Unlimited Blade Works, the second of Fate/stay night’s three distinct narrative routes, concentrates on the concept of the struggle between oneself and an ideal.
It’s a story with an altogether different feeling to the Fate route, featuring a great deal more internal conflict. And not just for the protagonist Shirou Emiya, either, but also for many of the people around him — most notably heroine Rin Tohsaka.
In fact, this time around, it’s only really Saber, who had plenty of her own struggles in Fate, who gets off relatively lightly (in terms of mental and philosophical challenges, anyway — though she does spend much of the story being physically and sexually tortured). Everyone else has a lot of very serious and meaningful questions to try and answer before the two weeks in which the story unfolds come to a close.
We learned in Fate that Shirou is someone who has clung desperately to an ideal for the past ten years or so. As the only survivor of a cataclysmic fire that was the result of the last Holy Grail War’s final battle, he was rescued by a magus called Kiritsugu Emiya — Saber’s previous master — and very much struck with a deep sense of meaning to that moment, even at his tender years.
“I remember the gray sky,” he reflects. “A dark sky on the verge of crying. There, my will to fight for survival almost disappears. One only dies when the will fades away. Leaving behind many people, I survived a few minutes longer than everyone.
“My eyes lost hatred there. My hands lost anger there. My legs lost hope there. My self lost itself there. Everything went away. But I still considered it… how wonderful it would be if I was able to save everything here.”
Accepting his own death in the fire, Shirou considered his rescue by Kiritsugu to be something of a “miracle”, and thus decided at an early age to devote his life to becoming more like the man who would become his adoptive father — a man that he came to see as a “superhero”.
Exactly what being a “superhero” really means is the central question at the core of Unlimited Blade Works’ main narrative, and it’s a concept that Shirou has to struggle a great deal with.
His initial response is that being a superhero is as simple as “saving everyone”, whatever that means. As we’ve previously discussed, during the initial hours of his involvement in the Holy Grail War — and as part of the narrative content that is common to all three routes of the game — he comes to the realisation that “the desire to protect something is, at the same time, none other than the wish for something to violate it.” This is a difficult concept for Shirou to contemplate, so he nonetheless attempts to hold true to his ideal regardless.
The first real manifestation of this that we see once Unlimited Blade Works proper gets underway is in his initial encounter with Rin Tohsaka and her servant Archer. In Fate, Saber grievously wounds Archer, putting him out of action for several days of the narrative; in Unlimited Blade Works, meanwhile, Shirou uses one of his three Command Spells to prevent the hot-headed Saber from immediately dispatching Rin and Archer, both of whom are at a significant disadvantage against her.
“I don’t understand the situation at all,” Shirou says. “I stopped Saber only because I didn’t want to see her slash at the girl who saved me.”
At this point, Shirou is unaware of the true meaning of the Command Spells that have appeared on his arm. A core part of the Holy Grail War’s fatal game, these marks both bind a summoned Servant to its Master and allow the Master three opportunities to order unconditional obedience, even if the Servant disagrees with the order. Once the last Command Spell is gone, the Servant is set free and, we’re led to believe in Rin’s prologue in which she carelessly uses one of her own Command Spells on an ineffective, vague order to Archer, usually ends up killing their former Master.
As such, they are not something to be used lightly, but the strength of will Shirou demonstrates in his desire not to see Rin hurt — by this point, he already recognises her as the one who saved his life from Lancer’s initial fatal attack in the prologue, remember — allows him to use the Command Spell without understanding how. It is an important moment; while it ultimately leads to a similar situation between Shirou and Rin as in the early moments of the Fate route, with the pair cooperating in an initially uneasy alliance, the context is very different thanks to Archer’s status.
We see further divergence between the two routes following Rin’s initial explanation of the Holy Grail War to Shirou, when they encounter Illya and Berserker on the way back from the church that forms the central supposed “safe haven” for Masters who have retired from the War or had their Servants defeated.
In Fate, both Shirou and Saber are grievously wounded in the battle thanks to being hopelessly outmatched — Shirou due to being an inexperienced magus, and Saber due to being unable to draw magical energy from her new Master — but in Unlimited Blade Works, Archer’s presence tips the balance in favour of our heroes.
But something’s wrong. Even as Archer warns them of his impending powerful attack with which he intends to drive off Berserker, Shirou senses something very, very wrong with the whole situation.
