kaigou: (1 olivia is not impressed)
[personal profile] kaigou
Been watching Fate/Zero, which seemed (so far) intriguing, so I thought I'd watch some Fate/Stay_Night, just so I'm not completely lost.

TL;DR: just read the wiki entry and save yourself the pain.

Let's see. Where to begin, and yes, here there be spoilers. Technically. Me, I think the premise's treatment already stinks, so hard to spoil it any further.

Well, for starters, the hero -- Shirou -- is a textbook case of TSTL. I mean, we could teach entire semesters just on his stupidity alone, he's that textbook. Granted, it's not entirely valorized in that other characters voice their annoyance with his stupidity, but at the same time, the instant he tries to lift even his teeniest finger he's praised as being very good, a natural at something. Someone mentions spell-casting spots, and he identifies one immediately. He gets attacked by a champion, picks up a baton, and changes it into a weapon, first try ever. He tries sparring and he's a natural with powerful moves and assurance! It just makes his stupidity the rest of the time even more painful. I mean, if he at least struggled with what he can't do, then I'd be less likely to see his TSTL traits as, well, so damn stupid. Instead, he just comes across as naively unthinking, and I don't mean that in a cute way.

In the wiki entry, one of the antagonists -- Shinji -- is characterized as narcissistic (he is, definitely) and chauvinistic. Not sure about the latter, but I can say that Shirou is without a doubt one of the most sexist characters I've come across in awhile. He's facing the spiritual embodiment of King Freaking Arthur (aka Saber), and because (in what could've been a cool twist) King Arthur is more like a Joan of Arc character -- being female -- Shirou is adamant that she, uhm, shouldn't fight. Because girls are to be protected. And it's not like she's even facing death; as a non-corporeal entity, if she loses a battle, she just fades back into oblivion until the next time someone summons her. I'm not seeing a major issue here, in terms of the final cost of omg-death kind of cost.

But no, Shirou's got to jump in the way of a major baddie and get himself almost killed, because he's that adamant that girls should be protected. If Saber just hauled off and smacked him, I'd be all for it, but this story is more of the transitional same: the writers gave the girls guns, but took away all the ammo. Makes for a female character, like Saber, being a lot of talk but nothing to back it up. She tells him she's trained for combat, but caves almost immediately and agrees to let him (the untrained TSTL twit) fight; she hares into battle but the script makes sure to trip her up. Either it's her opponent calling a halt (like you didn't see that coming), or it's the script's setup that Shirou doesn't have enough "energy" to feed her spiritual needs. She's rendered helpless because the hero is a loser, but the result's the same: presented as a great hero, King/Queen Arthur is a lot of flash and not much kicking ass.

My reader-writer-analysis brain finds it all so frustrating, and not just because of the sexist faux-transitional fail. Some interesting things could've been done with Shirou's backstory, being the only survivor of a major catastrophe (caused by the previous multi-magician battle, a decade earlier -- which incidentally form the events of the Fate/Zero prequel). He's a little too glossy about it, though. Sure, it's possible that being the sole survivor he'd be determined to do what he can, if ever, to prevent more meaningless deaths, but I can't see him being nearly as blase as he is about seeing corpses. He's not flat-affect, not like the best post-war PTSD example I've seen in anime in ages -- that'd be young mister Setsuna F. Seiei from Gundam 00 -- he's just... blase. Like, "yeah, I've seen dead bodies."

What gets me is the combination of TSTL and TST... uhm, have a backbone. He's so determined to not let other people suffer that he's just a freaking doormat. We don't even see him justifying his actions (doing his coworker's jobs while they do nothing, cleaning up after Shinji's archery team practice). He just does it, and it's framed through other people's eyes. Great, so other folks know everyone takes advantage of Shirou, but I've yet to see Shirou acknowledge this. I could take it if he were insecure -- ie, believed that he's got to do all this to be liked, or to pay everyone back for putting up with him (a common belief for orphan-characters who feel their abandonment/loss keenly) -- but we never see any of that. We don't even see that he, maybe, resents being taken advantage of, or maybe even that he's happy to be needed. I'm left with the impression that he's just a freaking doormat who does this because that's what it says in the script.

