When there is news of a franchise being turned over to new hands, it can naturally create a bit of an unease among fans. Unless someone is really yearning to see adaptations of source materials under new direction, generally fans will voice frustration/fear/protest to changes like all humans naturally do. In some cases, however, a change of vision can be seen as a good thing. The most recent example of this can be found in the follow up film to the Oscar nominated 2015 hit Sicario, titled Sicario: Day of the Soldado. Despite having both of the films being written by the same individual (Taylor Sheridan), the original was directed by Denis Villeneuve and the sequel by Stefano Sollima. The original was dark and grounded, and left its mark as an artistic piece to audiences. What the same people got in the sequel, however, was actually embraced for being completely different in that it was an over the top action film that felt less like a portrait of some of the darkness in the world and more of a love letter to late 80s- early 90s action goodness (this is a sentiment that most of the people I turn to for film takes took out of it and one I have personally established from it as well). The tried and true classic case of a work being seen by different hands working well is in one of my favorite films that had the pleasure of being seen through the creative eyes of not one but two top tier directors-Alien (James Cameron) and Aliens (Ridley Scott).
These examples are just some low hanging fruit thanks to legacy and recency, but a change in hands for a franchise doesn’t always have to be a sequel. When it comes to anime, different studios take over for adapting new source materials (or even recreate previous things altogether) in numerous occasions. Look at Full Metal Panic! for example- it has been a long chunk of time but its material has seen visions from studios Gonzo, Kyoto Animation, and, most recently, Xebec(RIP the production of this one). Pass enough time, and there might be a chance the same studio will change their approach- there was a thematic change done by the same production studio in how Haruhi looked in 2006 vs the spin off series Kyoto Animation did for the franchise in 2015.
That’s where Fate comes in. Such a divided audience there is for this franchise. Despite love or hate, it was hard to deny that ufotable’s Fate/Zero and Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works weren’t absolute treats to look at. When Fate/Apocrypha made its run last year, it was put through the wash for not being made by ufotable and instead by A-1 Pictures. Sure it had one of the most confusing first halves in recent anime, but the second half delivered a story rich in character development. This argument, however, is for another article in another time.
No matter how people stood with the series, everyone could agree it was way too soon to see another Fate adaptation within six months (we aren’t counting Heaven’s Feel just because those are films). So when the release schedule showed that Fate/EXTRA: Last Encore was coming out, there was a growing suspicion in corners of the Internet that the show was going to be a mess. To makes matters murkier, it was an adaptation of a video game for Fate (one that I’ve met a couple of people say was actually pretty good..I can’t speak for myself on the original game this is based on, but I hated the sequel). The wildcard to it all? Studio Shaft was making it. Yes. The same studio that makes Monogatari and scarred us all with Madoka Magica would get their creative hands all over Fate. This either sold those waiting for something to give for them to watch it or shut the door on those who can’t handle the wild direction Shaft series take. This news alone kept me excited as I awaited the English dub to be released by Netflix, who has been aggressively nabbing up the licensing rights to anime the past few years.
My initial notes, surprisingly, actually lit this show up- it has an introduction on par with something abysmal like Handshakers in that interesting art choices are being pumped into a whole lot of nothing right off the bat. Students have meaningless conversation that don’t even try to emulate slice of life and it becomes a slog through watching a dozen aesthetic changes throughout a long, boring walk through school. Just when it doesn’t seem like it can be any worse, the main character starts talking.
Hakuno Kishinami is, for all intensive purposes, the single worst protagonist in any Fate anime. It is my understanding that this is meant to be one of those male/female decision characters in the game and that they kill off the female protagonist within seconds of the show starting. I can’t speak for the female protagonist but my goodness is this guy is the definition of a wet blanket throughout the series. Some seriously fun characters show up and give engaging conversations and yet this guy has to speak with a bullhorn from the highest peak that he hates everything and wants to pout about it for as many frames as possible. He’s kind of like a cross of the kid from Big Order and the Netflix Death Note’s version of Light. Imagine if every time one of the bright and colorful characters of Monogatari showed up, Araragi interrupted and played the angst guitar as loud as he could. This dude makes me say something I never thought I would: his emotionless responses to situations clearly made to be ecchi scenes actually make me miss some of those moments in Monogatari (I just vomited a little saying that). Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t the dub for this guy that makes the character bad, Billy Kametz does all he can with the character, but bland writing transcends all languages.
Another big mark on the show is that it takes a little bit of time to digest in that the writing in the first few episodes reek of some kid’s fanfic. The audience gets the container of plain yogurt for a main character going through…school I guess?….and bumping into several characters from Fate/stay night. I’m usually okay with bad writing for the first acts of things, but I had to cringe a bit at the dialogue between the pack of zero carb bread and the likes of Rin Tohsaka and Sakura Matou (honestly, if you replace “Hakuno” with “David”, the script reads just like a fanfic).
