Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works #012 – The Empire Strikes Back

hisui_icon_4040 If you sit back and think about it this episode is pretty much is the Empire Strikes Back of Unlimited Blade Works. You have a protagonist who came in to rescue a friend while not being fully trained and was consequentially humbled by his lack of experience. In the process of that botched rescue attempt the protagonist is gravely injured physically and emotionally. Secrets are exposed about the origin of the protagonist which change the way people look at him. You have a hero left in the grasp of the enemy with their future looking quite grim. You have the villains triumphant with their end goals now within sight. The heroes still have a chance to strike back but they are clearly on the defensive and have nearly depleted their moral.  All hope seems lost and it will take a mixture of clever planning and a few well-timed miracles for them to succeed.

Although Archer is much more the morally gray scoundrel than Saber it is all fairly analogous. But such are the limits of analogies. They are far better at hinting towards ideas then being one to one representations. But the similarities are still fairly striking. They are both clearly working on a Campbellian monomyth structure. The characters have entered the abyss. Part two of the series with be the death and rebirth of the hero. But before that transformation can occur the protagonist must be brought down to his lowest point in the series.

That is this episode.

Rin decides that Emiya is in need of R&R as he is clearly taken a beating after their failed ambush on Souichirou Kuzuki. Their frivolity quickly comes to an end when Caster draws them into a bounded field and tries to seduce Shiro to her side with Taiga as her hostage. Shiro does not succumb to her temptation but loses his partnership with Saber in the process. Only the timely aid of Archer lets them escape so they can go home and lick their wounds. But is seems as Caster consolidates her power and Rin and Archer plan to make a desperate last effort to stop the magus before she can claim the Holy Grail. But without a servant and being far from his best form physically and mentally Shiro is just forced to watch events from the sidelines.

I could have started with a picture of them going on the date proper but I feel that everyone (men and women alike) would enjoy a bit of bed head sexy Rin before we get into the meat of the discussion. The opening of this episode seems destined to either tickle your pink or make you groan like you just heard an overused meme as a joke. Why? Because it is the romantic comedy portion of Unlimited Blade Works. You have Rin being flirtatious with her sweet and sour mixture of teasing and blushing. She is never hostile but she does like to poke people playfully without a doubt. At the same time you have Shiro acting a bit more like a clueless harem lead with his own mixture of hot and cold sheepishness. I personally find this sort of material amusing as long as it is doled out in carefully measured segments. Too little and the romance can easily feel like it comes out of nowhere other than a slavish devotion to form but too much at it makes you wonder if you are still watching an urban fantasy show in anything but name.

At the same time some people are going to fast froward to when the bus crashes because they find this as dull as dishwater and that is understandable. But you will be missing out on some subtlety laid clues in the midst of all the shopping, brunching, game playing, and flirting. For those people you should just be like Saber. Saber does not really care. As long as she is eating well then this is all fine to go on around her.

Rin has clearly seen that Shiro has not fully recovered from his uncharacteristically flashy use of magic so she hopes that a little outing will give him a chance to open up to her. She is unaware that Archer already mostly dealt with that problem but in her defense if he had not done that this would have been vitally crucial for them to have any chance later on. While it is clear later on that Rin sees that as hostile as me might act at times Archer actually likes Saber and Shiro. It is also apparently that she realizes that his kindness is somewhat erratic and hardly transparent to most people so there is no reason for her to assume Archer cleared up Shiro’s problem.

At the same time it helps them clear their minds after a major defeat and gives them a little chance to rest up before they go back into the breach. Little could they know what shenanigans are occurring in the background to ruin this bonding excursion.

Apparently if she is not in Saber Alter mode there is nothing that can stop the ahoge. It will always find a way. Baseball helmets be damned. Only the raincoat is powerful enough to hold back the ahoge. And only for a time.

Oddly enough this baseball scene actually a bit of foreshadowing for a later reveal. Let us call a spade a spade though. The main purpose of this scene is to see Rin being cute and athletic, Shiro being silly, Saber struggling, and all three of them being competitive in their own ways. Also to show us that while Saber might be the King of Knights she is not one of the Sultans of Swing.

The most important take away from the batting cages is for all of Rin’s fragile and scholarly demeanor there is an athletic and toned physique hidden under her stereotypically wispy mage like frame. She might not be Korra, Valmet, or Mikasa but she is far more able then Louise or Amelia. She can’t fight Chun-Li but she can wipe the floor with your standard Squishy Wizard.

I wonder why THAT will ever be important to know?

This is a touching little original scene that reminds the audience how much Taiga still cares for Kiritsugu. She clearly had a mixture of extreme admiration with a strong dash of a girlish crush on the dying wizard. He is always someone who will continue to influence and inspire his young protégé. Sadly this little remembrance is interrupted by a certain princess of Colchis. This also sets up the next confrontation to be much different from how it occured in the original visual novel.

