Fate/stay night: The Friction of Real and Ideal

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Fate/stay night’s final route Heaven’s Feel is a culmination of everything that has come before.

Longer, more complex, more challenging and concluding with a definite sense of “finality”, it’s a fitting end to an enormously ambitious visual novel — as well as just the beginning of something that would go on to become a worldwide phenomenon.

So let’s dive into the Holy Grail War for one last time and see where this epic (in every sense of the word) ends up…

From writer Kinoku Nasu’s description of Heaven’s Feel as being based around the core theme of “the friction between the real and the ideal”, the natural conclusion to draw is that the narrative here will be a study in contrasts. It most certainly is that, but what’s particularly interesting about this final route is on quite how many different levels this “friction” is explored.

The most obvious conflict is something we’ve seen right from the beginning of Fate/stay night: the friction between a normal existence and the hidden world of the magi.

In her prologue, Rin Tohsaka describes magi as being “incompatible with the modern world”, yet does not attempt to hide herself away by any means. In fact, some might argue that her desire to curate an image of “perfection” for herself is causing her to stand out more than she would do otherwise — but at the same time, the fact others perceive her as “flawless” means that she actually keeps barriers around herself.

Protagonist Shirou comments at numerous times throughout all three routes of Fate/stay night that spending a protracted amount of time with Rin has caused his image of her as the perfect honour student to be completely destroyed; he describes the front she puts up to the world as a “mask” that she dons when she goes out into society, and a deliberate attempt to keep everyone at arm’s length.

Shirou is, in many ways, the opposite to Rin. Prior to the Holy Grail War getting underway and him getting involved in proceedings thanks to his “death” on Lancer’s spear-tip and subsequent apparently accidental summoning of Saber, he’s done his best to live an eminently normal existence despite his life circumstances being anything but normal.

Orphaned ten years prior to the events of the game in what we learn over the course of Fate and Unlimited Blade Works to be a fire caused by the final battle of the previous Holy Grail War, Shirou has learned to fend for himself, but he isn’t alone. On the contrary, when we meet him at the outset of the story, we see him being helped around the house by his underclassman Sakura Matou, who seemingly comes over every day to help him cook and keep him company, and his teacher and guardian Fujimura.

Fujimura’s relationship with Shirou is explained as being due to her being a friend of his foster father Kiritsugu, who died some four years previously, but from the outset it’s clear that there’s something a little odd going on with Sakura. She’s unusually compliant, and seems absolutely devoted to Shirou — or at least taking care of Shirou — to the exclusion of almost everything else in her life.

“I’m grateful for the help,” says Shirou early in the story, “but you should relax, Sakura. You should sleep in during the mornings, and after school is for playing around. You don’t have to come and help around my house.”

Sakura’s justification is that her only hobbies are archery and cooking, and that she enjoys coming to Shirou’s house to cook — if only to improve her skills so that she can someday surpass him in the kitchen.

On the surface, it’s a picture of absolute domestic bliss, and indeed in the Heaven’s Feel route of Fate/stay night, which primarily focuses on Sakura as the main heroine, there’s a much greater occurrence of the sort of “everyday” scenes you’d get in a more conventional slice-of-life visual novel with no supernatural elements. There’s the young girl wanting her senpai to be happy with the things she cooks for him. There’s the embarrassed awkwardness whenever either of them says something that could be even slightly interpreted as intimate. There’s boxed lunches on the school roof, blushing and enormous amounts of repressed emotions and feelings.

This aspect of Heaven’s Feel is particularly striking after playing Fate and Unlimited Blade Works, because both of those got down to “business” relatively quickly once the story was out of the prologue period and into the route-specific content. Sakura was all but written out of both of these routes by their midpoint, leaving Shirou to deal exclusively with the distinctly not-normal Rin and Saber. In Heaven’s Feel, however, the “slice-of-life” scenes punctuate the more fantastic scenes fairly regularly until quite late in the overall narrative, helping to create one of the numerous instances of “friction between real and ideal” — only in this case, the mundane, down to earth (some might say “realistic”) scenes are actually the “ideal”, and the outlandish supernatural happenings are the “real”.

