Ufotable has set the bar for their anime based on Type-Moon proprieties pretty high. The Fate/Stay Night anime from Studio Deen is more of a punchline than anything else. It was not an utter train wreck but it is also a super simple task to pick apart all the places where it misstepped as an adaptation. You cannot even be that generous when it comes to the Tsukihime anime from J.C.Staff. It was such a bad version it has become a meme. The Kara no Kyoukai movies were a breath of fresh air that saved a fandom that was convinced that their favorite titles would never get a good anime. Fate/Zero and the Unlimited Blade Works TV series showed that Ufotable was able to replicate the miracle. The TV series was not fully OVA quality but considering Ufotable was putting out an episode a week it was close to miraculous. Also, it was a good conversion of the story to an animated medium. When Fate/Apocrypha was given to A-1 Pictures people were disappointed as the anime was nowhere near the quality they had come accustom to. It was far better than the bad adaptations but it was nowhere near the brilliant shine of anything by Ufotable.
So then Ufotable said their next big Fate project was going to be Heaven’s Feel. It was the last of the three paths of Fate/Stay Night and the only part what had never been animated. As the darkest path, there was always debate if anyone could animate the story without major cuts. It is the path where the sex is heavily integrated with the story and the violence is a bit more horrific. Now there is the Réalta Nua version for the PS2 that takes out all the adult content which could be used as a template but there is a segment of the fandom that considered that the neutered version.
So when Ufotable said they were going to make Heaven’s Feel three movies and not a full TV series the opinions were all over the map. There were the Ufotable faithful who felt they had enough successes under their belts that it was not worth worrying about. There was the once burned, twice shy gang who are always suspicious and the story being compressed into three movies got them very worried. Most other fans were a little surprised but cautiously optimistic. So began the wait to see who was right.
I had hoped that Anime NYC would get the premiere of the Heaven’s Feel movie but they had enough exclusive material that I understood that not being one of their jewels in their crown. I was lucky enough that living in NYC allowed me to see the movie in back in November. It was time to see if Ufotable could work its usual magic or if Zouken’s 500 Years Dedication would strike the final path of Fate/Stay Night.
Fate is Saber’s Path and Unlimited Blade Works in Rin’s. The final path of Heaven’s Feel belongs to Sakura. The main difference is Zouken Matou decides to get involved with the Holy Grail War after Shinji fails particularity against Saber and Shiro. Zouken’s dark shadow send the already horrific magical war down a darker and more disturbed path with Sakura at its center.
Wowie Zowie. Ufotable still has two movies where they could easily mess everything up but it would actually be quite an accomplishment because this movie not only lives up to their previous accomplishments it actually surpasses some of them. Presage Flower actually set the bar higher for Type-Moon projects which is no small feat. Past this point, every Type-Moon anime is going to be compared to this movie and how it measures up. The animation quality, richness of direction, and economy of storytelling are all as good or better than any of their previous works. It like Heartcatch Precure or Macross Plus might be the iteration of the franchise that unfairly ruins old and new fans for anything else.
The first time you realize Tomonori Sudou and Akira Hiyama know what they are doing is the opening. The common complaint about the various reboots of superhero franchises is the slavish devotion to retelling the hero’s origin despite the fact that audiences have seen that character’s creation several times in recent memory. It eats up time telling 90 percent of the people watching the film what they already know. One of the many points of praise for Spider-Man: Homecoming is that it wisely skips Peter Parker becoming Spider-Man because it knows that at some point audiences will have to be reintroduced to that story but now is not the time. There is far more interesting ground to cover with the runtime of a single movie. Presage Flower wisely decides that most people have seen the parts of the original game that all three paths share in a series of quick cuts. There is no reason to reiterate everything until Shiro summons Saber because most people have experienced that at least 3 times before this point. You’re not going to cover the longest path in three movies unless you know what to cut and what to keep.
