Presage Flower makes very little sense if you have never consumed any of the Fate installments before: it condenses parts of Unlimited Blade Works into a blurry opening montage, skipping rapidly past Shirou summoning Saber, Archer fighting Lancer, large chunks of Rin and Shirou interactions. As someone who’s already watched UBW, this was a relief–no one needs those scenes animated slightly differently rehashed all over again. Sure, there’s no characterization for Rin, Saber, Archer, Lancer or really anyone else who isn’t named Sakura, Shinji, or Shirou. But you can go watch the first five or eight episodes of UBW, right?
Unfortunately, in place of them we get a lot of slice-of-life (possibly even 20 solid minutes of runtime? I’ll check when the Bluray is out) to establish the Shirou/Sakura relationship and… okay, it’s really bad. I have never read the visual novel, but from the snippets I’ve seen, I would judge the writing in Fate/Stay Night (any of the routes) to be abysmal. Previously, it feels like other staff writers were able to minimize and course-correct a lot of it to make the story and dialogue fit for animation, but with Heaven’s Feel all the dialogue between Shirou and Sakura appears to have been kept, culminating in a teeth-grindingly terrible exchange with Sakura asking Shirou, ‘Senpai, if I become a bad person, you’ll admonish me, right?’ and him replying ‘Yeah, I’ll admonish you, stricter than anyone!’ It makes sense in the context of what happens later, but it does typify their romance: painful, awkward dialogue and a bizarrely unhealthy core even for a wish-fulfillment eroge visual novel. (Remember Rin? Rin is at least her own person!)
Moving past the romance that is, really unfortunately, central to the Heaven’s Feel storyline, we get to ufotable’s choice to streamline the material so that everything shown onscreen will be new to everyone who has already watched Unlimited Blade Works, including small differences such as Saber (finally) referencing the events of Fate/zero and Kotomine giving Shirou the rundown on the previous Grail War and revealing that his dad was a giant asshole. All the Kotomine memes have been accounted for, from ‘yorokobe, shounen!’ to the very odd mapo tofu sequence.
The tone feels very different; previously the servants survive to the midpoint or the very end of the plot, but this time they’re brutally murdered fast. If you already know the story, you know what the ‘shadow’ actually is, but it’s still spooky to watch this ribbon creature go around eating up servants, occasionally regurgitating them. The mood is much tenser, almost oppressive. You get the sense very quickly that this time around things are going to be much, much worse. There’s more gore, there’s more ick (thanks Zouken), there’s more horrific childhood abuse. By the time the movie closes, Saber, Lancer, False Assassin, and Caster are completely dead. Saber’s absorption into the shadow leaves Avalon no longer activated and Shirou limping home while coughing up blood. No more miraculous recovery from fatal injuries. This time he will die when killed.
Visually, the film’s gorgeous; I don’t imagine animation can look much better than this currently. The fine details for the slice-of-life scenes are beautiful; the characters look superb just walking around, cooking, or folding laundry. Sound is great as well, and I particularly appreciate the crunch when Berserker punches Shirou and reduces his ribcage to fine dust, and also the wet noise when Shirou’s guts decide they want to be outside of him for a bit. A lot is made of the lengthy car chase sequence where Lancer runs after Assassin and proves that, whether or not jet fuel can melt steel beams, gae bolg can absolutely pierce cars. (Lancer’s individual muscles are, uh, prominently animated to the point I was getting weirded out; someone put real attention into his thighs and buttocks. No one else’s anatomy received quite that kind of detail.) The other fights are relatively brief, Medea’s reanimated corpse being controlled by Zouken’s bugs was nicely unsettling, the shadow in general presents a very credible and visually alarming threat.
The real star for me is when Rider beats up True Assassin at the end. There’s something to be said for watching Medusa just going at it swinging her chain-knife-whip, repeatedly slamming him into bits of temple. I’ve been waiting for this too, since Heaven’s Feel is the first adaptation where Medusa gets a personality other than ‘my breasts, they are very sultry’. Yes, her design is still ‘my breasts, they are very sultry’, but she has more plot relevance this time.
In some ways the film’s let down by spectacle. The aforementioned Lancer vs Assassin fight really does go on… and on… and on, which is an odd choice given that Lancer’s relevance to the plot is zero. I could have used more of Medusa beating people up with a chain whip, is what I’m saying, and/or taking breaks to drain blood out of girls’ jugulars (ah, a true lesbian icon).
All that aside, how does the story stand on its own?
Heaven’s Feel is the darker and edgier final part of the Fate/stay night timeline. It shifts focus from the heroic ideals of the servants and Shirou himself to a story of horrific abuse done to Matou Sakura, who’s been physically (and in the visual novel, sexually) abused since she was eight or so. I’m not a fan of how she exists primarily as a character whose life revolves around her crush on Shirou, though I guess it’s more-or-less understandable that a victim of lifelong abuse would see him as a lifeline because he’s the first person to treat her like a human being (I expect the formalities mean that Rin is unable to get close or even be very nice to Sakura). But because the original visual novel is a wish fulfillment for teenage boys, it’s pretty gross that one of the love interests is a survivor of said abuse and a nice, meek, submissive girl who fulfills a creepy male fantasy. Yeah, Heaven’s Feel is about how her trauma and rage have bubbled to the surface (and gone on a murderous rampage), but it doesn’t sit on me too well. But these are the kind of problematic aspects that plague basically the entire body of Nasu’s work. He has… issues. In fact, he has subscriptions.
Fortunately, so far the movie—first of a trilogy—has dropped the sexual assault aspects of Sakura’s background, though anything could still happen in the second and third. I’m hoping it will stay decently tasteful, since I don’t really need the ‘the victim of lifelong sexual trauma goes on a nymphomanic rampage because the worms make her horny’ garbage onscreen. This is also the only route where the sibling relationship between Rin and Sakura is explored, and Rin finally learns what Matou Zouken really did to Sakura. This seems promising, and gives Rin more characterization outside of being Shirou’s love interest; now she has objectives and goals to fight for that go beyond him.
Likewise, this is the route where Ilyasviel gets more characterization than usual, and Heaven’s Feel plays her up as a creepy murder child nicely. In a sense Heaven’s Feel gives a lot of time to characters previously sidelined. Medusa’s relationship with Sakura would likely have been an outright lesbian one if this whole thing wasn’t written by a raging homophobe, but we take what we can get and I enjoy the affinity between the two of them. I’m looking forward to how Saber Alter plays out in particular and, most of all, I really look forward to seeing Shirou brutally injured, disemboweled, and losing a limb. It’s going to be a very fun ride.
(RIP Cu Chulainn.)