A Review of Fate/Grand Order: Absolute Demonic Front – Babylonia

It’s the end of Pride Month and I’ve somehow managed to waste another one not talking about any gay anime. Mostly because my review of Given went up like a week before June, just missing the cutoff. Because I haven’t seen any other gay anime since then, I’ve no choice but to review the second gayest thing: Fate/Grand Order.

Depending on your priorities, or patience, or standards, Fate/Grand Order is either one of the coolest or stupidest things. The highly successful mobile game based on the world created by Kinoko Nasu and Type-Moon is a multi-arc saga almost as dense in itself as the Fate Universe is normally.

An overabundance of adaptations, spanning novels, visual novels, and comics is nothing new. Alternate universes, alternate timelines, slice-of-life comedies, cooking shows – Fate has something for everyone. Much like there is no definitive Ghost in the Shell, there is no definitive Fate (huh, it’s almost poetic when you phrase it that way).

I love the world Kinoko Nasu created. Just read my review of Lord El Melloi II’s Case Files and you can tell how much the universe resonates with me. On the flip side, I’m not the biggest fan of Grand Order. I think it lacks the substance that made other stories like Fate/Stay Night, Zero, or Garden of Sinners so incredible.

The short version: Grand Order, to me, feels like Fate trying to be Doctor Who or some other show about time travel. It indulges in some of the franchise’s less commendable habits all while feeling like a vehicle for fan service. And the biggest surprise… is that I didn’t hate this show.

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Fate/Grand Order follows Fujimaru Ritsuka and his pseudo-servant Mash Kyrielight as they travel to singularities through history and close them. These singularities that don’t exist in recorded history can have a ripple effect on all of existence.

To save the world, Chaldea uses its technology to send Fujimaru and Mash to these singularities. Just like any grail war in the franchise, Servants are summoned to the singularity, some friendly and others not. The ultimate goal is to acquire the Holy Grails within these singularities to close them, saving humanity from extinction.

Being based on a long-running mobile game, there are a lot of arcs and events to cover. There are eight singularities in the first part of the story and Babylonia, considered one of the better arcs, is the seventh one. So there is a lot of content that is skipped over right off the bat. Some of that whiplash, however, is appreciably dampened thanks to the prologue episode.

Episode 0 is the introduction to the primary cast members of the series. Namely Mash, the young pseudo-servant engineered to be a weapon to save the world. We also see the beginning of the story through the eyes of Romani Archaman, a doctor who will later become the director of Chaldea in the story proper.

Mash begins the story as a very detached and somewhat deadpan girl which is not an original concept but is executed well enough. She is given only 18 years to live as a result of the conditions by which she was born and through her bond with Dr. Romani, we see her begin to open her heart to people and become far more emotionally expressive.

Revisiting this episode after finishing the series makes it both better and worse. On one hand, it puts into perspective just how much a character like Mash has changed since. On the downside, it also truncates that arc to the point that it doesn’t feel like she changes much through the series proper. The same goes for Romani, who gets plenty of screentime in episode 0 only to be relegated to a control room side character for most of the show.

However, it is thanks to the prologue episode that it feels like it’s feasible for the producers to skip straight to the Babylonia arc. The end of the prologue features a montage of dialogue by characters from across the previous six singularities. These monologues convey what are consistently the themes of Grand Order: making connections with people from all walks of life.

It’s easy for anyone familiar with the Fate meta in any capacity to understand the gravity of such a montage, even if you only recognize a few. It’s effective at giving the main cast a world-traveled feel as they move into the main arc. Unfortunately, it gets off to a bumpy start.

I would never call it slow, necessarily. Babylonia‘s production – of which there is much to discuss – ensures there is a well-animated fight at least once per episode for all 21 episodes and that’s not even counting the prologue. It’s a monster of a show in regards to action. No, instead I found the story to be simply uninteresting. At least at first.

It’s the end of the age of gods and the dawn of the age of men. The Three Goddess Alliance and their army of demonic beasts have declared war against the city of Uruk, lead by King Gilgamesh. While Gil isn’t convinced that he requires the help of Chaldea, having already summoned his own servants, Fujimaru is persistent and offers to aid in fighting the goddesses in exchange for the grail that is already in his possession.

