Fate/Stay Night Unlimited Blade Works episode 20, appropriately titled “Unlimited Blade Works” is arguably the most pivotal episode of the series. The central conflict at the heart of Emiya Shirou’s suffering comes to a head as he battles with Archer. I will do my best to talk about this most anticipated episode in a reasonable, hopefully mature manner.
Given the information presented in this episode, and from what I read in r/anime, I feel like I have basically wrapped my head around Shirou’s conflict or backstory if you will. We were initially lead to believe that Shirou is a heartless, robotic human because he cares more for others than himself. That is to say, his own life is of no consequence if he can “save” others instead. In this episode, it was revealed that not only did Shirou harbour the inhuman desire to put others far above himself, but that it was never his desire at all.
That is to say, Shirou simply copied the wish of his father (Emiya Kiritsugu) because to young him, it seemed like a wish worth fighting for and was arguably something Shirou hoped would make Shirou happy. Facing off with Archer, Shirou confirms what he already sort of guessed to be true. He realizes that his “wish” is not sustainable. That is to say, fighting for others his entire life (and in his after life) will most likely lead to pain, suffering and grief. Shirou will enter hell, again and again and again. Shirou will never be able to live up to the expectations he set for himself and may very well end up twisted and sad like Archer.
Shirou resolves this conflict, by coming to terms with the fact that he will never succeed. The now reasonably infamous line he spouts out at Archer “You may be correct, but you are not right.” does make some sense even though it doesn’t sound like it at first. Here, Shirou is telling Archer that while Archer is stating truths and facts, Archer’s behaviour is not right (or righteous if you want). You could for example, eradicate humanity to reduce the impact of climate change, but you wouldn’t be right in doing so. Though in this case, I believe Shirou is referring less to a moral right and more to a self right, i.e. Archer’s approach to the whole wish thing is incorrect.
A cynical look at Shirou’s words would be that Shirou is simply high strung and stubborn. That, even though Shirou accepts the truth, he refuses to comply anyway. A more positive (and in my opinion and that of a few people on reddit, accurate) interpretation would be that Shirou has decided he doesn’t care if he is successful in the end or not. Shirou no longer wants to live a life where he saves everyone by the end, but a life where he is always trying to save someone. In simpler words, Shirou cares not for success or the final destination, but the journey itself. Shirou knows he will likely fail, but he doesn’t really mind as long as he tries his best the entire time.
I like that Shirou concluded that simply trying his best, hoping for the best, but not expecting anything would be a good course of action. His backstory and central conflict, however are not as likeable. There are three reasons why I feel this to be the case.
My first major problem with this “back story” and characterization of Shirou is that he was never really all that well developed. For quite some time, I have felt like the series has been showing me two variants of Emiya Shirou. There is the Emiya Shirou who is an ordinary high school anime boy. He studies, cooks, has a crush on Rin, helps out his student council friends and is a totally normal boy. The other Emiya Shirou is one the series attempts to forcefully create via dialogue. This Shirou is one who is helpful to a complete fault. This Shirou is lifeless, worthless (as a human) and can only live for the sake of others or as an embodiment of his father’s ideals. My biggest complaint with these two Emiya’s is that the series never succeeds at showing them to be the same person.
Fate never reconciles “broken” Emiya with ordinary school boy Emiya. Fervent fans of the VN might at this point tell me it is because the anime is lame and is missing a lot of inner monologue. It may be true that a bit of development got left out by not including all that inner dialogue (it would have been very boring had it all been included!), but I don’t see this “likes to save and help everyone” trait in anything Shirou does. As far as I can recall, the only helpful or nice thing Shirou has done is fix heaters and other equipment for his friend in the student council. That’s it. Shirou’s real life deeds do not suggest an individual who is so helpful that he is actual broken. You could make the case that he is helpful towards Rin, but that is mostly cause he is smitten with her. From what I have seen, Shirou has never “saved”, nor tried to save someone. He has never put anyone far ahead of himself (Note: Slightly not accurate, as pointed out by a nice comment.). That said, I don’t think being overly nice is a good character defining trait anyway (making it “work hard for someone else’s wish” is a bit better I suppose).
My second problem with this back story is that it is told in a rather convoluted manner and takes a while to figure out. It is nothing that complex, but is kind of dressed up as such. I think this is partly why both fans and critics latch on this franchise so much. Critics call Fate out on all its bullshit (when really it is not much worse than the average story, it is just dressed up a little fancier) and fervent fans end up thinking the story is rich and complex because it took them some time and effort to decipher. At least, that is what it looks like to me.