But the movie does not just jump into that montage. There is one very crucial relationship it needs to establish. in Fate and Unlimited Blade Works tend to keep Sakura in the background because she is a character that is more surprising if her true depth is kept under wraps until her path. You would be sloppy to have her pop out of nowhere but you also can give too much away if she is too much in the forefront. If Sakura was as prominent as Rin any of the surprises about her would easily be ruined. With the original Fate/Stay Night anime and Fate/Zero existing much of Sakura’s secrets are common knowledge she still needs to be established within her own story. The intro of how Sakura becomes involved in Shiro’s life is critical for everything that is going to come after this. Sakura’s transformation from a disturbed automaton to someone who easily wears a mask of humanity is seen as she grows closer to Shiro and Taiga. She is still a deeply broken person but she gains enough happiness and security visiting the Emiya household that she learns to emulate being a happy and healthy human being. It is also important to establish too much this oasis of normality means to Sakura so when she goes to great and horrible lengths to protect it her actions make sense. It is far more important to see this happen as opposed to just be told it happened.
Beyond that the first part of Heaven’s Feel is Servants getting PUNKED. The original Visual Novel takes great care to make sure that the Servants that get focused on in any particular route are the Servants who best fit the themes of that story. Since Heaven’s Feel has a distinctly different tone than the first two arc and many Servants have had their time to shine in Fate and Unlimited Blade Works it becomes clear that certain Servants can be removed from the board to make room for the remain Servants and Masters. This is why Lancer, Assassin, Souichirou, and Caster are all killed so quickly. Everyone else around Medea was focused on in Unlimited Blade Works and Cú Chulainn shines in both previous routes. Gilgamesh was spared for now but he will quickly exit in the next movie. Saber is the poster girl for the series so they can’t just completely remove her but she is transformed in Saber Alter so she can remain thematically relevant.
Medusa seems the odd one out. She has had a prominent fight scene is the previous two arcs so it would seem that she like Hercules would be living on borrowed time. But Medusa is a unique situation. Since she is actually Sakura’s Servant she is in much of the same position as her Servant. She appears enough so she is not a stranger but she also never gets a deep examination. In the original visual novel, much of her Character Sheet is not filled in until Heaven’ Feel. She like Sakura has had the truth about her hiding in plain sight. This is the arc when it is all finally revealed.
The new factors in Heaven’s Feel are Zouken, True Assassin, and the Black Shadow. While Zouken is a known quantity to anyone who has seen Fate/Zero he is a surprise to anyone who has not played the game otherwise. Without a doubt, he signals the darker tone of Heaven’s Feel. Like Kotomine he is a villain character that makes no effort to hide his insidious nature. True Assassin is an interesting wild card. While he does not have the main constraints that the original Assassin did he is not that much stronger. He really succeeds because he is backed up by the Black Shadow. The Black Shadow is currently this overpowered moving catastrophe that is aligned with Zouken but is otherwise a mystery. Technically the Black Shadow is a known character and is thematically linked enough with one character that as observant person could figure out who is controlling it without previously knowing the answer but for now, that answer is still not spelled out implicitly.
All of these are the little things that will impress reviewers and audiences that like to break down that they watch. Most people are going to be wowed because of the amazing visuals. The fight scenes really just pop. Even small conflicts like when Saber utterly wipes the floor with Rider or the quick fight with Hercules are all impressive scenes. They tease even greater conflicts to come. But all of that is just an appetizer for the big running a battle between Lancer and True Assassin. It is just this kinetic ballet that has its two deadly dancers fighting across the city with an artistic grace. If you only remember one scene from the movie it will be that one. The rest of the mood is equally impressive with its attention to the small details but those fights refuse to be ignored.
It is crazy to think how far Type-Moon adaptations have come. It feels like the story of Superhero movies. For the longest time, they just seemed to be destined to be the inferior version of classic stories. Then there were some moderate but flawed successes. But once the big hits came it was like you could not turn around without another title being announced. Now Superhero movies and Type-Moon anime are going through the same crisis. There are enough different titles coming out all at once that they are not all going to be winners. You still have your acclaimed hits but you also have some duds that mostly just coast along with the better productions and make pundits predict a crash. I think we are at peak production in both cases and will probably see a bit of a drop off in the future but neither franchises are going away anytime soon.
I have thoughts about the future of Type-Moon and Ufotable but I will save that for when I talk about the final movie. For now, it is nice to see that Ufotable is still able to capture the wonder of their original attempts and have even been getting better with experience. As long as they keep making anime as good as this I will continue eagerly anticipate their next project.