On the way home Caster traps the trio in a bounded field where she springs an ultimatum on the group as they a crossing the bridge on a bus. She has Taiga and a seemingly unlimited number of Dragon Tooth Warriors birthed from the water. Her summoned creatures can’t really hurt Saber but they can keep her distracted enough that Caster becomes a real threat. While Shiro is worried about his teacher’s safety Rin and Saber seem to be much more confident that they can take out the flying witch. This hesitation leads to Shiro’s ultimate defeat.

If anything this scene is important for showing how Shiro’s blind obedience to his unrefined moral code can lead to his downfall. It is not the fact that he rejects Caster’s offer of alliance or that he tries to offer up his arm in exchange for Tiaga. As Archer said in the previous episode if he made these choices because they were his own ideals he would have been in the head space to think through why he was making those choices. He spurns Caster’s deal and then offers up his arm all out of instinct more than any long-term stratagem or complex belief. Therefore he has not thought about the consequences and what it means from Rin, Saber, the city, or even himself. As long as he keeps marching forward on borrowed principles he will only move towards greater pain. Even if he were to succeed the emptiness of his sense of self means that his victories have no resonance and his failures have the potential to be even more devastating for himself and the people around him.

What happens to Saber here is the clearest example of this.

With Shiro holding back Saber she winds up getting her hit by Rule Breaker when she is most vulnerable. It is hardly the most dangerous weapon. It has a short-range and Caster is hardly Miyamoto Musashi or Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad. She is not casually stabbing anyone with a lick of combat training with that thing. While its effect is devastating, as it is basically the ultimate disenchantment spell, it has to hit to be effective. Therefore she could have only conceivably tagged Saber through some bad planning on Shiro, Saber, or Rin’s part. When Shiro commands Saber to stop just as thoughtlessly as anything else he did in the scene he dooms her to fall under Caster’s sway.

His ultimate punishment is to be injured by Saber in the least subtle proof of the power of actions and consequences you will ever see. The only reason they escape is because the people with the firm moral compasses make the correct decisions to have a path to safety. Saber’s cast iron chivalry is the only reason her blow does not kill Shiro. Archer’s morality may be grey as all get out but his dedication to his mature beliefs allows him strike with confidence and retreat with equal grace.

Shiro has been shown that he cannot go on as he has been so far. The question is will he take these lessons to heart or will he still try to blindly stumble forward doing things as he has always done.

It is worth nothing that in the original story all of this takes place in Shiro’s house. This is another time that Ufotable has really spiced up a scene by giving a sense of place to the fight. The general flow, dialog, emotions, and impact of the scene is unchanged. They just make an exciting battle more of setpiece without adding messy complications or taking away any of the themes or concepts. Ufotable has been making all of Rin and Shiro’s escapes in this arc feel much more natural. While it makes sense for Caster to ambush them at home the broken bridge is a far more visually interesting battleground.

On top of that it always did feel a bit too much like Caster let them off the hook for no reason in the visual novel at points. At least this time you understand why they get away. In the anime she just does not waltz off when she could have easily made a killing blow.

As Archer and Rin lick their wounds and treat their two incapacitated guests we get a little look into how much Rin understands who Archer is. At points it might seem like she does not understand what is going on in his head but it is clear that she has a greater insight than most people would give her credit for. She clearly sees that Archer has a soft spot for Saber and to a lesser degree even Shiro. He is hard on them precisely because he wishes that they will learn from his sharp tongue more than being acidic just to be vicious. She might not be entirely correct about everything but there are just some things that are a bit too far of a conclusion to jump to. She got the fact that Archer is someone who knows Saber she is just wrong about the time frame. Wibbly wobbly timey wimey… stuff is not the first place even mages would jump to. But everything else she says is quite spot on.

For all the talk there is about Rin being tsundere you never hear that much about Archer being just as bad if not worse. I suppose like Master like Servant.

We also get a little scene of Shiro stumbling out of bed. If nothing else his utterly defeated nature is so very clear. Even when his magical circuits were out of control and he looked bruised and battered he seemed like he was still dangerous. He might have been off-balance and fighting as if he had one hand tied behind his back but he could mess you up if you let your guard down at the wrong moment. Here he looks utterly declawed. Even if he did not have a gaping wound in his side he would still be harmless. When he stumbles upon Rin’s pendent it is extremely clear that he has many debts to pay and sins to atone for. The problem is he is not in any state to even start making amends.

Poor Assassin. He is clearly the guy forced to works job he hates for a boss he despises even more. But I guess if Rin and Archer are extremely similar then the same could be said of Caster and Assassin. Caster betrayed and murdered her original Master (Sir Not-Appearing-in-this-Film) and in return she gets a Servant that is just as discontent with her. The only problem is that Assassin does not have the skill, ability, or disposition to stab Caster in the back. So all he is left with his passive-aggressive behavior and sarcasm. So when Caster lays out her plans to him all he can do is poke the bear a bit. In return she merely shows that unless he wants to open his heart to her more often maybe he should just keep his observations to himself.

