ANIME REVIEW: Fate/stay night (2006)

The anime I’m reviewing today hardly qualifies as “obscura,” but it has been so eclipsed by its more recent remakes and spin-offs that the original isn’t as well-known or well-respected as it once was. Undeservedly so, in my book! So let’s summon some heroic spirits and shine a spotlight on the 2006 anime adaptation of Fate/stay night, which helped springboard a humble indie visual novel into the now-sprawling Fate series of anime and video games.

Tracing the chronology and history of Fate could be a humongous undertaking, but to kick things off here, just know that Fate/stay night was originally a visual novel created and published by the Japanese game company Type-Moon back in 2004. In 2006, it received a 24-episode anime adaptation from Studio Deen that removed the game’s adult content and unified the game’s three branching paths into a single storyline. That anime is what we’ll be discussing today.

Fate/stay night opens with a mysterious girl named Rin Tosaka performing a magical rite to summon a tall, tanned warrior, nearly destroying her house in the process. It then quickly cuts away from Rin to introduce us to Shiro Emiya, a cheery and very deliberate “do-gooder” teen who was the only survivor of a catastrophic fire that struck his neighborhood when he was a boy. The man who saved and adopted him later died, leaving Shiro alone in his near-palatial house. He lives a fairly normal and happy life thanks to a female classmate and friend who helps him with cooking and chores (Sakura) and his wacky homeroom teacher and big-sister figure (Taiga), both of whom eat breakfast with him every morning. Aside from his tragic origins, the only other unusual thing about Shiro is that he knows and can use a little bit of real magic, having been taught some beginner spells by his late adoptive father. Shiro’s peaceful life is suddenly shattered when he stays late after school and sees Rin and her warrior, Archer, battling with another strange warrior named Lancer. Being a witness to this event puts a target on Shiro’s head, and Lancer is on the verge of assassinating Shiro to keep him quiet when Shiro accidentally summons a warrior of his own, an intimidating blonde woman in armor named Saber.

After some dust settles, Rin explains to Shiro that he has stumbled into a contest called the Holy Grail War that pits seven teams of sorcerers (magi called “masters”) and their summoned warrior spirits from the past (called “servants”) against one another in a battle royale. Once the fray of contestants are reduced to a single master-servant team, the Holy Grail will materialize, and master and servant are each granted a single wish by the Holy Grail. Shiro’s status as a master is a big surprise to both him and Rin, because an amateur magus like him was highly unlikely to become a master in the first place, much less be able to summon a servant as formidable as Saber. Shiro reluctantly agrees to participate in the Holy Grail War, mainly to prevent a repeat of the disaster that almost claimed his life ten years ago. Friction soon arises between Shiro and Saber due to the incompatibility between his relatively pacifistic “wait-and-see” approach and her warlike seriousness, and his lack of ability as a magus means Saber cannot heal from injuries as quickly or reliably as other servants. Still, as deadly new masters and servants make their moves and the danger level grows ever greater, a mutual dependence, respect, and something perhaps greater than respect grows between Shiro and Saber. It is an open question, however, whether even that bond will be enough to help this mismatched duo survive a war where every other contestant is either an experienced sorcerer or the spiritual reincarnation of one of history’s greatest heroes.

This anime was my own personal introduction to the Fate series, and because it has a reputation of being a difficult series to get into, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to follow along. These fears proved unfounded, thankfully. The great thing about Fate is that while it contains its own unique glossary of terms, the concepts behind those terms are seldom hard to understand. (If you want to be fancy and say “noble phantasm” instead of “special attack,” guys, it’s no skin off my nose.) The original Fate/stay night is also extremely well-paced. Characters are introduced at a steady rate where none feel like throw-away cameos, and once introduced, they pop in and out of the action in a way that keeps them on your radar while feeling natural and unforced.

The cast of characters is one of this anime’s strongest points, and I appreciate how low on stereotypes it is. Shiro is self-sacrificing and has an innocent soul, but he’s a creative and unflinching fighter who doesn’t intend to go down easily. Rin is aristocratic, brainy, and sharp-tongued, but she is also eminently reasonable. I also had to smirk at how much of a born educator Rin is. She can seldom resist teaching Shiro any time she notices him getting something wrong, even when it might be to her own detriment later on. Saber is virtually unique in anime in the unbridled sense of nobility and awe that the series imbues her with. She is not a ditz, not a tsundere, not a goofy scrapper, but a cool-headed badass who simultaneously takes your breath away and raises the hair on your neck. You get a sense that if a crew of super-powered spirits were out to kill you, you’d be immensely relieved to have this fearless warrior as your sword and shield. Even Fate‘s more minor characters tend to be multi-dimensional, and that human complexity keeps the plot fresh and unpredictable.