My third and final major problem with Shirou’s story is in the assignment of human worth. For reasons not totally clear, the show tells you Shirou is a broken human robot because of his sole wish and desire. I think the series overestimates the ambition and wishes of the ordinary human being. Most people, myself included, have few if any real ambitions. We live our lives, day to day, hoping for little good things to happen and trying to ignore or forget the bad ones. While most humans have desires and goals, we are rarely that set on actually trying to achieve them. Those of us who have both dreams and ambition generally make it far in life. Shirou may not have any dreams of his own, but he has an ambition and a direction in which he wishes to move in. How does that alone make him more worthless than the average, ambition less human?
I think that is pretty much all I have to say on Shirou’s back story. In the end, I, like everyone else, got sucked in and wrote more about it than I probably should have. Fate/Stay Night’s plot is no modern marvel, but it is also not the total crapshoot that some seem to regard it as. In the end, it is just an average (or perhaps marginally above average) dish served in a fancier than usual plate. That said and out of the way, I do wish to expand on just how well put together I thought parts of this episode were.
Episode 19 left us with an overly confident, assured Shirou. Episode 20 started with that Shirou, but as they clashed swords, as Shirou’s fighting technique improved and as Shirou saw glimpses of Archer’s past, he began to break a little. Rejecting Archer was still the only course of action, a stubborn mule like Shirou could take, but the haunting reality of the path he was heading down dawned on him. Shirou stubbornly refused Archer for as long as he could, even taking his jacket off (one of my favorite pseudo useless things he could have done!). Archer probably could have killed him at any moment in time, but he wanted to see Shirou break down a little and break down he did.
Shirou’s conflict between his wish and his foresight into what that wish would entail came to its climax when Shirou and Archer stood back to back in what I believe is one of Unlimited Blade Works most iconic poses (I think, I can’t find any images to back this up though). And as they stood there, speaking, Shirou’s spirit finally broke as Archer cut through Shirou’s projections before knocking him down to the ground.
Perhaps, the most memorable part of this episode was not the collapse of Shirou’s “soul”, but the collapse of Archer’s. Maybe it was the voice acting or the way Archer’s expressions were drawn, but Archer’s regret, self-hatred and anger were more apparent in these few minutes than the hours of dialogue he had spewed up until now.
More than ridding the world of another tragic Archer or saving a young Shirou from hell, Archer was just taking his anger out at Shirou. Archer was really just mad at the world, mad at himself and with nowhere else to go, his anger came out in each sword swing. You could feel the weight behind those swings. Each swing carried with it a near eternity of suffering. For all its philosophical musings (and failings) and for all its faults in coherent story telling, if there was one thing Fate/Stay Night made clear to me this episode, it was that Archer was oh so very sad and that he had suffered for a very long time.
And as Shirou lay bleeding on the ground, he saw the hell he’d go through and also the hell he’d leave behind (the rotting corpses covered in flies alluded to as much and perhaps they alluded to Beelzebub’s hell as well). That short conversation Shirou had with his future self was short and sweet. Shirou finally realized that he was wrong and his future self also apologized for not going about it properly.
Then Shirou realized what he had forgotten. That while it was true he had taken on Kiritsugu’s wish out of admiration for the wish, he also did so because Kiritsugu was saved by Emiya (or something, this part is still fuzzy and unclear to me). I liked how present Shirou tried to stop past Shirou from stepping into hell, but when he saw that “past Shirou being saved” saved Kiritsugu, present Shirou stepped into hell himself, perhaps hoping that doing so would save future Shirou (who tried to stop him from stepping in). Or something. The exact details escape me and are in my opinion, mostly pointless and irrelevant (see previous rant on Shirou’s back story).
The tie in with Avalon was fantastic (especially that great insert song – Last Stardust by Aimer). It showcased that while Shirou definitely loved his dad, his dad in turn, loved him. And just as importantly, Avalon and Shirou drawing the sword on the hill tied in well with Saber’s back story. Saber didn’t truly understand what drawing the sword and becoming king would entail, and she regretted her decision to do so. Shirou walked up to that sword, fully aware of what his future held, but resolved to not regret what may come to pass.
Shirou then created his projected swords once more (+1 because of incantation), only now with actual conviction behind his swords and thus he was able to deflect Archer’s thrown swords quite easily.
Speaking of Saber, it was sad seeing her delegated to observer duty. Her faces of pain at seeing Archer’s suffering and understanding the parallels with her own life added something to the episode, but they also mirrored mine over the fact that we will never have a true Saber story that does her past and regret justice.
The visual direction was totally on point this episode. I was not expecting much from this fight (since it isn’t between two servants), but the choreography was great. The glowing circuits and powerups , the amazing smoke and other visuals in the “I have seen hell bit”, the relative positioning of the characters, the Unlimited Blade Works background (it kept moving throughout the fight! The gears moved!), etc, etc…All of it looked really nice.
Just as important, the sound direction was on key. The sword swings carried weight, Archer’s fast movement came with delightful “WHOOSH” sounds and the insert songs (Emiya for a few a seconds and Last Stardust for a fair bit longer) were the perfect accompaniment as was was the silence during some of the more sombre scenes.
