Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Fate/stay classy

I recently got around to completing the entirety of the Fate stay/night visual novel after countless exhortations.  As I’d heard it, the anime adaptation, which I’m far too familiar with, having seen it in all its mediocrity not once, but twice, only covered the worst of the original novel’s three scenarios and Unlimited Blade Works and Heaven’s Feel were so life-changingly brilliant that paraplegic patients have been known to regain control of their lower extremities after having witnessed one of humanity’s greatest creative achievements.

For everyone sensible enough to Fate/stay out of the path of the franchise’s sweeping avalanche, here’s the 411.  In the magic-imbued Fuyuki City, a tournament known as the “Holy Grail War” erupts.  Competitors in this tournament, known as Magi, summon Servants, heroes of legend such as King Arthur and Heracles, to slap each other about until only one Magus remains and wins the right to claim the mystical Holy Grail.  Shirou Emiya, a clueless but determined Magus, ends up in control of the strongest of these Servants, the Saber class, and teams up with classmate and experienced Magus Rin Tohasaka and her Archer-class Servant to extinguish the hideous corruption that has crept into Holy Grail War and emerge victorious.

First up is the Fate route and yes, it’s no secret that it’s a letdown, given the breadth of potential in the premise.  Fate revolves around the relationship between Shirou and his Servant, Saber, as they form a rocky alliance with Shirou’s acquaintance, Rin, and try to hold their ground as competitors are picked off one-by-one.   The plot is littered with tiresome clich├ęs about courage and heroism with the final battle being the biggest offender as it boils down to a straightforward brawl against an unambigiously evil antagonist where the forces of good unconcernedly triumph.

Everyone bashes the Fate route for curtailing the protagonist’s character development, but Shirou is not the only one who ends up shortchanged.  The main focus of Fate is Saber and she ends up hoovering up all of the attention that should have been distributed evenly to the rest of the cast.  Every other character feels embarrassingly token and ancillary, serving as nothing more than raw materials to be melted down into the majestic throne that seats our gender-flipped King Arthur.  At the end of Fate, we know the finest details about Saber, from her origin to the source of her courage to her dreams and aspirations, but we know absolutely nothing about Rin, Archer, and, most lamentably, Shirou himself.  It honestly just feels lazy, like the writers couldn’t be bothered to attempt developing a character believably without stuffing everyone else into an industrial woodchipper.

And so, we move onto brighter days in the form of Unlimited Blade Works, which I consider to be the best of all three scenarios.  This time around, Shirou, Saber, and Rin team up to defeat a rogue Archer and a Master/Servant duo that was only glimpsed in Fate.  The conflict is much simpler, the focus much narrower, and the pacing much tighter than Fate, thus making for a more solid all-around package.

Not to give anything away outright, but Unlimited Blade Works is definitely more a case of Man vs. Himself than Man vs. Man.  The Holy Grail War turns out to be just as much an internal struggle for Shirou as an external one and the ideological hoop-jumping contest between Shirou and Archer is a shockingly compelling one indeed.  At first, it seems to just be an over-glorified tug-of-war match along the scale of idealism vs. cynicism, but it’s the inseparable bond between Shirou and Archer than adds the perfect dash of disillusioning irony to the dish.  In other words, it’s a clash of ideals mixed with a coming-of-age parable that’s pulled off just elegantly enough that I caught myself engaging my brain periodically.

The final scenario, known as Heaven’s Feel revolves around the disturbing heritage of the Matou family with Sakura, of all people, taking center stage.   The relationship between Sakura and Shirou is explored and while Shirou ends up teaming up with Rin, Saber is all but absent during the majority of the arc.

Heaven’s Feel is far different from the other two arcs in that it’s much less action-oriented, instead relying mostly on maintaining a creepy atmosphere and a mysterious overhanging plot to Fate/stay intriguing.  Many of the characters get severely shafted as well, with Shirou sharing the spotlight with Sakura and no one else.  Also, there is a lot of talking.  As in, the vast majority of scenes will consist of Shirou and Sakura sitting in a room and desperately trying to have the world’s most inane conversation.  And just to shake things up, sometimes Rin will enter the room and also join in what is sure to be a riveting evening of irrelevant jabbering.