I also wanted to briefly mention here in the spoiler-free section of the review that the chemistry between characters is also a high point of this series. These characters change and develop not only from their experiences and struggles as the series progresses, but also from their interactions with each other. The relationship between Shiro and Saber is the true focal point of this particular Fate anime series, and there’s a constant low-level friction there that’s engaging to watch unfold. Until the middle of the series, the two don’t get along at times because their approaches seem too different. In the second half, a different kind of friction arises when they realize that they are problematically similar in other respects, and they keep trying to correct their own fatal flaw in each other. I also loved watching Rin’s single-minded ruthlessness as a mage become diluted by the humanity that Shiro introduces into her worldview. I could go on, but I would prefer you see and enjoy the rest for yourself.

One area where the 2006 Fate does suffer a bit in comparison to its successors is in the visuals. Understand me, the original Fate/stay night does not look bad by any stretch of the animation. The artwork is frequently gorgeous, and the character designs are extremely appealing. However, the animation is nothing to write home about and occasionally verges on looking a bit cheap by modern standards. There is also a fair amount of reused animation – some flashbacks, especially Shiro’s memories of the fire, get replayed verbatim several times during the series. This anime’s visuals hold up quite well when compared to most other anime produced in the same mid-2000s period, and it does some particularly pretty work with lighting at times. However, it is nowhere near the sky-high visual bar set by the remake, prequel, and spinoffs produced a few years later by Ufotable (Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works, Fate/zero, etc.). That doesn’t mean those later ones are better all-around anime – the 2006 version is still my favorite telling of the Fate story thus far, as I’ll explain later – but it does mean you shouldn’t go into this one with visual expectations set by those later versions, or you’ll likely be disappointed.

The music is interesting in that it’s a bit sparse, but everything that is here is excellent. You’ll hear the same tracks reused pretty frequently, but it’s all memorable and very appropriate to the scene. It reminds me of the kind of music I have heard in actual-factual visual novels in the past. I don’t know this for sure, but I wonder if this was done intentionally as a nod to Fate’s origins in that genre, or if perhaps the anime lifted some music wholesale from the original visual novel. Speaking of the visual novel connection, I found it amusing that I could easily pinpoint one or two parts in the anime’s story that had obviously contained steamy bits in the original “18+”-rated visual novel.

I want to talk a bit about the ending, but I want to do it in a way that avoids spoilers for those who haven’t yet watched this series. My spoiler-free summary is that the ending didn’t deliver everything I was hoping for, but it was perfectly palatable, it was very touching, and it did nothing to harm my enjoyment of the series as a whole. More detailed comments with some *MAJOR* spoilers follow, so skip the text starting below Taiga and start reading again after the Fate/stay night logo if you want to avoid those.

Image result for fate stay night 2006 berserker

My only real gripe about the ending was that it felt thematically inconsistent with the key lessons the series seemed to be building toward from the very beginning. From Episode One onward, we find that part of Shiro’s character is that he thinks virtually nothing of self-sacrifice, whether it’s in big things or small. He wants to be a “hero of justice,” and his conception of that involves always thinking of others first and himself last, if at all.

This personality trait of Shiro’s irritates Saber to no end, and his personal recklessness makes it nearly impossible for her to protect him. We soon discover that this is a case of people who are altogether too similar wearing on each other’s nerves, however, because Saber has just as serious a martyr complex as Shiro does. She tries to fight even when on the verge of death, at one point claiming that “as long as I have my head, I can fight on.” The same single-mindedness of purpose was also a defining trait of hers in her original life as Arturia Pendragon, or King Arthur, to the point that it was misunderstood by her people as a lack of humanity. Even her motivation in the current Grail War is connected to this – believing she failed the people of medieval Britain when Camelot crumbled, she wants to go back to the past and have someone else, someone “better,” chosen as king.

During the course of the story, Shiro and Saber eventually develop feelings of love for one another, and you can see both trying to talk each other into thinking of their own happiness for a change while stubbornly refusing to take their own advice. Saber worries for Shiro and doesn’t want him to get killed. Shiro loves Saber and wants her to live out a happy life in the present rather than throwing it all away to change the past. The anime seems to be building toward two key morals: that one should live for the future rather than the past, and that it’s both okay and healthy to have some regard for your own happiness, because an absolute lack of care for yourself leads a person down a self-destructive path that brings misery to everyone who loves them. This lesson reaches its climax in the second-to-last episode when Shiro and Saber both individually reject the priest Kirei’s temptations to sacrifice themselves or each other for the chance at having the Holy Grail undo their greatest regrets.

However, just as soon as this thematic resolution is reached, we have the rug pulled out from under us by the revelation that the Holy Grail was merely a weapon of apocalyptic power, and that it never had the ability to grant wishes of that sort in the first place. Furthermore, Shiro and Saber are caught in a virtually unwinnable situation where the best possible outcome only means averting a cataclysm but still having Saber fade away. The duo achieves their goal through a combination of courage and love, but that outcome is still the best they can manage. Saber fades from this point in the timeline, only to awaken briefly in her medieval timeline right before her death as Arturia, her happy memories of Shiro allowing her to pass from this world at peace. Shiro, for his part, is not bitter but only has his memories of Saber to hang onto.