“It’s either nausea or a chill,” he says. “He’s readying a bow. A bow that’s no different from before. It cannot even scratch Berserker, even with a direct hit. So there is no need to feel any threat from it. [But] what he is readying in his bow is not an ‘arrow’, but something completely different. And his intent to kill isn’t just directed at Berserker.”
It’s unclear at this point whether Archer simply trusts his Master to get out of the way before his devastating attack hits or if he simply has so little regard for the people with whom he is supposed to be cooperating, but either way he lets loose his attack, insufficient to kill the apparently invulnerable Berserker, but enough to raze the cemetery in which they are fighting to the ground.
“I shouldn’t be able to see him,” observes Shirou after Berserker and Illya have left, apparently satisfied with the outcome. “I shouldn’t be able to see him, but I do. He’s smiling. He’s smiling as if to tell me that he wasn’t aiming just at Berserker.”
Who else was Archer aiming at, then?
“Archery is a way to kill yourself,” Shirou muses the next day as he attends his school’s archery club. “It’s trying to make yourself transparent and to become one with nature. The eight stages of shooting, ashibumi, dozukuri, yugamae, uchiokoshi, hikiwake, kai, hanare and zanshin, exist for that purpose. Kai: the unity of the self and the target. Hanare: releasing the arrow which has become yourself, and the moment time stops. Zanshin: the self that is shot to the target already knows ‘it will hit’, and the action and the result become one to make the past and the future into a point.”
Shirou is well aware of the concept of archery being a battle with oneself, so he is unsurprised that Archer is able to seem so sure of his target — and indeed, there’s a moment later in the Fate route where the pair of them discuss the very concept of landing an attack simply by knowing ahead of time that it will hit. It’s a twist on how Lancer’s Gae Bolg Noble Phantasm works; in that case, however, cause and effect are reversed to ensure that the lance will always pierce its target’s heart, whereas in the case of both Shirou and Archer’s outlook on archery, it is all about overcoming your own feelings of doubt.
Shirou still has plenty of his own feelings of doubt at this point, not least about the very nature of the Holy Grail War and how people he knows are involved with it. It’s Rin who gives him a dangerous lesson in just how serious a situation he has become involved with when she corners him at school in the evening after everyone else has gone home, and mercilessly attacks him with her magic — though interestingly, Archer is, in this case, nowhere to be seen.
Making a bad choice during this confrontation with Rin reveals an interesting snippet of story that you might not otherwise see. Should Shirou find himself succumbing to Rin’s assault, the last thing he hears before he passes out, only to awaken some time later with no memory of the Holy Grail War, Saber or Rin, is the latter saying “Goodbye, I don’t think you knew, but I’ve known you for a long time.” It transpires that Rin’s attack was not an attempt to actually hurt or kill Shirou, but rather to either “save” him by allowing him to go back to a normal life after being defeated, or to cause him to understand the seriousness of the situation.
Their battle is interrupted, however, when they come across a comatose girl in the corridor, which causes both of them concern; the Holy Grail War is a matter for magi, and both of them have no desire to involve outsiders. They have little time to consider the situation, however, as Shirou is attacked by a dagger on a chain, and pursues his unseen assailant outside as Rin attempts to tend to the girl.
Catching a glimpse of his estranged friend Shinji, whom we’ve already seen in Fate to be a fairly unpleasant individual, Shirou comes across the Servant Rider, who captures him, seemingly with no means of escape. But Shirou, ever determined to continue his role as a superhero, tries his hardest to free himself.
“You are brave,” says Rider. “You are always selecting the choice that brings you pain.” Rider likely has little idea of how right she is about this, but it’s true; one of the most important things to understand about Shirou is that if he has a choice between hurting himself to help someone else, or leaving someone to suffer while he saves himself, he will almost inevitably pick the former option.
When Rin comes to save him, he’s not even able to admit that he believes Shinji to be Rider’s Master, because he doesn’t want to give up on his friend, no matter how far from grace he might have fallen. He justifies this as not having enough proof, but his true intentions are pretty apparent by now.
Taken home to treat his wound — which is apparently healing quickly, thanks to his rapid healing ability that gets explained as part of the Fate route — Shirou has the opportunity to speak to Archer for the first time in a while, and gets a curious feeling that is seemingly rather out of character.
