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Fate/stay night Unlimited Blade Works Episode #0 Anime Review

13 min read
Fate Stay Night Unlimited Blade Works Episode 0
Fate Stay Night Unlimited Blade Works Episode 0

We’ve reached zero some time ago. Now it’s finally time to move forward. With… episode 0…

What They Say:
Rin Tohsaka, a young girl, finds her father’s memento. All it has is a catalyst and a pendant. She sets out to summon Saber, a powerful spirit.

The Review:
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
I’m someone who has spent well over a thousand dollars on a short little 25-episode anime series called Fate/Zero. In case that doesn’t get the point across, it’s a series I’m rather fond of. But there was always one big problem with it: it was all leading to a continuation that didn’t exist. Sure, the original story to which Fate/Zero served as a prequel had been adapted into both an anime series and an anime movie by Studio DEEN, but you’d have to be quite a cruel person to get someone to follow up ufotable’s Fate/Zero anime with either of those. Even less appropriate would be insisting that they follow it up with a completely different medium in the original visual novel, even if it had been officially released in the US. So just over a year after the broadcast of Fate/Zero wrapped up, when ufotable announced that they would in fact be adapting Fate/stay night into an anime, thus implying that it would serve as a much more fitting continuation of Fate/Zero than anything else could, I was very excited for the possibilities.

Another 15 months have passed since that point (with the Fate franchise’s anime representations hilariously focusing on the extremely dissimilar Fate/kaleid liner Prisma Illya series that may prove to run longer than any version of the core canon after all is said and done), and we’ve finally arrived at the promised day. Well… maybe that honor should rightfully be reserved for next week, because while we do get a double-length beginning to this story much as Fate/Zero opened in the same style, this is not technically the first episode, instead being labeled as “episode 0”… just in case you hadn’t had enough of a “zero” to this story. But the distinction is made of this episode being a “prologue” rather than a “prequel” as it certainly takes us right up to the time in which the story proper is about to begin, showing us its world first through the eyes of one of its female protagonists.

The reason to precede the “true” beginning of the series with an episode all about this particular character, Rin, may not be such a surprise to those aware of the Fate/stay night visual novel’s structure. As is the case with most visual novels, the story branches into different routes depending on the choices made therein, and Fate/stay night has one of the most notable separations betweens its three very distinct routes. This is perhaps the biggest concern I’ve had tempering my hopes for a proper continuation to Fate/Zero: that prequel never truly led to one single story; rather it built up to elements from each of the three, and attempting to combine the three may be a haphazard practice that would yield nothing worthwhile. As such, ufotable announced not long ago that this TV series would follow the second route, Unlimited Blade Works, while a later movie (which we can only hope will end up being a series of movies) would follow the third, Heaven’s Feel. That notably leaves out the first route, simply called Fate. Studio DEEN’s TV adaptation did largely focus on that route but again, in this world of Fate that ufotable has crafted with such care, there’s no place for acknowledging their adaptations as legitimate presentations of these stories (after all, their movie also adapted Unlimited Blade Works and running time aside, we’re not about to put it on the same stage as this series).

However, it does seem more feasible to smoothly incorporate critical resolutions of Fate/Zero’s dangling threads from Fate into the general story of Unlimited Blade Works, especially with two cours, than to throw Unlimited Blade Works and Heaven’s Feel together. So until we see more, I can only hope that this was indeed the plan and that, while it’s a shame that there will never be a single continuity to take you from the beginning of Fate/Zero to the end of Fate/stay night and feel like every question the former posed was sufficiently followed through on, that desired result will be accomplished between the projects that ufotable has set up (barring a seemingly unlikely announcement of yet a third project to specifically adapt this visual novel). While there’s a lot more to Fate/stay night than what some might imagine as the typical visual novel, each route does indeed have a primary female protagonist and love interest of the male protagonist, and as those unfamiliar may guess from my initial comment that this focus on Rin isn’t such a surprise, she is indeed the female protagonist of the Unlimited Blade Works route.

