Master’s orders were to see to her safety, not fight beside Shirou. As for Saber, she’s only there to bear witness, promising not to interfere. But by being there, Archer is able to use her past as She-King Arthur (my guess for her true identity) to make his point about regrets, and the desire to right past wrongs, which was to become a heroic spirit in the first place, after becoming a Guardian after death.

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While Archer is largely standing around talking to Shirou and Saber, the sheer atmosphere of the scenes are enough to drag us in as we listen, rapt. His is a truly tragic tale, in which his seemingly good intentions and desire to be a “hero of justice” were twisted by the realities of the deal he made. Guardians are removed from the cycle of life, death, and rebirth—by time itself—to appartate into a human conflict and end it swiftly, without discriminating between good or evil.

Enough of that—and Shirou certainly seems to have done enough of that—will corrode even the best-intending souls. Being the “hero” he wanted to be meant there had to be people who needed heroes; which means there had to be suffering. He killed a few to save many, but those few added up over the years/decades/centuries.

Now that he’s told Shirou what his ideals have led to, Archer tosses him a sword and asks him to end it. Saber submits that because of Archer’s Guardian status, he won’t disappear even if he kills Shirou, but he’s going to kill him mind, body, and soul, and pray for the best.

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As Shirou stares death in the face, Rin suddenly finds her savior Lancer cowed by his two-faced traitor of a Master, who is finally revealed as Kirei Kotomine…which, well, I wasn’t expecting that, but then again it’s not like there are a lot of characters left that we know, and if it was someone I didn’t know, there wouldn’t have been as much impact.

That being said, Kirei is a bit overly campy-villainous and cruel in telling Rin just how much he’s betrayed her and for how long, having raised her up to be a  pawn (hence those chess pieces in the previews) after killing her Dad in the previous war. Rin is pissed and flies off the handle with a very Tousaka Rin-esque screed about how neither heaven, hell, or purgatory will have his slimy ass.

Things get more serious when Kirei orders Lancer to kill Rin, and he disobeys. Rather than use a command seal (one of what looks like far more than three) to force him, he uses one to order him to kill himself, which he d oes in short order, causing my heart to drop to the floor with a clang. Now Rin is really in deep shit, and her thoughts of “leaving the game” before Shirou really hit hard. Surely this isn’t the end for her…or for them? (Don’t answer that.)

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As for Shirou, he’s not going to accept this future Him who regrets everything he ever did and wants to negate it all by disappearing his past self. Shirou is determined never to have any regrets, come what may. And there seems to be a lot coming, with blades tickling everyone’s throats.

Will Shirou’s positive outlook prevail over his older, more experienced, but more beaten-down-by-life-and-the-world counterpart? Will he get to be the hero of justice he wanted to be, but not the one he became, delivering the justice Kirei and Shinji deserve? Boy, that would be nice, wouldn’t it? Trace on.

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Fate / stay night: Unlimited Blade Works – 18

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I’ll confess: while doing a little research on Archer, I accidentally found out who he really was, so I somewhat spoiled myself for this landmark episode which starts to put all the pieces together. Even so, the weight of its revelations and sheer beauty and spectacle made this the best and most engrossing episode of UBW’s second season.

While it wasn’t explicitly stated, it’s certainly looking like Archer isn’t a servant summoned from the past like the other heroic spirits, but from the distant future. Specifically, he’s a future version of Emiya Shirou, the tortured manifestation of the endgame of his ideals…and he’s looking to put his past self out of his misery.

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The newly-freed Saber takes exception to that goal, but without a current Master she’s no match for the more independent Archer. Shirou summons twin swords very similar to Archer’s and tries to fight him back, but that only puts him in a more convenient position for Archer to kill him.

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That’s when Rin, Badass Extraordinaire, forms a pact with Saber right then and there, and just like that Saber is back in business, and in a matter of moments, has Rin freed and Archer at her mercy. Despite not having any contract with Shirou, Saber is still very much devoted to protecting him, even if she wasn’t Rin’s Servant now.

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Archer then plays his trump card, the titular “Unlimited Blade Works” we’ve caught glimpses of throughout the show’s run. Like Gilgamesh’s treasury, it is a reality marble housing every weapon he has ever seen or used. But it’s only a facsimile of the treasury, and the weapons only magical projections. It’s also very pretty, if a bit morose.

