The second installment of the Heaven’s Feel films certainly lays on the feels. It’s possibly the most emotionally charged storytelling we’ve seen from anime installments of the franchise yet, dripping with dread and pathos. The film delicately walks a tightrope of uneasiness, giving viewers glimmers of light in the darkness before swallowing them into an abyss of misery by the end. It’s not always a pleasant watch, but it’s undeniably compelling. Even if you’re familiar with the Fate or Unlimited Blade Works routes, the choices and fates of characters in Heaven’s Feel will shock and surprise.
This film is as much of an emotional rollercoaster as it is a visual thrill ride. In a short interview with Shirou and Sakura’s voice actors attached to the theatrical screening, they promised that ufotable showed off the best of Japanese animation in the film. While I wouldn’t stay this is the peak of what animation has to offer, ufotable delivered a marvelously crafted piece of work that excels in almost every area. The action set-pieces in the film are extravagantly animated and pure spectacle. Of particular note is the fight between Saber Alter and Berserker, which goes crazy on dramatic hits, explosions, gore, giant laser beam swords, and all the fixings of a brutally beautiful fight. The way the environment is used during the battle really gives a sense of progression and the insanity of it as it escalates, to the point where Berserker starts throwing parts of Illya’s castle at Saber, leaving everything broken and devastated by the fight’s conclusion.
In addition to the thrilling animation, the film’s aesthetics and use of color precisely characterize the tone of the story, evoking powerful sensations from distinct imagery. Most important of all is the film’s boarding and editing, and the way it presents the film’s emotional drama through its imagery in ways that make it feel more palpable and powerful than the script alone could communicate. In many respects, the script has many questionable pieces of dialogue and scenes and is bloated with exposition in typical Fate fashion, and a bad production could so easily produce an unenjoyable version of this story. Yet, ufotable manages to present every moment with such gravitas and aplomb that the film rarely missteps in conveying its emotional core. Instead, it’s steeped in emotion from beginning to end, even during expositional scenes, and thus no scene feels unneeded and no story beat unearned. Execution is truly everything when it comes to Fate, and ufotable’s art and animation have presented it at its most emotionally accessible and viscerally engaging.
The three routes of stay night are clearly meant to be experienced back-to-back in order to grasp a full understanding of the world and every character, but even by itself, the Heaven’s Feel storyline is resonant. The central relationship between Shirou and Sakura and their personal character arcs is endearing, disturbing, and fascinating all at once. That the darkness of their pasts and futures are juxtaposed by seemingly pleasant scenes of domesticity makes the harsh responsibilities befalling them all the more tragic. The film wisely concentrates its focus on the struggles these characters endure to retain their sense of selves, pushed to make choices and sacrifices that will rip them apart both metaphorically and literally. The film is mired in their wrought frustration and desperation, both characters feeling overwhelmingly helpless and insecure in their trust in each other. For as much as they grow closer together over the course of the film, intimately relating their feelings and fears to one another, by the end they’ve been ripped apart by uncertainty.
Throughout the film Shirou struggles with his own powerlessness, unable to put his lofty ideals into action. While not physically strong or particularly adept at magic, Shirou’s strength is his kindness and optimism, best demonstrated when he embraces Sakura and promises her that he will become a hero to protect her from harm. For Sakura, his empathy is enough to reassure her that she has a home and place her she belongs and that she can and is deserving of happiness. Similarly, many characters in Fate between the different routes are inspired by Shirou’s idealism to follow a righteous path for themselves or feel reassured that there is a better world worth fighting for. Where Heaven’s Feel differs is that it challenges Shirou to doubt himself and his ability to enact change. Though he promises to protect Sakura, Shirou becomes riddled with doubt and paranoia that he’s incapable of helping anyone, as many people sacrifice themselves to protect him and his own sacrifices and near-death experiences failing to make a meaningful difference. This culminates in him almost giving up and betraying Sakura’s trust and his ideals in a gripping moment of desperation.
While Shirou’s actions do make a difference by bringing people together and potentially saving the lives of a few people close to him, he’s given himself a goal he has no plan or means to achieve. The more the situation worsens, the further out of the reach it seems, and the more frightened he becomes. Ultimately, the film finds Shirou reaffirming what he believes in by remembering who inspired him and what he wants to protect, but tragically, his moment of indecision has a ripple effect on Sakura that leads to the film’s tragic climax. Fate is in part the story of Shirou learning what it means to be a hero. Now that he’s recommitted himself to be a protector, the next film will require him to put his words into action, and based on the preview for the next film he seems resolute in this conviction.
Sakura, meanwhile, is perhaps the most compelling and nuanced character in the film. While her dark past has been discussed and depicted in other Fate stories, Heaven’s Feel gives us the most insight into her character and trauma. The horror of being ripped apart from her family and violated by monsters is depicted in a haunting dream sequence, communicating the loneliness and alienation she feels from other people, who’ve either mistreated or abandoned her. Shirou is the only one who’s shown her unconditional love and compassion, which makes it no wonder why she admires and develops feelings for him. Unfortunately, Sakura has been raised to be a tool of the Matou clan more than she has her own person, and from a young age was told that her needs are less important than those around her. As such, she has a low opinion of herself and holds little value in her own life. Her “confession” to Shirou is heartbreaking; she believes that lying to Shirou, even though she did it to protect him, makes her a bad person and that being a victim of rape and abuse makes her somehow not worth protecting.