Sakura herself is another example of this friction. The character she shows to us at the outset of the story — the demure, compliant, cooperative, blushing housewife — is the “ideal”, but as Heaven’s Feel’s main narrative gets underway, it’s clear that the “real” is by no means as simple. We see Sakura take ill with an unexplained fever, and we also get hints of a somewhat strained home life — something that we’ve also seen in the other routes with the unpleasant way her brother (and Shirou’s estranged friend) Shinji behaves towards her.

Witnessing an unusually weak Sakura, Shirou becomes especially conscious of this strange conflict between the ideal of Sakura and the reality — not just with regard to her current condition, but how she is generally.

“Sakura has grown beautiful,” he reflects to himself, gazing on her in the school classroom at sunset. “No, she was beautiful before, but I think she’s become too beautiful as a member of the opposite sex. On top of that, she’s thoughtful and gentle. With that many good qualities, I can understand her being called beautiful alongside Tohsaka Rin. But it’s strange, I don’t understand it. Sakura is alone often. She doesn’t seem to have any friends in the archery club, and seeing how she’s alone in this classroom, she might not have any friends in her class either.”

Further tension is brought between the idyllic domestic ideal and the reality of the Holy Grail War once the latter is underway. Stumbling across a Servant apparently feeding on a human being while patrolling the town with Saber, Shirou is shocked to discover that Sakura’s brother Shinji is apparently a Master too — something we as the audience already knew from the other routes — and that, moreover, the Matou grandfather Zouken is anything but a harmless old man.

Shirou hopes against hope that Sakura remains uninvolved in the Holy Grail War, and draws some comfort from what he knows of the traditions of magi: only one child is ever named as a “successor”, while any others are either put up for adoption or raised in ignorance. Seeing Shinji acting as a Master naturally leads to the assumption that he is the successor of the Matou family, but Shirou didn’t count on there being repercussions for Sakura if he defeated Shinji without killing him — something that he naturally wants to achieve in his quest to end the Holy Grail War while minimising its victims.

The following day, Sakura shows up with a bruise on her face, which she attributes to having simply fallen over, but Shirou already knows the truth about how Shinji takes out his anger on his sister. And getting defeated made him very angry indeed.

“I’m the one who caused the trouble,” Shirou muses to himself. “I should’ve expected this when I fought Shinji last night. I have to think of a way… a way to keep Sakura smiling.”

Shirou’s quest to keep Sakura smiling forms a core part of the overall narrative for Heaven’s Feel, and also provides another significant source of “friction between real and ideal”.

We see numerous times throughout all three routes that Shirou’s rescue from the fire ten years ago by Kiritsugu left him with a considerable amount of survivor’s guilt, which manifested itself as a desire to help other people ahead of helping himself. He latched onto what he saw as Kiritsugu’s “ideal” — to be a “superhero” — and, as his foster father breathed his last some four years before Fate/stay night begins, promised to uphold these ideals and become a new generation of “superhero”.

Shirou’s nature and promise to Kiritsugu causes different types of friction in all three routes — in Fate, his desire to protect Saber got in the way of her own desires and, at the outset at least, showed a lack of respect for her own power; in Unlimited Blade Works, his ideals were revealed to culminate in the creation of Archer, or “heroic spirit Emiya”, a being who had become embittered by constantly struggling to save others at his own expense and ending up unappreciated at best, scorned at worst.

In Heaven’s Feel, this friction doesn’t come to a head until later in the narrative, but we already start to see some hints that Shirou’s priorities are a little different in this route when he skips school — and a regular meeting with Rin, with whom he is, by now, cooperating, as in the other routes — in order to take care of the still-struggling Sakura. But, we learn, Sakura is one of the few people that is able to compete with Shirou in terms of stubbornness, and thus clearly has a strong hold over his heart, even long before the pair of them acknowledge their true feelings for one another.

