Fate / Zero – 21

I can only admire Fate/Zero for its willingness to include a little bit of everything for everyone in its Holy Grail War, and as it had already featured a dogfight between Archer and Berserker, it was only a matter of time before Saber got into a chase with Rider, she on her motorcycle and he and Waver on his giant chariot.

The resulting chase does not disappoint, as Saber squids fearlessly through traffic, pushing her steed to its mechanical limits before deciding Screw it, I’m bosozokuing this motherfucker. While I prefer the more classic look of her bike, it’s still hella cool she can soup it up the same was she can soup up her armor.

With only five episodes left (my how time flies) I wasn’t ruling out the possibility this would be it for Rider, but Saber is content to withdraw after destroying his chariot with Excalibur, after which Waver and Rider lament that they have to walk home; a not inconsiderable distance considering the speed and length of the chase.

And that’s pretty much the last of the levity in this episode, as things go visually and thematically super-dark from there. Turns out Rider didn’t kidnap Iri (didn’t seem very in-character); it was Kariya’s doing, using two command seals to A.) control Berserker and B.) disguise him as Rider. Kiritsugu tortures Kariya’s brother Byakuya but doesn’t get much out of him.

Kirei has been busy since killing Tokiomi; further exploring his capacity for “entertainment” by manipulating Kariya, using new Command Seals and his bloodlust for Tokiomi as bait. While this all makes sense, I wish we’d have been able to witness Kirei initially approach Kariya after healing him and his stint with Zouken. Instead, the plan came together entirely in the background and has to be swiftly explained after the fact.

Once Kariya is off to the church to duel with Tokiomi (by now very dead), Zouken reveals himself to Kirei. If there is one remaining bit of levity in this episode, it’s here, as Zouken, truly a top-class Master of Evil, seems to take a shine to Kirei. Kirei is understandably disgusted by the mere suggestion of being compared to scum like him.

But for once, Zouken is right: I have no doubt that after a few more decades of this kind of stuff, Kirei will be standing in the exact same place as Zouken, King of Shitbags – so shitty, he’s not sure what he wants more: to win the Grail War, or watch his son continue to suffer.

And does Kariya ever suffer. After entering the church and yelling at a corpse, he discovers Tokiomi is already dead, just when the deceased’s widow Aoi arrives, no doubt summoned by Kirei. It’s not what it looks like (that Kariya just killed Tokiomi) but it sure looks bad, and Aoi doesn’t go easy on Kariya, rejecting his excuses and condeming him for never having loved anyone, despite the fact he always secretly loved her.

Kariya is clearly not in a stable place mentally here, and that instability and the resulting breakdown is chillingly depicted with a series of blackout shots, tinged with flashes of him attacking Aoi (the dark church appearing bright beside the blackness), before returning to full vision of him slowly strangling her to death.

After that all Kariya can do is get up and stumble out, screaming and wailing incoherently; becoming more like his unhinged Servant all the time. And who enjoyed a prime vantage point for this macabre entire “play” up in the church balcony? Kirei, who along with Archer were watching and sipping wine the whole time. Kirei notes the wine tastes different; better. He wants to sample more.

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Fate / Zero – 15

I hope you’ll forgive me if this review doesn’t hold up to my usual vigorous editorial standards, as I must admit I am rather stunned—gobsmacked, you might say—by what I just witnessed, and whenever that happens, I tend to get a bit too florid in my language. Consider yourself warned.

That happens, at this magnitude, very rarely indeed. Of the episodes I consider almost perfect, I must count this among them. At this point in my viewing of Fate/Zero, if there was one and only one episode I had to show someone, it would be this one.

It’s a perfect encapsulation; an epic full-length motion picture, compressed into a scant third of an hour; the crystallization of the ultimate potential embedded in its run thus far. I shudder to think it could ever get better than this, but having seen this, I shouldn’t underestimate this show’s capacity for ever-expanding spectacle. And I won’t.

In case you forgot the events of this episode: Rider decides to trap Caster and his monster in his Reality Marble to buy the rest of the team time to figure out a way to defeat it. Righteousness ensues.

As Berserker and Archer continue dogfighting in their respective badass aircraft, Kariya’s swarm of bugs are harmlessly absorbed by Tokiomi’s magical barrier. As Kariya’s body breaks down, Tokiomi delivers “mercy” by setting him ablaze. The animation used to portray the burning Kariya looked like nothing else in the show so far and was hauntingly novel and chilling in its style and execution.

Once Rider transports the monster to his Reality Marble, Iri gets a call from Kiritsugu, but has Waver answer the phone. Kiritsugu tells Waver to tell Rider to drop the monster at a specific point of his choosing once the Marble prison fails. He also tells Lancer that Saber has the only weapon that can defeat the monster, but can’t use it due the wound made by Gáe Buidhe.

Possessed of that new information, Lancer’s next move is pure Chivalry: That monster cannot be allowed to terrorize innocent people. His spear is preventing the only weapon that can defeat it from being used. Ergo, Gáe Buidhe must be destroyed.

Saber’s claim that she bears the wound as a mark of pride, not as a burden, but Lancer knows she’s being way too nice, and does what a true Knight such as himself would do: snap the spear in half. Once he does, Saber immediately prepares her Noble Phantasm.

As Berserker destroys Archer’s aircraft, Kotomine Kirei approaches the barely-alive Kariya…and starts to heal him, cracking a smile as he does. It would seem the Kirei Rebellion against his father and Tokiomi has officially begun in earnest.

Berserker turns his attention (such as it is) to Saber and her newly-released weapon. It then falls to Lancer to transport onto Berserker’s jet and disable it, and even with just one spear, he gets the job done.