While ufotable has been extremely consistent in its presentation style in recent years, particularly due to its focus on adapting Type-Moon properties, some of the key people involved in Fate/Zero are absent from this project that also inspired some uncertainty in my anticipation for the series. The biggest hole from the lineup behind Fate/Zero is also the least surprising, because while Gen Urobuchi was certainly the most important person in telling the story, he supervised that scripting due to having written the light novel it was adapted from, but never had anything to do with the story of Fate/stay night. And considering he hasn’t written any of Aldnoah.Zero since episode 3 and is at least not continuing his role of series composition for Psycho-Pass 2 and so far hasn’t been announced to even be doing any writing (after not only creating the original story and being in charge of series composition for the original two-cour series but also writing all but a single episode that was as close to inconsequential as that series had), it’s even less of a surprise that he wouldn’t choose to jump into this adaptation above everything else. Speaking of Aldnoah.Zero, director of all things Zero Ei Aoki is between cours of that, and we’re not going to expect him to be directing demanding series for a full year straight, especially since he probably has even more responsibilities for the series co-produced by the studio he recently formed.

It’s a shame to see him depart from the ranks of ufotable for the foreseeable future, because before providing Fate/Zero’s spectacular direction, he was showing his prowess on ufotable’s other big Type-Moon adaptation, the Garden of Sinners, having directed the first movie in the series. But there was even more that made these two projects feel so wonderfully similar and chief among those factors was the distinctive music of the wonderful Yuki Kajiura. There’s no real guarantee that she would’ve been the composer for this with no prior engagements, but I can’t help but shake my fist at Sword Art Online II and its fantastic score keeping consistent with Kajiura returning from its first season. As a consolation prize, though, we do at least get an ending theme by Kajiura’s group Kalafina, who provided the second opening to Fate/Zero. As is the standard for not only ufotable’s Fate series but for big Aniplex projects of late in general, we don’t get the ending theme right off the bat, instead saving the opening theme for the end of the episode.

So who do we have in the stead of these titans who have each proven themselves in more than one of the truly great anime of recent years? Well fortunately we do have the equivalent of Urobuchi supervising the scripts in this case: the mind from which these fascinating and expansive universes come, Kinoko Nasu himself. His contribution is especially critical if my hopes are realized and some of Fate is worked into Unlimited Blade Works to properly deliver on the promises of Fate/Zero. While Nasu is one of the finest at crafting a universe, I wouldn’t expect his linear storytelling to be on the same level as Urobuchi’s, even with the writing of the Fate/Zero light novel commonly attributed to Nasu sitting behind Urobuchi and shaping each facet in his image. However, the existence of the Garden of Sinners, itself based on a light novel series of course written by Nasu, and how great ufotable’s adaptation of it is, reminds me that I probably have little to worry about. The director’s chair is also filled by someone who works as an equivalent to the exiting Aoki in some ways, as Takahiro Miura also directed one of the Garden of Sinners movies. But while that may have been the first time Aoki directed something really impressive, he at least had a decent amount of directing under his belt before that point, while it was Miura’s very first. That would be fine if the result spoke for his skill enough to dispel any worries, but his entry into the series, the sixth movie, was easily the weakest of the main seven. However, a lot of that was due to the subject matter, and as good as ufotable is it’s also a studio that seems to depend almost entirely on the quality of source material for the final product. New composer Hideyuki Fukasawa is one whose work I’m not intimately familiar with, but suggests perhaps the most striking disparity in quality from the standard Kajiura has set with pretty much all of her work in recent years.

But like I said, ufotable is a very consistent studio, and that means consistently high quality, both of those factors due to it putting all of its people and resources into a single project once every few seasons. After all, the Garden of Sinners had almost none of the incongruity one might expect from a project with so many different directors. Fortunately, this does retain both animation character designers from Fate/Zero onboard to help ensure that Takeuchi’s original character designs look the same as they did before. And that “high quality” thing… that costs money. This is the aspect I was perhaps the least worried about, because even with as great as Fate/Zero looked three years prior, its extraordinary sales left little doubt that Aniplex would be dumping as much money on this follow-up as it could possibly need.

