Unpopular Opinion: Unlimited Blade Works

Warning, this post will contain lots of spoilers as I will take an in-depth look at UBW.

UBW was a rather mixed bag in my opinion.  Compared to what was airing at the time and just what anime is capable of in general, UBW is good, very good in fact.  Obviously the animation was damn impressive, and there was more than a little hype for the series.  I for one was excited to see Ufotable make a solid effort to make me forget Studio DEEN’s original Fate Stay Night.   And for the most part I think Ufotable succeeded in making a good show.  That would be great except for one minor issue, UBW was not the first Fate series Ufotable worked on and it was in no way the equal of the relative titan that is Fate Zero.  Fate Zero was not without its problems, but looking back on both series, I would say it’s quite a bit better than UBW.  There are quite a few reasons why of course, but essentially they all come down to adaptation issues.

To borrow a quote from before Christ was born, “Hannibal knew how to gain a victory but not how to use it.”  That was Marharbal by the way, and if you’re wondering how the fuck a Punic War quote has any relevance to anime, let me explain.  Let’s cast Ufotable as Hannibal, now Ufotable has indeed won a victory with UBW.  Regardless of its flaws, it got a lot of people excited and showcased the total dominance Ufotable has in terms of sheer graphical power.  UBW is certainly one of the most gorgeous anime ever made.  But despite all this, UBW failed to become a second Fate Zero.  As popular as UBW was, when the dust settles and new anime come to grab our attention I would be very much surprised if UBW continues to captivate the anime community the way Zero has.  This is because Ufotable clearly did not know how to use their victory, they failed to take full advantage of the potential UBW had.  The main reason why is that in my opinion they adapted it poorly.  Now before you go leave an angry comment about my lack of taste or intellect, let me rephrase that.  I think they failed to properly adapt the UBW story to the anime medium.  To me one of the things I found most off-putting about the entire series was that it felt more like watching someone playing a VN route than watching an anime.  Now astute fans will note that is because that’s exactly what UBW is, a VN route and one Uftoable has adapted pretty faithfully.  Unfortunately, that misses the point of my complaint, because even if UBW is a VN route, an anime should not feel like goddamn VN route.  Part of the issue it that the anime should ideally add its own flavor to the story that justifies the change of storytelling medium, but the main problem is the anime medium does not do routes.  Take Clannad for example, sure Okazaki has a brief arc with all the potential romantic interests from the VN, but it’s always clear where the story is headed and because of that it feels like a single cohesive story.  With UBW on the other hand I feel like I’m just watching a version of a story, not the story.  It’s a subtle difference but it does have a negative effect, because again anime does not do alternate routes, no matter how much Tokyo Ghoul season 2’s title would have you believe otherwise.  Basically the problem I have with UBW is that I feel like Ufotable is just going to spoon feed me the same story with minor alterations multiple times and that’s not something anime should do.  What UBW should have done, was try to be the sequel to Fate Zero, not a potential sequel, the sequel.  This would have been more effective because it would force Ufotable to alter the UBW story to better fit the new medium.  I think it would also just improve the storytelling in general.

One of the big draws of Fate Zero was how it spent a decent amount of time with most of the cast.  Ryunosuke and Caster are comedic gold in their own twisted way.  Kotomine’s and Gilgamesh’s nihilistic world views add psychological intrigue to the story.  Kiritsugu and Saber are a Master Servant pair who are at odds because the former employs ruthless tactics for a relatively selfless goal while the other fights honorably for a more selfish one.  Iskanadar was one of the most charismatic men to grace the anime scene and a total badass to boot.  But in UBW the story is almost entirely about 3 people, Rin, Shiro and Archer, who is also Shiro from the future.  The only other characters who even come close to comparing to Fate Zero’s are Medea, whom I personally do not like but I at least understood her, and Lancer, who doesn’t get much screen time but does make very good use of the time he has.  Saber is a shadow of her former self, I mean for fuck’s sake Archer ends up explaining Saber’s wish, instead of you know letting Saber explain it herself.  Gilgamesh upped the asshole factor in UBW but overall I found his performance to be weaker in UBW than it was in Zero.  This is mainly because Gilgamesh behaves very differently in his fights in UBW and Fate Zero.  In Zero Gilgamesh is extremely arrogant, he never bothers to attack Masters because they are beneath him, he never gets worried by any of the other spirits, and he never brings out his biggest attacks unless someone has well and truly pissed him off.  But in UBW Gilgamesh targets Illya during his fight with Berserker, uses big attacks all the time and was just less impressive overall.    Point is, I think UBW really dropped the ball when it came to handling the Heroic Spirits which is a major blunder in my book because the Heroic Spirits are what really make the Fate series stand out.  When you ask around and look for the moments people cared about most in Fate Zero, they are almost all Heroic Spirit-centric, like the Banquet of Kings.  The only exception I know is the Kiritsugu vs Kotomine battle, and maybe Waver’s quasi-happy ending.  Unfortunately, UBW dropping the ball on the Heroic Spirits is only one of several major issues.