Here, he tries to finish Saber off with a copy of her own holy sword, the contact with which would result in a wide swath of destruction that will blow any humans in the vicinity (i.e. Shirou and Rin) away. Before he can, Shirou, recognizing how the UBW works, is able to match blades with Archer long enough to break free of the reality marble.

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From there, Archer snatches up Rin and flees to Ilya’s castle. While she’s out cold, Rin narrates the sad tale of Archer, who wanted to save and grant peace to everyone so badly he sold the peace he would have gotten in death. He is, in a way, the very model of a servant: one who lives only to serve others, without the slightest regard for himself.

As we can see, this has twisted him into a regret and angst-ridden wreck of a fellow, and he knows it, to the point I’m sure he considers it a mercy and a favor to put Shirou out of his misery. Archer is the embodiment of what happens if Shirou continues on his path, and it pisses Rin off to know she can’t save either of them.

And yet, she still finds Shirou’s reckless heroic side sweet. And back home, Shirou is planning to bring Archer down himself, while Saber (with help from Lancer!) rescue Rin. Has Shirou’s course already set, or can he change it ever so slightly so as not to end up the way Archer did?

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Fate / stay night: Unlimited Blade Works – 17

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The charming romantic comedy is wisely tabled this week as Rin, Shirou, and Lancer get right down to business facing off against Caster, Kuzuki, and Archer, respectively. And like the Clippers-Spurs first round finale, despite one side’s shortcomings it looks like anyone’s game.

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Of course, before the battle begins, Caster makes sure to get in plenty of trash talk directed at the “little girl” AKA Rin, while Archer makes a point to try to anger Lancer into slipping up by insulting his temporary ally.

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Lancer is pissed off enough to launch his special attack, Gae Bolg, straight at Archer, who tries and fails to block it with the multilayer Rho Aias. The resulting explosion seems to do Archer in, though he actually survives, he mentions the ever-watching eye of Caster is no longer upon them. Lancer withdraws, leaving Archer alone do do what he will.

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Caster is busy with Rin, who puts up a surprisingly good fight with magic before having to pull out her trump card – hand-to-hand combat using her magically-fortified arms and legs. Along with Shirou getting tossed back again and again by Kuzuki, and Kuzuki quickly intervening when Rin starts beating the crap out of Caster, our lovebirds definitely seem to be in over their heads, especially when Caster still has Saber in the chamber.

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Then we hear “Trace on,” not from Shirou. but from Archer, and numerous summoned swords are driven into Caster’s chest, defeating her once and for all. Kuzuki embraces her at the end, whereupon she tells him her wish was being fulfilled all along, likely by having such a great and loyal Master. True to his word, he keeps fighting Archer even after his Servant has gone, but doesn’t last long.

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So yeah, Go Archer, saving the day at the last minute with his “Trojan Horse” act. But hold on; Archer still hates Shirou and wants to kill him, and Rin no longer has any control over him. No one has any control over him, making him essentially the New Caster. One wonders how he can operate this way without any Master, but the fact he said “trace on” is certainly a hint.

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Unlike Ilya and Berserker’s epic struggle and defeat, Caster and Kuzuki fall with comparatively little fuss, and their roles as impediments to Shirou and Rin are over, giving way to Rouge Archer. This was one of those two-part eps where I enjoyed the quieter “rest” episode more than the action-packed “release.”

Of course, Saber is now free of Caster, and from all appearances seems as devoted to Shirou’s protection as ever, so unless she has a debilitating weakness of some kind, Archer should have his work cut out for him.

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Fate / stay night: Unlimited Blade Works – 16

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Four things I was pretty certain of, going into episode sixteen: 1.) Shirou and Rin weren’t going to be killed by Blonde Guy here; 2.) Shirou wasn’t going to beg Shinji for his life, nor was Rin going to join him; 3.) We were finally going to learn Blonde Guy’s name, so I don’t have to call him Blonde Guy.

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4.) The rhythm of UBW has typically dictated an episode of relative rest and regrouping after a big battle, and even though Shirou and Rin weren’t directly involved, they were also pretty damn lucky Gilgamesh had to get going with the still-beating heart of Ilya, nor was he that interested in killing them anyway. So they get a rest.

Whether they spend this rest episode depends on how much you’re enjoying the Shioru/Rin Show, which I am very much. At this point in the run, the show can put these two in front of the “camera” as much as it wants; I know we’re going to get great fireworks out of them.

Rin tries to come to grips with Shirou’s “others first” philosophy by dismissing it as a twisted flaw in his personality, or the result of losing something in exchange for being saved ten years ago. But neither is the case. Shirou is certain living one’s life for others “can’t possibly be bad”, because he’s seen others do it for him, including Rin.

