Fate/Stay Night was a monumentally successful visual novel, bringing Type-Moon into the forefront of the industry after their initial success with the doujin game, Tsukihime. Due to a combination of factors, F/SN managed to become one of the most successful franchises in the entirety of the anime industry, producing a great number of spin-off novels and games. One thing it has never managed however, was a complete adaptation of the initial visual novel.
The 2006 anime by Studio DEEN was frequently derided for being inferior to the VN it came from, while also only adapting the VN’s initial route named “Fate”. In 2010 DEEN produced a movie adaptation of the game’s second route, “Unlimited Blade Works”, which was widely criticized for failing to adequately tell the route’s story. I won’t be talking about either of these, because I haven’t watched them, but generally they are not well regarded.
In 2014 it seemed the time had finally come for the fans of the Fate/ series to be given what they deserved, a well-made adaptation. Ufotable, the studio which adapted the previous Type-Moon works of Kara no Kyoukai and Fate/Zero were given the task of adapting the “Unlimited Blade Works” route, with a plan to adapt the “Heaven’s Feel” route as a movie down the line. It wasn’t the complete adaptation that many fans hoped for, but seeing the name Ufotable was enough to make most Fate fans confident the series would turn out well. I was among those who believed it would turn out well and serve as both a great anime and a great adaptation, but after seeing Unlimited Blade Works I can safely say that it is worse than the route it is adapted from, and due to a lack of context from the other routes it becomes a thoroughly mediocre product which fails to convey the many positives of the VN to new watchers, while keeping many of its negatives.
That’s not to say it is a bad anime or even a terrible adaptation. Ufotable clearly made a noble attempt at adapting the route they were given. Kinoko Nasu, the original VN’s writer, worked with the director in order to add new content and change things that needed to be changed for the VN to work as an anime. However, they started on the wrong foot right from the beginning though, by choosing a poor director.
UBW’s director was Takahiro Miura, the director of Kara no Kyoukai 6, generally regarded as the worst movie in the series and the only one which is considered poor adaptation of the novels. This essay isn’t about KnK, but suffice it to say that the 6th movie is not particularly well liked. Miura clearly tried to make a compelling adaptation in UBW, but much like in KnK 6 he was unable to bring the original work together in a way that works well on screen with the amount of time given to him. This isn’t meant to assign blame, but purely to look at how the anime failed, but to do so we do need to be aware of who worked on the show.
What the UBW anime did wrong was both adapt the VN too closely while at the same time failing to come close enough, leaving it to reside in an uncomfortable in-between. I’ll start by looking at the ways in which it adapted the VN too closely. In the infamous “mana replenishing” scene, adapted into the anime using the all-ages Realta-Nua version of the scene, Rin transfers her Magic Crest to Shirou so that he’ll be capable of forming his Reality Marble in order to defeat Gilgamesh. This scene was incredibly poor in both versions of the VN, and as adapted here it was just as bad. The scene is awkward, not just to the characters but to the audience, and leaves you feeling as if you’d have been better off without seeing it. It wasn’t particularly worse than in the VN, but here Ufotable had the chance to make a more romantic moment between Shirou and Rin, but completely failed to do so. Ufotable kept the lore-breaking Magic Crest transfer along with the incredibly awkward atmosphere of the 18-only sex scenes, keeping only negative elements.
This failure to remove negatives plagues the adaptation, as the VN’s many bad moments could have been improved by Ufotable while still fitting the story, but weren’t in order to stay close to the source material. Many of the VN’s overly frequent monologues are merely transferred directly into the show in the form of a Shirou’s thoughts, despite the lack of need or even time for repetitive monologues in a 25 episode anime series.
Ufotable made an attempt to stay close to the VN, but they were forced to change many things simply due to the radical differences in presentation between a VN and an anime. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, and it is often a good thing to change material in order to work in a different medium during an adaptation. The changes need to be done well in order for it to be a good thing though, and the changes in UBW are not done well.
The first thing to look at is those scenes which were majorly changed or added. For the most part, the added scenes were put in to give characterization to the characters who get little development in UBW but get more in Fate or HF. These scenes include many scenes with Illya and some with Gilgamesh. These are important, and generally alright, but they don’t serve as an adequate substitute for the characterization they receive in the other routes of the VN, and ultimately stand out to make it worse to a degree, by making them actual characters with some depth, but failing to go all the way. Like many things, this can’t be said to really be Ufotable’s fault, but the lack of characterization still detracts from the UBW anime regardless of whether Ufotable wanted it like this or not.
Those added scenes aren’t really an issue though. The scenes which cause serious problems are the ones that exist in the VN but are entirely different in the anime. The most specific and important, is the battle between Shirou and Archer. This fight is the climactic moment of the visual novel, with Shirou’s ideals being put on the line at this moment, making it an important part of the VN’s overall narrative.
