In 1991, Baudrillard famously said that the Gulf War did not occur. I used to think along similar lines about the Vietnam War when I was younger. What exactly happened? What exact sequence of events became known as “the war”? The closer you look, the less you see: one person’s memories differ from another’s; one person sees such and such event as the defining moments of the war, while others may argue that those were isolated acts. There is a clear number of real things that happened, but Rambo and Colonel Kurtz might disagree with the history books.
One also wonders: when does a war pass into myth? When does anything become mythologised? EA recently withdrew tweets that had memes with Battlefield 1 screenshots, because they were criticised for being insensitive. The game itself is very respectful, of course. Much has been said about the title: World War I was the turning point of the modern world, and to it we usually trace everything from 20th century economics to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. A century later, it’s still too soon to joke about for some people. Most of the discourse on the war, as it is today, revolves around its unmet expectations: the initial paeans of justice, heroism, and a coming era of glory were soon replaced by Owen Wilson’s poems and a growing public awareness of modern war. When we speak of World War I now, we don’t begin by addressing the writings from the early years, but the rebukes that followed. It is a great myth now, a milestone in history – equally tinged with heroism, and haunted by brutality, helplessness, and futility. We may fantasise about the former, but we cannot ignore the latter.
This brings us to the Holy Grail War. It is one of our treasured legends, told and retold, and more or less loved every time. It started with the visual novel, Fate/stay night (2004), which was adapted into several media, including the 2006 anime, the 2010 TV Reproduction, the Unlimited Blade Works film in 2010, and the series of the same name (and plot) in 2014. We’re currently looking forward to the Heaven’s Feel films next year. There’s a strong temporal aspect to the story. Maybe that’s why it’s called ‘Fate’. People will become who we know they will; one man will go back to his past; heroes from the world’s history – King Arthur, Gilgamesh, Cu Chulainn, Hercules – will come to the present, summoned by magi to fight for the Holy Grail. The key story is that of the Fifth Holy Grail War, which takes place in Fuyuki City, Japan, in 2004. Characters often look back at the Fourth Grail War of 1994 (the subject of Fate/Zero) and its aftermath. Personal history, collective history, and world history collide every time we return to 2004.
There’s a strong aspect of our history in it, too, and I don’t just mean the slight parallels with Japan’s past (a city in flames after a war). Most of us in our teens and twenties were young and new to anime when we saw Fate/stay night, and we still agree that it was quite good, albeit far from perfect. It stayed with us, as every generation has its memories. Like the heroes, like the Grail War, the watching itself became a historical act – an important part of our personal and collective histories that we look back on and recall, because it’s organic to us. In a sense, we ‘witnessed’ Fate/stay night. Every time we see an adaptation of the original story, we re-generate and re-propagate it. That is why the TV Reproduction begins with Tainaka Sachi’s voice in a slow tempo, as if calling something from out of the past. That is why some people hold their breath when the first season of Unlimited Blade Works ends with LiSa’s cover.
Now, I ask, did the Holy Grail War ever happen? For something so obsessed with history, the franchise goes out of its way to be antihistorical (King Arthur is a woman, to cite but one example). Two speeches stand out in the Unlimited Blade Works series. In Episode 6, Archer says, ‘We have no choice. We simply end up here. We Servants have no free will ... We’re no more than disposable tools.’ In Episode 23, Assassin says, ‘I have never had a reason to fight ... After all, I am not even Sasaki Kojirou ... The Sasaki Kojirou celebrated as the foil to a renowned swordsman is but a fictional entity who never existed. Indeed, “Sasaki Kojirou” is but a mantle. I was merely the swordsman deemed most suitable to wear it.’ All Servants are summoned for a brief period, and are expected to die in the course of the war. Some, like Assassin, may be still more ephemeral. They only stay the night. These are strong indications that we should be wary before setting the story of the war in stone.
What is this ‘war’ they fight? The main goal is the Holy Grail, which will grant wishes to the winner. Many fight nobly, others use guile and treachery. They wield fantastic Noble Phantasms with godlike power. While the actual participants are seven in number, the Holy Grail War is a huge display of power in a theatre of war. The spells are shells that wrack the earth, and the weapons are as tremendous and terrible as modern war machines. It is not difficult to imagine the fights as scenes to be recorded in history and myth. As such, Archer’s incantation is a prayer for a weapon that might bring victory through battle, and thereby a prayer for a miracle. When Unlimited Blade Works is cast, he enters a Reality Marble where he can fight in his own battlefield on his own terms. With victory, we hope that battlefield will have led to something good and noble. It sounds like the distant utopia that Europe was seeing in 1914.
A ridiculous notion occurred to me the other day. In Season 3, Episode 1 of the cartoon, Codename: Kids Next Door, as he faces a laser that turns boys into girls, the tough leader of the Boys Next Door starts saying manly words in a faltering attempt to withstand the laser’s effects: ‘Worms! Skateboards! Action figures...’ His laudable attempt fails instantly. Now compare that with Archer. Archer, too, says a prayer, but one that brings little. Archer’s dreams are crushed like French land under German artillery fire. Even the end result of that failure – Unlimited Blade Works – gives only a hope of a smaller, more fleeting victory through a prayer. He is the bone of sword; steel is his body; there is nothing he 'will' be – nothing to hope for, and no apotheosis or salvation at the end of his prayer.
Why does the boy in Kids Next Door strike me? Because he seems puny and is powerless in front of the giant laser. The Servants of the Holy Grail War, far from being gods, are as small as the rest of us – conjured to do their Masters’ bidding, they perform spectacular feats, but achieve little. They are like actors, moving and speaking with majesty, and departing when the show’s over. The Holy Grail War stands as it is, but it does not merit an elevation to a mythical level. Like other wars, and like Archer’s prayer, it is as petty as a series of scuffles between pawns that leads to fire and bloodshed. That’s not to say that it isn’t also a majestic arena of chivalry and honour. However, we forget how helpless these heroes really are. They are beaten, duped, and killed, and all they can hope to do is fight back. Kneeling and praying, Archer can only hope to fight his antagonist head-on in a small city in Japan. Sasaki is bound to the temple steps. Lancer is compelled to act against his wishes. When he closes his eyes, Archer will not open them to a better world, but one symbolising devastation, and he will still be caught in mortal combat with a ruthless opponent.
And so it is with all of us. Magnificent actors in our respective dramas though we are, we are but actors, and there is only so much this stage will let us do. Of the many ways that the Holy Grail War may be seen, this is one: a number of hapless people are forced to fight to the death, and have little power beyond their ability to slaughter each other. Any attempt at glorifying this tends to shift away from fact. They find no sudden deliverance from war and horror. Their prayers for a world without tears fade before reaching the crimson-stained sky.
‘Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,