Action aside, the first five episodes left me somewhat bored, with so much time spent with Fujimaru and Mash, who aren’t the most exciting protagonists. I mentioned earlier how Mash’s arc may as well begin and end with the prologue. Fujimaru is somehow worse, lacking the qualities of a true Nasuverse protagonist.

I happen to love the main characters of Nasu’s stories. Specifically, I am interested in his younger male protagonists. This includes Shirou Emiya from Fate/Stay Night, Mikiya Kokutou from Garden of Sinners, and (though I haven’t finished it) Shiki Tohno from Tsukihime. The best way to describe these characters would be “unassuming.”

They don’t immediately stand out. Their appearances are typically fairly standard-looking. They are quiet but personable enough to have some close friends and generally get along with people. However, all of that is just on the surface, creating an easy audience-insert. Each one of these characters has an ability, backstory, or worldview that makes them immediately interesting.

Shirou Emiya from Fate/Stay Night

Shirou is someone suffering from survivor’s guilt who looks up to the man who saved him like a hero he wants to imitate. Coming to understand who his father figure was and the dangers that come with being a hero constantly challenge him. With Fate/Stay Night‘s different routes, we see multiple outcomes of his ideological battle against fate.

Mikiya Kokutou from Garden of Sinners

In Garden of Sinners, Mikiya is a sincere person whose very soul (referred to as their “Origin”) makes him averse to violence. This kindness makes his romance with Ryougi Shiki, a super-powered killer with multiple personalities, so much more layered and complicated. His capacity to forgive is both his flaw and his greatest virtue.

Finally, there’s Shiki Tohno from Tsukihime. Granted, I haven’t read much of the source material. That being said, any protagonist who tries to maintain a fairly normal life despite having a super-power that lets him cut anything to pieces is one I want to read more about.

Shiki Tohno from Tsukihime

The protagonists of Type-Moon/ Nasu stories may look cookie-cutter on the outside, but they are anything but. They are super interesting, all while being stupidly nice characters who are ideal boyfriend material (maybe this is a good review for Pride month after all).

Fujimaru Ritsuka is sincere and personable like his peers, but he lacks the grit beneath that; the edge that makes him memorable. And that is, in essence, because he is a character based on a non-character. Because in the mobile game, Fujimaru is just the player, on a mission to build the largest harem in the known galaxy and actively break every other ship in the Fate universe.

The biggest thing holding back Fate/Grand Order is that it is based on a mobile game, and mobile gaming isn’t the best narrative medium. Hell, it seems like every time the story wants to get Fujimaru and a servant closer, there’s always a heart-to-heart late at night under the moonlight, typically on top of a building or at a campsite.

That last point isn’t a huge gripe, mind you. I’m not saying those scenes weren’t entertaining, just that the screenplay isn’t exactly creative. Besides, when I did eventually return to this series after initially dropping it after five episodes, there had to be a reason why I managed to binge the rest of it in less than a week.

The first was The Canipa Effect’s video on the animation and the second reason was the time spent with the other servants. After all, Heroic Spirits are an exciting and versatile storytelling tool. Not only can writers utilize historical figures, but they can take fictional characters, creating stylized characterizations that embody the legend of those figures.

The moment I realized I was starting to enjoy FGO Babylonia was when Fujimaru had a heart-to-heart with Ushiwakamaru before a major battle. Ushiwakamaru and another servant, Benkei, are both from the same Japanese folk tale turned children’s song. Here, the gender-bent Ushiwaka hears Fujimaru sing the song she is the focus of, and finds newfound comfort and resolve in knowing what affect her story has had on the people of a time long after her own.

The battle featuring her after that is one of my favorites in the show. Some of the best battles throughout are effective because of how likable and magnetic the servants are. In the same episode as Ushiwaka’s big fight, the Spartan King Leonidas displays the kind of powerful presence that validates a viewer’s investment up to that point. And the watching only gets easier from there.

From episode nine and onward, the main goal becomes clearer, the pace quickens with impending war, and the servants continue to steal the show. Their backstories and philosophies are divulged just enough to instill some investment in their characters, a boon to the many battle scenes that escalate through the second half.

Fujimaru works to turn enemy servants to their side by endearing himself to them or offering them something in return. My favorite of these turncoats is Quetzalcoatl. Her smiley persona in light of her brutal fighting spirit makes her terrifying and her unconventional fighting style is animated to bring out her personality in full-swing.