Shirou is pretty blind to both his own feelings and Sakura’s affections to begin with. Curiously, it ends up being Rin who admonishes him any time he makes Sakura worry or breaks a promise he made with her, despite the fact that the two do not apparently have any connection with one another. But Rin’s reactions to these transgressions are surprisingly intense, so it’s obvious that she, for some reason, believes the relationship between Shirou and Sakura to be somehow important.

Something about the Holy Grail War is different this time around, too. While each of the three routes has seen different opponents for Shirou, Saber, Rin and Archer take centre stage, there’s an altogether different atmosphere to the battles in Heaven’s Feel. Perhaps most notably, Caster, who is a formidable opponent in Unlimited Blade Works in particular and still a nasty piece of work in Fate, is absolutely obliterated along with her Master — who isn’t even named in Heaven’s Feel, despite Unlimited Blade Works revealing it to be one of Shirou’s teachers from school — relatively early in the narrative.

There are two key differences in the Holy Grail War as depicted in Heaven’s Feel. The first is the presence of Sakura’s grandfather Zouken, whom we come to learn is a powerful magus that has been able to live for hundreds of years by manipulating horrifying “worms” to infest and take over other bodies, making him effectively immortal.

The second is the presence of an unexplained shadowy creature that we first encounter shortly after an encounter between Team Shirou and Zouken. This unknown entity fills everyone — even, seemingly, Zouken — with fear and uneasiness, though Archer appears to have a surprising amount of familiarity with it.

Given what we learn in Unlimited Blade Works — that Archer is an incarnation of one of Shirou’s possible futures — we can interpret that the cynical red knight has been through all this before, perhaps several times, and that he knows the appearance of the creature is a serious enough matter to set aside his own personal grudge against present-day Shirou. He also notes that Shirou’s “intuition is correct” about what the shadow actually is, though this little bit of foreshadowing doesn’t have a payoff until much later in the narrative.

The shadow itself, we learn, is responsible for a lot of the unexplained comas and deaths that occur in the “background” of the Holy Grail War over the course of the complete narrative. We can also infer, given what we see during the finale sequences of both Fate and Unlimited Blade Works, that it has something to do with the “Holy Grail”, given the corrosive nature of the “mud” it appears to consist of and the way in which it spreads corruption. This is not, however, the result of the Holy Grail summoning ritual reaching its conclusion as in the other routes, however; this is something a little different, acting apparently independently and by no means confined to one location.

The true scale of the horrifying power the shadow commands becomes apparent when Shirou and Saber go to investigate the local temple and find themselves separated, with Shirou confronting Zouken and Saber confronting his Servant Assassin. Although enjoying the upper hand over Assassin, Saber is eventually overcome and completely swallowed by the shadow, leaving Shirou to fend for himself in an entirely different way from how he was separated from Saber in Unlimited Blade Works.

Saber’s “death” in Heaven’s Feel is a particularly powerful moment, as for the previous two routes and much of the first part of the third, she’s been a constant, comforting presence, both for Shirou and the reader. We’ve been led to believe that she is the most powerful Servant, guaranteed to prevail in pretty much any fight she finds herself in — so to see her end be so undignified, so unavoidable, is genuinely saddening, and we are right there with Shirou as he finds it difficult to truly “let go”.

Shirou’s nature, however, which we’re already well familiar with, prevents him from just bowing out gracefully from the Holy Grail War even without a Servant. He can’t just give up, even if he wanted to — but his resolve is further strengthened when Shinji kidnaps Sakura and demands to fight Shirou.

This incident ends up being a turning point for the narrative, as it is right here that we discover Shinji was not the successor to the Matou family lineage, but Sakura — a fact she had kept hidden from everyone, even as she was a lot more aware of what was happening around her than she let on. Moreover, we also learn that Sakura is actually Rin’s sister, but the Tohsaka family gave her to the Matous in an attempt to allow them to revitalise their fading magical bloodline.

