*Warning: Contains unpopular views & quotes (hence spoilers) from Unlimited Blade Works (TV series) and mild ending spoilers for Fate Zero*
Shirou Emiya has always been an enigma of a character to me. Scathingly reduced to a lovelorn and overtly idealistic two-dimensional fool in Fate Stay Night (Studio Deen’s version), his blandness as a main character has left a stark impression on my mind, like an ugly scar tainting what was otherwise a highly enjoyable anime-watching experience. As such, I have always been quick to criticise and denounce the hype and fame surrounding that series. In fact, the only way for me to rationalise said fervour was to attribute it to overwhelming fan support for Saber and a well told romantic story with a female lead of a novel archetype. Never has it crossed my mind that Shirou Emiya would have anything to do with any positive description.
Then Unlimited Blade Works arrived at my doorstep and I found myself debunking all prior judgment about Shirou being as interesting as a blank slate. Credit should probably given to the Unlimited Blade Works route, which either (1) delved more into the interesting aspects of the Fate Stay Night story i.e. the concept of heroism and how ideals that transcend the person clash with one’s sense of self; or (2) was simply adapted more masterfully. In any event, Shirou’s ideals, which gave the misleading impression in previous series of laughable naivety, are fleshed out here. They actually start to make sense.
However, that does not mean that they are in any way admirable. In fact, my position is that they are a dangerous set of ideals which if adopted without qualification, have profound effects beyond what series has explored. In this post, I will elaborate on my position by expounding on the reasons mentioned by the other characters, and add in my two cents’ worth:
Archer i.e. Heroic Spirit Emiya
Being the soul incarnate of Emiya in a parallel world, Archer is arguably the best placed to give criticism with the benefit of hindsight to the ‘rightness’ or Shirou’s cause of action. After all, he is the one who had lived through that ideal and ultimately ended up with the destiny of fruitless eternal reincarnation. (The counter-argument here would be that it is precisely because they are essentially the ‘same souls’ that any attempt to judge themselves through the eyes of their alter ego is a meaningless endeavour due to the inherently skewed lens they would cast upon themselves in doing so. Yet since they exist in parallel this isn’t as strong a counter as it would have been.)
When Archer and Shirou are set up in opposition to each other in the action scenes symbolising the clash of ideals (or swords), we can see how diametrically opposed they actually are. In that fight, Archer represents a disillusioned Shirou, sticking to his ideals and living by them staunchly, only to discover the impossibility of his goal and the fact that it has instead culminated in an outcome which he had initially sought to prevent. Hence, Archer’s words hit home when he accuses Shirou of being hypocritical in copying the ideals of a man he had idolised and looked up to and living solely to achieve those ideals. Notwithstanding the possibility that ‘saving everyone’ and ‘making everybody happy’ is an admirable goal in itself, the unqualified nature of such a goal smacks of ludicrity and the product of unworldliness. To Archer, he is doing Shirou a favour by killing him, so that he does not in future live out an existence of shame, self-blame, and despair as he do. In essence, Archer is looking to ending Shirou’s life as a form of true salvation.
Shirou acknowledges all that Archer has said and admits that he is hypocritical adopting another person’s wish. And yet, this wish of wanting to help others isn’t any less real. ‘Even if that life is like a machine; even if that life is dripping in hypocrisy’, he wants to carry out his ideals, simply because they aren’t wrong.
One cannot doubt that Shirou’s way of justifying his goals as a counter to Archer’s conclusion is pretty typical of Japanese entertainment and the positive messages it seeks to uphold and send to its viewers. By condemning his self”s desires and sense of identity to nothingness, he puts the world and an ideal above everything else – that is self-sacrifice of a truly highest level. Yet, herein lies the danger. By carrying out his goals of a better world, Shirou ultimately has to choose sides – that means killing people that are ‘wrong’ and ‘bad’, or have committed ‘crimes’. But who is Shirou to judge? Ultimately, living out his ideal means that he gets to play God, and in basing such decisions based on his personal set of morals and his sense of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, he is in fact condemning the people whose ideals do not agree with him.