Sakura has internalized this idea that the things done to her have made her “impure,” and so the desires and feelings she has, especially sexual desires, are something she should be ashamed of. She’s been conditioned to believe that every misfortune that befalls her is her fault and that she’s somehow deserving of punished for these perceived mistakes. Even after Shirou promises he’ll protect her and tells her he loves her no matter what, Sakura still believes she’s a burden. The film sees Sakura start to fight for herself and vocalize what she wants, but tragically every step she takes forward is still mired in insecurity and self-hatred. Her decisions are motivated by her love for Shirou and fear of losing him, including running away so he doesn’t get hurt by being around her and making sexual advances on him after being worried he’ll fall in love with someone else. This makes the climax of the film all the crueler. Sakura intends to sacrifice herself out of her love for Shirou but instead loses herself after finally vocalizing the contempt she holds for her brother and fighting back. The moment where she finally stands up for her own happiness is what condemns her to become the tool that her grandfather has groomed her to become. Sakura’s character arc in this film is by far its most compelling aspect, but while viewers might watch hoping for a moment of catharsis, it sadly never comes.
While Sakura is an interesting and sympathetic character, her story is riddled with uncomfortable elements that aren’t always handled tactfully. Sakura’s a victim of sexual assault, and the trauma she’s endured from those experiences is a defining part of her self-hatred. While the film communicates this, it also undermines her character by sexualizing her. While there are sexually-charged scenes themselves in Heaven’s Feel that are important to the story, the ways in which Sakura is objectified as a sexual being, fetishizing parts of her body and using imagery that’s meant to arouse, is unnecessary and demeaning. Part of the reason Sakura feels such strong sexual desires towards Shirou is because she’s never been able to have a healthy, loving relationship with anyone besides him. Moreover, her only sexual experiences before Shirou have been rape so being able to have consensual sex with a person she loves is cathartic to her, and a way to take control of herself and her sexuality for the first time. What should be an emotional moment is diminished when shots frame Sakura in such a way to emphasize her breasts, lips, or lingerie. When Sakura is crying tears of happiness, the shot shouldn’t distract the viewer by showing the tears trickle down her breasts, but the film does this. The audience I was watching the film with was either snickering or giggling during this sequence when they should’ve had more empathy for Sakura and understood the importance of this moment in the context of her character arc. The film failed to communicate clearly by trying to have its cheesecake and eat it too.
The irresponsible framing of Sakura in the film also draws attention to her lack of agency. While her character arc is ostensibly about her appreciating her self-worth, it’s disappointing that so much of her journey to redefine herself revolves around her relationship with Shirou. Worse, Sakura is never allowed to be more than a victim and take ownership of herself and her story. She’s a tool for the Matou’s and something to protect for Shinji and Rin, but in spite of being power incarnate, she has little actual power over her own destiny. While that’s part of the tragedy of the character, it’s disappointing that her story is one of a woman being rescued from an abusive situation by a man rather than escaping from it through her own power. Even though Sakura kills her abuser by the end of the film, this isn’t framed as a triumphant thing, and instead serves as the catalyst for her to become a personified object. Once again, she’s turned into a victim in need of rescue, implying it is beyond her power to do so herself, leaving the responsibility to “save” her up to Shirou.
It’s bad enough that viewers are subjected to scenes where Sakura is sexually assaulted by phallic worms and her step-brother, it’s worse when you realize that this isn’t Sakura’s story. This is the story of Shirou becoming a hero by rescuing Sakura. It’s tiresome to see female characters in stories be subjected to sexual abuse in order to motivate male protagonists. When written by male writers for male audiences, it’s especially insidious, because it dehumanizes women and frames sexual assault as a problem in how it affects the man related to the affected female character rather than how it affects the victim herself. While we certainly get a lot of insight into Sakura in this film and understand her trauma from her perspective, the underlying problems in how her sexual assault is presented and its implications still remain and are worsened by her sexualization in other scenes. She might be the heroine, but Heaven’s Feel isn’t Sakura’s story when the subject matter in her character arc necessitates that it should be more than Shirou’s.
Sakura’s character arc is lost butterfly’s greatest strength and weakness, and in spite of its problems, makes the film engrossing enough to overcome its faults. The craftsmanship of the film alone should satisfy casual and hardcore Fate fans alike. This is ufotable and Fate at their best, a project brimming with love for the source material and a desire to make the best possible version of it to date. So far, I say they’ve succeeded. I’ve never been more emotionally invested in a Fate story, and I’m incredibly curious to see what fates will befall these characters in the finale. It’s going to be a long winter until Spring Song.