It’s hard to believe that in any season Unlimited Blade Works could be only the second-most maddeningly up-and-down series, but so it is this Fall. No, in first place would be Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso – I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an anime that could be so simultaneously sublime and awful to that extent. It’s unique. And I don’t mean from one ep to the next, or scene, or even moment. In the same moment.
That’s not to say that UBW isn’t an incredibly frustrating watch, though – it’s just that the extreme highs aren’t so sublime and the lows so viscerally nauseating as they are with Shigatsu. As well, I think the key to the puzzle with UBW is pretty straightforward, and I can sum it up in one word – dignity. There are others things that make the stellar episodes stellar, obviously – the superb action sequences, the sense of scope, the moral and ethical ambiguity – but dignity is the catalyst. It’s always present in good eps, and always absent in the bad ones.
I think it’s human nature after an episode as excellent as this one to lament the fact that there are so many mediocre ones, but by now I’ve accepted that as the lay of the land. Still, I’m always glad when UBW gets down to brass tacks, and always glad I stuck around to watch it. It had everything you’d want from this series – great fights, Rin in quietly thoughtful rather than waifu mode, Saber allowed to be dignified (that word again), and Shirou being badass. And of course, almost no Shinji.
It had something else too, which is the formal introduction of a Master who single-handedly raises the water level in that pool. Generally speaking the masters in UBW are a weakness, but Kuzuki-sensei is another matter. He is, yes, dignified – but he’s also someone who doesn’t twirl his moustache or mug for the camera. He scowls, goes about his business, and when his cover is blown he opens up a can of whupass on anyone in range of his fists of fury. The scene where Shirou confronts him is one of the best in the series, because it reflects Shirou’s idealistic hope that this man he admires (and even more, that his best friend loves) doesn’t have to be an enemy. And it shows Kuzuki’s hard and unsentimental view of his role both in the world and the Grail War. It’s really good stuff.
The scene that follows is top shelf as well, as it shows off Kuzuki in action and, in doing so, represents a watershed moment for Shirou. The action is up to ufotable’s usual high standard, and the choreography is excellent. You get an idea of just how formidable Kuzuki is when you see Caster caught off-guard by the opposition, but Kuzuki able to best all three of them without breaking much of a sweat. It’s only when Shirou’s desperation inspires him to heights he didn’t know he could reach, using projection to create a pair blades similar to the ones he sees Caster using in his mind’s eye. He’s as surprised as Rin by this, as it transcends anything he’d ever been able to achieve, but it’s what allows him to land a blow on Kuzuki and leave him open to a sneak attack by Saber, forcing Caster to rescue him and the pair of them to retreat to the temple.
There’s a lot of subtext in this moment, of course. Rin is visibly disturbed and very intent in considering the meaning of what she’s just witnessed. But at that moment the episode switches gears for its final act, showing us the new Servant that Kotomine has paired Shinji up with – Gilgamesh, who we haven’t seen in what feels like months. This is an obvious mismatch in every sense, but Gil is as always interesting in his sinister way. He tells Shinji an interesting story, of how he chose ten slaves with the intent to kill one of them but ends up being unable to kill any. Why? Because in Gil’s old world, every one of them has some essential value. In Gilgamesh’s eyes this new world is overrun with the superfluous – and little offends his sensibilities more. It’s a rather chilling moment, though of course that’s entirely lost on Shinji – and Gilgamesh’s ability to deliver quietly chilling moments is every bit as welcome as Kuzuki’s dignified, stone-cold bad-assery.