Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works: Episode 23

Turn back all yee who enter, expecting a negative review of this episode. If you have read my prior Status Update, back at episode 17, you’ll know I was very down on this show. I haven’t written about UBW since then, but indeed, if you’ve been following me on twitter, a lot of my reactions to most of the episodes since then have been very negative, we had a bad stretch of episodes, in my opinion. However, I am not here to talk about that right now, this is solely about Episode 23, and I really liked it!

Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works Episode 23 Review - Gilgamesh, king of everything.

00:00-01:55 — Time, and our lack of it. (Oblivion Recording)

Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works Episode 23 Review - Saber has limited time

Very early on in the episode, we see this shot of the clock. For once the show has been able to instil a sense of urgency to the proceedings. By starting the episode with Rin and Shirou already at Ryuudou temple, we feel they actually are having a strategic meeting in this flashback here, as we learn Rin’s supply of mana to Saber is now limited, after transferring her Magic Crest to Shirou. It turns out Saber can only use Excalibur once, and she has a limited time to stay materialised.

Even the clouds in the sky feel to be moving unnaturally quickly, a tangible sense of tension is felt, the music as they discuss their plan is gradually building, and we see it rise to a head as we cut back to the present. Saber confronts her final task at the stairs, and the last thing we see before the OP is Gilgamesh infront of that thingA reminder of what is to come.

Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works Episode 23 Review - Gil admires his handiwork

03:26-04:37 — Paradox Spiral

Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works Episode 23 Review - A new moon.

This scene of the fleshy amalgamation and the liquid curses surrounding it is largely digital, but it makes for a striking image. The blue flames as an outline for that portal in the sky makes the blood-red stuff sploshing out of it just all that more creepy. It truly feels otherworldly, a hellscape. I love how much effort they have put towards making this thing horrifying, I was shocked when we first saw this thing exploding out of Shinji, it made me visibly recoil. It is also extremely appropriate that Shinji is at the centre of this mass, I don’t think he’s that great of a character, and I hate his guts, but he has served his role as an utterly despicable human being, and as we will later learn in the episode, the curses represent the cumulative malevolence of humanity.

Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works Episode 23 Review - Shinji Best Girl

“Then we have to pull Shinji out of there fast” Shirou isn’t phased, he is going to save Shinji no matter what. They were friends, indeed, he has also done horrible things to him, and would have delighted in Shirou’s death, but that isn’t even a factor. Shirou doesn’t care, he isn’t saving him because it’s Shinji, he is saving him because it’s someone, somebody. Those are his ideals, this is the thematic struggle the story is following, and this is another articulation of Shirou’s character. Now, personally I don’t like that this story is leaning on such childish, binary ideals, but I’ve interpreted this scene a little differently, the Shinji-hater that I am: I think this scene (regardless of intention) is actually undercutting Shirou’s ideals, I think it is truly foolish to keep someone like Shinji alive at the risk of everyone else (like, potentially the entirety of mankind). For his father, Kiritsugu, before the end of the 4th Grail War, this wouldn’t have even been a question, he would have dispatched Shinji without hesitation, weighing the options and coming to the cold-hearted decision.

But, Shirou’s not like that. In this route of the story, as he told Archer, his future self, he has been entirely shaped by that one experience, that one tragedy as Kiritsugu saved him from the fire 10 years ago is now the catalyst for the subsequent tragedy: “that by saving that one person, he had saved himself” he thought as he looked upon Kiritsugu’s face. This is the crux of Shirou’s contradiction. He walked through that fire, trying to save just himself, leaving the people around him begging for help to die, he was powerless then. But there, he was given a new lease of life from Kiritsugu (with Avalon). He was reborn in that moment, and he extrapolates Kiritsugu’s ideal to its absolute limit, the logical (or rather, illogical) conclusion: Save Everyone.

(Note: I do realize that the story does portray Shirou’s decision to reject Archer as a noble one, I think that’s a flaw. The problem is that this anime is but one part of a story that isn’t over yet, I think UBW is ideally supposed to portray Shirou’s misunderstanding as a tragedy, showing us how it causes suffering for himself and everyone around him. Shirou’s hopefully going to outgrow these ideals later on in Heaven’s Feel. I believe he was mistaken in allowing his experience and ideals to be shaped by that one moment Kiritsugu saved him, it has lead to his awful future.)

