Since 2004 we have seen numerous sequels, prequels, spin-offs and parodies that have turned Fate/Stay Night into a multimedia franchise that is, quite frankly, so extensive that it’s pretty intimidating for newcomers. This latest addition is a surprising one: the third “route” of its branching storyline has finally been given an animated adaptation, more than a decade after the original visual novel’s release much to the hurrah of long suffering fans.
If you’re familiar with the story of the original visual novel you probably don’t need to know much more than the fact that this is the first part of a movie trilogy that portrays the fifth Holy Grail War in which Shirou Emiya is one of the seven human mage Masters. If you’ve never seen, read or played anything Fate-related in your life, you won’t know enough about the premise to fully grasp the events that occur in Presage Flower, so a paragraph-long synopsis wouldn’t be enough to help you understand what’s going on (That's a bit of an understatement! - Ed). The issue is that the opening credits of this movie skip through a fair-sized chunk of the early part of the narrative, making it pretty clear to the viewer that at least some prior knowledge is expected.
In the film’s defence, those earlier adaptations have been available for some time now, and the compressed introduction gives the movie the chance to hit the ground running. Indeed, it covers quite a lot after the main characters are introduced: Shirou’s status as protagonist, as is his hero complex stemming from the relationship with his late adoptive father Kiritsugu, is established straight away; his acquaintance to classmate Shinji Matou and younger sister Sakura are also shown from the opening scenes; and the dynamic between Rin Tohsaka and Shirou is dealt with in just enough detail to explain how they decide to work together despite being rivals.
The central plot device of the Holy Grail War is imaginative and fun, but this film doesn’t invest much time in exploring the personalities and identities of the spiritual Servants, the nuances of the interplay between individuals and their contrasting skills and philosophies when fighting, nor the supporting human cast either (of course, Rin is still the best girl and Shinji is still a complete dick). It really is an exercise in setting up Shirou for the toughest ethical decisions of any of the VN's routes, while establishing Sakura as the main heroine.
Other details are obvious to long-standing fans, but would fly over the head of anyone else. What’s the connection between Shirou and Saber, his enigmatic sword-wielding female warrior Servant? Why does one of the other mages refer to him as her brother? Why is Rin uncharacteristically concerned with Sakura’s safety? What’s the deal with the creepy priest and his love of excessively strong curry…?
Although Presage Flower’s aim is to introduce the main players and get the viewer up to speed without using more screen time than it absolutely has to, it does pay attention to the subtle character interactions and foreshadowing, and has a couple of impressive action set-pieces of fantasy combat to keep the audience’s interest. The highlight for me is the battle between Lancer and Assassin, which takes place on moving vehicles in the centre of the night-time city and shows the marriage of the feature-film budget and Studio Ufotable’s decade-long experience with adapting stories from the Type Moon universe to the full.
Overall, the pacing is solid and the soundtrack is also very effective. Thanks to her involvement in other Type Moon animated adaptations including the Fate/Zero prequel, Yuki Kajiura’s compositions lend a sense of familiarity and continuity, but she shows a surprising amount of restraint here: the instrumentation is used quite sparingly, with occasional cello and piano in the more serene moments while more energetic and complex arrangements are reserved for only the most tense and action-packed scenes. It therefore delivers on the atmospherics that her trademark contemporary/classical fusion does so well, while giving Tomonori Sudou’s confidently slow direction room to breathe.
This film also makes an effective job of deflecting focus away from Saber and Rin – who have after all been given plenty of attention in earlier adaptations – in favour of the previously overlooked Sakura. Shirou is, unfortunately, still a sufferer of Anime Male Lead syndrome in that he’s rather bland, but his self-sacrificing “hero for justice” traits are effectively explained, and the screenplay hints at Sakura’s role in the bigger picture without giving too much away. F/S N is infamous for its infodump exposition and occasionally clunky dialogue (you’ve probably heard the “people die when they’re killed” meme and the melodramatic Unlimited Blade Works incantation by now), so a full feature film that has only one or two accidentally comedic lines (which could be just as easily due to subtitle errors rather than the script) is very much welcome.
If, like me, you’re a Type Moon devotee, the good news is that the final route of the VN has finally been given the cinematic treatment by a production team who know how to do Nasu’s idiosyncratic storytelling justice, so for those of us it’s nigh-on unmissable. If on the other hand you have no idea what this Holy Grail War business is all about, this really isn’t the best place to start.
At the time of writing both the Fate/Zero and the Unlimited Blade Works TV adaptations are currently available to buy on DVD/blu-ray or stream on Crunchyroll, so you ought to be able to fill in the gaps without too much difficulty before Presage Flower is given a wider UK release. Not that there was any definitive hint at the screening I attended, but given Fate’s popularity I suspect it's a matter of “when” rather than “if.” Fortunately, it’s well worth the wait.