In the VN this scene was done primarily through Archer and Shirou shouting at each other, alongside heavy narration from Shirou. Heavy narration isn’t always successful, but works in this case as Shirou is reflecting on whether his ideals can really still be considered right knowing what they lead to in Archer. The actual fight in this scene was not at all flashy and served purely to develop Shirou’s ideology. This method of storytelling simply wouldn’t work well at all in the anime, at least not for a show advertised in the way UBW was, as the visually boring fight combined with the high amount of monologue would lead to viewers becoming disinterested.
Unfortunately the way Miura chose was in no way better. It certainly managed to be more visually engaging than it would have been if animated exactly as described in the VN, but it led to a worsening of the storytelling. One relatively minor example of this is its early use of Unlimited Blade Works. In the VN Unlimited Blade Works is not used at all in this scene, and that makes the build up to it in the final battle with Gilgamesh all the more anticipated. By showing a major fight in it earlier, it simply isn’t as engaging to see it in action later. This is hugely detrimental, as a large part of F/SN’s appeal is simply that it is cool, and something like this significantly takes away from that.
The other issue is that it simply doesn’t make sense for Archer to use Unlimited Blade Works in this scene. By this point Archer had no master and was already beginning to run low on mana, so the idea he could even form a Reality Marble is dubious, considering the massive amount of mana needed in order to do so. It also leads to Archer’s heavily implied survival afterward entirely nonsensical. The argument is presented by some that he returned as a Counter Guardian and not as a Heroic Spirit, but there’s no real evidence of the idea that the Counter Force would see it as necessary to send Guardians for this situation, leading to the question how he would possibly stay alive for two days with no Master especially after using Unlimited Blade Works. His survival, which already made little sense in the VN is made worse by the changes to the story in the anime.
The changes to scenes aren’t the only major issue though. They were often for the worse, but not enough so to significantly impact the quality of the work as a whole. The real factor which killed the anime adaptation, and likely any attempt at an adaptation of the VN, is simply the structure by which the VN works. The VN serves as one cohesive narrative and not as three entirely separate routes, and this shines through both in how they’re written and in the journey of the characters across the three routes.
The routes in the novel were written to be read in a specific order, and this order was necessary to truly comprehend the work. The fact that Ufotable did not adapt Fate was the first and biggest mistake they could have made. Not only is much of the interesting exposition and world-building entirely absent from the anime, but the entire start of Shirou’s arc. The true point of the visual novel is to show Shirou going from absolute belief that his ideal is just, towards questioning but ultimately sticking with his ideal, ending with him realizing that his ideal ultimately makes him and those around him worse off and abandoning it.
Skipping the entire first part of this arc does the series a massive disservice. Simply put, this character arc is the main story of Fate/Stay Night, and because of how Ufotable adapted it, the anime simply can’t be that good. The use of the routes to tell one story is the most ambitious and intriguing parts of the VN, and it is a positive which completely fails to come through in the anime adaptation. Obviously this isn’t Ufotable’s fault, as they were likely told by the production committee which routes to adapt, but this doesn’t take away from the fact that the actual story of F/SN simply doesn’t and can’t exist in this anime adaptation.
Not only is the key narrative of F/SN left out by only adapting from the second route, but major characterization is as well. I touched on this earlier, but it needs to be understood how harmful this is to the overall quality of the work. I’ve heard numerous complaints that Illya is uninteresting to those who’d only seen the anime, and this causes issues with how scenes are presented.
Since those reading UBW are supposed to have read Fate first, Nasu wrote the story in such a way that characters with less importance in one route would be more important in another route. This fails to carry through, and leads many viewers to not care about characters they should care about. This is especially strong in the case of Illya, whose death at the hands of Gilgamesh is much less emotionally resonating without seeing more of her personality in Fate. Kotomine feels far less evil without the foreknowledge of what he did to the orphans of the fire. Considering how liked and well-characterized the characters are in Fate, it’s unfortunate that many of them simply don’t and can’t shine through in this adaptation.
Ultimately, the UBW anime is not a terrible anime. It certainly manages to make the VN’s fight scenes look cool, and manages to convey the general idea of the UBW route. For fans of the VN who have already read Fate, it is very much enjoyable to watch, even if some of the decisions made were for the worse. But as an adaptation of the VN, and not just of one route, it completely fails. Any adaptation which doesn’t adapt all three routes is bound for failure simply due to the way the VN was written.
The VN can’t be treated as three separate routes, but as one whole, and a failure to treat it as such has led to an adaptation that thoroughly fails to convey much of the VN’s appeal. I think it’s a disservice to show those interested in the franchise this series, as it simply can’t convey what it needs to in order to be seen as a suitable replacement for the Fate/Stay Night VN. Hopefully the entire VN is one day adapted, so we can see the full story in animation.