Fate/Stay Night: Volume 1
With the New Year comes the advent of new anime in the UK, and to make room MVM have been busy polishing off some of their titles in January. We have the first volume of Rozen Maiden to look forward to in March, while in February, MVM will start off Romeo X Juliet. But the sole new title being released in January is the 24-episode supernatural comedy action gestalt, Fate/Stay Night. MVM are at this point still plundering the Geneon back catalogue, although Fate/Stay Night is one of the last titles that Geneon released in the US before shutting up shop. I can foresee a problem if MVM continue on this tack, as the current slowdown in the US anime industry will eventually trickle over to the UK. Fewer titles are being licensed in the US, and fewer still of those receive English dubs, released instead as subtitled only discs. That's a sales model that apparently won't work in the UK, understandable when the anime audience is proportionately smaller. On the other hand, UK companies have barely scratched the surface of the US back catalogue. But it's worth noting that of the three titles MVM have lined up for spring, only Romeo X Juliet is 'new'.
Fate/Stay Night isn't a title that immediately grabs me though. It's based on a video game for one thing, it looks on the surface like an RPG fantasy, with powerful mages drawing forth servants to help them fight for the Holy Grail, it smacks of Pokemon just a tad. Then looking at the description it seems part supernatural action adventure, and part harem romantic comedy, which could well signal a 'Jack of all trades' cliché. Having said all that, the video game was created by Type-Moon, the same company that created Lunar Legend Tsukihime, and while many things can be said about the Tsukihime anime, one thing that can't be said was that it was a typical video game adaptation. Also, the general feedback that Fate/Stay Night has elicited on fan forums has been overwhelmingly positive. It's definitely an anime worth putting my ill-considered preconceptions aside for, and approaching with an open mind.
Ten years previously, a secret war raged between mages and the powerful servants they had summoned over the possession of the Holy Grail. It was a conflict that laid waste to Fuyuki City, and the sole survivor, Shirou was rescued by a mage and adopted as a son. Shirou Emiya has an instinctive rapport with machines, and can sense how things are supposed to fit together, but before his father died, he was told that he had no magical talent at all. Having inherited the Emiya estate, he now lives alone, and goes to high school in New Fuyuki, but his past has left a mark on him. His ambition is to help people, and become a champion of justice. He's unprepared for the havoc that is to come. New Fuyuki will be the battleground for a new Holy Grail War, as seven mages will draw forth their servants and clash. He's also unprepared for the fact that he will be one of the mages, and he's totally unready for summoning the most powerful servant of them all, a cute girl named Saber. Now it's up to him to prevent the destruction that previously devastated his home.
The first four episodes of Fate/Stay Night are presented on this disc.
1. The First Day
You'd think that Shirou Emiya would have it hard, orphaned ten years ago, then orphaned again when his adoptive father died. But he has inherited the extensive Emiya estate, and he does have childhood friend Sakura insisting on spending time cooking for him. In fact the only tough challenge in his life is people taking advantage of his generous nature, that and family friend and schoolteacher Miss Taiga Fujimura keeping an irreverent eye on him. But odd things are afoot in New Fuyuki, gas leaks are springing up all over the place, and suddenly a psychopath murders a family of four with a bladed weapon. At school his friends are quick to use his talents as a handyman to their advantage, while the class cutie, Rin Tohsaka, the one girl who stays aloof and isolated, distracts him. He doesn't know that Rin Tohsaka is a mage, determined to win the Holy Grail. She's already summoned a servant, a powerful warrior that only mages can see. Something went wrong though; she wanted to summon the strongest of them all, Saber, but wound up with Archer instead, and the process has scrambled Archer's memory. Then on the way home, a mysterious white-haired girl tells Shirou that he must summon his servant quick, or die.
2. Fateful Night
On the way to school, Shirou meets Mitsuzuri, who tells him that he has to 'baby-sit' Shinji, Sakura's older brother. Shinji tried to get friendly with Rin, only to be shot down, which has left him cranky and taking out his bad mood on the new recruits at the Archery Club. Shirou is meant to calm him down, but gets his arm twisted into taking on Shinji's clean up duty instead. It's the worst time for Shirou to be staying late at school, as Rin and Archer are expecting a confrontation with another mage. The mage doesn't show up, but his servant Lancer does, and battle commences. The thing is that it's supposed to be a secret war, which is why only mages can see servants. Only Shirou steps outside of the archery dojo and sees Lancer and Archer going at it. The rules are clear; no one who witnesses a magic battle can be allowed to live.
3. Opening Act
Shirou is a mage, which is startling enough, but he's also just summoned the strongest servant of them all, Saber. But that's on a whole other level to the reality of a cute girl with a big (invisible) sword asking him, "Are you my master?" Although with Saber's attitude, it's a question of just who is the master and who is the servant, even though she quickly swears loyalty to him. Shirou is getting a hell of an education, and he has to pick things up fast. Fortunately it's Rin who realises just how out of his depth he is, and after Shirou stops Saber from attacking Archer, she takes him to see the Holy Grail War overseer, Kirei Kotomine, to learn just what is going on. It turns out that the stigmata that suddenly appeared on Shirou's wrist mark him as a mage, that each time he commands his servant, a stigma will vanish, and that he can only give three commands before losing control of his servant. He's part of the Holy Grail War now, and he must use his servant to defeat the other servants and obtain the Grail for himself. It will grant one wish to the winner, and some of those who wish to possess it will stop at nothing. Shirou learns that the last Grail war was 10 years ago when Fuyuki City was destroyed. That time the Grail fell into the wrong hands. He now faces a choice. He'll have to fight for the Grail just to prevent a repeat of the previous disaster.