What makes this revelation particularly horrifying is an earlier third-person “interlude” scene in which we learned how the Matou family “trains” its successors — and, by extension, Sakura — through the use of “lust worms” that violate the body and mind. It becomes very apparent that Sakura’s position as the Matou successor is not a privilege in the slightest; it is a curse that forced her into a life of compliance and perpetual physical, mental and sexual abuse. Suddenly a number of aspects of her personality start to make a lot more sense.

It transpires that part of the abuse Sakura suffered involved the implantation of a “crest worm”, a parasitic familiar that would allow Zouken to both monitor and “punish” Sakura if she stepped out of line. In other words, despite being the successor of the Matou line of magi and a Master in the Holy Grail War, she has no real free will in her own right, and is potentially completely under the old man’s control.

Here we have another example of the friction between real and ideal, this time reading things on a slightly more meta perspective.

Your average visual novel heroine — particularly in an eroge such as Fate/stay night’s original incarnation — is either strongly implied or explicitly stated to be a pure virgin. One of the reasons H-scenes in this type of game are often full of meaning beyond simple titillation is that the act of the heroine “giving” her virginity to the protagonist is, more often than not, a highly symbolic moment representing a deep sense of trust between the pair. There is often heavy emphasis on the initial pain of penetration — a reflection of the courage it takes to let someone in to your heart and reveal your true self — followed by the symbolic flowing of blood and the subsequent pleasure of intimacy.

Fate/stay night actually undermines this common trope on a few different occasions. The sex scene in Fate, for example, is born from pure necessity — Saber will die if she does not receive magical energy from Shirou, and the most efficient way for that to happen is for them to have sex. It begins as an awkward, functional act, but everyone (including Rin, who is watching having initiated the whole encounter) is pretty into it by the end of proceedings.

By contrast, the sex scene in Unlimited Blade Works between Shirou and Rin is once again primarily born from necessity and obligation, but this time around, there’s no time for romance and pleasure; the whole thing seems to be rather unpleasant for Rin in particular and quite embarrassing for Shirou, even though the pair of them, by this point, clearly have feelings for one another.

Despite this, however, both of these scenes feature the usual “taking the heroine’s virginity” moment, demonstrating that even in the midst of chaos, there is still an opportunity for humans to develop a meaningful physical and emotional connection with one another.

The revelations about Sakura in Heaven’s Feel, meanwhile, mean that there will be no such moment between Shirou and Sakura, even though the earlier “slice of life” moments — which, by this point, feel like they were a long time ago — suggest that of all the possible couplings in the game, they are the ones who most deserve a soft focus “p-please be gentle, Senpai” sex scene. Sakura is, symbolically speaking, “damaged” — and thus the reality of her existence is at odds with the ideal she attempts to project in the early scenes in which we encountered her.

Sakura’s past abuse is important for another reason, too; much as Shirou suffers survivor’s guilt for being able to walk away from the disaster of ten years ago, Sakura, too, is filled with guilt and a sense of disgust at the things she has been subjected to over her life, with seemingly no way to repent for what she perceives to be her “sins”.

Shirou learning all this leads to yet another conflict between real and ideal — this time between the ideal which he has carried inside himself for the past ten years, the one given to him by Kiritsugu, and the reality of the situation in which he finds himself.

“Where the responsibility lies, existence of good and evil,” he ponders. “Losing Sakura will weigh more heavily on me than either of those things. I don’t even need to think about it. I just want to protect Sakura, that’s all.”

And with that, for the first time, Shirou Emiya casts aside the ideal for which he has been fighting for all this time in favour of wanting to save just one person.

“If you’re going to protect the belief you’ve had until now, that’s fine,” Archer had said to him before he made his final decision. “But, if you choose another path, there will be no future for Emiya Shirou. You have existed until now to let people live. How can you throw away that oath and discard everyone to save one person? I don’t know which path Emiya Shirou will choose. But if you are to deny everything you’ve done to save one person, the crime will definitely judge you.”

