Thoughts on Fate/Stay Night: Heaven's Feel, parts 1 and 2

A late addition to a multimedia franchise, these animated films are somewhat different from their predecessors, but amongst the strongest Fate adaptations to date

As much as I enjoy Type Moon’s stuff, my interest in the sprawling Fate franchise isn’t what it used to be. I still have time for characters from the original VN though, so a Heaven’s Feel adaptation was always going to get my attention. A trilogy of feature films seems like the most sensible course for it, mainly because it’s the darkest and least action-packed route of the three.

Although it benefits from being free from the episodic structure and censorship regulations of broadcast television, it is most definitely not for everyone, even some long-standing Fate fans: caution is advised for anyone who has difficulties with the portrayal of issues such as sexual violence and domestic abuse. The first two instalments – the third is not yet released at the time of writing – handle them as delicately and tastefully as can be expected, but still take things into some very uncomfortable places that some might find hard to stomach.

This is I think the main reason why HF has taken so long to be adapted for the screen. The matter of it being less well-known and subject to less potential demand from fans stems from this, but it’s more difficult to pitch it to viewers in a way that’s entertaining and connected to what’s gone before. A significant proportion of the audience know the general premise by now though, so it makes sense that the story’s opening act is compressed into a dialogue-free montage during the opening credits, and spends less time on exposition and secondary characters.

It also faces an uphill struggle in getting viewers on board with its main heroine. In previous adaptations, Rin Tohsaka or Saber are the main interest (indeed, I enjoyed the VN’s prologue section, which is told from Rin’s perspective, so much that I felt that she’d make a great protagonist on her own), so it’s unusual to see Sakura in the lead role. Her outwardly quiet and docile demeanour, with a background as a traumatised abuse survivor, is certainly different as far as Fate is concerned, and doesn’t lend itself well to light-hearted fan discussions and memes.

Romance is present as a plot device throughout of course, especially in Unlimited Blade Works where the Shirou/Rin pairing is particularly convincing. It’s proof of the quality of the storytelling in the first two HF films, then, that the Sakura/Shirou dynamic is so natural and believable. Perhaps it’s not as psychologically healthy, but you can at least understand their respective desires, the common ground that they bond over, and how they grow closer together as the events unfold.

In hindsight, the original VN is “of its time”, which is a polite way of saying that the numerous conceptual and storytelling flaws were always there, but for various reasons – shifts in societal attitudes, how we the fans matured as individuals, or perhaps both? – they don’t really feel appropriate today. Which is for the best, as these movies ably demonstrate. Adaptations are a perfect opportunity to address these problems and offer the chance to present them in a more progressive and enlightened way, and this is a case in point.

This is particularly evident in the portrayal of the sexual content, which was always rather gratuitous but particularly problematic given the seriousness of this particular story branch. H-scenes in VNs like Fate are often like wisdom teeth: as long as you’re an adult there’s no particular issue with them being there, but they aren’t essential and the high likelihood of them causing discomfort and other problems means that it’s often a good idea to remove them completely.

In these films it’s an integral part of the Shirou/Sakura romance, with the “biological fluids as a metaphor for magical energy transfer” – which always was a subject of discomfort and derision – downplayed. Sakura’s mental and physical state now feels like less of an excuse to include some juicy smut to improve the production’s marketability, and more like what it is: an aspect of her character that has shaped her circumstances and drives the story forward.

Anime usually shows erotic content in a way that’s either self-conscious and coy or simply pornographic, so it’s refreshing to see it shown in a more romantic, lifelike and meaningful light. Director Tomonori Sudou and his team deserve credit for handling this in a mature fashion where they refuse to completely shy away from showing what’s happening, but do not make it voyeuristic or male gaze-y either.

In some ways, Heaven’s Feel has more in common with the Garden of Sinners movie series than other Fate adaptations in that it derives the drama and storytelling momentum from slow-burning romantic and horror elements, punctuated with occasional flurries of action rather than numerous tabletop RPG-inspired episodes of combat. The first two HF films contain beautifully choreographed battle scenes, but are more concerned with the interactions between the characters and examining what motivates them.

This gives it a very different rhythm and atmosphere, which may be off-putting to viewers who enjoyed the adaptations of the previous two routes, and possibly F/Z as well. Ufotable's earlier Type Moon cinematic outings borrow as much from big-screen cinema as much as they do from TV anime in portraying the supernatural terrors lurking in the shadows of urban cityscapes, and those influences – from the likes of Kiyoshi Kurosawa to David Fincher – are also in evidence here.

Although the popularity of the franchise is based partly on historical and mythical heroes engaged in kinetic confrontation with clashing power levels and other stats, Nasu’s true strength as a storyteller – I may be in a minority with this opinion – is in moral grey areas featuring small groups of memorable characters. Questioning not just “fate” but free will, victimhood and personal responsibility, sacrifice and redemption are key strengths in his writing, and the production team of these particular films seem to really understand that.

The choices that Shirou faces in this route build on those examined in the other two, but the origins can I think also be traced back much further. Sakura is reminiscent of Fujino Asagami: not just in aesthetic similarities in Takeuchi’s artwork, but also in that she is a victim deserving of sympathy while also becoming a perpetrator. There is an echo of the Shiki Ryougi/Mikiya Kokutou pairing too, in that the hero is faced with the ethical dilemma when a loved one becomes a danger to herself and others, and puts his own safety on the line. He has to face the risk that, in siding with her and protecting her, he is letting his personal feelings undermine his firmly-grounded principles and becoming an accessory to any crimes that she goes on to commit.

At the same time, Nasu presents Sakura – as he did with Shiki and Fujino – as a more nuanced character than some helpless damsel in distress or cold-blooded killer: she exhibits moments of weakness and cowardice, but also shows inner strength, resilience and agency. This to me makes her much more interesting than a simple hero or villain, and makes Heaven’s Feel – as occasionally unsettling as it is – so worthwhile and rewarding. Perhaps this version will lose its way and fall apart in the final act like “trilogy” stories often do, but the signs so far suggest that we’re finally going to see a satisfactory resolution to her story.

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