Fate / Zero – 24

Ever since the childhood trauma that set him on his path, Emiya Kiritsugu has striven to be a level-headed, efficient, logical man. It’s partly why he kept Saber at arm’s length: an emotional connection with his Servant isn’t necessary and exposure to her illogical honor can only create inefficiencies in his plans.

So as Saber finds herself struggling with the insane anger and hatred of her former most trusted knight, essentially making her the logical one in her fight, and Iri’s body transforms into the Holy Grail, Kiritsugu never would have imagined it would not only toy with his emotions, but use his beloved logic against him.

But first, by god was I not wrong when I said the duel between Kiritsugu and Kirei would be something. It’s quite different and more minimalist than any previous battle in the show, with both participants sizing up their opponents, approaching them with a certain strategy, and switching up tactics on the fly as conditions rapidly change.

Kirei would have surely killed Kiritsugu relatively quickly were it not for Avalon imbuing Kiritsugu with a virtual “Auto-Life” status. In the slight sliver of a moment Kirei’s guard is down, Kiritsugu takes Kirei’s right arm away with Contender, and the odds are evened.

So even is the duel, in fact, that the Grail itself, runnething over with some kind of dark, blood-like ooze directly above the fighters, essentially calls a “timeout” by covering both in that ooze.

That indicates the War is finally at an end, and the Grail has chosen the victor. At the same time, Saber runs Berserker through, killing him, as Kariya also expires; claiming she cannot atone to him without winning the Holy Grail.

In an illusory world created by the Grail, an avatar of Iri representing the will of the Grail names Kiritsugu as the winner, and he need only officially pray for his wish to become reality. The only problem is, the Grail, or at least this Grail, cannot give him the miracle he wants. At least, not in a manner that is acceptable.

The Grail then sets to work taking Kiritsugu’s philosophy to its logical conclusion: killing the smaller percentage of people to save a larger one, thought-experiment style; sacrificing the few to save the many.

But if, like his time-altering battle ability, Kiritsugu would continue to whittle down some humanity in order to save another proportion, before long there will be no one left in the world but him and those he cares about the most, presented to him as Maiya, Iri and Ilya.

To save them, he’ll have to kill everyone else. In other words, “saving the world” means destroying humanity. This is the sum total of Kiritsugu’s wish, according to the Grail.

And the Grail stands ready to grant that wish, even though it is not at all what Kiritsugu wants. He rejects the Grail, unwilling to sacrifice the world for his own few loved ones, symbolically murdering both Iri and Ilya in a thoroughly upsetting scene in an attempt to subvert of the nightmare scenario the Grail put forward. The Grail curses him and he is cast out.

Back in reality, such as it is, Kiritsugu has the advantage over Kirei, who rages and fumes at him for refusing and wasting the Grail’s wish. But in killing him it seems Kiritsugu is almost doing Kirei a favor.

This Grail is not omnipotent, and thus would be no more able to reveal the nature and meaning of Kirei’s existence than it could grant Kiritsugu a miracle that would end all conflict in the world. In both cases, the one making the wish does not know what it is they seek.

That being said, the Grail is still immensely powerful and dangerous in the wrong hands, and Kiritsugu decides that no one, including him, has the right hands.

So as Saber and Archer descend on the physical Grail, poised to fight the final duel in the War, and Saber rejects Archer’s offer of marriage and servitude, Kiritsugu forsakes Saber once more, hitting her where it hurts most: he uses his two remaining Command Seals to order her to destroy the Grail with Excalibur…and she cannot disobey.

But perhaps Kiritsugu is right that Saber, like Kirei and he himself before, is merely deluding herself into believing the Grail will grant her wish, only offer shallow illusions in exchange for being possessed by someone worthy. The Grail is not an answer.

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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.

Captions by sesameacrylic

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 – 04

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Fate/stay night: UBW episode 04 is a fantastic little sequence of exposition, interwoven through a pleasant day in the life of Emiya Shirou and bookended by the harsher realities of Rin and Einzbern.

Like All F/sn, this week was beautifully rendered and calmly paced. However, the story was told with such a casual speed, and told through so many cheerful people (often walking slowly or listening to each other with a warm and obvious intent), that watching it felt like taking an evening stroll in the Fall.

FSN4_3…always question scenes where a character disappears from your view conspicuously close to the end of her sentence…

This week’s arc is all about timing and the threat of failure due to a mage tipping his or her hand.

For Emiya, he must hide Saber’s identity (and truthfully, his tortured memories of hell fire) from his friends for their own safety and he must even allow Saber to hide her true identity from him, or risk being defeated by the more experienced mages who may be able to read his mind. It’s a clever way to keep us guessing and in the dark, but it also shows Emiya’s trust in other people, and his trust in other people to trust him.

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For Rin, the risk is that she’s already revealed too much in the last fight to anyone who could have seen it and that, by saving Saber for last, she risks too much by leaving taking on too strong opponents too quickly. Worse, she risks having to face and kill Emiya because he’s likely not going to stay away for her.

She risks tipping her hand, even to herself, that she actually likes him, which will no doubt be her undoing.

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Einzbern risks the least and the most, depending on how things unfold. Her adherence to a predator’s nature — to torment her prey until it can scream no more — will most likely come back to bite her.

Yes! Berserker is unimaginably powerful but it’s arrogant to think he can not be defeated. Especially after revealing what his Nobel Phantasm is to her opponents. Giving them time to consider the best solution to defeating him (which Rin and Archer are most likely doing) is an obvious mistake. For her sake, she better hope his power is as unbreakable as she treats is.