Shirou’s decision, in turn, leads to further conflict — both with Rin, who believes that, as Zouken’s puppet, Sakura is too dangerous to let live, and with the truth of Sakura’s current condition, which Shirou is led to believe is terminal. But he refuses to give up on her, even as it seems everyone else has.

“Someone I want to protect,” Shirou says to himself. “Someone important to me. Someone I never thought I would lose. If I don’t want her to cry any more, I have to take her hand and lead her to a place in the sun. Sakura says I should never have learned about this. But if that were the case, she would have just kept on crying. I can’t let her cry any more. If Sakura has to blame herself because nobody will blame her… even if nobody would forgive her, I would keep forgiving her in her place.”

This speech is a callback to a much earlier conversation between Shirou and Sakura in which Sakura asks if Shirou would forgive her if she became a “bad person”. Shirou replied that he’d get mad if she did something bad — probably more mad than anyone else. But in this instance, she hasn’t done anything wrong — her sense of guilt is entirely misplaced, but, sadly, not at all unusual for victims of sexual abuse.

The idea of friction between real and ideal is given physical embodiment a little later in the narrative, when Shirou and Rin seek to ally with Illya and Berserker against Zouken, only to be confronted by two horrifying events: the defeat of Berserker by a blackened, evil version of Saber, and the re-emergence of the shadowy entity, which burns off Shirou’s left arm and mortally wounds Archer.

Shirou awakens a while after this incident to discover that despite the disastrous happenings, they were at least successful in rescuing Illya — and moreover, he seems to have a new arm where his old one was burnt away. The arm belongs to Archer — the idealised form of Shirou — and, despite technically being part of the “same” person, isn’t entirely compatible with his body, because humans and embodiments of heroic spirits aren’t quite the same thing.

Much of the rest of the narrative features Shirou feeling enormously conflicted over the presence of this arm. It’s a reminder of his own weakness, the possibility of enormous power, and potentially something that will destroy his body and mind utterly. He’s repeatedly given conflicting advice on whether or not to use it or whether it’s safe to even take off the shroud that protects him from being overwhelmed by its magical energy, but ultimately this is something Shirou will have to determine for himself.

Meanwhile, we see further friction between the ideal of the Sakura we see in the early hours of the story and what she ends up becoming towards its conclusion. We see a number of third-person “interlude” sequences depicting her dreams, one of which appears to show her being responsible for the deaths of a number of people, and in her interactions with Shirou we see that she is slowly losing her grip on both her physical strength and her sanity — and we also learn that she is, like Illya, a vessel for the Holy Grail.

The foreshadowing comment that Archer made earlier was a reference to this: the shadowy creature is part of Sakura and is drawing strength from her in preparation to be born into the world. Living as her shadow and, at times, controlling her, she starts to lose her understanding of good and evil as well as any sort of restraints on how she “should” behave.

A particularly potent example of this comes when Shinji attempts to rape her — something which, we come to understand, he’s done very frequently, piling further abuse atop the violations Zouken inflicted on her. She kills him, but feels nothing as a result, only that it was “easy”, and that it might have been “fun”.

This incident causes Sakura’s mind to break completely, leading to her completely accepting the shadow once and for all, which had been Zouken’s intention all along.

“I cannot make her put her mind to it,” Zouken explains to Shirou. “She hates me too much. So I had to have you or Shinji break her down. I needed Sakura to feel despair in this world to have her accept her own shadow.”

“I finally understand now,” says Sakura, by now so in tune with the shadow that she has taken on a different appearance, seemingly clad in its black and red darkness. “I hate this world. The Tohsaka family that threw me away. Nee-san, who lived without any troubles. My scary grandfather and my pitiful brother. The people living peacefully without knowing about my pain. I can’t allow such things now. I know I’m just taking my anger out on others. I know it’s wrong, but I still think this way. Yes. I wonder what kind of face the people who haven’t helped me will make when they realise I exist.”

