Fate/stay night in Review: Symbols and Motifs, Tying the Thematic Threads

by eternal on November 23, 2009

Fate-stay night Thematic Review

If there’s one thing I can comfortably say about Fate/stay night, it’s that it’s been quite a ride. At almost 100 hours, my save file is 100% complete, leaving behind an aftertaste that is surprisingly bittersweet. For a story that initially appeared to be about gender-swapped heroes and awkward mana-charging metaphors, I can only say that I’m utterly impressed at how F/SN grows out of its shell and reaches both the mind and the heart.

Interestingly, there are also some elements of the game that are only obvious – or at least more visible – in hindsight. While it will always be a fantasy story at its core, the supernatural plot devices serve far more purpose than to simply feign depth with Nasuverse jargon. Looking closely (but not too closely), it’s easy to see the multiple levels of symbols and motifs that are scattered across the story, even if the plot doesn’t depend on them. Luckily for us, Nasu’s writing is fairly self-explanatory, and the various soliloquies and interludes, in addition to the surprisingly helpful afterword, help shed light on the “true” meaning of the game.

Sadly, it’s in the nature of posts like these to be purely conjecture, but while I don’t think that there is any black-and-white lens to view Fate/stay night through, I’ll do what I can to piece together the clues of this 800,000 word epic.

I’ll begin with a thesis statement of sorts: Fate/stay night is a fantasy story about the concept of heroism as applied in a modern context. Regardless of what anyone might say about symbolism, I don’t think the concept of “heroes” is a symbol for anything. In fact, I believe it’s quite the opposite: all of the elements of the story, from the concept of the Heroic Spirits to Emiya Shirou’s own ideals, point toward heroism being the main theme. The story explores what it means to be a hero by making the past meet the present, and by placing the protagonist in increasingly difficult situations that force him to abandon his romanticized vision of heroes.

The Holy Grail War

The Holy Grail War, being the central trigger of the story, is thankfully not difficult to understand. Forgetting about the intricacies of the Nasuverse, the war is effectively a battle between heroic spirits from the past. Now, why would the writer use heroes who exist in the real world and risk slipping up in front of a mythology buff? Simple: because the story is all about heroes.

Right off the bat, the viewer begins to question the true identity of each of the Servants, analyzing their appearance and technique. The detailed descriptions given to each Servant, not to mention the RPG-esque status screens that get updated as you play, are proof of the fact that Nasu takes his heroes seriously. He wants the legendary heroes to play a role in the story; he wants the viewer to look back on Fate route and realize that King Arthur faced off against Hercules and won. It’s a dream come true for some – and though it was never said out loud, it draws a parallel between these legendary heroes and the Superhero that Shirou wants to become.

As for the Master-Servant relationship, I’m not sure if there’s anything specific to point out. For the purpose of flow and structure, some of the Masters feel “suited” to the servants that they receive, but I doubt any of this matters in the grand scheme of things. However, it’s interesting to learn that Servants are affected by the world’s perception of them. While they can’t automatically become Heroic Spirits without accomplishing something heroic, it seems as though they “live on” in the world based on the perception of the people around them.

Without a doubt, the most notable example is Avenger. As far as I know, he was never a “real” heroic spirit, but he was still brought into the war and considered an anti-hero because of the village’s perception of him. They decided that he was evil, so he became evil. What does this say about heroes in history? Since most heroes only exist in myth in the real world, does this mean that their legendary deeds are only what we make of them? The Fate/stay night world gives heroes a concrete reward based on their achievements, but even so, they’re impacted by the impression they made while they were alive. Perhaps heroes are only what humanity makes of them?

Kotomine and Kiritsugu

In order to move into the present day, the viewer must first understand a thing or two about the Holy Grail and the Heroic Spirits. I believe that this is why Fate route can seem almost unimportant, thematically speaking, when compared to the others. Much of it is exposition: and I firmly believe that getting the viewer used to thinking in terms of legendary heroes and Superheroes is key to their enjoyment and understanding of the game.

Anyway, moving into the present day, we have the issue that Shirou struggles with: do Superheroes exist? Can a hero become strong enough to save everyone and sacrifice no one? Emiya Kiritsugu is much the same, throwing away his humanity in the name of his ideal. On the opposite end, of course, is Kotomine Kirei, who was broken from the moment he was born. Psychologically realistic or not, we know for a fact that Kirei was born without emotions, and that he never had the chance to live like the rest of the world.

Neither of these two men are directly related to the concept of heroism, but they can both be compared and contrasted with Shirou. In other words, I don’t think it was a coincidence that Kirei was effectively the “last boss” of the game.

As we know, Kiritsugu was Shirou’s mentor and father. Shirou’s ideals stemmed largely from this man’s beliefs. But on the flip side, we have Kirei, who tried to be “good” before realizing that he was inherently “bad.” Such black-and-white phrasing might seem inappropriate, but it applies to his character disturbingly well. Interestingly, Kirei stated that he hated Kiritsugu because he threw away the one thing that he could never have. On one hand, a man whose entire life was devoted to becoming human – and on the other hand, a man whose entire life was devoted to shedding his humanity and becoming a Superhero.