Just when I was ready to give up on the show and exit back to browse disappointed, our heroic tube of expired Go-gurt pulls a bright red blade that brings forth the mitochondria of this show, the powerhouse of the cell, Nero. Yes, the very same Nero that you see when you google search for Nero Claudius, the Saber we all know with a red costume and way hornier. Everything that makes this show fantastic comes to life in four brief minutes- stunning visuals, absolute bangers for music, and oh so much Nero.
It took me about four episodes to realize this, but a Nero led Fate series feels like such a no brainer move by Shaft- the concepts of Fate are abstract, the battles are bold, the music that needs to be accompanying are equal parts essential, and I know I mentioned it before, but Nero is h o r n y. Get your clipboards out: abstract art, bold battles, banging music, and horny. Who is the best candidate to fill those requirements? Ding ding ding. Shaft.
There were times when I watched the latest arcs of Monogatari where I simply thought “okay now they’re just showing off”. Within the ten episodes Last Encore gives there are several moments an episode this happens. When Nero and her accompanying bottle of Gatorade filled with water are battling in a forest, the way the shadows and small bits of light peeking through are done are just perfection.
When Nero, Rin, and their bag of generic brand potatoes enter the domain of Nursery Rhyme, the audience is given visuals that are so disturbing and done to an evolved, 2o18 polished version of what people got out of the witches’ from Madoka Magica. Some of the visuals were outright gut wrenching and make the heartbreak from a certain part of Fate/Apocrypha pale in comparison (I’m being vague about both series for the sake of spoilers).
The fighting has bright and colorful splashes and almost completely balances out the shear amount of blood and gore that there is flying around in battle. A lot of Nero’s blood is quickly represented by rose pedals, which is something I found to be just a beautiful direction choice and I expect nothing less from Akiyuki Shinbo. While Monogatari and Madoka Magica had briefer moments of action, there is a rational concern to how the art would hold up in a fast paced action environment. It actually ended up being another perfect fit in the Fate franchise as there is just enough exposition to allow the team at Shaft to animate things on their own terms and speed. It doesn’t have the explosive grit that Apocrypha had or the glows in the dark that Unlimited Blade Works had but instead things are bright, poppy, and bloody. Ultra-violent meets arthouse, essentially.
Perhaps the most underrated part of this entire project is the music. Shaft rolled out their ace for this one, and I’m just embarrassed I didn’t know that Satoru Kōsaki (AKA MY DUDE) was in charge of the music for this series. I listen to his work for all of my writing and studying simply because he is my favorite Japanese music composer, bar none. He pays a lot of respect to how some of the music in Fate generally sounds (lots of little heroic rifts with long string segments for the backstories) while giving very distinctive pieces- particularly when Nero is being her bubbly self. I’m eagerly awaiting the release of the OST to this one.
The dub here is solid, with the highest note being Cassandra Lee Morris nailing the role of Nero. She brought the sass, childlike wonder, and inspiring confidence out to the front and cemented her legacy as the voice of one of the most beloved characters in that franchise. There was a ton of curiosity into how the dub would handle the Japanese mannerism of “umu” being said a ton, and I like the decision to make it be anything from a confident “Mhmmm” to a “Hmmm” or “Indeed, Indeed!”. Yes, saying “umu” is more fun, but now I absolutely have an excuse to say “Indeed” with a smile more. A lot of the other voice acting that impressed was how they managed to pick Mela Lee back up to play Rin, keeping the ball rolling for her appearing in every role for the character, as well as Kyle McCarley and Cristina Vee playing the Matou siblings for the same. Vic Mignogna as Robin Hood was a nice cast, as well as his partner being voiced by Ian Alden. Francis Drake was cast by Jessica Gee George, who nails sounding like the Japanese Francis Drake too.
There is a lot more to unpack from this series than I anticipated, and that’s certainly a good thing. The main character’s story never really gets much better (and it only gets worse with terms such as “Dead Face” being coined *gag*) but true to form for a Fate series, we get some awesome backstory to the masters/servants fighting in the Holy Grail War (I said it before, but have your tissues ready for Nursery Rhyme). If you hate Fate, this isn’t going to change your mind. If you don’t like the art style of Shaft, it isn’t like this will carry enough for you to love it, either. At the very least, this show is a marvel to look at.
Thanks for all of the support with my last article talking about getting through things and for embracing me so warmly again. Can’t wait to get back at it.
Wanted to let you all see behind the curtain for the creative process a bit…