Although swallowed by darkness and growing addicted to violence, Sakura is, at this point, finally being honest with herself. She is angry with the world for forsaking her, quite understandably. She is angry with her birth family for abandoning her to a horrible fate; she is angry with her adoptive family for abusing her; she is angry with Rin for being the one who escaped the torture she endured; and she is angry with Shirou for never knowing how much she was suffering.

Sakura’s fury gives her strength, though. She gains the strength to overcome her grandfather and his Servant Assassin, so by the time Shirou and Rin reach the cave in which the ritual to fully birth the shadow — the forbidden Servant, Avenger, also known as Angra Mainyu, the embodiment of all the world’s evils — she is finally, once and for all, in control of her own destiny… aside from her bond with the unborn Servant.

The final battles of Heaven’s Feel represent the final battles between many of the cast members and the “ideals” they have to cast aside in order to accomplish their goals. Of particular note is Shirou’s final confrontation with the blackened Saber; forever corrupted by Angra Mainyu’s taint, there is no way she can be saved and brought back to the “ideal” Saber he once knew, so he has no reasonable choice but to kill her. She does not resist; even in her corrupted state, her nobility shines through, and it seems that she knows what must be done.

Meanwhile, Rin and Sakura’s final confrontation allows the latter to finally say all the things she has clearly wanted to say for many years, but has been unable to due to fear of her adoptive family and a sense of guilt and shame over the abuse she has endured. The realisation that Rin was — is — her ideal, forever seemingly unattainable due to a world that had seemingly forsaken her. By the time Shirou reaches her, she’s come to a few difficult realisations about the mistakes she has made in dealing with her hardships — the most recent of which is mortally wounding her beloved sister, despite knowing that she cared for her.

“Sakura’s rejecting everything,” observes Shirou as he approaches. “Her own body, covered in Tohsaka’s blood, her darkened self, the pillar connected to her. She’s cursing everything with all her might. She’s hating herself, refusing the temptations from the shadow and trying to kill herself.”

“But I’ll protect you,” he says to her. “I’ll protect you from everything. It may be hypocrisy, but my ideal has always been to protect the one I love.”

Shirou’s words here deserve some consideration, because for all his agonising over the “ideals” he inherited from Kiritsugu, his behaviour in all three routes of Fate/stay night make it clear that he is more than willing to lay his life on the line for someone he has come to love and care about. This is made most explicit in Heaven’s Feel, when he makes an outright declaration that he is abandoning his former ideals, but we also see evidence of it in both Fate, where he does his best to try and “save” Saber from her already-determined destiny, and Unlimited Blade Works, where he seeks to prove his worth to Rin, the girl he has admired and respected for so long.

Heaven’s Feel’s final confrontation has the highest stakes, so it’s fitting that Shirou makes the biggest sacrifice to bring things to a conclusion. Releasing the power of Archer’s arm to draw upon the power of the Unlimited Blade Works and summon the weapons with which to bring the battles to a close, his body starts to break down, the overflowing magical energy from the arm causing any wound he takes to be “healed” not naturally but rapidly, as during his bond with Saber, but instead by his flesh gradually being taken over by endless swords.

Shirou’s final act of heroism in destroying the soon to be born Angra Mainyu destroys his body utterly once and for all. The ultimate conflict between real and ideal; an ideal protagonist would save the day and walk away proudly into the sunset with the girl… however, the reality of the matter is that things, unfortunately, are not quite that neat and tidy.

The final outcome of Heaven’s Feel can be one of two things… appropriately enough, one offering a “realistic” conclusion, another an “ideal”.

Friction until the very end. Because life is never as simple as you might want it to be, whether you’re living a mundane existence or battling for the fate of reality. All we can really do as humans is try to make the right decisions along the way and deal with the consequences. And that’s what keeps life interesting.

More about Fate/stay night

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