Unfortunately, their battle ended tragically all around, and the lack of a conclusion stops it from acting as a significant symbol. However, there is no denying the irony in their animosity. Kiritsugu wanted to give up his life for his dream, and Kirei’s dream was to have a human life. In a bitter twist of fate, their roles are reversed for the game’s final battle: Shirou gave up his dream and was fighting for the happiness of the people around him, while Kirei’s soulless body was devoted only to accomplishing a goal for the sake of his own curiosity.

Looking back, what does the rivalry between Kiritsugu and Kotomine say about heroism? It’s a bit of a stretch, but it hints at the truth that Shirou eventually discovers for himself: the fulfillment of a dream and the fulfillment of one’s own happiness are mutually exclusive.

Strengthening and Projecting

With the past out of the way, the attention is now focused on Shirou, the protagonist whose growth the story revolves around.

This is where the symbolism gets a little fuzzy, because we’re no longer dealing with a clash between ideals. Instead, these are the sort of subtle parallels that one must decode when studying a novel for school – the only difference being that classic literature has an answer key on Wikipedia.

My take on Shirou’s abilities as a magus is that they’re almost entirely symbolic, and that they’re not meant to be taken at face value. The other Masters and Servants seem to use magic as part of the story to make the battles more interesting, but when it comes to Shirou, I can’t help but feel that his growth as a magus is Nasu’s clever way of spelling out his development as a character.

Before the Beginning

In the beginning, Shirou was dedicated but naïve. This goes for both his magic and his ideals. He knew he wanted to be a Superhero, but he didn’t know how – so he trained. He trained in every way he could, trying even when he knew he’d fail. He didn’t know if he’d ever become like his master, but he wanted to try anyway. Likewise, as he practiced using magic, he pushed himself to the brink of death as an everyday exercise, but he never gave it much mind. He had no self-esteem, no interest or intention of finding the safest and most efficient solution. All he knew was that he had a goal somewhere in his mind, and that he couldn’t accomplish that goal if he didn’t act.


As Shirou trains with Rin and begins fighting in the first route, the topic of Strengthening comes up. At first glance, the idea of analyzing something that already exists and converting it into something powerful seems quite a bit above Shirou’s level. After all, he’s not like the alchemists of FMA: he can’t transform things at his own discretion. When viewed from another angle, however, we can see that Shirou has always been “strengthening” something that was already there. His ideals from his “rebirth” 10 years ago are the most important thing to him, outshining all other rational goals or feelings. Instead of stepping back and analyzing the problem logically, he simply “strengthens” what he already knows, finds the pros and cons of each individual situation, and comes up with a solution. Just as he can turn a wooden stick into a sword, he steels his childish ideals and fights for them with all his might. However, his wooden stick is ultimately little more than a stick.

Unlimited Blade Works

In UBW, Shirou discovers that his true skill is not “strengthening”, but “projection.” The Unlimited Blade Works imagery comes in very handy here, in addition to a few repeated phrases in the narration. It was mentioned several times that Shirou’s ability is to “project” his mind into the real world, making his thoughts a reality. He is forced to imitate things that he has already seen, but at the same time, his copies and born from his own strength. They’re not “borrowed” like his strengthened weapons. If you have any doubts, just think about Archer’s Noble Phantasm: it’s literally a manifestation of his mind in the real world.

Following that logic, it’s easy to see that Shirou’s projection in UBW parallels his own ideals in the route. Instead of merely reinforcing the ideas he had on his own, he’s now stubbornly projecting them into the real world, forcing them to do their work. When we see what Shirou’s world becomes in the future, we realize that his whole life is, indeed, “unlimited blade works.” His life revolves around his battle to become a hero, and his strongest weapon is a literal visualization of his struggle. By projecting his desire into the real world, he’s able to force his ideals on the world around him and become a Heroic Spirit.

Heavens Feel

Finally, in Heavens Feel, Shirou never gains the ability to project and he spends little time training with his strengthening. The only combat he takes part in is with Archer’s borrowed arm… and we know what effect that had on him.

By now it should be self-explanatory, but to spell it out, Archer’s arm hurt him because HF’s Emiya Shirou was a completely different person. His whole life was not “unlimited blade works” – his life was “Matou Sakura.”

In other words, the ability to project his mind into the world became useless because the blacksmith’s wasteland was no longer a reality. Instead, it contradicted his very existence, punishing him for betraying himself. In an interesting twist, however, Shirou was only able to emerge victorious because of Archer’s arm. He suffered with the arm until the very end, using it to create the reality that he truly wanted – and by a tricky Nasuverse loophole, he was brought back to life as a completely new person. The Emiya Shirou who had to bear the betrayal of himself was already dead, and his “unlimited blade works” was no more. The new Shirou was Sakura’s Shirou.

– – –

In retrospect, it’s incredible to think about how many subtle clues are hidden in the seemingly generic RPG tropes. Magic can just be magic, but in some cases, it’s as much of a symbol as it is a weapon. Of course, it goes without saying that this is all conjecture, and that I’m no more qualified to speculate than you. However, with the aid of the afterword (and a few good posts), I feel confident in my own understanding of the story.

