Idealism and Heroism: Fate/stay night Unlimited Blade Works route

by eternal on September 5, 2009

Unlimited Blade Works

What is a hero? A miserable pile of ideals? Wikipedia defines the word as a person who selflessly and courageously faces danger for the sake of a greater good, while it defines superhero as a person who protects the weak and innocent by fighting evil. Heroes are ubiquitous in fiction, long before the days of Superman; the concept of heroism extends into the days of mythology, when the world was a radically different place.

Thus, it’s only fitting that Emiya Shirou, the main protagonist of Fate/stay night, should share something in common with these summoned heroes that he must fight alongside and against. His wish is to become a superhero, to save everyone and eliminate the need for sacrifice. It’s a naive ideal at first, possibly as frustrating to the reader as it is to Tohsaka Rin, but the moral battle grows ambiguous when the red knight arrives to play Devil’s Advocate.

The sword is Emiya Shirou’s life. It can be viewed as a literal representation of his desire to grow stronger or as a symbol for something more subtle, but from nearly every perspective, the meaning is the same: his life revolves around the sword. Or, to be more precise, his life revolves around a world filled with swords. His magical ability to mentally construct and project weapons is tied to his ideals, fighting with nothing to create something. He’s as much of a “faker” in combat as he is in the heart: he borrowed an ideal, his life’s mission, from the man whose face lit up when he saved a boy’s life; he borrowed his swords from the warriors of past and present. Shirou is hollow inside, in a sense; if every fiber of his being is dedicated to something that isn’t his, something so selfless that he disregards his own life, it’s no wonder that he was never able to find happiness.

Archer’s point of view is rather straightforward. He stuck to his beliefs until the end, and realized too late that they could never be fulfilled. Interestingly, it wasn’t that he never found happiness in his life; it was that his ideal was impossible, regardless of his own happiness. Archer accomplished everything that he wanted to during his life, becoming a warrior so powerful and so devoted that he would be remembered in history as a Hero. But he couldn’t become a Superhero. Unfortunately for him, he can hardly be classified as a tragic hero either. He fought to the best of his ability and reached a plane higher than humanity, but his ideal of becoming a superhero and saving everyone was an impossibility from the start.

Unlimited Blade Works (3)

I am the bone of my sword.
Steel is my body, and fire is my blood.
I have created over a thousand blades.
Unknown to Death.
Nor known to Life.
Have withstood pain to create many weapons.
Yet, those hands will never hold anything.
So, as I pray – “Unlimited Blade Works”.

And now, Shirou:

I am the bone of my sword.
Steel is my body, and fire is my blood.
I have created over a thousand blades.
Unaware of loss.
Nor aware of gain.
Withstood pain to create weapons, waiting for one’s arrival.
I have no regrets. This is the only path.
My whole life was “Unlimited Blade Works”.

Contrary to their years of parody, the Unlimited Blade Works incantations act as an important summary of the route’s two main characters. Archer speaks of the pain of the path he chose and the burden of eternal life, and finally acknowledges that he will never find the end that he seeks. In retrospect, perhaps his final “prayer” was to kill himself and end his life as a Heroic Spirit. In contrast, Shirou acknowledges the pain of his path and the inherent meaninglessness and selflessness in his goal, but concludes by stating that his sword – his ideal – is his life’s meaning in itself.

Looking back, it’s difficult to pinpoint a winner and a loser. When Archer admitted defeat during the battle of ideals, realizing ironically that his past self would never give up and that he wasn’t wrong to begin with, it seems clear that Shirou would be figuratively given the power to fulfill his dream. However, the evidence from the rest of the story remains against that. If his love for Rin helps him keep his feet on the ground, then what if he never succeeds in growing strong and saving everyone? Or, if her existence doesn’t change a thing, then wouldn’t he eventually become as twisted as Archer? Worse yet, Archer was never released from his duty as a Heroic Spirit, so the “answer” that he found was not permanent. If anything, it was a figurative solution, a solution based on ideals rather than reality. But isn’t that the point of  the whole story?

Unlimited Blade Works (1)

Unlimited Blade Works begs two questions: what is a hero, and what is the significance of an ideal. It has already been established that Archer (and therefore Shirou) has the power to become a Hero, surpassing humanity’s standards and fighting for a selfless belief. However, that leaves the final, ambiguous question: what is an ideal, and what is the significance of striving toward an ideal?

If the Nasuverse bends the laws of reality to allow an ordinary human to reach the level of Heroic Spirit, then we can see the story as a “what-if” scenario: what would happen if a person were given the physical strength and opportunity to become a superhero? UBW conclusively proves that it can’t be done, that the ideal of saving everyone is an impossibility. However, when Archer looked back on his past self’s mindless charge against the being that obstructed his ideal, why did he, in his wisdom of eternal life, not end it? Why did he not prove to himself that his ambition was nothing more than naive?

It’s because it wasn’t, because he found solace in the determination of a boy who wanted to become a superhero. Even if it’s impossible, even if it’s futile, even if he will be betrayed by either his peers or himself, it didn’t matter. Heroic Spirit Emiya knew that he wasn’t wrong, that there was beauty to be found in the pursuit of an ideal. As he himself realized when he admitted defeat and faded into the sunrise, facing an eternity of meaningless incarnation, it isn’t always the end result that matters – because when he saw himself fighting to the fullest, he knew, remembered, that his path was not incorrect.


{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Martin September 6, 2009 at 5:58 am

I really appreciated the way that this route carries on the issues addressed in Fate (and continues to do so in Heaven’s Feel…look forward to it!) – I have so much respect for Nasu in being able to write in complex moral questioning like that. It’s cruelly ironic that one of Shirou’s most formidable enemies is himself…on several levels. It’s breaking the cycle in this case too, which I thought was a nice touch.

Oh yeah, Lancer was pretty bad-ass this time around as well. Dammit, you’re making me REALLY want to re-read this VN now.


Blowfish September 6, 2009 at 1:34 pm

Out of all 3 Fate Stay Night Scenarios UWB is my favorite exactly for questioning these issues.Playing Heavens Feel after this felt much less intriguing and isnt as well constructed as UWB in my opinion.

Ill be thrilled to hear your opinion when youre done


Eric June 17, 2010 at 12:08 am

This summed up several of my feelings on this route as well. I liked the duality of the storyline: you could see it as both a triumph and a tragedy at the same time. Wouldn’t it be ironic if Shirou’s fight with Archer was the catalyst that truly drove him to the point Archer reached?

Still, as you say, he was not wrong.


bruce June 24, 2010 at 8:41 pm

i still think that archer story is tragic , having an etrnal life of meaningless battles , drove him once over the edge and made him become suicidal and cynical , he could probably get sick of his duties once more , and i think that shirou made the mistake of trusting himself and thinking he could do better then his other self , specially because he’s still wants to be a hero no matter what , the insane part is that he doesn’t care fighting infinite battles just knowing he makes a diffirence gives him the motivation to power through … but i’m sure he will get sick of that , i’m mean who wouldn’t ??


Ash June 29, 2015 at 5:39 am

I agree u. Its garbage he continues qnd the samw happens and comtinues to reincarnate. Poientles it was to the end if this was the end. No change in fate.


Gradation Air March 21, 2014 at 2:34 pm

I feel that the Japanese counterpart of the poem is actually more interesting. You know, the 体は剣で出来ている


kotelo August 6, 2015 at 9:34 am

I don’t know how I reached this blog, but this is a pretty good review of the UBW route.

For me, this is the best route of Fate/stay night. It shows you reality, that maybe your dreams and ambitions won’t come true, but following the path you chose for yourself isn’t wrong.


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