The inconsistency lies in this: he lives in an old samurai manor-house left to him by his adopted father, and he's taken care of by two women. One, Fujimura, is like an older sister to him. Except we only see her showing up to eat his food each morning, before she hurries off in a panic to the school; she's a teacher, and apparently a pretty inept teacher, at that. A lot of bluster, and nothing between the ears. The other, Sakura, is a neighborhood/childhood friend (and Shinji's sister), who shows up... to clean Shirou's house. That's right. She comes around to do all his chores (except, apparently, his laundry). And she cooks all his food. Basically, she's a maid, replete with the ultra-soft voice, and the large vapid eyes. (I'm not kidding. She doesn't even get pupils, just irises, and it gives her a strangely blank expression that just makes her already blank characterization that much more explicitly blank.)

Ahah, but there's more to Sakura! Turns out she was adopted into a Magi family, because the only son (Shinji) has no magi abilities. We get a hint or two of Sakura's talent, but so far I've not seen anything but that first strange aside (to herself, at that). Read ahead in the wiki entries and fan reviews, and it turns out that Sakura has a mark of the magi that should put her in the group battling it out. Except she handed over her mark, and all her power, to her completely narcissistic and power-hungry (and powerless) adopted brother. Y'know, so he could be the hero of the day. Her entire existence is to hand over any innate power to one boy, so she can spend all her free time cleaning up after another boy -- and both boys are, frankly, useless. One's a great deal more disagreeable about it, but both are pretty much wastes of celluloid.

The OVA, being so compacted, makes a much greater impression when it comes to how transitional it's treating its female combatants, like Saber, but the shortness also means you don't get the full impact of the series' filler. The series has loads of noise, useless filler-scenes with Fujimara and Sakura and things of no real import. Okay, there's import: it draws a huge contrast between how Shirou is totally helping with every guy who asks a favor, but when it comes to girls, he's waited on practically hand-and-foot and doesn't even remotely protest, let alone reflect on the similar doormat tendencies going on.

[CP's comment was that it might be drawing a line between girls-->Shirou-->guys, as in Shirou being everyone's bitch. I don't think so. I think it's just "the script says so" and any redeeming value in (what maybe we're supposed to see as) Shirou's good-natured helpfulness is completely lost, because he has no awareness of the way he, in turn, imposes on the female characters. As a result, I don't see it as quid pro quo, so much as a doormat who's simultaneously a sexist jerk.]

And then we have Rin, who turns out to be the natural daughter of Shirou's adopted father. I guess it's left to the light novels or to fandom to determine why a perfectly good daughter was abandoned and/or set aside so a man could raise some half-dead kid he found in a post-catastrophe wasteland. Not that nurturing half-dead kids back to life is bad, just... why not as a joint unit with the already-born, natural children? It's like compounding the abandonment, though from what I can tell, this is never raised as an issue for Rin.

Rin is, honestly, one of the coolest characters in the series, if not the only real cool character. She's sharp, intelligent, comes across as snobbish but it's really because she's good at what she does and she's willing to be ruthless. Since in this story's premise, Rin has a champion to do the fighting for her, it takes a lot longer before she's cut out at the knees (and it buffers her from Shirou's obsessive "girls shouldn't fight" nonsense, since technically it's Rin's champion who does the major combat parts). Incidentally, one of the alternate endings for the game is that Rin wins the final battle and Shirou ends up as her apprentice. Why didn't they animate that, damn it?

One thing I like about Rin is that although she deigns to teach Shirou a few things -- when, and only when, she decides it serves her purpose to ally with him, if temporarily -- she doesn't then become another doormat for him. She doesn't fall into the Sakura clean-for-you or the Fuijimara be-witless-so-you-can-feel-smart routines. That is, she doesn't seem to... but really, the script gets her there, anyway.