While some may have complaints about certain choices the staff made for visual depictions in Fate/Zero (specifically some of the uses of CG), ufotable is generally known for doing most things right when it comes to making things pretty. It’s perhaps the studio most adept at color gradations and one of the finest when it comes to lighting, and so even in slow episodes like the bulk of this one, every frame awash in magnificent color design. The episode doesn’t end without a fight, though, and I mean that literally. Rin’s “prologue” intersects with the beginning of the story as we’ll likely see play out in the official “episode 1” and that means the first big fight of series is intact, one that happens to be a lot more involved from Rin’s perspective, in fact. There are still a lot of elements that will make or break the series as it moves on past this introduction, even more than I’d say for many other series. But at least we can sit happily knowing that the fight scenes are everything you could hope for. As the fluidity of each bit of motion, the effects of both magic and illusions caused by the sheer speed of the action, and the camera moving to get the most impactful shot for each strike all work with the perfection of the aforementioned artwork in beautiful harmony, one can almost see the money flying by, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

The rest of the episode is, as I said, not too intense, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, the physically slower moments of Fate/Zero always delivered incredibly interesting writing and kept the sense of intensity from the perpetually foreboding atmosphere helped immensely by the Kajiura’s music. This is instead a rather lighthearted depiction of Rin for a tone that was possibly only present in Fate/Zero for Rin’s own episode in that series, but even an episode all about a Rin ten years younger and uninvolved in the War at hand took a much darker turn much more quickly (that of course being a standard-length episode). That’s not to say there weren’t plenty of comic relief moments in Fate/Zero, but the main source of those was a character dynamic that we at least don’t get the same tier of from Rin and Archer here. Considering Miura’s Garden of Sinners movie was the stark departure from the similar mood of its own series to the focus on a cute high school girl, this is actually rather fitting but again, that was also the weakest of the bunch. In a way I’ve always wondered if it’s even possible for me to enjoy Fate/stay night as much as Fate/Zero when the former has a cast of primarily high school kids in place of the fascinatingly deep and involved adults who comprised most of the latter’s cast. At the very least, it has me considerably less engaged initially, although the original story from which this universe emerged surely has a lot up its sleeve.

To touch back one more time on my comments about how consistent ufotable is, even with varying staff in major positions, I’ll even go so far as to say the studio has seemingly almost homogenized its output such that it’s difficult to discern the director in any given instance. So I really can’t complain about Miura’s direction at this point, because I can’t very well imagine Aoki doing much differently while keeping all established aspects intact. When the writing allows for interesting direction, Miura provides it, but it’s really more of the entire team collaboration than anything. With Kajiura’s soundtracks, I find myself soaking up every bit of music in any given moment of a series, but while this didn’t have that effect, the most prominent piece of music used was a different arrangement of a piece used in Fate/Zero, and so in my ignorance and before any further research I’ll have to assume that its original version was in fact a different one from the original visual novel. It’s a fantastic piece and sets the mood for the excitement I’d hope for this series. Fight scenes also live or die by their music in most cases, and while the animation had a much larger share of my attention for the one in this episode, Fukasawa seems quite capable of scoring such scenes on the cinematic level that ufotable productions demand.

And so the stage is set for the proper beginning, although the “prologue” designation may prove to be something of a misnomer as the upcoming “episode 1” will likely take place at the same time, simply telling the story through the perspective that we’ll be following for the rest of the series. I do have to mention that I was amused by this episode’s decision to make the actual main character such a background piece and, even at the critical juncture, avoids showing his face.

In Summary:
It’s the moment I’ve been waiting for since Fate/Zero wrapped up two years and a season ago – or at least the prelude to that moment. The series opens with the beginning of this story as seen from the eyes of the character who will be the female lead (perhaps arguably so in some cases) but not the main character after this point. A lot of the pieces that made Fate/Zero so engaging from the first moment aren’t reciprocated here, and there’s an obvious difference in tonal balance from the story of Fate/Zero to its original parent story Fate/stay night before even putting it into anime form. I may not love it quite as consistently as a result, but it’s inherent to the story and there’s no doubt that it will have no shortage of gripping moments throughout its run. With some of the notable staff of Fate/Zero busy with other projects and less inspiring names in to take their place, the presentation is slightly lacking if some comparisons are to be made, but Aniplex throwing money at ufotable while they adapt a high-profile Type-Moon property is always a recipe for success, and indeed most elements are on par with what we would hope for, with the animation in particular absolutely stunning and promising that this will be a series that more than pleases the eyes. Hopefully it will feel like a more fully immersive experience once the series proper kicks off, and then it will just be a matter of how thoroughly everything from Fate/Zero can be delivered on between this and the upcoming film(s).

Grade: A-

Streamed By: Crunchyroll

Review Equipment:
Custom-Built PC, 27” 1080p HDTV.

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