“I face him and instinctively feel that… I hate him,” he says. “I probably will never be able to accept him. It must be the same for Archer as he stares at me with enmity. Heh, I appreciate that. If he hates me, I can hate him back without holding back.”
“I have a better opinion of you,” says Archer to Shirou, reluctantly guarding him on the way back to his house. “It seems you can at least feel hostility. Wow, I thought you were a pacifist who wouldn’t even kill an insect.”
Archer’s assessment actually isn’t that far off the truth when we contrast the Shirou we’ve seen in Unlimited Blade Works by this point with the equivalent Shirou from Fate. In the latter case, Shirou was doing everything he could to prevent from having to fight — and moreover, from Saber having to fight, either — but there’s no such hesitation in Unlimited Blade Works’ Shirou. He knows by now that if he is going to save people, he is going to have to fight — quite possibly against this knight in red that stands before him — and that he should be ready for any possibility.
“I should try to be Tohsaka’s enemy for as long as I can if I don’t want to be mentally hurt,” Shirou says to himself. “Or else, what’s going to remain is a big scar. Because no matter which one of us wins, the survivor has to finish off the loser.”
By this point in the narrative, we’ve started to see the dreams of someone, experienced by both Shirou and Rin. Exactly who that “someone” might be isn’t made immediately explicit, but after the Fate route revealed that Masters often experience the past of Servants connected to them as dreams, we can draw some conclusions. We know that it is not Saber’s past, as we saw that in great detail in Fate, so the only person remaining must be Archer.
“It is his memories,” Shirou’s unconscious mind ponders during one instance of these dreams. “At the very least, it’s not mine. This is someone else’s story. It’s so long ago that he doesn’t even recall it. It’s so old that he doesn’t even try to recall it. It’s so ancient that he cannot recall it. It is a heavy burden of a contract that has been established and cannot be withdrawn.
“It’s not like he wanted something. If anything, he was the kind of guy that could not put up with anything. He cannot put up with having people cry around him. He cannot put up with having people get hurt around him. He cannot put up with having people die around him. That’s the only reason he had. And for that reason only, he tried to help everybody in his sight.
“But there’s one pitfall there. I said everybody in his sight. But one can never look at oneself. So in the end he could not save the most important person of all: himself.”
At this point it’s easy enough to draw some sort of conclusion about there being a connection between Shirou and Archer, since the reflections of the dream could just as easily apply to either of them. But the exact form of that connection still isn’t made fully apparent at this point in the story; we could conjecture, but there are still seeming inconsistencies.
There’s little time to ponder this, however, as the next night one of the main conflicts of Unlimited Blade Works begins, as the Servant Caster, only seen very briefly in Fate, summons Shirou to her hideout at the local mountaintop temple in order to take his Command Spell and claim Saber for herself.
Saber, meanwhile, notices that something is wrong and immediately heads off to rescue Shirou from this terrible fate, though she is accosted by the servant Assassin that guards the gate to the temple. As such, it ends up being Archer who gets to Shirou first and battles Caster, though his cynical comments about his young charge give the distinct impression that he is somewhat reluctant about the whole situation — even though he later claims to have come under his own volition.
Archer also claims to be open to the idea of allowing Caster to live so that she can finish off the other Masters in the town and make life easier for them — even knowing that doing so will mean the suffering of a great many innocent people as she continually sucks the magical energy out of the area.
“You cannot save everyone,” says Archer. “For example, the damage will extend beyond this town if Caster obtains the Holy Grail. That goes for Illyasviel and the other Masters. As far as I know, you and Rin are the only Masters that will not use the Holy Grail for your own good. Therefore, there will be more victims unless we win the Holy Grail War. In that case, we will sacrifice the people in this town for our benefit. It will be exactly as you want if the damage is reduced as a result.”
Shirou is utterly unconvinced by Archer’s words.
“One cannot save everyone,” he remembers. “Kiritsugu always said that. So I shouldn’t feel anything even if he says so — but it just pisses me off!”
Refusing to accept Archer’s way of thinking, Shirou rejects him utterly, but this is apparently the last straw for Archer.
“It is only hypocrisy for you to fight for someone else and not yourself,” he says. “You only wish for peace and not victory. Such a thing does not exist anywhere in this world. Farewell. Drown in your ideals and die.”
Shirou refuses to give up, however, and jumps back from what would be an otherwise fatal blow out of sheer willpower and desire to oppose this strange man he has come to hate so much.