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Having bickered quite a bit to a stalemate, they come afoul of Lancer, and fearing an attack, start bickering all over again about who’s going to run and who’s going to fight. By Rin’s logic, I guess that would make them both twisted individuals, huh? This rare but successful attempt at romantic comedy was a lot of fun, especially when Lancer reveals he’s not there to fight.

Sure, that means peril is lessened, but the moment I saw Lancer, I knew he was going to propose an alliance the moment I saw him, so had any more peril built up it would have rang false. Shirou refusal to repeat Rin’s lie about them being “just allies”, on the other hand, rang true, both to me and Lancer, who ends up respecting the “softy” Shirou for being possessive of Rin (even if that’s the last thing she wants, though that’s not certain either).

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Now that the lovebirds have a legit Servant again, they’re officially back in the fight, but it’s still going to be an uphill battle. Caster has a veritable army of badasses at her command, and even if their hearts aren’t necessarily in the game, guys like Archer are at least content to continue serving the side he believes has the best chance of winning.

Even if it meant more talking and less fighting, I still really enjoyed Archer’s chat with the enigmatic Kuzuki, who turns out not to be that enigmatic after all: he holds good and evil in equal standing, as both are legitimate and necessary sides of his own humanity. Lacking specific ambitions himself, upon meeting Caster, he devoted himself to helping her achieve her wish, revealing the Grail is only a means, not an end.

Like so many warriors on so many distant battlefields throughout history—be they defeated or victorious—she simply wants to go home. It’s a good wish. Selfish, perhaps, and costly to others…but undeniably human. So is Kuzuki’s resolve never to regret the choice he’s made, whether or not it’s “wrong.”

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Rin has a plan, and both Shirou and Lancer are on board, so they arrive at Caster’s HQ with a degree of confidence and calmness. There was a time and place for lovers quarrels, and this is not that place, with Archer staring them down. He probably wouldn’t hesitate to skewer Shirou again were it not for Lancer, who thinks Archer is a cold bastard for betraying such a “dazzling” Master as Rin just because the odds were against her. We won’t get to see them fight till next week, but this episode improved my opinion of Lancer a great deal.

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I must confess I’m not quite sure why it was so important that Rin show Shirou the pendant before going to face Caster, and tell him there’s only one of them. But I’m sure I’ll find out soon enough. I also have no idea how Shirou and Rin will be able to face Caster period; even if she doesn’t have Assassin by her side and chooses not to sic Saber on her former Master. Regardless of how it will go, I can’t wait to see how everything shakes out.

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Fate / stay night: Unlimited Blade Works – 15

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Shirou and Rin really have the worst timing…

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What I thought would be a thrilling battle between an unstoppable force and an unmovable object turned out to be something a bit more…one-sided: the slow, methodical slaughter of Berserker by Blonde Guy, broken down into twelve trials, just like Berserker’s true identity, the demigod Heracles, had to overcome. Heracles may never give up, but Blonde guy will never run out of weapons to throw at him.

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Ilya doesn’t fret, however, for it has been ingrained in her for years that she is the ultimate master, the product of a thousand years of research and countless sacrifices, while Berserker is the undisputed strongest servant. But Ilya didn’t always have Berserker. In fact, when she first met him, she ran away in disgust.

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Out in the woods, a pack of wolves caught her scent, but just when it looks like they’ll tear her to pieces, Berserker comes out of nowhere to save her, but not because it’s in his contract or because it’s part of his programming as a servant. He chose to protect her of his own free will. And among the people in Ilya’s life, he’s the only one to do that.

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Back to the present battle, Ilya cannot fathom losing to Blonde Guy, but when the battle moves into the confines of the castle, the symbolic walls begin to close in on the allegedly most-powerful master-servant duo. Berserker is being worn down, but isn’t able to lay a single scratch on Blonde Guy.

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Shirou and Rin can only watch in horror from the shadows as the duo they had hoped to team up with has their asses handed to them, to put it indelicately. Berserker never gives up, but Blonde Guy eventually immobilizes him with the Chains of Heaven and impales him with a giant spear.

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With her servant and weapon slain, Ilya is a sitting duck, and it’s all Rin can do to keep Shirou from yelling out and running to her aid as Blonde Guy pulls a simple sword from his treasury, slashes out Ilya’s eyes, then runs her through the heart.