The red herring early in the series, and the OVA, is that Shirou has no magical ability/power at all. He's a dud -- yet when he does bother to try something, or spontaneously grows a new skill, he's teh awesomesauce at it. He doesn't try anything too magical, though, which says to me that the story calls him a magical dud simply so we have reason to have Rin around, to cast spells for him. Unfortunately, that's really just playing into a variation on the same theme as Sakura cleaning his house. Shirou is plenty hep about not making other people suffer, but only where "other people" = "guys". He's sure blind and privileged when it comes to what girls have to do, to keep him safe, fed, clothed -- and alive! -- in the manner to which he's become accustomed. Rin is a character with potential but even she falls to the script's knife of All Must Serve Shirou.

Rin's champion is an enigma, Archer, and it's no surprise he's the focus of one of the OVAs (Unlimited Blade Works), because the story does raise a lot of questions about him and never answers them (well, until UBW, that is). Thing is, to do this, it takes endersgirrrl's observations about shonen and twists them around to a ridiculous level. Instead of leveling the playing field by having the antagonist be another teenaged boy... the antagonist is the hero, just the grown-up, jaded, and cynical version. I think the message is that youthful stupidity, err, naivete and ideals, will win out over age and cynicism, but really, I find that hard to believe. Okay, maybe if I were youthful and stupid, I'd be all over the message. I know the rules of shonen says the hero gets to win, but when the hero is supposedly defeating an older, more experienced, savvier, and definitely more battle-hardened version of himself... Nope. Not even remotely believing it. Idealism only gets you so far, kid, and after that, you're just a loser.

Well, Shirou's a loser from the get-go. All the story does is make him even more of a loser, by showing us he's a loser as well as telling us. Then it sticks a medal on him for winning the day, but we all know that's just the terms of the shonen contract. He's still a loser.

Let's talk fight scenes: Saber's fight scenes. She's supposed to be the greatest of the knights -- King Arthur, hello -- and we'll ignore the obligatory shin-length, frilly skirt the animators gave her (at least she's not totally cleavage-babe, but still, a longish skirt? At least dress her like a reject from Claymore, people!) -- but her fights? Mostly amount to distraction. Okay, there's a guardian spirit, Saber, you go fight him, while Shirou and Rin sneak in through the back. Rin's got her own armament, but not enough to protect herself and Shirou, and Shirou, well, he's our resident loser. Until the contract requires he spontaneously turn into the self-conquering hero, of course -- and in the meantime, Saber fights the stupid little battles against characters of no consequence.

Uhm, and any battles where Saber gets a good strike (at least, of what I've seen so far) -- she's fighting another female character, like Medea. When it's a guy? Something always happens, and the guy bows off and leaves Saber there, unable to finish it. The first time, whatever. The third time, gee, how convenient. The one time Saber gets to finish off a male character, it's a character who begins the fight by clarifying that he'll expire at dawn. (It doesn't say whether he'll come back the following night.) So he's basically toast anyway, and Saber could win that battle, if she chose, by just not doing anything except watching the clock. Which means she's not really fighting a character with anything on the line, and his defeat could be read (and is somewhat treated like) he wasn't defeated so much as he chose to stop fighting. Uhm, kind of a win by default. Doesn't really count in my book, but it's oh-so-very textbook for the transitional damsel: when the girl does win, it's because the guy let her.

If you do watch the OVA, just beware the part where Saber gets kidnapped (how, I don't know, I would've thought anyone trying to kidnap King Arthur would've gotten a bellyful of steel). It's not enough to kidnap her; she must also be held in an awfully suggestive pose (not even on a table, people, but bent over with her face to the wall, just visualize it & you'll see what I mean). Adding insult to injury, she's not in armor. She's in a really bad prom dress from the early 90s. And that includes the elbow-length white evening gloves. Great, the big bad isn't just easily taking out a supposedly powerful female character, the big bad also fetishes late 20th century teenage formal attire. Lovely. Yes, I did find those scenes the most painful of all. She's wearing goddamn formal gloves. What's the point? Could anyone tell me what this gets us, other than reams of fanart spinning off the fanservice?

Like I said in my earlier post, talking about this with [personal profile] branchandroot, there could've been an interesting story teased out from this dreck. For starters, the servants (the spiritually/magically raised champions doing the actual fighting) have their own reasons for wanting to win the battle. They're not acting out of altruism, which means they could have had their own motivations. The series seems to dance with that for a few seconds, but the other treatments just pay a quick nod to the concept and move along. Those secondary character motivations don't matter, not while the script is busy showing us in new and inventive ways just how stupid and spineless -- and sexist -- Shirou really is.