However, detractors from this position will argue that there isn’t much of a contradiction when after all, most societies’ and/or people’s senses of morality are relatively consistent. Despite being of different race, religion and nationality, we can all agree that cold-blooded murder and rape is bad, for example. Yet, throw in situations akin to Death Parade’s episodic customers into the mix, and the moral dilemma surfaces. In fact, even in seemingly clear cut cases, such dilemmas do exist. As a judge of right and wrong, when the circumstances of a ‘crime’ are made known, the lines of morality becomes increasingly blurred.
Archer may have turned out to be more twisted and cynical than he should have been, but his concerns are valid. That Shirou may ultimately turn out to kill more people than he saves, and that knowledge may potentially destroy him given the way he was so determined to discard his self to serve as a hero of justice, appears to be Archer’s primary concern. Shirou’s declaration that he, effectively, doesn’t mind doing that, doesn’t actually help. And this will only be more clear as we move on to the other characters.
Rin’s objection to Shirou’s ideals as we see in the earlier parts of Fate stem from more of a concern for his well-being, which is understandable as her role as Shirou’s partner in battle and in life (at least in this route). Even if she appears to come to terms with Shirou’s stubbornness and change her stance to support him and the way he chooses to live his life at the end of the series, it is highly understandable as she loves him. However, it is through Rin’s objections where Shirou’s danger of losing his self becomes more pronounced. Shirou’s selflessness not only destroys himself, but also the people who love him and who care for him. Is that, ironically, a display of true selfishness akin to unmerited suicide? Rin’s choice in the end ultimately also means her destruction, and she clearly knows that.
Gilgamesh has a very interesting take on Shirou’s quest to be a hero of justice. His attitude towards humanity, whom he views – mostly – as mere mongrels with an inherent darkness which they refuse to admit and embrace, may come across as ridiculously exaggerated and classically villainous. And yet, there is some truth to be gleaned from his opinions, however annoying his pompousness and overpowering sense of superiority may seem to some.
From his perspective, Shirou aims to achieve equality through the moral compass, by saving all that supposedly deserves to be saved and condemning the rest who don’t. To him, Shirou is a weakling who cannot acknowledge the fact that darkness exists in humanity and the world, and cannot possibly be eradicated. In many ways, Gilgamesh’s label that ‘humanity is the name of an animal who cannot find joy in life without sacrifice’ is not entirely sweeping, though only in that joy is only joy when looked in contrast to sacrifice. Hence, it is the same with the concept of equality. Because people will never truly be equal, it is impossible to truly judge a person (the Emperor of Britaania of Code Geass and the core theme of Death Parade come to mind) and hence to distinguish between one whom he ought to save and one he should not.
Kiritsugu’s weariness of the world and his struggles are actually more aptly mirrored by Archer than Shirou. His actions of repeated killing for an ideal that has no doubt become twisted also bears more resemblance to what Archer has grown to become and realise after time. Yet, Kiritsugu also represents a cross between Archer and Shirou. By logically taking a utilitarian approach and viewing the value of human lives by mere numbers, he chooses to destroy a few to save all, as seen in his unwavering single-minded pursuit of the Holy Grail in the previous war by all means possible and destruction of all obstructions in his path. Kiritsugu however, knows the weakness of the ideal he pursues, and ultimately seeks salvation in the form of saving a single life in the fire of destruction he indirectly caused. We see the logical, merciless facade of his collapse as he sees Shirou in the fire. In a way, Kiritsugu is more humane than Shirou as his emotions tangle with his decisions towards the end of Fate Zero.