There, I promised a reasonable, mature look and irrespective of actual post quality, I hope I delivered. Now, if you will excuse me….
FUCK YES, LANCER!
LANCER IS BEST BRO.
WHY AREN’T ALL THE CHARACTERS IN F/SN CALLED LANCER?
LANCER SHOULD HAVE WON EUROVISION.
MOM, DAD, WILL YOU BUY ME LANCER?
Anyway, I like Lancer. Last week, I sort of learned that Lancer’s good deeds weren’t over (via slightly spoiler comment on reddit), but I had no idea what that entailed. I figured he had left a spell or something that would cause Kotomine some minor grief and anguish. I didn’t expect Lancer to come back from the dead and to kill Kotomine. No, seriously, Kotomine is dead? WOAH. As someone who watched F/Z that phrase feels totally unnatural.
Not only did Lancer come back to life and stab Kotomine’s heart out, but he also threw Shinji across the room before doing a little poke and scaring the living fuck out of the guy. (Shinji running away was the most glorious thing, though I do sort of wish he had been killed and burned and had his ashes thrown in the trash.) Lancer then proceeded to cremate himself and Kotomine. How cool is that? I laughed when Shinji offered Lancer a “heroic death at the hands of Gilgamesh” when really, Lancer coming back to life, taking down the enemy and saving Rin before setting the place on fire was the most heroic way to die. From all the servants summoned and shown in Unlimited Blade Works, it is quite apparent that Lancer was the only true genuine hero. His comparatively peaceful and heroic passing would allude to as much.
I am going to assume Lancer didn’t help Rin out right away because he was too tired to do so (even the very act of standing was basically a miracle given his wound to the heart). I am trying to be nice, but really, the Rin – Shinji scenes were totally unnecessary. They were unnecessary last episode and they were unnecessary here. Shinji is already deplorable trash, making him out to be a sexual fiend doesn’t really worsen our impression of him, rather it makes him less of a villain and more of a convenient plot (maybe fan service-ish) device. If you wanted him to be a detested, genuine villain, you’d have had him sit opposite Rin and recite rhetorical poetry about how Rin was wrong in her values. Basically make Shinji to Rin what Archer was to Shirou. (Okay, that would be pretty boring, maybe just scrap him all together.)
To be honest, I had higher expectations from Shinji because he was supposed to be this dumb kid who hated Shirou but held some form of internal respect. We never saw that, instead we got shit manifested, an existence that is hard to even classify as a character.
Actually, speaking of Archer, why the hell did he abandon Rin anyway? He loved her at one point and clearly respected her as his master. I know we are supposed to see him now as a different character than the one at the beginning, but this abandonment of Rin to suffering and death (at the hands of SHINJI OF ALL PEOPLE) feels far too out of place with Archer’s moral compass.
Anyway, I think I am done now. Here are a few misc notes.
- I love Lancer.
- Lancer getting back up after being stabbed in the heart was a reference to the Cú Chulainn’s myth. He was notoriously hard to kill and even after death, he chopped off someone’s hand.
- Lancer resting against the pillar before smacking Shinji may also have been a myth reference since Cú tied himself to a standing stone fending off enemies until the very end.
- A minor detail not really mentioned in the anime was that Rin was tied up with some weird magic resisting rope or her circuits weren’t functioning. Basically, she couldn’t have used magic to escape. (Whether the plot should have mandated having her in an inescapable situation is a different question, the answer to which is probably No.)
- Rin’s conversation with Lancer was really rather cute. You really gotta feel for Lancer and his bad luck. He was probably the only character in this show who recognized Rin for the strong, admirable person she is.
- Lancer’s “come when you have put on a few years” comment may also have been a myth reference since a woman rejected Cú Chulainn with similar words (or so the F/SN wiki would suggest).
- I am glad that Rin stayed defiant until the very end. It was bad enough seeing her abused by Shinji, but if she had lost her Rin edge, then well, it would have been even worse.
- In the VN, Archer didn’t use “Unlimited Blade Works” again, but hey it provided a very cool backdrop and allowed for all those sand animations and what not, so having the anime utilize it a second time was a very good idea.
- Why is it always an interesting character who has to be the vessel for the grail? Irie, Illya, Rin…Why not make it Shirou since he has nothing better to do, or better yet, make it shitlord Shinji.
- Nothing makes me feel more like chuni weaboo trash than writing over 3000 words on one episode of Fate/Stay Night.
- I could have summed up this entire post with “some shit happened, but watching shit go down was great”.
- I really wouldn’t mind an anime with Rin and Archer just doing shit together. We didn’t see enough of their bond and the focus was too squarely set on Emiya and Archer’s far more boring relationship.
- I am tired. F/SN is fun, but writing this much and observing the mud slinging shit storm that erupted last night over ANN’s review of the episode has totally drained me. Thanks for reading though!