05:49-08:57, 10:55-14:39 — Remaining Sense of Pain

Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works Episode 23 Review - Nihilism, I dig it.
This shot is too good. As the world is deemed cruel, the curses overflow

I’ll skip past the Saber/Assassin scenes for now, and cover that half of the episode all in one go later, but for now, Gilgamesh, and his counterpoint. Gilgamesh is also representing an ideal taken to its illogical conclusion. He isn’t exactly nihilistic, but he believes people only hold value when they have a purpose. The overpopulation and sheer excess of humans in the future disgusts him, and he wants only the fittest to survive as he literally watches the world burn. Those who can bear the curses of humanity are the only ones fit to be under his rule of the new world. Of course, this pretty much means everyone dies, as I feel the curses of humanity would only get stronger and stronger as people become more and more desperate to survive and cling to life.

The next part however, I’m not so hot on. Having Rin be the one to actually go up there and save Shinji seems wrong to me. He tried to assault her before, the only justification for her actions here are in a spoiler from the later route (which I can’t point out) that is only hinted at here. Even so, it still feels like a stretch. Anyway, she walks through the pool of curses, with the help of a jewel she can bear it? It does still sear and burn at her. I do prefer how the Visual Novel conveyed this, when Shirou was touched by the curses, we were privy to a crazed internal monologue, frantic words and chilling imagery drove in to the reader what the true extent of this substance really was. It’s a missed opportunity, but ufotable could have done a lot more with this scene, I wanted some Shinbo-ism: bloodscrawled, flashing text, colour-palette changes, creepy/disturbing audio, etc!

Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works Episode 23 Review - Rin battling the curses of humanity
Instead, she only says “This is just too gross!”

As the fight between Shirou and Gilgamesh continues, he proceeds to explain what I said above, about the curse being the malevolence of humanity. As he explains, we get a terrifyingly beautiful sequence of shots as the grail overflows with the wishes of humanity. The music, the colours and the wide-angled shots completely sell the gravity of this moment, it felt quite Eva-esque, good job.

Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works Episode 23 Review - Gilgamesh, Gate of Babylon and the Holy Grail
The blue and red of the Holy Grail structure, and the yellow of Gilgamesh’s Gate of Babylon and streetlights made this sequence very visually appealing.

14:40-18:53 — Gate of Seventh Heaven

Gilgamesh doesn’t want to fight Shirou seriously, this is consistent with his characterisation in Fate/Zero, where he very sparingly used his true powers, only deeming Rider worthy of using Ea (which we will see soon) and Enkidu (the chains we saw binding Berserker) against. It kind of undercuts the tension of this climax that he’s not pulling out all the stops, but Gil doesn’t care, that’s his brand. I will admit I liked him using Kirei’s catchphrase “Rejoice” – RIP Kotomine. There’s a lot of prattle and battle talk, as we see Shirou decide to replicate Gil’s Noble Phantasms to fire back against him, this was an enjoyable fight, however, what I appreciate most is that he questions Shirou’s decision to save Shinji.

This challenge was necessary to make the thread from earlier more explicit, especially when he uses the words “efficient method” (reference to Kiritsugu) and “hypocrisy”. Shirou can match Gilgamesh’s power by reproducing it accurately, but he is a faker, “Quite durable, for glasswork”. I like this touch, it’s a perfect way to describe how Shirou’s ideals are borne from a brittle conviction from that one moment, how fitting that the only form of magic he can use effectively is of strengthening and projection?

Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works Episode 23 Review - Shirou's projection vs Gilgamesh's Gate of Babylon

Gilgamesh chooses to describe Shirou’s actions as summing up the nature of mongrels perfectly. Now, Gilgamesh uses this wording when he considers one halfway respectable, he would refer to Saber and Rider this way in F/Z. Funnily enough, he would characterise the rest of humanity as the source of curses that fuel the grail, the malevolence he believes is humanity’s true nature. However, he comments that Archer would have still made for a better opponent and real threat, Shirou isn’t strong enough yet. He was rapidly approaching Archer’s level in their prior fight in the Reality Marble.

