Having reviewed the major components of the Fate/Stay Night franchise to date, what are my thoughts on the franchise as a whole?
I have appreciated each of the instalments in different ways, but might have approached the series differently under different circumstances.
Then I had other thoughts about the Servants, a possible meta structure for the franchise that is based entirely on my own biases, and some adaptational concerns across the franchise.
Spoiled From the Start
I largely started watching the franchise in the first place due to what TV Tropes describes as Pop-Cultural Osmosis. Partly it was because of an endless parade of supporting images in my social media feeds eventually piquing my curiosity, partly stumbling into the rather cute spin-off Today’s Menu for EMIYA Family.
Because the franchise has been so popular for so long, it is hard to be an anime fan at all without being aware of key spoilers.
Spoilers such as the identities of at least three of the main characters. The true, or full, identities of at least one of these characters is a key plot point in each route; there was only one that I didn’t know going into the relevant series.
Given that level of knowledge, I think that starting with Fate/Zero was probably the best call. I’ve had problems with going back to prequels before, so going in as fresh as possible to that series seemed like the best idea at the time.
I still stand by that decision but to anyone who isn’t as culturally spoiled as I am, I would recommend starting with Fate/Stay Night instead. Relatively crude as it is, Fate/Stay Night does have the strongest story in the 2nd half, and viewers that enjoy that will then be looking forward to the later instalments.
For a viewer that starts with Fate/Zero, I’d move on to Fate/Stay Night for the second instalment, in either case finish with Unlimited Blade Works. At this point the viewer is likely to forgive the credibility issues of the second half of Unlimited Blade Works if only because the romance storyline is that much stronger.
Showing their work
One of the things I do appreciate about the Servants in the Fate franchise is the attention to the details of their myths, legends, and histories. And they showed their work, if you had the background knowledge to recognise it.
Two examples stood out to me in a casual viewing, but I suspect that with more research and a rewatch I would find many more.
First up is Iskander from Fate/Zero, aka Alexander the Great. Iskander’s most powerful Noble Phantasm is what’s called a Reality Marble: it replaces the local reality with a scene from Iskander’s past.
A desert where Iskander has his legendary army, all the heroes who supported him in life, ready to fight for him again.
One of the most famous tales of Alexander is being offered a helmet of water in a desert by his troops and dramatically pouring it upon the sands because he would not drink what his soldiers did not have. It even appears in 6th grade texts with the line “So extraordinary was the effect of this action that the water wasted by Alexander was as good as a drink for every man in the army.”
So having Iskander’s Noble Phantasm be the spirit of that desert is spot on. Because if it isn’t the moment then it’s certainly a moment when the man became a legend. Which is exactly what you want from Heroic Spirit.
Then there’s Saber where, again, the writers did their homework and avoided at least three significant errors:
- They did not confuse the Sword in the Stone with Excalibur
- The importance of Excalibur’s scabbard was properly accounted for, including that it was lost during Arthur’s reign
- It was Bedivere who returns Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake.
Granted they didn’t show the bit with Bedivere initially lying about returning the sword, but that’s easily forgivable in the constraints of a 23 minute episode.
So this, I think, is one of the big strengths of the franchise. If I’m ever tempted to rewatch the series, checking the history of the various Servants will be a big part of the experience.
An Arthurian Solution
There is another Arthurian element to the Fate franchise, beyond the fact that they’re fighting for an artefact called the Holy Grail.
It is that the entire set up is evil.
And that the custom is ultimately ended by fulfilling it with virtue.
But that said, structurally, the Fate franchise replicates the key patterns of a particular type of Arthurian story fairly well. There are multiple failed attempts to end the custom, and we see one of those in Fate/Zero. Then, finally, the chosen knight (Shirou) arrives.
Knowing (or learning) that the custom is evil, Shirou follows the custom with virtuous intent and by doing so is able to end it within the rules of the custom.
In Fate/Zero Kiritsugu attempted to end it without following the rules, and with questionable motives.
Shirou in both Fate/Stay Night and in Unlimited Blade Works doesn’t suffer from those limitations and thus succeeds where his father failed. I presume his virtue plays a big part in the ending of the Heaven’s Feel path as well.
This is something that only consciously occurred to me in the last day or so since I decided to write an appreciation of the franchise as a whole. It is entirely possible that I’m seeing a meta structure that isn’t actually there (see disclaimers in the Madoka Magica post).
Despite that I do suspect that my subconsciously perceiving that meta structure contributed to why I kept watching. Especially with some of the pacing/plot issues I had with several instalments.
One point that Jaehaerys48 makes here is that Fate/Stay Night is not an entirely accurate adaptation of the Fate path. There are several additions, particularly around Caster, that were lifted from Unlimited Blade Works and also included elements of Heaven’s Feel.
Overall I think this damaged the adaptation of the Fate route in Fate/Stay Night. Dropping them, and editing some of the fights down, would have produced a much tighter series. Doing so would have made Unlimited Blade Works feel fresher, more original, by giving it more “new” material that had not previously been animated.
Against that is, as Jaehaerys48 also pointed out, Type Moon didn’t know that they would be popular enough to get the other paths adapted. Given that it took 10 years, and Fate/Zero to get to Unlimited Blade Works, this was not an unfounded concern.
Although I generally prefer less fanservice, I did find Unlimited Blade Works to be a touch disingenuous on this topic when compared to Fate/Stay Night. Both are, in theory, drawn from the same eroge Visual Novel source, but it is the much earlier Fate/Stay Night that’s actually willing to admit to it, and even use it to good effect for characterisation.
To be fair it probably wouldn’t have worked as well with the already quite assertive Rin in Unlimited Blade Works as her character changes very little over the course of that story.
I’m not really in a position to comment on Fate/Zero as that comes from a different source (a light novel series), and I don’t know the, ah, ecchi levels in those novels.
Now that I’ve been putting my thoughts in order, I think that there’s a lot more to the franchise than I initially realised. I’m still not in any particular hurry to rewatch them, but I think that there is likely to be value in doing so at some point.
At this stage my relative ranking remains as follows:
I’ll certainly be tracking down the Heaven’s Feel movies once they’re all out, but may wait until they are all out before doing so.
Question of the Post: If you’ve seen all three instalments of the core franchise, how do you rank them? What would your viewing order be? Would it change if you didn’t know who the Servants were?
And because it really is fabulous, here’s Disillusion again:
 The Heaven’s Feel movie trilogy only has the first movie out so far, and hasn’t been released on disc in Australia yet.
 Which, yes, I’m probably contributing to for others simply by writing about the franchise.
 And even then my guess halfway through Unlimited Blade Works was on target if not in the black.
 Noting that anyone reading this advice is probably already spoiled to the same level and should start with Fate/Zero anyway. Yes, I’m aware of the irony here.
 Assuming they can find it. I had to order mine from Madman, which is partially why I started with Fate/Zero.
 Rin is Best Girl.
 You may recall that Iskander or Rider was one of my favourites from Fate/Zero.
 Google “Alexander Helmet Water” and you’ll get about a million results.
 The Lancers are interesting, I did check some of their backgrounds as Celtic/Gaelic heroes and there’s a fair bit to work with there.
 The “Holy Grail” was corrupted from its creation, and each successive Holy Grail War only makes it worse.
 Given the origins of the franchise I’m not going to suggest that Shirou is an analogue for Galahad. Perceval maybe, more likely Lancelot or Gawaine, possibly Tristan.
 And then replicated in the Unlimited Blade Works series, at higher quality, a decade or so later.