The story could've really messed with the shonen hero-tropes, instead of taking the cheap tricks, and its cheap tricks mostly lie in its apparent cluelessness about human damage. I mean, Shirou's the sole survivor of a major disaster. This seems to have shaped him into someone who doesn't want other people to hurt, but I've yet to see any mention of any significant anger -- because under such experience, there's bound to be anger. It's human to want to blame something when things are painful: yourself, someone else, something larger or more evil or whatever. But anger is a natural part of grief, and Shirou seems to have skipped that and gone right into martyrdom. His older-version is cynical and jaded as a result of too many battles, but it would've been a far more interesting story if his older version were the lighter side, having gained perspective and distance, while the younger were the darker, angrier, jaded one who knows (or believes) that death is inevitable and meaningless and thus life is meaningless.

Stories like this remind me of a scene from Twelve Kingdoms, when the main character is asked which is worse, in winter: no shelter, or no food. She answers, no shelter, and is told this is the answer of someone who's never been without food. Quite bluntly, she's told she's making an assumption based on her own privilege (and I believe that word is even used, at least in the official subtitles). Fate/Stay_Night seems to be making the same assumption, or at least its writers are, about how someone would react to being orphaned in a horrendous disaster, left for dead, saved, and then abandoned again when the adoptive parent dies young.

Bluntly, I have real trouble believing that someone who'd been through all that would necessarily see everyone as being worth protecting. At such a horrific cost (all the death), one would necessarily and very humanly seek a cause (whether the actual one or just whatever one's mind can comprehend: that it's the mafia's fault, the government's fault, god's fault, whatever), and that's where the anger would head. My point is that one's reaction isn't that everyone is all good and wonderful and all life should be protected; one's reaction is more likely, I'd argue, to be damaged and to see someone as responsible. In short, that not everyone is innocent, and that someone out there is guilty -- and this doesn't jive with the notion that all life is innocent and should be protected.

It might jive, possibly, if the character were considerably older and had time and perspective. Maybe. But then, it's a lesson that might never be learned, depending on the circumstances of one's life.

In the GW fandom, there's a favorite fanon-assumption for Duo Maxwell, that he's obsessed/paralyzed with fear that he'll lose everyone/anyone he loves, because so much of his first fifteen years were marked by death/loss from plagues, poverty, and warfare. It's not really that emphasized in the canonical text, though it flavors some of his characterization, yet I don't think it's wrong on fandom's part to assume Duo would have to deal with all this loss, eventually, or that it might prompt a major reaction when he's faced with it again (ie losing any of his compatriots in the series' events).

Such a backstory can believably lead to two different outcomes: either Duo would cling ferociously to anything he has now (knowing the pain of loss), or he'll keep everything at arm's length rather than risk that pain again. I've seen both treatments, and they're both believable, if you know human nature. Heero, like his 2.0 version Setsuna, seems to take the latter course, and keeps everyone at a slight to full distance. Both Heero and Setsuna are emotionally risk-adverse, and that's also believable, when you know their backstories as assassin-child and war-child.

Shirou, though, doesn't seem to differentiate. He doesn't seem to have a crowd or even a small coterie of friends (outside Fujimura and Sakura, that is); he seems to have a bunch of people who expect him to do all the work. There's no show of a two-way path to see what Shirou's getting out of it, to offset the expected fear (on his part) of more loss. The lack of differentiation is also apparent in his reaction to classmates being put in danger. He seems to react to anyone's pain or difficulty with the same amount of upset. When you add in that for Shirou, "pain or difficulty" apparently includes anyone having to clean up after themselves, the story is really trivializing the entire post-traumatic perspective that he should have, given his backstory. I mean, it's not that far off putting someone through, I don't know, a horrific natural disaster or a terrorist attack and then expecting us to believe this person now cries whenever a stranger on the bus stubs a toe. You'd expect such experiences would lead to more desensitization, not less.