FSN4_5the teacher is threatening because this angle makes him look larger than our hero and not seeing his face means we can’t read his emotions…

As for the actual events of episode 4? Emiya recovers from his wounds (he appears to have self-healing magic) and goes to school on an off day. Saber follows him and is a distraction for many girls who like him or worry about how rarely he truly smiles.

Saber explores the school and encounters a teacher who seems like dangerous news but that avenue remains unexplored, or just a red herring.

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Rin investigates the ‘gas leaks’ more directly and, with Archer’s help, identifies the culprit as the Caster Class servant. They seem powerful and, given the spell seems to be a love-crushing spell, presumably female. Archer is concerned by their chances of success of defeating this opponent.

This scene includes a short but dramatic fight against skeleton dogs in an office building hallway. Skeletons are hard to render by any standard and F/sn does not disappoint: not even Bahamut’s recent zombie/sea monster battle looked this good!

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Then the women in Emiya’s life decide to move in with him — and who can blame them? Saber’s sudden appearance, lack of spoken words and the fact that she is living with him would make any friends nervous, if not a little jealous.

Fujimura-Sensei practically lives there anyway and, given how obvious Sakura’s affections for Emiya are, it’s no surprise Fujimura-Sensei helps rope her in too.

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For all these happenings, ep 4 explains a lot about Servant Classes, vaguely how and why the grail summons them, and the intrinsic tactical advantages gained by knowing exactly which servant you are fighting. This is exposition to be sure, and delivered by Saber-monologging, but it’s all lovingly rendered in ghostly CGI — which is implied to be inside of Saber’s tea cup.

The implication is that she is imagining these roles and we (and Emiya) are getting to see. It’s rather clever and very effective at making the info dump engaging and grounded within the scene.

If etherial imagery can be grounded?

FSN4_4…Sakura is alone. Small and literally spot lighted in the darkness…

What’s left to say? F/sn’s slowness — its deliberate nature — is artful in a way that transcends what is already visually beautiful to become something totally beautiful.

In short, F/sn is masterfully constructed Art, in all senses and disciplinary applications of that word.

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Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works – 03

fsn4_1Atmosphere and sense of scale? Yeah, this show’s got that covered!

Fate/stay night: UBW episode 03 picks the pace right the heck up with a jaw-dropping battle that both spans vast miles AND stays uncomfortably close quarters in a wooded graveyard. This is the best non-movie quality magical fighting I’ve ever seen.

On top of that, F/sn manages to deliver equal parts information-bump and mystery without breaking its stride or ever feeling talky or expositional. As with episodes 00 and 01, you owe it to yourself to watch this in HD with a good set of speakers turned way up. This spectacle looks and sounds awesome!

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Illyasviel von Einzbern is her name and Berserker, her massive orc-looking servant, is her game. And her game is good, shrugging off an onslaught of full-power attacks from both Saber and Archer, and sometimes both at the same time.

It’s a great fight (or fights, if you consider the short chase Berserker gives to Saber as she relocates to the cemetery, where his advantage will be reduced) and it teases us with as many reveals as it actually gives us more information.

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What’s the deal with Archer’s sword-like arrow? What’s the deal with Saber’s sword, for the short moment it’s visible and firing what looks like a death star blast through Berserker?

Who knows? Obviously not Shirou, who’s the only one close enough to clearly see both of these things. Einzbern and Rin probably have an idea — and Einzbern in particular pulls a 180 after seeing Archer in true action. Must be some high-level stuff if the early favorite of the first four masters we’ve seen is going to take notice!

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A huge boon to the fight comes in the form of space. Not only is Archer incorporeal for the beginning of the fight, he spends most of it fighting from miles away. This would feel cheep normally…except none of his attacks are effective. Pretty as hell, but not effective.

Unfortunately, even his super sword/arrow attack comes up short and F/sn really drives home how absurdly powerful Berserker is. He’s not just nigh-unscratchable, nor just good at regeneration: it’s like he can roll back time itself and undo all the damage as if it never happened in the first place.

Crap!

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And then there’s Rin’s fight with Einzbern, which is equally spectacular but totally different than the Servant battle. Where the servants rip into each other with a pounding fury, the Masters prod, taunt and look for each other’s weakness.

The stillness of their battle was masterful and brilliantly kept the tempo fresh, keeping what was basically twenty minutes of action from wearing us out.

And Man, her hair-birds are freaky!

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Lastly, Shirou gets a small spotlight. He’s the fish out of water but he wants to help…but HE HAS NO IDEA HOW? How the heck do you get in on this without getting yourself killed and helping no one in the process? His frustration over being useless — especially considering he just shook Saber’s hand and agreed to give it his all last week — comes through nicely.

Nicer? F/sn doesn’t harp on it. Shirou is around but we get as much if not more of Rin’s point of view and much more fighting than either mage’s POV and that is a good thing. I hear, and can guess from what little I’ve seen of ‘old stinky F/sn that an excessively-whiny Shirou would be bothersome.

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Oh! Kotomine Kirei and a new bad guy/important character were also introduced. We have no idea what their agendas are but it almost sounds like Kirei would be just as happy if the world ended. His little dialogue had a true-believer vibe to it — that Judgment Day is a good thing. Nice!

Or…problematic, since there’s no way our characters are going to agree with that point of view, if they ever hear it.

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Who is this guy?

F/sn is masterful and there isn’t much else to say. You’ll hear it over and over from me, as long they do it, but my biggest joys from it are how close it keeps its secrets to its chest (we know so little) and how much space it gives all the rest.

The world is a big place and Fate respects that, which sells the experience in a unique way. Freaking Huzzah!

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