Whenever I walk around cons I always see Fate/Stay Night posters and merch about and I keep thinking to myself that I should really learn more about it. The problem is that 24 episodes, a visual novel or all the manga take time to watch/read/do-what-you-do-with-a-visual-novel, and I've got far too many cartoons about people sitting around to be watching to waste my time on one of the most popular franchises of all time. Then the DVD for the movie (out yesterday) landed on my desk and one very specific prayer was answered.
As ever, we split the review into four parts: Story, Artistry, Translation and the DVD itself.
As I've already said, Fate/stay night is already kind of a big deal, which means that the movie gets to be one of three things:
1) A reboot. Like The Last Airbender or the new Star Trek films. This can go very badly or very well.
2) A big episode. This is the standard way to do it in the west and is what you get with the likes of The Simpsons Movie or Sex and the City. Sometimes you can do it Disney Channel style and secretly make it three or four episodes stapled together so you can show them separately later as part of a regular season.
3) A recap. This one happens a lot in anime and it's what happens with Fate/Stay Night. It normally takes footage from the series and jams it all together in a way that will, hopefully, look like a film instead of like a never ending clips episode. Gainax are big fans of doing this.
Now some people might think the recap is the worst possible option, but for me it's the best. I want to know about the franchise but I can't be bothered to sit through all of the episodes and a reboot would probably only cover the first arc so I'd have to watch it all anyway. A well done recap might be just the ticket.
Question is, is it well done?
I'm gonna go with maybe.
You have to be paying a whole lot of attention to get the most out of this. If you're the kind of person that gets easily distracted or is always asking everybody else who that is or what's going on then this isn't for you. They skip a lot of the hand holding exposition that you would expect from two cours of the show and just get straight into plot twists and action. We start with an exposition dump to set the universe but then you have to use your genre savviness to work out who's doing what and why everybody's there.
Personally, I was cool with that. It means that you often do wonder what the hell somebody's doing but it gets explained eventually. You just have to make sure that anybody watching is going in with eyes open, otherwise it just reads like an object lesson in how to tell a story in the wrong order.
As for the story itself, is it any good? I think it might be. That's one of the wonders of it being done in this way, that you end up filling a lot of the gaps for yourself and if you can't then you've got a good grounding for knowing if you want to watch the series or play the game to find out more or if you actually don't much like the story after all and you'll be glad you didn't sink ten hours into it.
I'll quickly synopsise it for you. As ever, if you don't want spoilers, skip to the Artistry.
Fate/Stay Night is all about the quest for the Holy Grail. It would seem that the Grail will grant the bearer mastery over the world. To find it, Magi contract themselves to Servants, manifestations of legendary heroes who all have their own style of fighting, weapons and powers. It almost ends up being like the Reaper/Weapon dynamic in Bleach.
Our hero is, as you probably already guessed, a high school boy who manages to get himself contracted to a pretty lady Servant. He's taught that, as a Magus, his lot in life will be to battle other Magi and find the grail. He vows to end all the fighting by doing more fighting. One of the other students has her own Servant and they're meant to hate each other but actually end up working together for most of the movie.
You may have noticed that we're building a bit of a harem here and I probably should have mentioned earlier that the visual novel this is all based on was an adult visual novel. That said, some of the best shows were based on adult visual novels, they just happen to be a good way for writers to get their stories seen.
The rest of it is lots of Magi turning up, Servants defecting or not defecting as they see fit and massive battles. It's a simple enough storyline (albeit some of the ethereal politics has a bit of trouble sticking) but it does have trouble making you care about it. As you might imagine, the recap format makes it difficult to connect with characters and also to foreshadow things. New characters and plot devices appear seemingly from nowhere and if you weren't aware of what you were watching then you would think it was just a massive string of deus ex machinae and fridge stuffing.
So the story is good but very, very rushed.
The art, however, is the shiznat.
One of my favourite shows ever is Shiki, but it's very difficult to show people because they have to wade through 16 episodes of scene setting before the town tears itself apart and it becomes the most gruesome spectacle you'll ever know. How I wish there were a recap movie so that it could just cover the bare minimum of scene setting and skip straight to the awesome bits.
Fate/Stay Night is awash with gorgeous settings and epic battles. The Servants and the Magi alike all get their fair share of looking awesome with their special moves and general badassery and this film is just an hour and a half of concentrated awesome.
In fact, I'm going to contradict myself massively by saying this, but it's the perfect party film. You know how when you put a film on at a party nobody ever cares because they're talking to each other so when things happen nobody notices or understands why? This film has barely any plot to pay attention to so you can happily leave it on, safe in the knowledge that if anybody glances at the TV at some point they'll get to say something like "woah, that's a lot of swords" or "where does he even get that much blood from and how is he still standing?"
The only thing that you've got to be careful about when showing it in polite company is that it was, originally, an adult visual novel and that means that there will often be somewhat suspect character designs and scenarios. There's never any nudity or sex – implied or otherwise – but there are dubious outfits and at one point a couple of the characters strip down to their skivvies to exchange magic. Your parties might be amenable to that, but just be warned.