That leaves the area secure for Kiritsugu to launch a flare at the spot where Rider is to release the monster. After the sheer awesome lunacy of Rider’s chariot and Berserker and Archer’s aircraft, it is quite amusing indeed to see Kiritsugu in his unassuming little raft, likely fitted with the most efficient and durable engine that provides sufficient and not excessive power to get him into position.

Once Rider has the signal, the monster is released, and the other end of the grand stage given over to the King of Knights so she can shine.

Saber’s attack is singularly gorgeous in an episode of visually arresting imagery, but its beauty is only enhanced by the reactions of those watching it unfold, and the poetic words of Iri describing what the weapon is, and in doing so, describing who Arturia Pendragon truly is:

That sword is the embodiment of the sad, yet noble, dream of all soldiers, past, present, and future, who lie dying on the field of battle, clutched to their hearts with their last breath. She carries their will as her pride, bidding them to remain steadfast in their loyalty. Now, the undefeated king sings aloud, the name of the miracle she holds in her hand. It’s name is…Excalibur.

This is the unique, nigh divine power bestowed upon Saber in exchange for the tremendous burden she bears. And while Archer laughed at her devotion and Rider doubted her kingship, for all their power amassed across space and time, neither of them could do anything like what Saber does to this monster. This isn’t just Saber saving the city and the day; this is Saber dunking on her doubters. Suddenly they are the ones who look small, puny, and cowed.

As for poor crazy Caster, I daresay I almost feel sorry for the evil son of a bitch when he meets his all-too-beautiful end, which includes a vision of his beloved Jeanne (who does look a lot like Saber). Almost.

While Uryuu went out experiencing something he was looking for all his life and finally found, Caster too experiences a kind of quasi-redemptive epiphany at the very end. Both men end up essentially forsaking everything they had ever done in their miserable lives, condemning it as wasted time and effort in the face of the truths they face at the end.

As the monster Excalibur effortlessly cleaved clean in half dissipates into the night, Archer asks Rider if he’s still not convinced of Saber’s kingship. Rider acknowledges the power, but still feels its too much for one young woman; not so much a legend as a great tragedy. Rider and Archer also agree to duel one another soon…but not quite yet, as they want to recover from this battle and fight at full strength.

Finally, while Saber lost an unwanted admirer in Caster, she gained a new one tonight through her actions: Archer. Where Rider sees tragedy, Archer sees vivid beauty; something to which nothing in his vast treasury can compare. I’ll tell you what’s damn near beyond compare: this episode.

The last episode, in its efficient, businesslike way, laid out all of the various facets of the battle and set the conditions for victory, while also keeping expectations…reasonable. This episode took those facets and resolved them into a gorgeous jewel that shined with golden radiance, blasting through all expectations like Excalibur through a fortress-sized demon. The remaining ten episodes have their work cut out for them.

Fate / Zero – 14

The Alliance to Destroy Caster’s Monster (ADCM) doesn’t net great results: Neither Saber, Rider or Lancer can cause any damage to Caster’s monster, as it possesses extraordinary regenerative abilities, like a flan that can reassemble itself faster than you can cut it up.

Archer watches the battle imperiously from above in his extremely cool aircraft, and expresses his disgust at the “mongrels” futile flailing below. Tokiomi uses all the fancy submissive language he knows to try to get Archer to intervene and bring the monster down, but after four of his swords do no more than the other attacks (and are contaminated in the process), Archer declines to sacrifice any more.

As the monster nears the shore, more and more innocent bystanders bear witness, making this an unmitigated disaster for the Holy Grail War and its backers. A pair of JASDF F-15s join the battle, but have no idea what they’re in for.

One gets plucked out of the air by the monster’s tentacles, then eaten; the second is “commandeered” by the newly-arrived Berserker, who engages in a fantastically wild yet balletic dogfight with Archer—as if possessing a fighter jet wasn’t cool enough.

Berserker’s movements are extremely chaotic and unpredictable (as are his missiles), but Archer is able to counter every attack and stay a little bit ahead, glad that someone is entertaining him.

With their Servants fighting each other instead of the monster, Tokiomi and Kariya decide to have a duel of their own, which had to happen some time.

Kariya asks how Tokiomi can call himself a father for giving Sakura away to the Matous, but Tokiomi not only carries a clear conscience, he’s delighted, for the sake of his illustrious noble family, that both of his daughters have the opportunity to become great mages who find “The Root”; never mind that only one of them can. 

Kariya is sick and tired of future generations suffering due to the cruelty and brutality of mages, so he’ll kill them all. It’s Toosaka magic vs. Matou…bugs.

Finally we have Uryuu Ryuunosuke. Good-looking, cheerful kid; would make a fine protagonist if he wasn’t also a child serial killer. As he laughs and celebrates what her Servant is serving up for God, he leaves himself wide open for Kiritsugu’s sniper round.

But wouldn’t you know it, he’s not upset about being shot in the stomach, he’s delighted as well, lamenting that “what he was always looking for” was right under his nose this whole time, in his own guts. Alas, he had to die to find “it”, and only got to enjoy the realization for a few moments before Kiritsugu takes the headshot.

For all of the flash and impressiveness of the Servants’ and their Masters’ abilities, all it took to grab control of the situation was some stealth, a rifle, and a couple bullets…if only it were that easy. Caster and the monster don’t vanish immediately following Uryuu’s death; and as they’ll reach shore long before they do, there’s a real possibility they’ll be able to “feed” on the gathering crowds, sustaining physical form from the absorbed mana.

Uryuu may be gone, but to get rid of Caster’s monster, Kiritsugu knows they’ll need something only Saber has—an Anti-Fortress Noble Phantasm. The only problem is, she can’t use it with the wound Lancer gave her. In order to defeat the monster, it would seem she and Lancer must duel, and Lancer has to lose.

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.

You got KRAKEN’D

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.

Captions by sesameacrylic

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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