Knock, knock, knocking on Heaven’s Feel, hey, hey, hey-hey, yeah…
In the broadest of strokes, the plot of Fate/stay night revolves around a group of skilled individuals gathering their talents to try replicating a legendary object of the past. They try this many times across multiple decades, and each time get a little closer, but still don’t quite succeed, sometimes with disastrous results. For the mages of the franchise, this object to replicate is the Holy Grail of myth. For the numerous anime studios, animators, and actors, this is the act of adapting Fate/stay night.
Many know the original visual novel from 2004, and its noted quirk of, after completing the initial plot titled “Fate”, allowing the player to unlock two extra plotlines as massive diversions from the original plot. As visual novels are a type of computer game, unlocking all of these scenarios goes hand in hand with the instinct of someone who plays them. All three cover the same basic story of Shiro Emiya partnering with the servant Saber and partnering with Rin Tohsaka in the Holy Grail War, but each one takes these starting points in completely different directions and areas of focus. As such, you almost end up with three separate stories, or “routes”, that come together to fill in a bigger picture that one alone wouldn’t show. Studio DEEN attempted to merge all three stories into one in their 2006 anime adaptation, which was decidedly considered a failed attempt because of how poorly these elements came together as a singular story (on top of generally poor animation for its time). DEEN tried again in 2010 by releasing a film only focusing on the second route, “Unlimited Blade Works”, this time going the exact opposite extreme and making the story a husk of its source material. Thus, after proving themselves capable of adapting the prequel story “Fate/Zero” in 2011 on top of other previous works in that franchise, another studio named Ufotable took charge of giving the series another honest go by properly adapting UBW in 2014, and when that proved to be a hit, moving onto adapting the final route, “Heaven’s Feel”, into a trilogy of films.
To be clear, I bring up all of this seemingly erroneous production backstory to explain what might be the series’ most interesting and distinctive feature is also be its greatest and most crippling weakness, especially for this new movie. Whereas Zero was at least a separate story and UBW used the gap between versions to catch people up on the basics of the plot, Heaven’s Feel finds itself in a precarious position. It’s understandable that they wouldn’t want to retread scenes that fans have seen so many times before like Saber’s initial summoning or the explanation of the Holy Grail War, especially when their previous cracks at those parts are likely still fresh in a lot of viewers’ minds. Unfortunately, this results in a very jarring lockout for fans that may be jumping into this for the first time, and even people like me who are familiar with the material (I even almost brought a friend along to see how someone who is completely in the dark would react but likely Reddit talked me down). Essentially, you will have had to have seen both Zero and UBW in order to not be completely lost, which I can’t see as anything other than a detriment. It also can’t be easy for fans coming off of UBW, which I only recently started and finished to get ready for this review, who may have grown used to the presence of characters like Rin and her servant Archer, who were focal points in that version of events and now are barely afterthoughts here, much like a lot of characters seen more prominently then than here.
Though I should probably actually talk about what sets this movie apart from the other installments. The main initial difference between the routes in the visual novel mostly comes down to who Shiro’s eventual love interest will be, with “Fate” making it Saber, UBW leading to Rin, and “Heaven’s Feel” focusing on Sakura Matou. Oddly though, while she, her family, and their magical connections to the Grail Wars are given more exploration than before (even bringing forth a deadly new Master and Servant who dominate the main antagonist roles and more intense action scenes of the film), Sakura herself is not particularly active in events and is relegated to a supporting role. Not being familiar with this route, I could write this off as this simply being something in this first movie and hope for more involvement from her in the next two, but for now, it’s pretty concerning, especially considering the other two heroines are constants in all three routes. This could very well be a sign of things to come for all I know.
That’s obviously not to say that Heaven’s Feel doesn’t do its damndest to make its own mark for the better, even with the distracting and unforgiving cutoff for newcomers. From the beginning scenes explaining Sakura’s connection to Shiro (which actually do a decent job of connecting this story with the end of the prequel), there’s an unmistakable air of depression and despair that lessens but never quite leaves, followed up soon after by accumulating dread, fear, and desperation as the protagonists scramble to keep things on the rails but are cut off at every turn, leading to a massive culling of the established cast that is faster than any version of events I’ve seen previously in this franchise, and yet leaves enough mystery and hope that things don’t quite seem lost. If the ending was meant to get me in line for the next movie, it definitely succeeded, and that’s not even mentioning Ufotable’s usual visual fireworks display, which is only helped with the big budget blowout of being spread over two hours instead of a 25 episode series. Even if it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle of the pronoun game, at least we can say it’ll look amazing while it happens.
I hate to keep harping on the lack of accessibility, but it is something I, unfortunately, have to mark down. Beyond that, though, for the Fate fans who have been eager to see this material finally brought to animation and begin what will be a definitive wrap on this particular area of the franchise, it’s absolutely worth a watch. For Fate newbies, I wholeheartedly recommend “Fate/Zero”, “Unlimited Blade Works”, and even small comedy stuff like “Carnival Phantasm”, which will hopefully make watching this little slice of Heaven’s Feel worth all the homework. You’ll certainly have the time while we wait for the second film.