It only makes sense why he went a little loopy in Carnival Phantasm.

It seems that there is no more respect for the priesthood. Caster having divined the inner workings of the Holy Grail War has figured out the short cut to summoning the Grail. Instead of summoning the Great Grail through the messy killing of Servants and Masters if she can merely find the Lesser Grail and then use a whole ton of gathered mana and a little magecraft to gain access to the prize. In essence instead of a long and protracted battle to get at a mainframe that has the information she wants she will just casually walk up to a terminal connected to the mainframe and do her hacking from there.

The only problem is that Kotomine is not going to casually hand over the location of the Lesser Grail to Caster. So begins Kotomine’s dilemma. He can’t just have Gilgamesh and Lancer come in and murder Caster without playing his hand far sooner than he would like. At the same time he can’t just die by getting overrun by Dragon Tooth Warriors as that would be even worse than revealing he is a Master. He has to put on just enough of a show to explain to Caster how he could escape but he can’t just casually escape and make Caster wonder if she should do more to eliminate him. It is a tricky balance but Kotomine is a tricky guy. Although seeing how cut up the fake priest is one has to wonder if he is just really good at selling his struggle or if he has really not aged well after getting his Grail powered black heart.

If nothing else we get to see that the Black Keys are really good at taking out cannon fodder but really bad at anything else.

When Shiro finally catches up to Rin and Archer it seems that Rin wants nothing to do with the injured Shiro. It is clearly ye olde “If I say I don’t care then I hope you won’t follow” act going on but Rin knows that if she does nothing Shiro will rush into battle with Caster without a second thought. He clearly has no self-preservation instinct and far too much of a desire to pay for his sins with his own blood. But in her eyes Shiro has neither the physical, magical, mental, or spiritual fortitude to do what he wants to do. Without his Servant he would be safer just waiting out the war (at least until they can free Saber.) Sometimes one must be cruel to be kind.

How is Rin supposed to know that the Church is no longer a place of sanctuary? (Not that is ever was one in the first place.)

In the end this is exactly what needs to be done. If Shiro can’t rise to the challenge then it is best that he bow out now while he is still alive and not as much of a target. But if he can rise back up then it will be because he has finally grown enough that he can step back into the fray with the inner strength he needs to move forward. Theoretically Rin could have done this in a kinder and more gentle manner but she is a woman of masks. She is oddly direct in her indirectness. To come out and say such things in a maternal manner in far more of Saber’s Modus operandus. Rin says exactly what she means but while wearing a mask that hides what she feels.

I think most people were a little surprised to hear a new remix of This Illusion as the song the ending montage goes out on. The Lisa version did not strike as a particularly radical departure from the previous versions. It is not like the Yuki Kajiura version of Sword of Promised Victory or the Emiya Illya Theme. It mostly seemed like polite tip of the hat to versions that came before it. It probably does make it the only vocal song that get used as much as the instrumental songs in the original OST.

The episode ends with a little preview of the next season. I am very curious to see how they play the second half of the story. It seems as if they still have a good deal of the most important parts to cover I’m just not sure there is that much material to cover a season as long as this one. I’m definitely sure we are not going to get 3 hour-long episodes next season. Overall that is hardly the worst thing. Better to get to this cliff hanger that keeps the new fans interested during the 3 month break as opposed to ending at some other point that merely just feels like they just ran out the clock and had to end mid sentence. A brutal ending like this is why so many people remember Empire so fondly. The real question is what are they going to add in the way of new material the next season. They clearly have the license to shake things up while working in the frame-work of the original story. I don’t think we are going to see anything radically different like Mordred appear in the present or Illya teams up with Archer. That is just crazy talk. But we might get some little holes filled in. A Rin’s Adventure styled episode would be an interesting addition. If they did such a side story episode I would be curious to see who it would be about.

But we will find out what changes in next season. I hope to see you all there.

– Alain

Previous Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works posts:

Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works #011 – The Silly Faces of Taiga Fujimura
Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works #010 – The Bushwhackers
Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works #009 – The Issei Strip Mahjong Game
Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works #008 – There’s a Shortage of Perfect Breasts in this World
Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works #007 – Curse Your Sudden but Inevitable Betrayal!
Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works #006 – Shiro the Puppet
Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works #005 – The Silly Faces of Rin Tohsaka
Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works #004 – A Good Neighborhood Tiger
Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works #003 – Spoilers: Archer Uses a Bow
Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works #002 – Emiya Visits the Rip-Off Church
Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works #001 – People Almost Forgot Shiro is the Hero
Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works #000 – Archer the Combat Butler

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