Ultimately, Shirou’s tale brings the concept of Heroism back to the forefront, after being lost in the thousands of years of history and the battle 10 years ago. What does it truly mean to be a hero? When you cast aside the myth and magic, the religion and faith, the respect and fear, what is the definition of a hero? If Hercules and King Arthur and Gilgamesh were alive today, who would they be, and what would they do? Emiya Shirou’s mental dilemma proves that heroism is not as black-and-white as our ancestors wished it to be, and he forces us to realize that only in the fantasy worlds of fiction can we save everyone while sacrificing no one.

In Fate/stay night, the would-be hero of our generation ultimately decides to live contently with his lover. As the game’s afterword states, this is not the only option, but simply one of them. The Shirou of one timeline decided to sacrifice his selfless dream to find happiness for himself and the people around him, but this does not mean that “true” heroes are no more. As the game illustrates, heroes like Archer can still exist in the world, sacrificing themselves in the name of others – but there is no question that a Heroic dream can only be accomplished by paying a Heroic price.


{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Hirobot November 24, 2009 at 12:54 am

Awesome review. I am so intrigued by Fate/stay night already. I might just have to check it out soon.


AstroNerdBoy November 24, 2009 at 4:33 am

I loved the anime and lots of people have told me I need to do the visual novel(s). If I had more time. Your review supports the notion of how interesting the VN is.


Blowfish November 24, 2009 at 12:41 pm

Great Review and Analysis of the Visual Novel.
Theres nothing much I can really add here and I already mentioned why I prefered the UBW Route Over Heavens Feel while both easily beat the Fate Route in many,many ways.

Overall I really liked how the Novel played with what a hero is,believes and sacrifices.The biggest strength is how UBW and HF showed us true different realities where Shirou once sacrificied himself for his believes and where he sacrificied his believes for himself.
The Reader himself has to decide which Route he would take and whats wrong or right

The Fate Route in contrast merely serves as an introduction and is in itself nothing more than a simple action story with a boy lending powers of a heroic spirit to defeat evil.


Martin November 24, 2009 at 2:34 pm

Phew…blimey. It never ceases to amaze me how everyone who works their way through this finds something new to add! I recall reading IKnight’s and Owen’s posts and thinking “how can an interactive on-screen light novel thingy possibly say so much?” but eventually understood for myself by the end.

What amazes me more than anything though is how watertight the writing is. I don’t want to draw attention away from Takeuchi’s artwork but Nasu’s world-building is in a class of its own. No matter what angle I view it from I end up discovering something new to think about…then read someone else’s take on it and think it over even more…

What F/S N does, even more so than Tsukihime and possibly as much as Kara no Kyoukai, is do a merry dance all over the viewer’s preconceptions regarding morality. Even the times when it sets a point of reference for who and what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ it shifts perspectives, casts everything in a new light and makes you question some really fundamental concepts. Having characters from different periods of history really highlights how, when you’re talking about thoughts and actions, good and bad is relative.

I could go all tl;dr on this story all over again but one thing that really stuck with me is the way that love and devotion shine through in the darkest places. The whole story is mindblowing (I really want to re-read it now, thanks to you!) but it’s amazing how I was often on the edge of my seat and occasionally shocked and disgusted but ultimately very moved by the emotional side of things. The memes have given it some noteriety but the levels of gore and smut shouldn’t hide the fact that it’s a superb and well-told story. Glad you enjoyed it, anyway – thanks for giving me such a great read too!


Aorii November 27, 2009 at 11:43 am

Very nice exploration of the Fate/stay night themes. Although, the com­par­i­sons you identified regarding Heroism and self could also be applied to a number of other themes within the Fat­e­v­erse. To broaden out the scope, one can say that Nasu’s writ­ings are a crit­i­cal analy­sis by sto­ry­telling on “the def­i­n­i­tion of ideal within different scopes of black and white”.

My attempts to delve into this further quickly ended up as a sizable post of its own, so I won’t spam your comments here.

Now since you’ve finished the Visual Novel, I recommend picking up the Fate/zero at Baka-tsuki if you haven’t already. It may not be written by Nasu, but it certainly does a great job of continuing the Fate/stay night saga, keeping up parallels on existing themes of the story.


Roarke February 19, 2011 at 5:13 am

I like it. I like it alot. You don’t need to worry about being correct about the whole “Shirou’s Magic = Shirou’s Mind” analogy; it was explicitly stated within the novel to be true.
“The only thing I can do is put shape to my mind.” Shirou has little/no talent for orthodox magic like Rin. He can only do the one magic that fully encompasses his entire being.
In a way, HF is something I cannot stand to like or dislike. I just feel non-directional passion for it. I enjoy trolling people who are very passionately in love with the route, but I can’t deny the morals, the sheer excellence of the story. Sakura, to me, was just a symbolic MacGuffin, though. One of the lower points. But the Normal End prevents me from saying she didn’t deserve the True End.
I really feel for Kotomine Kirei. A man with the inability to find happiness in anything but the suffering of others? A year ago, you couldn’t have convinced me to feel sympathy for that. But I do. I do want some mapo tofu…


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