Shirou, in contrast, represents the zealous pursuit of an ideal without a care for himself, which is no doubt unsustainable and inherently more dangerous. Aside from the concerns of playing God, the concerns of Shirou’s source of humanity and sense of morality is in question when he has zero self-love. For where do these originate, and how do they stay strong as a sense of guidance, if Shirou loses himself in his relentless quest to devote himself to his ideal? This concern is more apparent here when Kiritsugu is compared with Shirou, for the former tried and his humanity surfaces in the overwhelming sense of emotion and despair that he feels. Shirou, without the benefit of years of experience, seems more like a being to fear than to love.
Of course, Shirou’s ideals are not exactly wrong. While Archer and Kiritsugu are not the best alternatives due to the weaknesses innate in the way they carry out their ideals, Shirou carries a more innocent, destructive outlook that may not be obvious when first confronted with his ideals. There are too many questions as too how his ideals are actually the ‘right’ ones to be pursuit, and whether it is indeed the ‘best’ set that should be followed. The Fate series does not offer a clear answer to this, and seems to prefer Shirou’s ideals (through it choosing to show Shirou in a more positive light and giving him a more hopeful ending than his predecessor, Kiritsugu). However, the unanswered questions loom for those who refuse to accept such a conclusion at face-value and who seek to discover a more convincing resolution or ‘truth’ to these questions. As such, Emiya Shirou remains but an alternate perspective, but he should never personify the ‘best’ definition of what a hero of justice is and should be.
What do you guys think? Which set of ideals do you think is the best to adopt? Or, relatedly, who do you think is the true ‘hero of justice’? Feel free to comment and leave your thoughts below 🙂
7 thoughts on “Musings on Fate Stay Night Unlimited Blade Works (TV series): Emiya Shirou’s Idealism”
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Thank you! 🙂
I don’t regard Shirou as the main character in Fate Stay Night. The main character really is Saber. I prefer the more measured points of self realization Saber experiences towards self acceptance in Fate Stay Night than the hours of turgid self righteous speechifying of Shirou/Archer in Unlimited Bladeworks, with its unsatisfying conclusion of Shirou going down his ‘hero of justice’ route, even though he knows it to be fatally flawed. The Gods first drive mad those they would kill and this seems to be Shirou’s punishment for his hubris also.
Of the Fate series, it is Fate Zero that is probably the best constructed and written. Rather than focusing on the path of one central character as the other two series do, Zero offers us three different stories, Emiya Kiritsugu, Kotomine Kirei*, and Waver Velvet. All whose explorations of self lead them to quite different outcomes by the end of the series.
*Another criticism of UBW and FSN have is the relatively poor treatment those series give Kotomine. In Zero he is revealed perhaps as one of anime’s great villains. He (and also Gilgamesh to a point) deserved better than the mono-dimensional treatment he received in Fate Stay Night and Unlimited Blade Works.
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If you are referring to the earlier Studio Deen version of Fate, then I agree with you that Saber is very well the main character there. As for UBW, even though Saber’s motivations, sense of regret and pain etc. are still touched on and explained, I think the major conflict still lay with Archer versus Shirou. But to each his own.
I am on the same page as you with Fate Zero being the best written, hands down.
About Kotomine, I agree that it was really a pity on how he was written off in the sequels, but it can be assumed that the focus of the plot wasn’t on him. That does not justify poor treatment I understand, but that is already a secondary criticism compared to the rest there is to pick on about UBW and FSN, in my opinion.
A bit late, but I want to say I really agree with you here. I don’t know if you played the visual novel, so I’ll try to avoid any spoilers. It becomes clear in UBW that personal realtionships always come second for Shirou – which I think is a huge problem. On top of that, Shirous morals are really subjective and he fails to recognize that people can be evil just because. One example for this is Shinji, who Shirou takes a really long time to realize is a really horrible person. The third route goes into more depth of what it means to be connected and to love other people and trying to help everyone, but that’s all I’m going to say about that.