The pacing is frankly atrociously bad.  Much like Zero, UBW has a first season where very little is accomplished and a second where people drop like flies.  However Zero was able to overcome the pacing issue by giving almost everyone some time in the spotlight, as they planned and schemed and we learned more about them.  This is not true in UBW because its focus is very narrow, so the pacing issues are more readily apparent.  Like how the last few episodes really got stretched by Archer’s backstory, which Rin condensed into a sentence or two, before we spent a whole episode letting Archer tell his story.  Likewise Shiro’s soliloquies about how his ideals are fake but still hold value, get downright tiresome in a hurry as they pad out the length of the final few episodes. In general I would say one of UBW biggest flaws was mismanagement of time.  Some episodes are wasted on things like Rin and Shiro’s date, which is pointless because it did nothing to further their relationship because their relationship is implicit not explicit. And other scenes aren’t given enough time to play out well.  In particular the Gilgamesh versus Berserker battle should have been split into two episodes, the first should have been light on action but covered Illya’s backstory, the second should have been heavy on action and ended with Gilgamesh’s victory.  But instead both the battle and Illya’s backstory are crammed into one episode, which cripples the fight and makes the backstory irrelevant because Illya is dead as soon as we finally begin to understand her.  Very poor execution on that event in the story, I could go on but if you want a more detailed rant on this particular subject, it makes up a big part of my fighting excellence post, so feel free to check it out while I move on to new pastures.  The pacing is a mess, but what really gets me is how bad the second season was paced.  Zero’s second half was pretty well paced if you look at it as a standalone piece but, not so for UBW.  In UBW second season, a lot of people die a bit too fast and other episodes are just strung out by soliloquies and backstory info dumps.  The end of the series was a mess too.

Not counting the epilogue, the final episode of the series was a chaotic clusterfuck.  The funny thing is, only two or three events actually took place in the episode, but the cinematography of Shiro and Gilgamesh’s fight was so helter skelter, I found it a thoroughly unimpressive final battle.  Don’t get me wrong it look gorgeous, but the camera was zooming all over the fucking place and it made the fight hard to follow, even though I understood how the fight worked.  Because the battle was so hard to visualize and make sense of, it had no climactic build up and was as a result, unsatisfying.  The same goes for Saber’s Excalibur.  In Zero they gave Excalibur a graceful buildup, then when the attack was loosed, followed it an good angle, and had it move slow enough that it was easy to drink in the majesty of the Noble Phantasm.  In UBW, the build-up is much faster and flashier, but lacks the solemn dignified grace of Zero’s.  And then when Saber lets it rip, well the camera follows the blow from a worse angle, and more importantly, a hell of a lot quicker.  In UBW it feels like we at the front of the attack and flying into the Holy Grail at rocket speed.  It looks like it could give people motion-sickness.  Sure it might sound impressive on paper to fly through a big attack at light speed, but it’s not.  The best way to use big special effects is to make them a subject of awe.  Look back at the second Archer versus Lancer fight for instance.  Both sides get some major buildup as they throw down with Gae Bolg and Rho Aias, each ability is slowed down so we can see it in its full glory and then they collide, and the collision is slow enough let us see all the details, before a major explosion results.  With Excalibur, we’re rocketed through a huge attack that has minimal buildup before it ends with an Evangelion style explosion cross.  Its flashy, but ultimately not nearly as impressive as it ought to have been.

Overall UBW was still a good show but it had the potential to be a great one.  However, mismanagement of time, mismanagement of the Heroic Spirits and a flashy but poor ending cripple this series.  Oddly enough I think Ufotable either did not understand the strengths of Fate Zero or simply didn’t feel they could take any risks by deviating from the source material.  The latter concern is more understandable, but in this case anyone who understands the strengths of Fate Zero should be able to see how implementing them would require deviations from the VN.  Anyway I know I bashed this show pretty hard but it just galls me to think about how easy it would be to make minor changes that would improve the series.  Like why did they not have Rider use her Noble Phantasm?  It’s one of the coolest attacks in the series and with the Ufotable’s graphics they could it make a memorable moment even with very basic fight direction.  But because she doesn’t use it in the source material, we don’t get to see it, even though it plays to Ufotable’s strengths to show it to us.  But for all the bad things I have said, UBW is still a solid show and if nothing else I’m glad for new fans who can see it alongside Fate Zero and avoid the train wreck that is Studio Deen’s Fate Stay Night.  Hopefully you guys enjoyed this and I’ll see you in the next one.

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