But at the same time as the hatred he feels, Shirou experiences an altogether different feeling, too; while being rescued by Saber and observing a battle between Archer and Assassin, a wounded and rapidly fading Shirou makes the curious observation that “Archer is defending Assassin’s incomprehensible attacks with a technique I might be able to acquire… it’s natural that he’s strong. All the training he went through because he’s not extraordinary. He probably had nothing. That’s why he took the small thing he had, trained it with all his might and got it to that level.”
The next day, we start to get a hint of how important Shirou has become to Rin, as she admits that after the incident at the temple — which she emphatically did not approve of — she used her Command Spell to prevent Archer from attacking Shirou again while they were cooperating. Shirou is unaccustomed to someone doing something so generous for him, but understands the significance of such an action, and blows off the afternoon’s classes at school to talk about his past with Rin.
Their time together is interrupted by the activation of a magical boundary field at school, which Rin had become aware of some days previously. This time, Shirou and Rin cooperate fully with one another for the first time — Rin by using her magic, and Shirou both by supporting her and using his second Command Spell to summon Saber to their side. He is finally starting to act like a true Master, even though his abilities remain far behind those of Rin.
The pair discover that the boundary field, which is sucking the life out of everyone in the school, was the work of Shinji’s Servant Rider — but they are surprised to discover her slaughtered at the centre of the field, and Shinji cowering in fear. Shirou is even more surprised to discover that the previously unflappable Rin appears to be somewhat perturbed by the whole situation.
“Her face is that of Tohsaka Rin,” he observes. “But her knees are shaking and her eyes are wavering as if they are about to cry. I don’t know if she is filled with sorrow or vexation. But that tells me she is firm, can do everything, and is a mature magus. But she’s just a girl of her age on the inside.”
This moment raises another key theme of Unlimited Blade Works, and one that is handled somewhat less literally and obviously than the overarching concept of “conquering oneself” that the entirety of Fate/stay night is based around.
It is the concept of maturity, of becoming an adult. It is easy to forget in all the outlandish, otherworldly happenings of the story that both Shirou and Rin are just teenagers — teenagers with a connection to a world beyond normal human comprehension, yes, but still teenagers. Young people who are still growing, learning and coming to understand their place in the world — and in both their cases, without a real role model during these most important and turbulent of their formative years.
Rin’s apparent weakness during this moment is a combination of factors; it is her proving that she is human as well as a magus, but it is also a contrast with Shirou’s reaction, which she later comments on as him being alarmingly accustomed to the sight of corpses all around him — a lingering effect of his experiences in the fire of ten years ago.
It’s perhaps the inherent abnormality of their respective lives that encourages Rin to secretly make plans to take Shirou on a date — a day of pure enjoyment, when the pair of them can just forget about being Masters and be normal young people for once. The outcome is ultimately positive for the two of them, though Shirou finds himself a little conflicted at the idea of “fun”, having spent so long believing that other people are more important than he is.
“So that’s what it means,” he ponders when the day is almost over. “My nervousness went away because it’s fun. I was taken to many places without rest, and my anxiety was gone before I knew it. Tohsaka urges me to go to the next place, I respond reluctantly, and Saber quietly watches over us. It was really fun. The town I only used to walk by… I didn’t know all the things I didn’t involve myself in were so meaningful. As soon as I think so, something like a cage falls on me and I understand. I don’t deserve this. I’m unworthy of all this. It tells me so from deep down within me.”
The happiness and contentment is short-lived, however, as they return to Shirou’s house to discover the boundary field set up by Kiritsugu, intended to warn of uninvited guests, has been forcibly removed — and that Caster has invaded the house. The encounter culminates with Caster making use of her Noble Phantasm: a dagger known as Rule Breaker that can nullify any contract. She uses this to break the bond between Saber and Shirou — though Saber’s inherent magic resistance means that she’s not immediately under Caster’s control and at least allows her to tearfully beg Shirou and Rin to escape while they still can.
But the fact remains that Shirou is really on his own now; without Saber as a safety net to protect him, the only person by his side now is Rin, and attached to her is the dangerous person known as Archer. It is time for Shirou to grow up and stand on his own two feet — a fact seemingly emphasised by Rin’s sudden coldness towards him, believing him to be of no further use to her now that he is no longer a Master.
