While it’s not entirely fair to call this episode “The First Battle” since we’ve already seen Lancer and Archer duke it out, it rings true in that this is the first battle we (and Shirou) properly understand—the stakes are laid out alongside the chessboard, all pieces in place to play with the expectations we’ve slowly been building up. You thought the white-haired girl, Ilya, was a cute baby bird? She’s actually very proficient and terrifying. You thought the giant Berserker was going to spend the fight lumbering around Hulk-smashing stuff? He’s surprisingly and frighteningly agile. You thought Archer was pulling the “archer” title out of his ass? He actually shoots things!
The fight itself, of course, is awesome, because if there’s one thing this production company can do it’s make mythological characters beating each other up visually appealing. Saber flings off that hilarious and inexplicable raincoat and takes on Berserker head to head, a pretty impressive feat considering he’s a giant mass of rippling, glowy muscle and anger. And again, horrifyingly swift and nimble for his enormous girth, leading to some tense and beautiful instances of the two Servants flipping and slashing at each other mid-air— it’s worth noting, as opposed to putting them both on wires and sending them flying freely, all their magical acrobatics are conducted while still giving each character a sense of weight and density, enough to make you genuinely wince when hits land, so kudos again to the animation.
Berserker’s supposed to be a mad warrior, but through his aggressive lack of personality and agency has evidently retained enough skill with the sword to kick some serious ass. Saber does very well to hold her own, though, with some air support from Archer, who not only brings his ridiculously good long distance vision to use (the animation following his “arrow” from one side of town to another, to finally land with [again, a satisfyingly weighty] colossal impact, was very nicely done) but actually practices archery. With swords. Ah well, you can’t have everything.
Apart from those skill-reveals, we don’t really learn too much about the Servants, though Saber shows some genuine emotion and quickly-swallowed conflict when she sees a girl with the name Einzbern. This is merely an especially deadly Pokémon battle, and they’re just on the field throwing moves while their Masters watch (Ilya, apparently, has a lot of health potions in supply, because Berserker’s quite literally impossible to dent). Though the writers have the grace not to just have the Masters standing around, and actually plant in a scene I believe was not in the original source material—the first battle, as it were, between mages, both obviously very skilled, and both young women. Something about that was very satisfying, both from a “hooray for demonstrating what the professionals are doing instead of keeping to Shirou’s gawping point of view” and a “holy heck that was cool” kind of way. Ilya proves a good match for Rin, an ice to her fire if you will.
The use of wire birds is an especially nice touch, as it gives Ilya that little bit more power as opposed to leaving her as the girl standing around looking cute and creepy and giving Berserker orders (plus, any additional continuity that acknowledges Iri’s existence and importance is one that I welcome). Overall I think this served as a good introduction to Ilya’s character; she doesn’t fall too hard into the “creepy doll girl” trope and go headfirst into frilly, giggled explanations of her murder plans, but simply presents the juxtaposition of such clinical and knowledgeable words and actions coming from a softly-dressed girl who looks about eleven, and leaves you to feel slightly chilled.
The overall effect is eerie but not overdone, and when she disappears at the end promising that she’s changed her plans due to her piqued interest in Archer, you have to give a little shudder of relief mixed with impending dread. It’s a “we’re safe… for now” moment that makes a good end to the episode-long battle, which is then nicely snapped out of by the reveal that something is very wrong with Shirou.
Oh yeah, that kid. We don’t see an awful lot of him this time around, and what we do see is him he’s being a damsel in distress and/or burning up with conflict over his uselessness in the face of such a high-stakes battle. Rin advises him to run away, at first with a sense of genuine protectiveness, at second by arm-locking the sucker and slamming him into a tree. There’s an eerie undertone in Rin’s repeated telling him that he shouldn’t hang around here and die for nothing. Is the subtext of that that she considers it okay if somebody dies for a purpose?
Somehow, Shirou’s rash sprint straight into the battle manages not to be played as dumb. You understand his anguish, and don’t (in my case, anyway) yell at him for his heroic stupidity when he drags Saber out of the way of the final arrow attack—probably helped by the fact that not only does it cement a relationship of mutual ass-saving between the two of them, but his reason for running after her is not “I must protect her, despite my evident lack of skills, because that’s what girls need!!” (thanks, Fate route) but “Didn’t I just promise that I would fight with you?” Also, he has the sense to run sideways and away from the onslaught, as opposed to letting it chase them, and it’s always nice when fictional characters actually do that. How impressed Rin is with his behaviour, though, we have yet to see, and I can’t imagine it’s going to be pretty.
What injury did Shirou sustain when he flung himself into the fray? Why did the tail or Archer’s “arrow” match suspiciously well with the hilt of Saber’s sword when it was temporarily revealed? And who is that smirking blonde hanging out in the church??
- It’s kind of a shame that we lose-in-translation the nuance of Ilya calling Shirou “onii-chan”, which as I understand it has its roots in “brother”… ah linguistics and subtitles, hiding foreshadowing since the dawn of its days
- Shirou still holding onto Saber’s hand after pulling her to safety was just kind of cute, and didn’t seem to add to any looming sense of impending sexual tension, which I for one am quite pleased about
- Return of the Einzbirds! I’m still cheering over this. Very, very nice addition, people
- The shot of Kirei’s smirk was menacing enough on its own, and I am rather worried about what it implies that they gave a very similar one to Archer later on. Very worried about everything Kirei-related, actually
- Sakura was not relevant in this episode