I feel I’m going to be unfairly harsh in my opinion of Fate/stay Night; or, more to the point, I want to be harsh, and it may or may not be fair of me. This series appears to be another of those formula fight shows, where the main character discovers — after an episode or two spent showing us how much of a nice guy/pushover he is — that he is actually destined for bigger and better things. Cue unasked-for super-powers (or in this case, a super-powered servant), crisis of identity, a range of seemingly omnipotent enemies, a mysterious past event, several ambiguous characters and a love interest or two, and lo, it sounds like any other formula fight show you’ve already seen.
Unfortunately, other formula fight shows I’ve seen have at least managed to grab me in the first four episodes, with non-stop action if nothing else. Fate/stay Night however seems to be more talk than walk — almost literally! — and having to hang in there through the obligatory setup before the real story begins is a bit of chore. Shirou Emiya is an idealistic young man with a special talent — he can trace and repair mechanical systems and seemingly change the structure of objects at a molecular level. I’m a bit shaky on how, and his ability seems to be two parts sci-fi and one part Dungeons & Dragons, but I guess I’m not meant to examine that too closely. It’s hardly important in the grand scheme of things — there’s an epic battle under way and the prize is a holy relic capable of granting the victor’s ultimate wish, and Shirou’s now (through the kind of accident that you know is actually design) in the game. Rules are kill or be killed, and the only weapon at Shirou’s disposal is a powerful spirit of apparently random historical (or legendary) origin that he has absolutely no idea how to use.
Of course, if he’d been bestowed with the knowledge as well as the power, there’d be no need for the mentor characters — like aloof school diva, Rin Tohsaka — and there’d be no purpose to the conflicts that Shirou’s about to go through now that he has his mysterious female knight ‘Saber’ at his side. Not that it’s much of a power by the end of the first volume; he’s accidentally summoned one of the strongest class of spirits available, and he can heal himself from mortal wounds inflicted in acts of selfless stupidity. Other than that, he epitomises cluelessness and naivety and actually, now that I think about it, the whole point of this series might be how someone that dumb — who is actually capable of saying “girls shouldn’t go waving weapons around” and honestly meaning it, and then throws himself fruitlessly in harm’s way and gets a giant sword in the back — is going to survive for long enough to become the hero formula dictates he is supposed to be.
It’s not all bad though, I suppose; there’s a glimmer of hope in the fact that this show is so formulaic, and for that reason, you can at least feel confident that it will be reasonably if blandly entertaining. If it introduces something into the narrative, it’s probably because it’s important, and possibly the primary reason to continue watching this show is for the Servants. The fact that they aren’t just fighting automatons but independent entities who have willingly entered into a contract, and the idea that they want to win the relic in order to fulfil their own wishes just as much as the Masters they serve, is actually an interesting twist. This means that there’s room for internal conflict in the story — why give a fighting unit what amounts to free will unless that will is going to be exercised at some point? With a city-wide showdown on, things could get pretty messy with Servants and Masters falling out and changing sides left and right, and if there’s anything this series needs to do to increase the attention levels, it’s get messy.
You may or may not be waiting for that to happen, like you may or may not be surprised when Shirou’s mysterious, traumatic past to finally catches up to him. As formula would again dictate, there’s something there, lurking and overshadowing, something about Shirou’s pedantic, almost obsessive belief in good that almost implies the opposite. Not that I want to get your hopes up or anything, but amongst all that relatively pedestrian progression it’s an almost tantalising glimpse of something deeper, something capable of perhaps being more than the out-of-the-mould action series it initially seems to be. Harsh of me to say? Maybe, but there’s still twenty episodes in which Fate/stay Night has every opportunity to prove it’s more than its somewhat mediocre beginnings.