“I can’t let it become just a scar,” reflects Shirou later in the evening, all alone for the first time in quite a while. “Losing against others is inevitable. I’m used to being beat up, and it’s vexing, but I know I can’t reach them no matter what I do. But that’s only when my enemy is someone else. I can’t lose against myself. There’s no element that would make me lose if our powers are equal. To admit defeat against such an enemy is to declare that I’m wrong.
“I didn’t fight because I became a Master,” he continues. “I decided to fight because it’s something I can do, and I believed it’s something I have to do. I finally remember the obvious. If I believe it is right, I will believe in this path until the very end. I won’t stop, and I won’t let her fight by herself. I won’t let her call me a burden. I’ll heal this wound up in one night. And when I wake up in the morning, I’ll catch up to her for sure and repay her for what she did that night.”
It turns out that Rin is soon to find herself in a similar situation to Shirou, as during a confrontation with Caster, Archer betrays Rin, uses Caster’s Noble Phantasm to break his contract with her, and leaves her, like Shirou, as someone left to fend for themselves in the world.
“I might have made a mistake,” she confesses to Shirou after Archer manages to negotiate their release from Caster’s lair. “I should’ve done what Archer said and beaten Caster without caring about how I did it. I was trying to find an opening because I was worried about small sacrifices. But it turns out that everybody in this town might be sacrificed now. I’m not complaining, but I keep on screwing up when it counts the most. I can handle the second and third most important things with ease, but I always have a problem with the single most important one.”
This is a rare moment of vulnerability for Rin, who has, as we’ve previously seen, always prided herself on being “perfect” in every way it’s possible to be perfect: beautiful, bright, talented, unattainable. For her to confess that she knows she is not perfect to Shirou is hugely significant, and demonstrates quite how much she has come to trust and rely on him.
This is an important part of both Shirou and Rin’s growth into young adults: the acceptance that it’s not possible for either of them to do everything by themselves, and that it’s all right to depend on someone else once in a while. Moreover, depending on another person is very different from depending on a supernatural being such as a Servant.
With this in mind, the pair come to the the conclusion that the only way for them to defeat Caster now that she has Archer — and, once she breaks her resistance, Saber — is to collaborate with another Master. Unfortunately, options are fairly limited in that regard by now, with the only apparent remaining option being to seek out Illya and Berserker.
Feeling more than a little trepidation at the prospect given their previous encounter, the pair set off for Illya’s castle deep in the woods, unsure what to expect. But they’re surprised to discover someone else has got there first when they arrive: it’s Shinji, and he has acquired an incredibly powerful new Servant that seems to be overwhelming Berserker utterly.
Having experienced Fate’s story, it’s immediately apparent that this new Servant is Gilgamesh, and consequently not someone to be trifled with, primarily due to his apparently unlimited supply of Noble Phantasms that he can summon at will. But that doesn’t stop Shirou from attempting to jump in and do what he can, even as he witnesses the death of both Berserker and Illya at the newcomer’s hands.
We learned in Fate that Illya was destined to become the “vessel” for the Holy Grail to be brought into the world, so it’s unsurprising — albeit more than a little horrifying — to witness Gilgamesh taking her heart from her lifeless body. And having apparently accomplished his goal, he lets the defenseless Shirou and Rin go, leaving them to ponder exactly how they are going to get out of this situation.
They’re thrown a lifeline from an unexpected angle: Lancer, who we haven’t seen since those early battles in the common route, appears and offers to cooperate with them in the fight against Caster. His teasing inadvertently causes both Shirou and Rin to admit their true feelings for one another — a fact that he finds hilarious — and he also brings up a perspective on life that neither of them had considered before, especially given his previous status as a dangerous enemy.
“You have less composure than you look like you have,” he says to Rin as the three finally leave Illya’s castle to make their plans to counterattack Caster. “It should be natural for you to drink until dawn with someone that gets along with you, even if he may be your enemy.”
Lancer is goading the pair, but he’s also demonstrating another aspect of maturity: the ability to understand the fallibility of others, and to forgive their transgressions, particularly if they are someone who comes to be important to you. This is something that Shirou and Rin have already been doing subconsciously for one another almost from the outset; Shirou certainly never brings up the time that Rin apparently tried to kill him with her magic, for one, and Rin doesn’t dwell on any mistakes Shirou makes after any initially angry responses might be over and done with.
