「I. presage flower」
First, some context for Fate/stay night. The Fate franchise is such an unwieldy juggernaut at this point that I fear that there are anime viewers who get lost before they even start. There’s a prequel in Fate/Zero, and various alternate-universe spinoffs, but it all started with the original visual novel Fate/stay night. That, itself, was a tale in three parts. Something like the first Fate route was adapted by Deen many years ago, ufotable adapted the middle Unlimited Blade Works only recently, and now they’re back with the third of the trilogy, Heaven’s Feel. I say ‘trilogy’ because while the three routes exist in parallel and do not follow each other chronologically, each builds on the one that precedes it and together they form a cohesive thematic arc. As far as anime goes, one should really watch them in order. Therefore, the first question this Heaven’s Feel movie has to ask is, having already had the various iterations of Fate/stay nights preceding it, how much old ground will it retread? How much allowance will it give new fans? The answer seems to be: not much. Kotomine will give his melodramatic speech about the Holy Grail War but for the most part nothing from previous series will be explained. By the way, who’s Kotomine? Well, Heaven’s Feel assumes you already know him, along with all the other kooks in weird clothes who will drop in unannounced. This scene? Old fans have seen it, what, three times already, so Heaven’s Feel is happy to montage its way through all of it. So, just a warning: ufotable is working off its previous two adaptations (Fate/Zero and Unlimited Blade Works) and knowledge of those two works will definitely help. Heck, watch Kara no Kyoukai as well while you’re at it. Can’t hurt.
One thing that Heaven’s Feel takes extra time on, above and beyond its source, is what happened prior to the start of the Holy Grail War: the prologue. But more than provide exposition or setup, this prologue is for building Shirou’s relationship with an easily overshadowed character of Fate/stay night: Matou Sakura (and, by extension, her easily reviled brother Shinji). This is an addition to the original visual novel, but I welcome it. For one thing, Sakura is supposed to be the female lead of Heaven’s Feel. Each of the three routes of Fate/stay night had a designated love interest for Shirou, and just as Saber was the ‘heroine’ of Fate and Rin the ‘heroine’ of UBW, Sakura plays the star role in Heaven’s Feel. But Sakura was always the weakest of the three heroines. For one thing, she just does not have a lot of presence. Whereas Saber and Rin are ubiquitous in all three routes (Saber is always summoned as Shirou’s Servant, and Rin always becomes his ally), Sakura stays behind the curtain for most of the most part. I have the feeling that she’s had more screentime in this film than she’s had in all of the other Fate/stay night adaptations combined. The larger point, though, is that, unlike Saber and Rin, Sakura is never a protagonist. in Fate Saber is at the very least the deuteragonist, arguably more important than Shirou at times. In UBW, Rin readily takes the lead. But Sakura? You can tell for yourself, right? Heaven’s Feel is her route, presage flower is her movie, but she’s not given much agency here either. That’s not her fault, nor even the fault of the writing. That’s just the character she is and the role she plays. She’s not a protagonist. She’s a victim. Which makes the additional development afforded her in the prologue, even if just from Shirou’s perspective, extra necessary. It still needs to be stressed that Sakura’s role, such as it is, will still be large and still be important, and we should get to know her as much as possible while we can.
Even though Sakura is not the same kind of leading lady as Saber or Rin, she’s the actually perfect kind for Heaven’s Feel. After all Heaven’s Feel is supposed to be a counterpoint to the rest of Fate/stay night and I hope that you can already tell that it’s going to be a very different sort of anime from UBW. I may have mentioned this when I was blogging that show, but Heaven’s Feel is where writer Nasu Kinoko shows his true form. The Fate franchise has a reputation as being something of an action-thriller, filled with over-the-top fight scenes. This is especially true with UBW which was a roller-coaster ride that only occasionally paused for characters to monologue. Those who have read some of Nasu’s older works like Kara no Kyoukai or Tsukihime know that his true speciality is horror. Of course, there’s only a fine line behind thriller and horror, but Heaven’s Feel definitely leans towards the latter much of the time. And this is Japanese horror, the kind you may be familiar with through cult classics like The Ring or videogames like Silent Hill. The essence of Japanese horror is not gore or zombies — though of course Heaven’s Feel has both — but claustrophobia. It is less about momentary terror brought by jump-scares and more about a pervasive, crushing atmosphere, a persistent discomfort and paranoia. This is one of those things I wish presage flower emphasised more, and where the text medium of the visual novel may actual have an advantage over anime — forced to visualise in our own heads, readers are more susceptible to the suffocating horror and fall prey to our own dark imagination. No matter the form, though, horror is about exploring disempowerment, which contrasts the entirety of Fate/stay night. Heroes are all about empowerment, about human triumph, about overcoming great odds. Even in death heroes do not fade but expire dramatically, inspiring stories where they are immortalised. Not so in Heaven’s Feel. The main foe, such as we see it, is not some villain to be defeated. It is a formless monster. It cannot be fought. Heroes that stand against it are not felled in glorious battle, they are devoured, ignominiously, one by one. This is the kind of story in which Sakura is placed, this is the reason foes are now more creepy than powerful, and this is why, after only the first volume of Heaven’s Feel anime, most of the old cast are dead and Saber is already gone. Nasu is sending a message. This is not the same Fate/stay night. Prepare yourselves.
An effective message, but a rather unfair one to leave us with as a cliffhanger. I suppose the purpose is served — after I finished watching presage flower I immediately wanted more. Even after two hours, it does feel like we’ve hardly started. Maybe it’s a masochistic thing to say in the face of horror, but still: more, please. If you feel the same way, please join me here again for lost butterfly
Many thanks to Pancakes for helping with the pictures for this post.
ED: 「花の唄」 (Hana no Uta) by Aimer