Another character who parallels (but, again, with much better characterization) is Ciel, from Kuroshitsuji. In this scene, Prince Soma is bemoaning the fact that his favorite and much-loved servant ran away from him, leaving him allllll alooooooone, so he's come all the way from India to Britain to retrieve her. Ciel, the lone survivor after someone or a group of someones murdered his parents, burned down his family home, kidnapped him, tortured him (and, it's implied, may have also sexually abused him), is unsympathetic.
Ciel: It's an extravagant trip for just one servant.

Soma: I'ts not extravagant! Do you understand my despair at having Meena taken away from me? Do you know how much--

Ciel: I don't. I have no idea, nor desire to know, of the despair that can be caused by something as trivial as that. There are things you cannot get back, no matter how much you struggle. There is also despair you cannot escape. You may not understand that, though.

It's a great comeback, but it doesn't seem (to me) that Ciel considers it a competition. He simply cannot comprehend, no more and no less. He's living with the scars of having psychological limbs amputated without anesthesia. He's just not going to notice, nor even care about, the equivalent of an emotional stubbed toe.

Given Shirou's backstory, I'd expect shades of Ciel in there, somewhere, at least in terms of some flat affect, not-that-impressed, reactions. And I think part of it, too, is the voice actor's delivery -- Noriaki Sugiyama plays the reaction (to dead bodies) as though he's talking about his grocery list. Sugiyama also voices Sasuke (from Naruto) and there's a majorly damaged-character, so I'm writing this off as the director's shortcoming. (Then again, the script has no follow-up, so it may've been a joint choice to downplay the darker hints. I think that was a bad choice, if that's not obvious.)

Regardless, Shirou doesn't seem to have any kind of a perspective that you'd expect from his backstory. He's not flat-affect, unsympathetic like Ciel; he's not distanced and wary like Heero or Setsuna; he's not noisily cheerful on the outside but quietly dark on the inside like Duo; and he's too lame, spineless and doormat-ey to show even a spark of being willing (or able) to ferociously fight for his closest circle ("precious people") like Naruto. Shirou doesn't seem to have precious people; he seems to take others for granted the same way he takes himself for granted. He's just... going along.

Basically: Shirou is a damaged character as written by someone who's never experienced any damage at all. Or maybe I should say: someone who just can't comprehend that level of damage to an adolescent psyche. Shirou is written by someone who didn't get it, didn't get the character potential. That makes for a really unsatisfying character, and a really unsatisfying story.

If, say, Shirou had been a bundle of anger, or a bundle of jaded, world-weary, traumatized and desensitized pain, that could've made for an intriguing story. The world's historical champions, brought together to fight it out for the grail (because it's got to be the grail, always, of course, and don't even get me started on why I'm not seeing any heroes from east of the Sumer valley), and one of the champion's commander is someone who can't be arsed to care. If he'd tried to hold back Saber not because she's a girllll but because he doesn't see any point, now that might've been a different and interesting conflict, instead of just a stupid and sexist one. If he'd withdrawn from fights not because he's got strategic sense but because his one true wish -- to bring back everyone he's lost to death -- is a wish he knows couldn't be granted and therefore he sees no point in bothering, well, that would've made for an interesting story, too, I think. If he'd been hiding anger under a veneer of getting-along and now had to grapple with power, that could've made for an anti-hero into a hero with a hell of a lot of cool conflict -- especially if the older-version were the one who willingly absorbed the younger version's anger and pain as a way to absolve/resolve the final conflict. Something like that. Oh, hell, any of those or some others, but not what's actually on the screen.

Because really, what's on the screen? Great premise, but the execution left a lot to be desired: mostly because the main character didn't get executed during the opening credits. Do that, and replace him with a character whose damage honors and reflects his backstory, and give him a story unafraid to go as dark as the backstory implied. Instead, it's just trivial and trivialized, and the sexism and the damsels are icing on the losertastic cake.
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kaigou: this is what I do, darling (Default)
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to remember

"When you make the finding yourself— even if you're the last person on Earth to see the light— you'll never forget it." —Carl Sagan

October 2016

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