Until Fate/Zero appeared, I’d never planned on watching Fate/stay night. At the time of its airing back in 2006, it’d always seemed a tad too pandering for my tastes. I knew nothing about it and was happy to keep it that way, but then, last year, I tried watching Fate/Zero and realised that I wanted to know more about its underlying story, that of the Holy Grail War. I’m a fan of shounen anime, after all, and one of the finer traditions of the genre has always been the tournament arc.
The Holy Grail War is Fate/stay night‘s tournament, fought out between 7 ‘masters’ and their magical ‘servants.’ Masters are live humans, typically from some clandestine magical order, while (and here’s the really cool part) servants are long-dead heroic legends transported from the afterlife. In Fate/stay night, one master has the Greek legend Heracles (Hercules) as her servant, while another has the samurai Sasaki Kojirō (ever since Rurouni Kenshin, I’m fascinated by historical samurai.)
If Fate/stay night were just a show about legendary heroes hanging out and trading punches, I’d love it unreservedly, but sadly, it isn’t.
This set-up may sound a little familiar: the main character, teenager Shirou Emiya, lives alone, but, as you were probably wondering, who the hell’s going to cook his food for him?! You needn’t have worried, because the younger sister of a school friend is there almost every-day making ridiculously extravagant meals for him and his female teacher, who also just hangs out at Shirou’s house a lot!
That’s already the state of play at episode 1, but would you believe that within a few more episodes, he’s sitting around the dinner table with no less than 4 girls? Later, he’s kidnapped by Illya, a young girl playing Master intent on making him her Servant.
That’ll be the eroge (erotic visual novel) roots showing, then.
It also doesn’t help that for the first half of the series, Shirou’s almost constantly coming out with some of the most hilariously chauvinist reasons for trying to fight in his female Servant’s, Saber’s, place. She’s a million times stronger than him, but he won’t have it, because it’s a “man’s duty to fight” or whatever. This all culminates in Shirou duelling with Saber, and getting his ass handed to him, over and over again.
He learns his lesson, but remains an incredibly stupid and frustrating character to watch. What this does, at least, is highlight how the traditional gender roles have been turned upside down by their pairing. Saber is chivalrous, proud and aggressive and defines herself only as a warrior, but Shirou refuses to see her as anything but another girl he needs to protect. It’s painful to watch, but proves interesting as they come to understand one-another’s place.
I’m determined to finish Fate/stay night. I’ve complained a lot here about it’s more anime-centric problems, but what one can’t deny is that the mythology underpinning it all, the rules of its world and the competing magical underground. is just fascinating. One could compare it to an almost Game of Thrones-level of detail: both have their own dedicated wikis and develop the sense of a larger story unfolding beyond that of the main characters.
If nothing else, today I finally learnt what an “Unlimited Blade Works” is (indeed, I’m surprised by how literal that name turned out to be!) I feel like I’m levelling up again as an anime fan!