The confidence Ufotable has in both this and its prologue is a sight to behold.
The fact that I have no problem watching two hour-long episodes in a row shows how well-executed this adaptation so far. Much like the prologue, exposition is kept to a minimum and lets the visuals tell the rest. Reinforcement magic is clearly visible now and Gae Bolg has a viable explanation for how it aims for the heart. The tone also maintains a lighter tone without ignoring the darker element, and the pacing has a perfect balance between standout moments, gradual build-up, and subtle character moments. But there are two aspects that might make this a superior experience to the Visual Novel(aside from the update in technology and fashion).
The first improvement is how seamless they make the route decisions and events seem. A common problem I find with many VN adaptations is a slavish loyalty to how it was portrayed in the games. Regardless of whether it drags out the pacing, spoils the tone, or breaks the illusion of watching a television series, plenty of VN based anime can’t help but shove every popular comedy bit or route highlight. Furthermore they try so hard to stick to the format of a visual novel that it starts to feel less like an anime and more like a Let’s Play. And while I can’t guarantee that this series won’t make these mistakes later on, it certainly hasn’t made any thus far. Route decisions feel like a natural part of plot progression, smaller interactions focus on what’s important to the story, and highlights are built-up considerably before they’re given the time to shine.
The second improvement is how the characters are all portrayed as less shallow than their static sprites. Everyone still displays their cartoonish personalities and interact in the same way as they do in the game, but the way they express themselves and how they react to certain situations display a mix of emotions that humanizes them. Sakura doesn’t seem to have forgotten what happened to her at home, but she seems genuinely happy in front of Shirou and wants to be around him as much as possible. Shinji still acts like a jerk around everyone, but he shows confusion and shock in his face whenever he’s confronted by Shirou with kindness or threats.
Mitsuzuri has the presence of a helpful senpai simply by the way she talks, and Ryuudou questions Shirou’s beliefs while asking for his help. Lancer seems laid back rather than bloodthirsty, and Saber shows signs of a humbled soul underneath her stoic nature. And I haven’t even covered how Fujimura has signs of maturity beyond her goofy nature, Illya seems menacing without portraying a yandere, the gossip trio in the prologue fitting perfectly with the role of a school acquaintance, and even limiting Shinji’s fangirl count to two girls that still show worry if he’s about to cause trouble.
And I’m sure you have all guessed by now, but it mainly works because of how they chose to portray Shirou. Shirou is a character that’s long been characterized by anime viewers as an annoying, naive, reckless idiot, and I can’t really blame them considering his tendency to dive into danger and spouting cheesy lines like “People die when they are killed”. But just like Rin in the prologue, we’re finally given a chance to explore his thought process and beliefs so that they don’t seem as moronic. Rather than build a character solely based on his decisions and outward personality, they write his character in a way that makes his decisions seem natural. Needless to say, it’s the fact that they’ve fleshed out his character that makes the plot points far less hollow.
So if you boil him down to his most basic element, what is Shirou’s character supposed to stand for? In my opinion, he’s the final answer to Fate Zero’s question of what a true hero is. Despite losing his childhood thanks to the previous Grail War and having Kiritsugu remind him constantly that heroes can’t save everyone, Shirou continues to believe in the possibility of an ideal hero. Someone who can protect anyone he can, helps those in need, and actively tries to prevent conflicts. It’s certainly a dream that’s naive and Fate Zero has proven that it can fail easily. However, this is also the reason why saving Shirou served as Kiritsugu’s redemption. After years of killing to save many, the first person he saved has a spirit that believes in good regardless of whatever pain he’s experienced. And it’s that persistence for seeking justice that makes Shirou extremely admirable as a character.
I know I’ve been sounding like a blind fan-boy for the past two posts, but the fact of the matter is that I have zero complaints about this show. For once I can stop being the cynical critic here and just enjoy a good story being told by capable people. This doesn’t feel like a cash grab clinging to prior success or an attempt to revitalize a franchise. There is a lot of hard work/passion present behind every frame, and I’m confidant that it will pay off.