Truthfully, Heaven’s Feel channels Elfen Lied; it’s calm for the most part but the occasional burst of graphic violence is what keeps you on edge since it feels as if everyone is just a second away from a gruesome death.  In that respect, it certainly works, and I won’t deny that it’s built around some interesting themes such as the vicious massacre of Shirou’s overidealized heroic determination to save everyone or the exact point where one can be treated as accountable for the evils that he/she/it has committed, but as a whole, it’s just too unpolished, dialogue-focused, and yawn-worthy to be immersive.

However, at the end of the day, all three scenarios are plagued by the same damn problems that keep cropping up like infant-devouring weeds in the Nasuverse.  Kinoko Nasu is a mediocre writer at best and when the medium of choice is a visual novel, there are going to be some pretty catastrophic defects, no matter how well-groomed the rest of the package is.  But let’s not belabor this issue, because if bad writing was the only thing that offended me, then I’d have just smacked myself for being an unreasonable kvetch and expecting anything more out of the Nasuverse.

Here’s the deal.  Sorrow-kun mentioned in his review of the Unlimited Blade Works movie that, at the end of the day, Fate stay/night is nothing more than a tacky superhero story and nothing could be closer to the truth. It doesn’t matter if FSN is festooned with all the bells and whistles that come with mages toting legendary heroes of yore as their personal, battle-ready familiars if it doesn’t have the conscious leverage to be anything more than a fettered, unimaginative tale of superpowered theatrics taken from pages of an amateur scriptwriter’s doodle-pad.  And Fate/stay night truly is juvenile; it clearly favors “tell” over “show” in the way it unnaturally stops to blurt out exposition unsubtlely, yet still keeps us in the dark by remaining steeped in a needlessly-convoluted labyrinth of a mythos that only the Nasu himself could easily traverse.

Yes, I understand that the cool factor of badass warriors screaming attack calls or chanting spine-tinglingly epic creeds before shredding their opponents into a patch of fluttering giblets definitely helps to balance out Fate stay/night’s perverse puerility, but only insofar as that it turns out simply serviceable.  Unlimited Blade Works and Heaven’s Feel may prove that Fate stay/night has glimpses of elegant philosophical mincing buried in its heavyhanded instinctual effusion but, in all honesty, it still feels like we’re trapped in Nasu’s personal Reality Marble, where the atmosphere is saturated with the stench of self-indulgent sputzing.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Usurp and Upbraid: Kara no Kyoukai

The Kara no Kyoukai movie series ranks among my favorites and is the zenith of what anime has to offer.  The visuals are rendered in unbelievably sleek, glistening detail and the way Yuki Kajiura's soundtrack punctuates each scene perfectly is a feat that matches some of Yoko Kanno's best work note-for-note.

As remarkable as Kara no Kyoukai is, however, it's still far from perfect.  There are definitely things that not even stratospheric production values and stunning choreography can make up for in the long run.  Keep in mind that the point of U2 is to dig for flaws and get a sense of what’s running through the minds of those who are maybe not so keen on dubbing the series an unassailable masterpiece.

The mere fact that I adore Kara no Kyoukai and could gush about it ad infinitum is, truthfully, quite surprising seeing as I don't think very highly of the Nasuverse in general.  I've read the Tsuikhime visual novel, seen the most-undeniably non-existent anime adaptation, and slept through two viewings of Fate/stay night.  Honestly, I still don't get what all the fuss is about.

Shiki does not approve of being trapped in such an undignified universe.

A good analogue for the works of Kinoko Nasu, Kara no Kyoukai included, would be the Metal Gear Solid video game (movie) franchise.  What begins as a delightfully refreshing spin on a stale concept quickly falls victim to overambition, or, as I like to call it, indulgent inertia.

Yahtzee once said that Metal Gear Solid was a series in dire need of an editor, preferably one armed with waders and pruning shears, and the exact same could be said about the Nasuverse.  There is simply far too much tedious terminology and referential material, most of which has zero relevance to the immediate plot.  And, of course, any terms that do turn out to be relevant are nonchalantly strewn about as if the audience had already pored over the entire Type Moon Wiki.  It's like in Final Fantasy XIII, where you're never told what a l'Cie is, but the word is used about 20 times in the first half-hour alone.  I'm sure it doesn't take a Literature major to realize that this is not good storytelling.

