Roughly every generation, a secret war rages, with the prize being the possession of the Holy Grail. The Grail has the power to grant any wish, and so is highly sought after by a select group of people with magical powers (Masters) and their Servants, who are heroic spirits summoned from a timeless dimension. Emiya Shirou finds himself as the reluctant master of the Servant known as Saber, who has incredible power but is held back by Shirou’s lack of skill. His schoolmate, Tohsaka Rin, becomes his uneasy ally and guide, since her family consists of capable sorcerers. Together, they search for a way to conclude the Holy Grail war without having to take innocent lives.
Fate/Stay Night began as a semi-hentai visual novel from the studio Type-Moon, but was adapted to anime form after the success of Tsukihime (another one of Type-Moon’s visual novels). Of course, the sexual themes have been largely removed, but the spirit of the “game” remains.
What’s unique about this series is that it uses characters and themes from a wide range of legends and mythologies as a backdrop for the main story. Arthurian legend, Babylonian epics, Irish folklore, and Greek mythology provide the Servants of the story. Servants are heroic (in this case meaning historically significant, not so much noble or good) spirits that have been preserved in a timeless realm, and are summoned by Masters to fight in the Holy Grail war. Although Servants are generally bound by the Master’s will, they do retain a degree of autonomy. This creates a web of agendas that moves the plot along, but also makes the last few episodes a little too confusing. Fortunately, I did find Saber’s subplot to be a refreshing and genuinely interesting take on the Arthurian legend.
Unfortunately, the story fails to live up to the rest of its source material. I expected something epic, but the series is really only about the lives of Shirou and Saber. If I had to point out Fate/Stay Night‘s biggest flaw, that would be it. Why waste a rare opportunity to explore the rich folklore behind the scenario? Even if the Holy Grail war idea is a bit contrived, it doesn’t mean you can’t tell an original story with far reaching consequences. Instead, the end product plays out like little more than a cliched fighting tournament. Too much time is spent on the characters doing nothing (especially the dinner table scenes) while waiting for the next opponent to show up. Moments of romantic comedy are mixed in and bring turbulence to the flow of the plot. There are times when inspiration shows, even if all the twists and turns don’t completely make sense. Still, they’re not enough to drag this anime out of the mediocre zone – it all feels too shallow to me.
The bulk of the series focuses on Shirou and Saber, and does a decent job of exploring their relationship. But did anyone ever doubt that they would end up falling for each other? Of course not. However, a twist is introduced about Saber’s past that drives a stake in that idea. The tension between these two is played well, although I do think screen time could have been spent more wisely.
Shirou is portrayed as a dutiful, honest young man who is in way over his head. I’m surprised that he’s shown to be as serious as he is, but the character does catch on after the first few episodes. Saber is reticent, private, and is almost machine like in her servitude. Neither are particularly interesting, but they make workable leads. Rin, however, gives the series some color. She is highly independent, stuck up, sassy, but also caring – a great complement to Shirou’s straightforwardness. Sure, that’s not the most original characterization, but at least Rin has some personality. Her Servant, Archer, is even more mysterious than Saber. Although his character is almost archetypal, I can’t help but admit to liking him. I’m always in favor of anyone who can get the job done like Archer.
Aside from these four, the rest of the cast feel like throwaways. The other heroic spirits that are introduced, like Lancer and Rider, seem to have little impact on the unfolding of the story. This is particularly true for Illya and Berserker, who seem completely pointless (with Illya’s role pushing the bounds of plot logic). It’s a shame, since the mythical figures they are based on deserve much more. With such a large, misused supporting cast, it’s all to easy to find yourself adrift in a sea of characters without really knowing why they’re there, or why they matter. If the show would have spent more time developing these characters, it would have largely alleviated the problem of scale I mentioned in the plot section.
Fate/Stay Night has a good enough presentation, but sometimes the design choices seem to lack originality. Some characters, like Saber, Rin, and Archer, are instantly recognizable. Others, like Shirou and Lancer, don’t look as important as they should. The action sequences are reasonably well animated – especially the scenes involving the “Noble Phantasms” of the Servants.
I will have to give props to the sound people, though, since they really know what they’re doing. The sound of weapon impacts, enhanced by a soundtrack that chills and enervates, really create a good aural mood. The voice acting can get a little too generic, but it’s usually that way for most anime. Ueda Kana, who voiced Rin, turns in a nice performance, but I didn’t find anyone else to be especially memorable.