Of course, I'm no end of pissed off that I was given the DVD instead of the BD to review because this would look spectacular with all the extra Ps.
You know how I'm always looking for a show which is well translated? This isn't it.
There's plenty of blame to go around though and it starts with the original Japanese. You may have guessed from the title and the subtitle that there's some powerful Engrish going on. Fate/Stay night makes no sense. Unlimited Blade Works makes no sense. There's an important spell which is in English and makes no sense (both because it's poorly written and because it's barely understandable as spoken by the original voice actors which is then left unsubbed because it is, theoretically, in English).
All that aside, I do love the amount of times people shout "Berserker" in this.
The subtitles are serviceable but have a few grammatical errors which annoyed me. It's especially annoying when those grammatical errors come about because somebody is hamfistedly trying to use thee and thou. It takes a lot of English language skill to successfully pull off ye olde English and the subbers here didn't have it.
As for the dub, it's a mixed bag. On the one hand, they embellished the script so that the plot was actually more understandable dubbed than subbed. In the sub, for instance, the protagonist is told he'll finally get to live out his dream, which makes no sense because this is a recap movie and we've skipped all the character setting. In the dub the protagonist is told he'll finally get to live out his dream of being a hero. Suddenly the sentence makes sense and I no longer have to take guesses at what his dream might have been. In another scene there's a climactic battle where the protagonist is hacking away at his enemy and in Japanese he's shouting something but the sub decides not to translate it, whereas in the dub he's clearly shouting "die, die, die, die" which was a perfectly reasonable sentiment for the situation.
The problem is the problem with nearly all dubs: I can't stand those voices. Some of the voices were fine but entirely misplaced. Men all either sounded like whiny teenagers – an understandable choice being that they are high school kids but it defuses dramatic tension very quickly – or James Earl Jones style super manly and authoritative men. The women all sound like thirty year olds trying to sound like teenagers and it's equally tension ruining. It's a shame because the voice acting itself is actually surprisingly solid. All the right amounts of emotion are where they need to be, it's just emotion from voices that never feel like they belong to those characters.
On the plus side, the subs managed to do what none of the regular series DVDs I've reviewed so far have managed to do: Karaoke with both translation and romaji. Now you get to know what she's singing about and you can sing along too. It's just a shame you only hear the song once so you never really feel the urge to sing along.
I always used to love buying DVDs because they were full of awesome documentaries and I'd get to rewatch the film with the director or the actors or whoever telling me all about the bits I should be looking out for and fun facts. The Monty Python DVD, for instance, has two commentary tracks, a silly one by the funny Pythons and a serious one by the Terrys. The DVD for The Rock had a cool feature where little factoid boxes would appear all over the place to elaborate on things you were seeing or let you know when somebody said something wrong. I'm a big fan of all that kind of stuff.
I only mention this because I keep putting these DVD sections in and they're always terrible. I'm just saying, the DVD itself can be good, it just never has been in my reviews and isn't in this case either.
At first glance it looked like there were plenty of extra features. There was an extras menu and it had loads of entries in it. Then when you read through them you realise that they're all adverts for the film you presumably just watched. Now don't get me wrong, I like seeing an original trailer or two, it's fun to see what the marketing people thought would get people's attention and decide if you think the trailer really captured the spirit of the film. The problem is that this has 6 categories of trailers, each with multiple trailers in it, all for the same film. There's BD and DVD trailers, theatrical trailers, theatrical teasers, tv spots, tv previews and tv adverts. There's maybe three distinct adverts amidst all of that and at some point you will quite literally just watch the same thing twice in a row (because one's technically the DVD promo and the other's technically the BD promo despite the fact that they're both identical and both finish with the release date for both the DVD and the BD).
And there's nothing else, no trailer for something else, no anti piracy video, just the film, a choice between subs and dubs, and a whole load of trailers for itself. Some might say that that's all you need, but I like to get a bit more for my money.
There are two audiences for this. People that are new to the show and people who like to see some big, damn action. I've seen some reviews say that this is for fans only but if I'd already seen the original series I would've just gotten bored. What fans will want this for is to use it to get their friends hooked. In fact, that's the perfect way to watch it, with somebody who knows the canon and can explain things if you miss them out. You could watch it without a helping hand and you would get some understanding of the Fate/Stay Night universe, at least enough to start understanding discussion of it and watch new series if they ever come out, but more than anything you'd get to see people beat the hell out of each other and sometimes that's all you really want.
If I were reviewing this as a film on its own merits then I would probably not be able to score it too highly, but I consider it a condensed introduction to the universe and for that it does its job very well. There are far worse things to have in your DVD collection and if you're a fan who wants quick doses of Fate/Stay Night for yourself or to get friends hooked then it's probably the perfect addition to your DVD library (and presumably an even better addition to your BluRay library considering how shiny everything is).
It's an impossible thing to mark but this is a review so I'll give it the benefit of the doubt and go for...
Now I've spent far too long reviewing this (though not nearly as long as watching the whole series would have taken me) so I'm off to see what else is on.