One thing you might think is interesting (and what led me to revisit the character and led me here) is Susan Wolf’s concept of a “Moral Saint”. She talks about a person whose whole being is dedicated to do the morally correct thing. This person gives up a lot of things to be able to do more good which means that he must “not know what it is to truly love them”. That this moral saint is incapable of experiencing a certain kind of joy and how this “seems to require a certain lack or the denial of an identifiable, personal self”. I think she basicially describes Shirou’s character. The only thing that doesn’t fit is that she thinks that you cannot be passionate about morality, but it’s uncanny how much the rest of it fits.
The short version : nice analysis and I agree with your points.
Thank you for this much-needed analysis on the severe problems with Shirou’s “ideals”. It saddens me just how few people seem to realize the answer presented in Unlimited Blade Works has some very horrific implications. The show/route successfully deconstructs the concept of a hero, but fails to reconstruct it in a realistic manner which results in the whole message falling flat.
In the end, Shirou’s goal was never saving people, but maintaining any ideal that makes him feel “happy” and justify his existence. How he discards the concerns and feelings of those around him for his own satisfaction, one could say that Shirou is only capable of caring about the idea of people. Such a person is capable of creating a lot of damage.
Hell, one could argue that not just Kiritsugu, but even Kotomine is more human than Shiou is. Kotomine has an actual conscious and understands what he does is wrong, and even after succumbing to his impulses he’s still miserable. (Heaven’s Feel) It’s clear to me that if possible, he’d rid himself of them entirely and become a better person. Alas, it wasn’t not meant to be. Could he have been saved were it not for Gilgamesh, we’ll never know.
Shirou on the other hand, is capable of justifying even the most horrendous acts under his ideals. He’d take the life of anyone in opposition of his ideal with a smile on his face. When he finally recognizes that his thinking is distorted, he DOESN’T CARE. One cannot be saved if they don’t want to change to their thinking to begin with. Shirou will fall badly, and will end up dragging Rin down with him if she doesn’t leave. In a way, Shirou is a far more frightening and distorted person than either Kiritsugu or Kotomine.
In my opinion, the concept of justice is far too subjective for someone to truly become a hero of justice. One form of justice will always contradict another. One person’s hero is another person’s villain.
Those who seek to eradicate injustices, will always find themselves in opposition to those who merely have opposing, but equally valid values. Someone like Shirou can’t recognize that while other forms of morality may oppose his own, they can still be valid and just. With the unwavering belief of himself always being in the right, he would just destroy such views without a second thought.
While I don’t consider myself cynical, I am a realist, and I can’t accept such an unrealistic, selfish answer as a healthy or acceptable mindset. Another story is needed to address the vast amount of problems with this ending for everyone involved, and to provide a better answer. (I have many ideas for fanfiction….)
In my opinion, the best answer for heroism is existentialism, but that’s easier said than done..
In short, I couldn’t agree more, and sorry for the super-long post.
I’m too late for this, but I happened to stumble upon this post and felt the need to write a reply. I agree with most of you have said, the only thing I do not is that the Fate series prefers UBW Shirou’s ideals over others and calls them the right ones. That’s totally wrong and it can be perfectly seen in the next and last route, Heaven’s Feel. I will not write much to avoid spoilers, but there Shirou discards completely his ideals when faced with a contradiction by first hand. If he wants to save everyone, he must destroy everything he loves. Yet, Emiya Shirou is not capable of doing that. He choses the few over the many, passing from being the Hero to the lesser of two terrible Evils. When confronted by Illya, telling him that he shouldn’t blame himself as he had done nothing wrong, he smiles and tells her that he has done many bad things too.
Heaven’s Feel is truly a masterpiece in my opinion, as Shirou doesn’t just acknowledge that his dream is impossible, he knows it and laughs at the idea of thinking he once wished to be a Hero. He laughs because he now knows how wrong he was, and that being a Hero of Justice isn’t worth it if it means forsaking those you love. That’s Fate/Stay Night’s final conclussion, what it truly means to be a Hero according to the Author.