In the end, he only resorts to using Ea, his most prized possession, to deflect the approach of the Grail, which is trying to use his body to replace Shinji as its core. Its attack, Enuma Elish, is capable of the total destruction of existence. The sheer power of this Noble Phantasm is communicated to us visually, even using distortion effects, Shirou cannot process the real nature of this sword, and thus cannot reproduce it with projection. The point being made here, is that this power of gods was able to so easily dispel the approach of the fleshy mass that is humanity’s desire. Humans cannot recreate this power, and even the Holy Grail which they created cannot contest it, Gilgamesh is literally a God in comparison to them, this is unfair.

Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works Episode 23 Review - Shirou vs Ea
Shirou’s insignificance relative to Ea is hammered in.

04:55-05:48, 09:06-10:55, 18:54-21:37 — Future Gospel

Upon first glance, these interminable scenes of the fight between Saber and Assassin may seem utterly out of place within this episode. However, I contest they do have a point, and they tie up everything. Firstly, the sense of tension and passing of time that I talked about at the start of this post are created by these scenes in between the other, more bombastic battle.

The colour choices in these scenes are predominantly calm blues and greens of the forest surrounding the two fighters. My favourite inspired direction choice this episode is the constant use of shots to the sky and clouds above, the mist surrounding them, and the dry leaves falling. All these objects are moving unnaturally fast compared to the very static, patient fighters, both Saber and Assassin are running out of power, they will de-materialise soon, even if they do not fight.

Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works Episode 23 Review - Assassin, Sasaki Koujirou, and also Kaiki
“Wait, so you’re telling me this fight has no purpose?”

The fight does not have a practical meaning, but it has a thematic one, which complements what happens in the rest of the episode. Assassin is a fake, in a truly Nisemonogatari turn of events, only further enhanced by him being voiced by Kaiki, we learn that he is a fictional Heroic Spirit. The man who lived, and the ghost Servant who now appears are not the same, he can only use techniques described in the legend, thus explaining his impossible sword slash, the Tsubame Gaeshi.

He calls his existence meaningless, he had no wish for the grail. However, this one moment he is living in now, this fleeting moment where he can fight Saber, is the one that matters, he is living for the present, and he has decided it holds value and meaning to him. An apt counterpoint to both Gilgamesh’s nihilism, living to make the world like what it was in the past, and Shirou, struggling for an ideal that will destroy him, but believes will save more people in the future, in the long run, once he becomes a Counter Guardian.

Assassin was a man who lived and died in obscurity, so his only gospel was his tale as Sasaki Koujirou, so he wants to prove the worth of that tale in combat. We learn in the Fate route that Servants are but disposable copies of the original being, keeping no memories between each summoning for Holy Grail Wars, all experiences and emotions they felt during their summoning are but a recording, doomed to be lost to oblivion. Saber is different, due to her pact with the grail, she retains memories each time and continues being summoned, only to be returned to the place of her death (and the fall of Britain) every time she fails. If Assassin can make a lasting impression on Saber via combat, he will be remembered through all of time.

Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works Episode 23 Review - Assassin's Swallow Slash on Saber
A sword slash that defies the laws of physics, making the sword appear in three positions at the same time.

Closing Message

This focus on time and urgency also holds significance outside the bounds of this episode. This element is incredibly important to the Shirou/Archer dynamic. While the idealistic struggle does not resonate with me, what does is the sentiment of learning from the past, and also the future, this is the basic idea behind Shirou’s Unlimited Blade Works ability (the next episode’s title). He is able to reproduce blades from all periods of time, in clashing with his future self, he began to improve his abilities exponentially. This is critical for him to be able to learn to use his Reality Marble next episode, Gilgamesh is essentially an undefeatable opponent, acknowledged within the story to be preposterously powerful, the only real counter to him was Emiya Shirou as Archer. Every moment Shirou is getting stronger, every moment he lives is important, even a fraction of a second.

Now, if you are still following along, reading this, you will also be scratching your head, thinking that all this is a surprisingly graceful thematic thread in the story. Don’t worry, I think the same, but it sounds exactly like the kind of esoteric thing Nasu would write. I acknowledge this, and that is why this post likely reads very differently to previous ones. The pretentious-sounding Kara no Kyoukai movie titles are there for a reason, along with my slightly more verbose wording, a meta-textual statement, if you will.

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