When the original Fate/stay night anime came out in 2006 I watched a couple of episodes and quickly dropped it. It didn’t seem very compelling and since it was from Studio DEEN it didn’t look very good.
Then Ufotable came out with a prequel called Fate/Zero in 2011-12. I found this much more interesting: dark but thrilling.
Now Ufotable has completed a remake of the original series called Fate/stay night [Unlimited Blade Works] (Crunchyroll.) This has a somewhat different storyline from the Studio DEEN version. (The Ufortable version apparently gives us the “True Ending” from the original visual novel.)
In terms of pure storytelling craftsmanship I think that Fate/Zero is superior to FsnUBW. However taken together they tell a pretty compelling story. Fate/Zero was a classical tragedy. FsnUBW is a bit more upbeat–perhaps not everyone’s idea of a happy ending, but maybe we could call it an “optimal ending.”
So I can give this series a qualified recommendation. I enjoyed it but it’s definitely not for everyone.
The great strength of the series is its off-the-charts cool factor. It is thrilling to watch. Ufotable gives us high production values and a splendid musical score.
If our souls will someday vanish
then at least I’d like to sing
of joy and despair
until my voice gives out.
The fate that awaits us
is always nothing more
than the dream of life
as it dashes through
the continuous present.
The night that you wept
concealed within it a brilliant future.
Serenity awaits you
on that bright hill.
You will surely reach your horizon.
—“Ring Your Bell” (final closing theme for FsnUBW
The downside is that the show is very dark and violent. Furthermore to any normal Western viewer it’s going to seem that all the characters are crazy.
The series is suffused with the worldview of Bushido, the old samurai philosophy that held that this world has no happy endings and all that matters is honor and integrity. Lots of anime series contain some elements of Bushido (for some viewers that’s the source of much of their charm) but few follow it all the way to its dark logical conclusion.
The premise of the series is that super-powerful mages engage in ill-advised contests in which they fight to the death for a prize of dubious value. The mages are all flawed characters and if this were all about them I doubt that anyone would want to watch it.
What makes the show compelling are the Heroic Spirits who serve the mages. Some are good, some are evil, some are cruel and some are kind, but each one in his or her own way embodies makoto, the severe Japanese ideal of integrity.
If you are interested in watching this I recommend starting with Fate/Zero (Crunchyroll.) Note that Cruncyroll now offers a dubbed version. I strongly recommend scrolling down to the subtitled version. Only a Japanese cast can hope to do an adequate job with such a quintessentially Japanese story.
Starting with Fate/Zero is desirable because it is the stronger of the two series and seeing it adds background and depth to FsnUBW.