It’s bittersweet, and presented in such a respectful way that it’s hard to be mad at the series for the way it played out. However, suddenly shoehorning our main characters into such a fatalistic “no-win” situation at the end did feel inconsistent with the themes it had been building toward until that point. The bulk of the emotional drama of the series prior to that had all been about Shiro and Saber exploring the boundaries between a conscious choice to embrace a future happiness and their feelings of obligation toward loved ones in their pasts. To suddenly drop the bomb that there had never been a real “live option” in the first place felt both jarring and a bit cruel. I guess you could say that it was consistent in having Saber and Shiro fight courageously despite knowing the situation wasn’t winnable – that felt very in-character for both of them – but I think I would have preferred a happier ending where they had a choice. Then again, maybe that’s just my unfulfilled wish to see those two living their lives as a happy couple speaking from behind a mask of logic. Either explanation is definitely possible!

It’s tempting to write off Fate/stay night (2006) for various reasons. Anime with the “battle royale” setup have proliferated over the past 15 years to the point where casual viewers might be tempted away by newer options. Likewise, there is a multitude of Fate series with higher production values that one could launch into, such as Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works, Fate/stay night: Heaven’s Feel, Fate/Zero, Fate Grand/Order, Fate/Extra, or Fate/kaleid liner Prisma Illya, most of which don’t require prior knowledge of Fate/stay night to understand. You could skip over the original Fate/stay night (2006) for all of those reasons… but you really shouldn’t.

You should start right here because the element of discovery plays out more organically and powerfully here than anywhere else. You feel genuine surprise at learning the original identities of Saber and the other servants, you feel moved by Shiro’s unfolding tragic past and Rin’s and Saber’s character growth, and you feel shocked when you learn the full truth about the Holy Grail War. If you start anywhere else in the franchise, you’re going to have various parts of this great story spoiled for you. This iteration is also the only one that tries to incorporate plot elements from all three of the possible branching storylines of the original visual novel (the “Fate”, “Unlimited Blade Works”, and “Heaven’s Feel” arcs), making this the most comprehensive single telling of the story you’re ever likely to see.

Image result for fate deen vs ufotable

On top of that… controversial opinion time… I found that I simply enjoyed Fate/stay night (2006) a lot more as a viewing experience than its most direct one-to-one competitor adaptation, Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works, and I believe I can attribute that to three things. First, the pacing is better in this version — I didn’t have to suffer through what felt like 7 episodes of Archer kicking Shiro in the face and shouting at him that his ideals will destroy him, or an epilogue that felt a whole 2 episodes too long. I also found most of the cast more likeable, more unique, or both in the 2006 version. This version of Shiro can be a bit stupid at times, but his naivety is endearing in other ways. I thought the UBW Shiro felt rather flat by comparison, and it felt it odd and annoying how he became so inexplicably good at fighting from out of nowhere. UBW Saber was often riddled with self-doubt, and she lacked a certain quality of awe that feels central to the character here. More than any other character, though, Rin Tosaka suffered the worst downgrade between the two adaptations. A mature, bitingly sarcastic young woman with a mentor’s heart in the original, UBW saw her make a disappointing transition to an immature, one-dimensional tsundere who could have been cut-and-pasted from any other anime, and who actually had far less character as a teen than she did in her appearance as a little girl in Fate/Zero. Finally, on a purely personal note, I found the chemistry between Shiro and Saber in the 2006 version far more interesting and engaging than UBW‘s focus on the relationship between Shiro and Rin.

Before anyone starts ripping me a new one for the heretical paragraph above, understand that my preference for the original is just one man’s opinion, not an immutable law of the universe, and it should be viewed in that light. I had an excellent time with both Studio Deen’s original Fate/stay night and Ufotable’s Unlimited Blade Works, but for mostly different reasons. All versions of Fate Stay Night contain some combination of fantasy action and human drama. UBW focused more heavily on the action element and excelled beyond all expectations in that department. Its fight scenes are amazing, and its swordplay and explosions blow its predecessor out of the water. The drama, the plot, and the character-building are the aspects I personally find more interesting, though, and I felt the original exceeded the remake in those areas. Bottom line: a person who enjoys one will likely still have a very good time with the other, because they are different anime in ways that go beyond their diverging plots. (… But you should still watch this version first.)

At any rate, you know what you have to do, magus. Summon this show to your streaming service of choice, and command it to play. Once you finish the final episode, I think you’ll agree it was time very well-spent. At the time of writing, the 2006 Fate/stay night is available to stream on Hulu, HiDive, VRV, and Tubi. Collectors of physical media should note that the series has been in-print in some form or fashion for a very long time and changed distributors several times, and DVDs from Geneon, Funimation, or Sentai Filmworks are easy to find on the used market for a reasonable price. The single best physical release so far was a 1080p Blu Ray released by Sentai Filmworks in the mid-2010s, but that particular edition can be a bit expensive and hard to find these days.

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