Thoughts on Heaven’s Feel part 3: Spring Song

This was a very difficult article to write. It’s so damned hard to give an objective opinion of one instalment in a series, because everything rides on how it fits as a component in the greater whole. One of the other reasons why I can’t “do” conventional reviews any more is that waxing lyrical about the technical stuff is easy when it’s either really terrible or really impressive, but the sentimental side is harder to put into words.

Perhaps because of this emotional attachment and my attempts to judge it as a stand-alone film AND part of a franchise simultaneously, I couldn’t form a solid opinion on the third Heaven’s Feel movie adaptation until I’d re-watched it after going back and re-watching the first two. If you’re also on the fence about it, I suggest giving that a try. I recommend setting aside a whole evening and a lot of gin first, however.

In terms of sheer cinematic spectacle, there’s little to complain about: it looks and sounds polished and sumptuous in a “no expenses spared” way that very few animated feature films are, even in this day and age. In my previous article, I drew a number of parallels between this and Ufotable’s earlier adaptations of The Garden of Sinners, and according to the production notes in the inlay booklet (how I wish that I’d bought the collector’s edition of the first film, now that I know how interesting their deep-dive interviews are…!) this was apparently no accident. Not only are there intriguing thematic similarities between the two, but there was also a conscious decision to maintain a similar aesthetic style, which gave me a pretty satisfying sense of continuity.

Incidentally, Tomonori Sudou is an experienced staff member, but had not taken on lead director duties prior to this movie trilogy. This highlights how projects of this scale and ambition are a collaborative effort: the end result we see on screen is often the “house style” rather than one individual’s singular vision.

Much how The Garden of Sinners reached its high-water mark at the fifth movie and left the seventh to tie up the plot threads and provide the emotional catharsis, Spring Song has some impressive set-pieces but ends not on a bang but a relieved sigh of contentment. Even the closing theme Haru wa Yuku feels like a bit of a let-down on first listen, but in context it makes perfect sense, and it’s really grown on me. I Beg You is still up there with my favourites, but the decision to pair up the more tense and hard-hitting tune with the second film gave viewers a hint about where the final outing would go. Again: if Spring Song feels underwhelming, I recommend revisiting the first two to refresh your memory, and it might click with you.

While the two other Fate… routes take a more action-orientated and conventional shounen-style approach where the protagonist has to learn, grow and then confront his weaknesses, Heaven’s Feel is right up my alley because it contains a lot more moral ambiguity, as well as the romantic aspect taking a more central role. This is I think what endeared The Garden of Sinners to me, and why I can understand how Heaven’s Feel isn’t historically the most popular part of the Fate... franchise. In many ways it’s less exciting and, because of how moody and introspective it gets, is often uncomfortable to watch.

Shirou’s objective is no longer about becoming a hero of justice like his adoptive father in the same fashion; his motives are more personal. Winning the Grail War is the means rather than an end. This inevitably leads to more character-driven moments than action-led ones, which also fits the feature film format better than that of an episodic TV show. In that regard, the decision to shake the story out of the visual novel’s day-to-day rhythm and into a more fluid “cinematic” structure works well. The contradictions and limitations of his hero-of-justice worldview are tested in a way that we don’t see in the previous adaptations, and what’s at stake is very different as well.

It was perhaps a little lazy of Nasu when formulating Sakura’s character to self-plagiarise and re-use elements of Fujino Asagami’s character arc, or the central thread of the Shiki/Mikiya romantic pairing that poses the question, “could you compromise your code of ethics if the person you love is potentially a murderer?” To its credit though: Heaven’s Feel reimagines these themes, and deals with them with a great deal of nuance to the point where it has a lot of its own things to say. The movie also makes a conscious effort to draw attention to how Sakura feels the weight of her choices and the burden of guilt. Her status as an abuse survivor is delicately balanced against the fact that she has acquired some degree of agency, and has to get used to the idea that she can now make decisions on her own…but those decisions have consequences that she can’t ignore.

This is I think an important point that makes her personal journey more satisfying than a straightforward revenge tale or the rescue of a damsel in distress. The film opens with the after-effects of her emotional breakdown and the transformation into her “dark” self, then we see her being forced to confront what she has become. I suspect that the demise of Zouken wouldn’t have provided her with the closure that she needed: she had to own the consequences of her actions and move beyond her former status as a passive victim. Her happiness feels particularly hard-earned.

As Type Moon heroines go, Sakura is less attention-grabbing than Rin, so she’s often perceived in the fan community as she is in the story itself: the younger sibling forever in her older sister’s shadow. I should add that Rin does get her moments to shine in the latter act of this movie, but thankfully she doesn’t completely steal the limelight. There’s a glorious action-packed moment where I thought, “I’m gonna come away from this thinking that Rin is Best Girl, aren’t I?” but that particular plot thread is resolved in a way that – if my memory serves – goes into even more detail than the source material did. If I were to judge the Shirou/Kirei confrontation on its visuals alone, I’d say that the final “boss fight” is anticlimactic in comparison. Perhaps that’s because Shirou is a long-standing sufferer of Anime Male Lead syndrome, but to be completely honest the reconciliation between the two sisters was worth the price of admission for me on its own.

For a film that’s so visually spectacular, it’s important to stress that it’s powerful and memorable because of the story it tells, not just because it renders those moments so beautifully. This is I think the reason why the ending feels so satisfying: the final showdowns with Berserker and Dark Saber are dazzling, but the payoff is what left me feeling so warm and fuzzy as the closing credits rolled. The ending isn’t neat, because the heroine is both a tragic victim and a perpetrator, and the hero tries to end the Grail War to save lives – especially that of the girl he loves – rather than fight for the shinier prize. Sometimes what you think you want and what you deserve are two very different things.

It’s also a reminder that winter is long, dark and cold, but that’s what makes the arrival of spring feel so joyous.

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