As much as I disapprove of the Codex in Mass Effect, I can at least appreciate the fact that it’s a coherent, professional compendium, whereas the background information found in the Nasuverse has the quality assurance of the majority of fanfics found on DeviantArt.  So much of what has spewed forth from Nasu's head is clutter; it's jumbled, pretentious, and juvenily indulgent and I’m only talking about the stuff that's actually pertinent to the story because sifting through everything else is like filing through a trough of Dead Apostle entrails.

Bringing it back to Kara no Kyoukai, yes, the series is also tainted by its proximity to said bucket of slop.  Here are some pressing questions that I can think of right on the spot:  Just what the hell is a bounded field?  What exactly is the “origin” that Shiki has a connection to and that Araya is seeking to obtain?  For that matter, what's the deal with this unique “origin” that everyone possesses?

It's true that “show, don't tell” is a hallmark of good storytelling and yes, viewers are not moronsBut they're also not geniuses. When “less is more” is taken to such an extreme degree, it forces us to fill in answer E on the SAT Math scantron, i.e. “Not enough information.”  I do appreciate the fact that Kara no Kyoukai is devoid of Nasu's trademark clutter, but the clean-up crew did far too good of a job when they decided to sever certain pivotal plot strands altogether.

Like Metal Gear Solid (2 specifically), Kara no Kyoukai leans not only on the cool factor as a crutch, but mind-numbing perplexity as well.  Granted, there is a lot of appeal in the unknown and a plot shrouded in mystery is inherently engrossing.  But there comes a point where things suddenly turn opaque and impenetrable. Whereas the gimmick in the fifth movie successfully milked its mystique without going overboard, the overall plot of Kara no Kyoukai is guilty of having long crossed said threshold.

More disjointed questions: What was the point of the sixth movie in general?  What's the story behind the Fujou, Asakami, and Ryougi clans?  What are the basic rules governing magic in this universe?  Again, the cool factor and superb presentation are powerful tools, but one only has so many free passes to hand out.  Some may call the narrative undernourishment a result of the series being economical, but shortchanging the storyline to such an excessive degree is not to be applauded.

Naturally, the Nasuverse is not done smearing its blemished pedigree all over Kara no Kyoukai's otherwise streak-free surface.  One trend that the Nasuverse seems dead-set on continuing is the creation of a cast that is stillborn with the exception of at most two stand-outs.  I would say Saber and Rin Tohsaka from Fate/stay night, Arcueid Brunestud from Tsukihime and, of course, Shiki Ryougi from Kara no Kyoukai.  Everyone else is simply flaccid and lifeless; not only are they bland upfront, but they never evolve beyond their neanderthalic archetypes.

It's pretty sad when the minor one-shot characters far outshine the central cast as the likes of Fujino Asagami and Tomoe Enjou put Touko Aozaki and Mikiya Kokutou to shame.  Mikiya gets better during the finale, but remains firmly entrenched in Dogged Nice Guy territory.  So nice that it hurts is a pretty good evaluation.  Touko is cool in that aloof big sister sort of way but receives appallingly little development for her importance to the plot.  Even Souren Araya, who, before his official introduction, seemed like he would make a compelling villain, ultimately ends up as nothing more than a misguided, militant crusader. 

I wouldn't say any of these characters are outright bad, but without Shiki, this majestic vessel would find itself speeding towards the bottom of the sea.  Everyone is an anthropomorphic personification of some crucial plot element; they exist only to underpin the plot and the aforementioned select, spotlight character.  They’re the equivalent of wood polish, which by itself is nothing more than greasy, smelly, oily slime.

Whew, that was pretty rough!  To me, these are all petty grievances, especially when Kara no Kyoukai is compared to the rest of the Nasuverse.  Plot pratfalls and an uninteresting supporting cast are inconsequential flecks of mold on the otherwise sublime key lime pie that is Kara no Kyoukai whereas Fate/say night and Tsukihime are pastries completely coated in fuzzy, teal-white patches.