4. The Strongest Enemy
That mysterious white-haired girl who delivered that enigmatic warning shows up again, only it turns out that she isn't as benevolent as she first appeared. She's a mage of course, taking part in the Holy Grail War, and her servant is the biggest berserker of them all, Hercules himself. She wants the Grail with an unseemly avarice, she's more than prepared to kill all in her path to obtain it, and she doesn't hesitate in attacking Rin, Shirou and Saber. Only Shirou either still doesn't understand about how the Grail War is supposed to work, or his innate protectiveness makes him act instinctively. It's totally unheard of for a Mage to sacrifice himself to protect his servant, but when Shirou pushes Saber out of the way of a sword strike, everything changes.
Fate/Stay Night gets a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer. It's an NTSC-PAL standards conversion of course, but it's the best one that I have seen in a long time. The animation is smooth, there's certainly no ghosting, judder, or problems with aliasing, despite all the dark scenes and well defined edges. In fact the only indication of a conversion that I can spot is an overall but not excessive softness to the image. The anime is impressive, well animated, with good, memorable character designs, a pleasant world design, and fluid and energetic motion.
We have just the basics for the audio, with DD 2.0 English and Japanese soundtracks, with optional translated subtitles or signs. The dialogue is clear in both versions, although I must state that I found the dub to be surprisingly inferior given the current state of anime dubbing in the US. It's been a long time since I watched a dubbed anime that actually sounded cartoonish, and it was a shame to see this particular blast from the past. The music itself is fairly innocuous and forgettable, despite Kenji Kawai's name over the end credits. There is a hint of Vampire Princess Miyu in the opening credits theme, otherwise the music just didn't register with me. The subtitles could have used a little proofing too, with the odd dropped word.
It's your usual anime disc treatment, with animated menus and a jacket picture for when the disc isn't spinning. The extras on disc are limited to the textless opening and trailers for Saiyuki Reload and Rozen Maiden. If you had opted for Region 1 or Region 4, you would have had a production art gallery as well.
Where there is a 'Jack of all trades', you expect a 'master of none' to swiftly follow. Not in the case of Fate/Stay Night however, as while the anime does try to wear more than one hat, delving as it does into the harem rom-com, supernatural, action, adventure, and character battle genres, it somehow manages to do well at all it attempts, even though it may be too early to say whether it excels or not. I must say though that nothing about Fate/Stay Night really stood out for me. Its sole selling point may be its ability to combine the various genres successfully, as there's nothing about the show that instantly grabs you by the throat and demands that you watch it. It isn't the next big thing in anime, and there's nothing particular about it that marks it as unique. Quite the contrary, on the strength of this first instalment, it appears to be another safe anime show, giving you more of what you have come to expect from the medium. I found it to be a lot like Shakugan no Shana (complete with protagonist dying only to be brought back to life), tinged with some light Love Hina style antics. The unique selling points of this show would be the Mage Wars and the Holy Grail, and while the master 'drawing' a servant may smack of more juvenile Pokemon style antics, in execution it's anything but.
The story is interesting and entertaining, which is the main point of course. It also helps that the characters are appealing as well, even if Shirou fits the usual male lead stereotype of being a little bland and non-descript. When we meet him, he's already surrounded by the beginnings of a typical harem, with meek young Sakura doting on him and happy to cook and clean around his bachelor pad, now that his adoptive father has died. To balance that, we have his teacher, and friend of the family, Taiga Fujimura, who fills the loud, obnoxious, boisterous hedonist stereotype, Kitsune to Sakura's Shinobu. At school, there is the aloof and elegant girl Rin Tohsaka, who catches Shirou's eye, but as we know from all such harem antics, the ineffectual male usually falls for the Tsundere stereotype, which is where the servant Saber comes in. She's a tough warrior knight, who's ruthless with her enemies, and straightforward with her allies, yet even by the end of this first volume, her tough icy exterior is already beginning to melt with Shirou's charm.
It isn't all comedy though, and in fact the balance is pretty fair between the romantic nonsense and the Grail Wars storyline, so that we get a goodly amount of drama and edge of the seat action, lives in peril and big swords being swung, in between the playful banter and blushes. In terms of the set-up of the Grail Wars, it seems to be another tournament anime of sorts, if not quite as structured. Seven mages, summon seven servants, and they all do battle in pursuit of the Holy Grail, but it seems to be more of a free-for-all, with battle liable to commence at any time. It certainly makes things interesting, and there seem to be secrets behind the secret war that are yet to be revealed. It also looks as if enmities and alliances may be fluid, and the lines between hero and villain aren't as clear cut. It certainly keeps the viewer interested.
There was one aspect of the writing that I didn't appreciate however. The formative moments of Shirou and Saber's relationship seemed forced and contrived. It's as if Saber appears and Shirou's instantly infatuated with her. One of the aspects of the servants is that they are spirits, they draw their energy and power through spiritual means, and one of the shortcuts is to feast off human souls. Shirou hasn't even got to grips with what he has gotten into, certainly doesn't know the rules and ins and outs of the contest, and beyond an oath of loyalty and a couple of action sequences, doesn't even know Saber that well. When Rin tells him that Servants can devour human souls, he's instantly denying that Saber would do such a thing, defending her to the hilt when he doesn't even know her yet. Of course subsequent events prove that she is one of the 'good guys', but the order of events just seems wrong to me, and it was one moment that threw me out of the show.
Fate/Stay Night is a good solid anime, a little predictable perhaps, and not too challenging, but if you know what to expect from your anime, and want those expectations filled, then Fate/Stay Night is perfect, middle of the road stuff, entertaining and unchallenging. This first volume was good fun and enjoyable. If the writing gets sharper, then the series should only get better as it goes along.