After the baroque spectacle of felling Berserker, Ilya’s death is chilling in its austerity, and having learned all the trials she herself went through, and the realization she was living for herself and Berserker and not her family, caused my heart to sink into my feet. It’s a quiet yet utterly crushing moment.

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Berserker is able to break the Chains of Heaven (“surpassing his own myth to the end”, as Blonde Guy poetically puts it) and make one more futile lunge at him, but while Blonde Guy’s face betrays momentary surprise, his weapons are quick enough to finish Berserker well before he can touch him.

From there, Shirou and Rin should just wait for Blonde Guy to depart before leaving themselves and regrouping…but Shioru just can’t keep his damn mouth shut, earning him a sword in his geneal vicinity for his trouble, which destroys a part of the balcony he’s standing on.

While Blonde Guy could clearly kill the lovebirds in the blink of an eye, obviously they’re not going to die next week. So what happens next? Do they form an alliance with him against Caster? Their options are fast dwindling.

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Fate / stay night: Unlimited Blade Works – 14

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There’s no time for Rin and Shirou to lick their wounds and sulk. They’re clear about what they think of each other (Shirou has fallen for Rin, while Rin “doesn’t exactly hate” Shirou) Now that they’re back at square one, there’s nothing for it but cooking dinner and coming up with a plan. They come up with the same thing I was expecting, which also makes the most sense: try to ally themselves with Illya and Berserker. They won’t get anywhere against Caster and her expanding entourage without a Servant.

Oh, and I liked how Rin and Shirou’s tea cups were sitting on that table.

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From there we cut to Caster at the church, making me worry that she’s going to have these repetitive Queen Beryl-style scenes all season, but then we dive into her backstory, and her previous Master, who was a shit-stain-and-a-half.

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Even Caster seems a bit put off with him using little kids as human sacrifices in his hi-tech mana mill…but she plays it more as being put out, stating its far too wasteful of life. She doesn’t go so far as to suggest she feels any sympathy for her master’s chattel, but orders the workshop shut down, and order her Master ignores, because he’s her Master. Furthermore, he uses a command seal to ensure she’ll never betray him with Noble Phantasm, as she has a bit of a reputation in this regard.

He also smacks her around, just to burnish that fresh, clean, asshole sheen of his.

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However, Caster’s a very old and very crafty Servant, and this guy seems a few grails short of a chalice, so she’s able to defeat him without too much trouble by using Rule Breaker on herself, releasing her from his control so she can engulf him in flames.

She…ahem…also freed the fifty-or-so children her ex-Master was planning to sacrifice.There’s still quite a bit of righteous Princess Medea in Caster, and it’s implied that her reputation as a treacherous witch isn’t entirely deserved…though her body of work last season obviously didn’t endear her to us, it’s nice to know she’s been twisted into what she is today because of her past.

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Before she killed him, Caster’s ex-Master put a hit out on her, which is answered by Lancer (sorry, not trying to rhyme there.) Master-less, bloodied, and left for dead, she’s eventually found by Kuzuki Souichirou, who takes her in and agrees to become her new Master, because it’s kind of her only hope. She showed compassion for those kids, and was showed compassion by the universe in return by being saved by Kuzuki. You give a little, you get a little.

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Of course, we can’t quite canonize the good princess quite yet…she’s still the primary enemy of our heroes, who are on their way to meet the enemy of their enemy Illya, who has a little fun with Rin and the shock barrier. Illya has a vague memory involving Shirou or Shirou’s dad (I have no idea what, mind you) which is enough to entice her to allow them an audience. Her chambermaid Sella doesn’t think this is a good idea, but Illya sends her and Leysritt out to capture them nevertheless.

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That’s when the chambermaids’ way is blocked by Matou Shinji, making his first appearance since teaming up with the Blonde Guy. Sella and Leysritt, homonculi both, are no match for his shitload-of-weapons-summoning ability, in a brutal smackdown full of striking images. Matou Shinji’s stomach turns a bit at the horrifying power of his new Servant.

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So what would have been a simple matter of Rin and Shirou visiting with Illya and negotiating an alliance is completely blown up by Blonde Guy, who for all we knew planned this attack knowing the two servant-less masters were en route. Between Shinji/Blonde Guy and Illya/Berserker, it’s not that hard for me to pick a side, but we should be in for a good fight bloodbath next week regardless.

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Fate / stay night: Unlimited Blade Works – 08

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This week gave us some interesting moments, great action, creepy Halloween-like golem design, and kept the exposition not-too-talky. It also shows us why High Schoolers and their total lack of judgement and common sense make terrible death sport contestants.