The final confrontation against Caster begins, with Lancer playing the role of a distraction for Archer while Shirou and Rin attempt to deal with the dangerous magical Servant. During the former’s encounter, we start to see more and more hints about Archer’s true identity, coming to a head when he effortlessly makes use of what appears to be the same kind of “projection” magic that Shirou comes to master as an extension of his pre-existing “strengthening” magic.
And indeed, little room is left for doubt when Archer once again turns traitor, this time on Caster, summoning a rain of swords to conclude the confrontation using the exact same incantation we have heard Shirou mutter numerous times throughout the narrative by now: “Trace, on.” Shirou finally understands, particularly as Archer continues to show murderous intent towards him even after the defeat of Caster and her master.
“The only calm ones are Archer and I,” he says. “It’s not that surprising. We hated each other from the start. We opposed each other, unable to get along. I don’t know why, but I just cannot approve of him. The reason behind it… if ‘that’ is really the reason for us not being able to approve of each other… it is natural for him to want to kill me.
“The man told me to drown in my ideals and die,” he continues. “The man said that my life is a false life. I could not object to those words because he was my ideal. A power to make the impossible possible. An existence that saved many people and became a heroic spirit. It was I who wanted to become such a person.”
Archer reveals his secret, and the truth behind the dreams Shirou and Rin have been seeing: his ability to conjure a “Reality Marble”, from which he is able to draw out the numerous swords he has seen and encountered over the years, and make use of them. The natural end point of Shirou’s ability to “project” the weapons he sees and understands. The Unlimited Blade Works.
Rin forms a new contract with Saber, allowing her to draw out her full power — but the confrontation comes to an end before she is able to defeat Archer. Instead, Archer’s only interest seems to be in killing Shirou Emiya once and for all so, taking Rin as a hostage, he urges him to fight a decisive battle the following day.
“I know the end of this big idiot who tried to be of help to others,” muses Rin, finally coming to understand the truth for herself in a dream as she is unconscious while being captured. “He became a guardian by force. He thought that it would be great if he could keep saving people even after he died. He could not save people when he was alive because he was powerless. But he believed he could avert every tragedy as a heroic spirit. Thinking so, he made a contract with the world, gave his body after his death, and saved a hundred or so people. He believed that he would be able to save more, tens of thousands of people, after his death.
“But such hope was betrayed. Heroic spirits are summoned only into hell. They appear only when the world is about to be destroyed by people. Humans are beings that will perish from their own doings. So the process of destruction must always be the same. He was summoned only into these ‘hells’. In the land of death where the ones he wanted to save were already dead, he killed even more humans. The boy who stated he just doesn’t want to see anyone cry could only see crying humans forever.”
Herein lies the very root of Archer’s bitterness and resentment towards Shirou. As the apparent eventual endpoint of Shirou’s idealism, his desire to “save everyone”, even at the expense of himself, he is embittered by the fact that having the opportunity to do so as a heroic spirit in fact achieves nothing more than allowing him the continual, eternal opportunity to see humans suffering time after time — because without that suffering, there would be no need for the heroic spirits. The desire to protect something is the desire for something to violate it, after all; he has always known this.
And so, Archer believes, the best way to resolve this situation would be to cut off the problem at its source: if he is able to kill “himself” before he even has the opportunity to become a heroic spirit in the first place, he will be freed from his eternal torment; the contract that he made with the world that can never be broken.
Moreover, another source of Archer’s bitterness is that this wish is not his own; it is simply an attempt to continue what Kiritsugu started, an attempt to repay a debt which could never be repaid. The never-ending ideal to become the superhero that saves everyone. But Shirou is resistant.
“This is just a dream,” he says. “I kept on believing in it because I thought it was right. Kiritsugu pursued it because he knew it was an unattainable dream, an impossible ideal. I don’t mind losing against someone, but I can’t lose against myself. I will keep on being Emiya Shirou!”
“It isn’t a mistake,” he repeats to himself — and to his future self — over and over and over again. “It isn’t a mistake!” It’s this resolve that allows Shirou to ultimately prevail over one possible endpoint of his ideal; the determination not to become as bitter and twisted as Archer is.
There’s little room to celebrate victory, however, as Gilgamesh shows up once again, raising the final thing that Shirou has to overcome.
“You have nothing real within you,” Gilgamesh says to both Archer and Shirou, referring to their ability to “project” weapons. “An imitation made by copying people should be turned into junk.”