Animation by Ken Yamamoto

Although, there is one bad habit I particularly don’t like across all entries in the Fate universe: the reuse of characters and character designs for “new” characters. When there is an explainable reason behind a character looking exactly like another one, it’s passable. However, sometimes it just happens with no explanation.

Ishtar and Ereshkigal are two servant goddesses that were summoned to inhabit a human body. The body summoned just so happens to be that of Tohsaka Rin from Fate/Stay Night. Why? Eh, why not? On the other hand, there’s Jaguarman, who is literally Taiga from Fate/Stay Night but wearing jaguar-print pajamas.

Despite my apprehension and mild annoyance at the beginning of the series, I didn’t care by the end. By that point, I was used to Ishtar despite/ because she is just Rin but in less clothing and with more powers. As for Jaguarman, they are a joke character in a show that isn’t above having some humor now and again, so I’ll take it.

As for the rest of the cast, I like them. Ana has perhaps the clearest and most consistent arc throughout, certainly the one I was the most emotionally invested in. Gilgamesh isn’t a total fucking prick this time around but I feel like that is even more satisfying when you see how much of an asshole he’s been in past adaptations.

The biggest missed opportunities in my book were Benkei and Enkidu. The former because he disappears for a large chunk of the story only to come back briefly for a moment out-shined by other characters in the same episode. The latter got hyped up to me because Enkidu and Gilgamesh have always shared an interesting relationship in the lore that I was excited to see explored here.

Unfortunately, I just never felt much interest in Enkidu here, mainly because of plot reasons. They are a decent villain though, with some impressive powers, but if I want to see the Gilgamesh and Enkidu content I’ve been told about, I guess I’ll just have to wait until they adapt Fate/Strange Fake.

At 21 episodes, Babylonia didn’t overstay it’s welcome, save for a slightly drawn-out final battle. Its main characters are fun to look at but ultimately shallow. It gets off to a slow start and much of the exposition is inconsequential. The script can be too dense and laden with redundancy. When it doesn’t over-explain, it injects characters and lore elements seemingly just to elicit hype from hardcore fans, forgetting what makes those things exciting in the first place: thee buildup.

Despite all of this, I’m recommending it.

Animation by Itsuki Tsuchigami

If nothing else, this is because we need more shows like FGO Babylonia. I’ve mentioned previously Canipa’s video on the production of the show, but I have to stress that it is a marvel of animation. Not only that, but the deadlines and the opportunities for younger animators make this show a game-changer. This show goes against all of the “rules” and the system of seniority that dominates much of anime production.

CloverWorks, the studio behind Bunny Girl Senpai and Promised Neverland, outdid themselves. Having split apart from A1 Pictures, they’ve done pretty well in the last couple of years, but after Grand Order‘s success, there is an opportunity for them to change the industry.

The director alone signifies how this highly this show prioritizes its animation. Toshifumi Akai’s other major directing credit is the music video for Porter Robinson’s Shelter. Otherwise, he has been a key animator and animation director on countless shows. There are too many talented people to name them all, so I will direct you to the Canipa video one last time.

Finally, there is sound. The music by Ryo Kawasaki and Keita Haga reminds me of the high points of Fate/Apocrypha, and though it doesn’t quite reach the same heights, the battle themes were sublime. On the other hand, the audio mixing across the board was… interesting.

I think the bass-boosting now famous from Jojo, SAO, and now other entries in the Fate franchise may have gone a little too far. It still sounds great, especially if you are watching the show on a TV with a good sound system, but the effect has become something of a meme now.

Fate/Grand Order: Absolute Demonic Front – Babylonia, is a show that I was not expecting to feel satisfied with by the end. But there is a reason Babylonia is sitting comfortably at an 8.0 on MyAnimeList.net. If I still found myself attached to these characters, then certainly someone with looser standards than I will love this show. And there’s plenty to love.

In my review of Space Dandy, I pointed out how every year or two, a show comes along that is a technical marvel from start to finish. While most shows I listed as examples at that time were showcases of many different styles, Fate/Grand Order was brimming with enough creativity throughout that I think it stands tall among the best of them.

Fate/Grand Order: Absolute Demonic Front – Babylonia is available for legal streaming through FunimationNow and Crunchyroll.

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What do you think of FGO Babylonia? Leave a comment below and while you’re at it, tell me what your favorite Fate adaptation is.

Thanks for reading, and as always, see you next week!

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