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The Summing Up: Emiya spars with Saber and is quickly improving. Unfortunately, he’s improving using techniques he’s learned from Archer, which does not exactly fly with Saber.

Then Emiya and Rin work out some issues over lunch at school, which is interrupted by Shinji re-starting his life-draining runes. Emiya summons Saber to grind all the small fry and he and Rin charge off to face Shinji. Meanwhile, Shinji is defeated by an unseen master, Rider is killed, and the field collapses before anyone in the school can be totally killed.

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The Good: Shirou’s sparring practice with Saber was not only fun to watch, but interesting as a plot development. I greatly appreciated that he went back to practicing (with a very Archer double-sword technique) after Saber left.

Rin’s mom/tsundere/frustrated girlfriend presentation may be painful for some, but it actually came off as believable to me. She’s clearly torn over liking Emiya, slowly gaining respect for his quickly improving skills, and deeply annoyed that Archer nearly ended him on Archer’s terms and not her own. Its a complicated emotional scenario, even from an adult perspective. So kudos for keeping it remotely together as a teenager.

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Killing Rider was also a good move. Sure, she was the blandest, least coherent of the stooges, but all the pretty combat in the world was going to wear out its welcome in an episode if the death-game didn’t truly get under way.

Bonus points awarded for how completely brutal her neck snap was — and that we only see the extent after the fight — since the fight itself was off-camera.

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The Not-So-Good: It was obvious that Shinji was pure, chaotic evil from the very beginning. From his ‘I’m so crazy I can’t contain my emotions’ Face, which I find especially annoying as an anime convention, to the fact that he beats his sister and antagonizes everyone around him. He’s clearly a worthless d-bag and the fact that Rin and Emiya both wrote him off as harmless makes no sense at all.

Not unless we had a scene where they’d both beat him to a pulp easily, to be lulled into a false sense of security.

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Furthermore, even if Shinji doesn’t have a familiar anymore, letting him run off scot-free makes no sense either. He’s a strategic liability, in addition to still being an attempted mass-murderer. In this context, Rin or Emiya would be within their emotional range to have killed him.

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The Verdict: it was a decent episode with a good balance of action and plot development. Letting Shinji go feels like padding and not revealing Caster’s master feels like padding but that’s a season long issue more than a fault of the individual episode.

I’m guessing Sakura is the other mage at school and Caster’s master. That would explain Shinji freaked the heck out when he was confronted in the chemistry lab. It would also explain why Caster’s played a little less-directly-vicious than she could have been with Emiya but maybe not.

Just Remember: I have not seen any of this franchise before, so no spoilers in the comments below, please!

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Fate / stay night: Unlimited Blade Works – 07

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Franklin is unavailable to review F/sn today, so I’m filling in for him, which is why I let Zane review Gundam. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.

Emiya Shirou has been defined so far by many qualities common in shounen heroes: empathy for one’s fellow man; a penchant for rushing into things half-cocked; a propensity for bleeding a lot, and, of course, game-changing luck. I seem to share that last quality with Shirou, as I got an episode containing two battles for the price of one, plus a third that wasn’t a surprise in that it happened, just that it happened so soon after all the other craziness.

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The episode starts fast as Assassin dances with Saber. I particularly like how they’re so different despite bearing the same general weapon, and how each is bemused by what they perceive to be disadvantages. Assassin is impressed the flashy but bulky knight in shining plate has such good moves, and Saber is impressed this man of slight build is so tough. His trickery is also enough to stand against all her higher levels, be they strength, speed, or agility.

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While the battle on the temple steps is turning into one of mutual warrior respect, there’s plenty of mutual contempt distributed among the three fighters gathered in the main courtyard. Archer ostensibly came to rescue Shirou, but he’s not there to defeat Caster, even though she’s a loose cannon who’s killing innocent people. If Shirou had Archer’s power here and now, he’d probably use it to rid the world of Caster once and for all. But he’s just not looking at the big picture.

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Caster’s in a sporting mood, and lets Archer give her his best shot — and he fells her in an instant in a move of stunning quickness and precision. But Caster won’t actually fall that easily. Her ‘corpse’ vanishes and she coalesces up in the sky and starts raining mana beams upon Archer. Test failed, laments Caster; he’s worse than Assassin and of no use to her.