Shirou has, by this point, already recognised this fact. Up until this point in the narrative, he has been subconsciously imitating Archer, even though he claimed to hate him; absorbing his techniques, his tactics, his mannerisms. But his ultimate victory over “himself” comes when he abandons all of those techniques and fights as his own self for once.
“Yes, that’s exactly right,” admits Shirou to himself during his final confrontation against Gilgamesh. “My wishes are all borrowed. I just admired the wish of wanting to help someone because it’s beautiful. So there’s nothing that came from within me. My body has always been driven by a curse-like obsession with helping others. That’s why I admired the ideal. Because it was something I did not have, and its sanctity brought tears to my eyes. Is that wrong? Is it a fake if it’s not mine? Even if my wish is fake, is it wrong for it to come true?”
“But there is no rule that an imitation cannot defeat the original,” he says to Gilgamesh, facing him down for the final time. “If you say you are the original, I shall surpass every one of your weapons and destroy your existence.”
Shirou’s confidence stems from the faith that he will be able to summon the sword-filled Reality Marble in the same way as Archer did — though his ability to do this only came about as an ultimate expression of the cooperation between him and Rin.
Knowing that Shirou would be unable to summon the magical energy necessary to perform such a powerful act of magic by himself, Rin formed a contract with Shirou through having sex with him, allowing the pair of them to share their magical energy with one another. This was an ultimately pretty selfless act on Rin’s part, since although she clearly wanted to be intimate with Shirou, having already fallen in love with him by this point, their first time together was less than pleasant for her. She nonetheless persisted, however, and was able to form the contract despite excruciating pain — and it’s this that allows Shirou to finally defeat Gilgamesh.
“That will be the cause of his defeat,” reflects Shirou. “He is the greatest heroic spirit, as he has over a thousand Noble Phantasms at his leisure. But he is only an ‘owner’. He does not have one weapon, so he is not a ‘wielder’ who can use his weapon to its maximum potential. Therefore, this is the only Servant I can match. As we have the same ability, as we are both ‘owners’, I am always one step ahead of him since my swords are there, ready to be used!”
Here Shirou is referring to Gilgamesh’s ability to conjure weapons — specifically, the original forms of all the legendary weapons of the world, much like the Gilgamesh of myth — and fling them at his enemies. Gilgamesh takes time to summon them from the void he apparently plucks them from, while Shirou’s use of the Unlimited Blade Works Reality Marble allows him to have any sword he had “made” in his hand in an instant. And that is what ultimately gives him the edge over his foe; the ability to overcome “an original” with “an imitation”.
And this is really the heart of Shirou’s narrative: he is overcoming Kiritsugu’s “original” desire to be a superhero with his own “imitation” — and surpassing his adoptive father’s wishes in the process. Kiritsugu was never able to feel like he atoned for the disaster he caused at the end of the previous Holy Grail War, though saving Shirou was an attempt to start this process. He died before he was able to realise his dream of becoming a superhero, however, but his last words — spoken as Shirou promised to continue what he had started — expressed relief, as if knowing that his adopted son and pupil would one day be able to surpass him.
By the end of Unlimited Blade Works, Shirou has come to both understand and accept himself. Moreover, he is not alone, either; he has Rin, who has also come to accept who he is, his limitations and his capabilities.
There are two possible conclusions to Unlimited Blade Works according to the choices you make throughout the narrative. Both of them look like they will ultimately turn out rather differently for Shirou than the possibility shown by Archer’s existence, however; while the Shirou that became Archer died alone and unappreciated even for all the tireless work he did, the current Shirou now has Rin by his side, promising to support him and train his magical ability.
While Shirou has had his ideals questioned constantly over the course of the Unlimited Blade Works narrative, he ultimately holds firm to them, standing up for what he believes in until the very end.
“Even if his heart is a fake, the beauty of what he believed in is real,” reads the final third-person narration of Unlimited Blade Works, calling back to Archer’s final battle with his past self. “That is something he cannot lie about. And it is the origin of his powers. But he earns a small answer. The answer is only for this summoning. It is a meaningless thing that he will forget the next time he is summoned.
“But there is nothing to regret. It is something that has already been built up, something that the boy will build using all his life.”
Shirou Emiya is going to be fine, even if he becomes Heroic Spirit Emiya. Because he is no longer alone, and he is loved.
More about Fate/stay night
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