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Shirou’s problem with Archer is that he’s willing to let Caster go and keep killing people because she’ll eventually grow strong enough to defeat Berserker, at which point they’ll deal with Caster then. They’re not disagreeing that Caster needs to go; it’s a matter of timing and details. Even if Archer’s position is logically sound, Shirou won’t accept it; he doesn’t want to sacrifice even a few to save many.

In this latest spot of his, he’s forgotten the words of his father: You cannot save someone without not saving another, and that other can only be yourself once, and then you’re dead and can’t save anyone.

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An an episode full of phenomenally quick, smooth, impressive action, one centerpiece is Archer loosing Caladbolg at Caster, which looks very much like a crippling blow, but unlike a more stylized show with a smaller budget like Kill la Kill, F/sn avoids cartoonishness and can really geek out with the gravity and particle physics of the attack. The attention to detail in mere moments of combat or action do not go unnoticed, or unappreciated.

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It also distinguishes itself with juicy lines like the above, which is precisely how I’d imagine Assassin would say “Well, shit.” Bottom line: his “master” Caster is in a bad way, so he’s through playing with Saber and chooses whip out his hidden ability, “Concealed Sword.”

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I tell ya, you really gotta watch out for those dimensional-refraction phenomena. Saber probably comes closer than usual to losing her life in the stealthy but devastaing blow, which is really three simultaneous blows in one breath (shades of Katanagatari), a seeming impossibility his no-longer-human status affords him. But she survives it, falling back on those superior stats of hers (they’re good for something), impressing Assassin even more.

Meanwhile, Archer’s Caladbolg changed Caster’s mind about him: maybe he can be useful to her, and invites him and Shirou to join her. Both obviously refuse, but for different reasons: Shirou doesn’t want anything to do with an indiscriminate killer like her; Archer is more pragmatic: she’s not powerful enough to justify joining. The overarching irony of this negotiation, of course, is that Archer is the one who aims to use Caster to defeat Berserker, in the unsavory manner Shirou so objects to.

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Still, when Archer lets Caster withdraw, and further explains his plans to end the war, Shirou cannot abide it, and throws a Shounen Punch, which Archer catches easily. But as small an ineffective as that blow may have been, to Archer it was something of a last straw, the end of the extension of Shirou’s truce with Rin he had been honoring to that point, and the beginning of the third battle I mentioned earlier.

To Archer, Shirou is a child and a fool who, if left unchecked, will not only ruin the proper path to victory, but getting more people kill in the process than if he’d done nothing. For that reason, Archer decides to kill him right then and there, an action he takes with the same precision and conviction as everything else he’s done and said.

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Yet, interestingly, he does not cut deep enough to kill Shirou instantly…either that, or Shirou is so Goddamn lucky Archer couldn’t kill him in one blow even though he intended to. Either way, Shirou is able to crawl to the temple stairs, where Saber spots him, breaks off her fight with Assassin, and catches him in her arms.

It’s in that moment that I realize just how damned close these two pairs had been fighting; how close the courtyard was to the stairs. And yet the editing of the episodes made them feel like they were worlds away, because in a way, they were: Saber wasn’t getting past Assassin without his leave, and now she finally has it.

It’s also great how Assassin, who as I said embraced his non-humanity to perfect his Concealed Sword, falls victim to the humanity he still possesses. Watching Saber, whom he already regards as both a worthy and attractive opponent, retreat and rush to Shirou’s aid proves a more effective in momentarily throwing him off his game than any of her sword strikes to that point.

With Caster no longer in danger and the desire to fight her when she’s at full strength, Assassin lets her go. When Archer jumps in to try to kill her and finish Shirou, Assassin comes between them; he said they could go, and he makes sure they do.

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After all that, one would hope Shirou’s mindset would change a bit, and he’d realize even with his impressive stores of luck he’s going to end up dead if he keeps going the way he has.

If, after all, Archer wasn’t 100% serious about killing him, than one could argue his intention was to scare Shirou straight; showing him how useless his ideals are without the strength to back them up. For his part, it looks like Shirou is taking the experience as a lesson. Heck, he doesn’t even consider what Archer did a betrayal, since it was Rin he forged the alliance with.

(By the way, what Shirou was up to this week was far more interesting than Rin, who was just asleep in bed the whole time! That being said, the dreamlike sequence that wakes her up was hauntingly beautiful.)

Shirou needs to become stronger before he can even think about sacrificing himself to save others, or at least minimizing the casualties Caster and Archer don’t care about. To that end, he asks Saber to teach him how to fight properly, making Saber very happy in the process.

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