Spoiler warning for Heaven’s Feel part one in the first two paragraphs. I’ll also include Fate and Unlimited Blade Works spoilers throughout because you need to know the previous routes to fully understand Heaven’s Feel.
Some movies are defined by a single scene. It could be the best part, the worst part, or simply the most memorable, but moments like that can make or break a film. In Heaven’s Feel, that scene comes around a third of the way in. Assassin is quickly killed by an unknown force, after which True Assassin forces his way out of Assassin’s corpse and goes on to kill Caster and Soichiro. This entire sequence is dark, nerve-wracking, and tells us that Heaven’s Feel isn’t the Fate we remember.
Previous Fate adaptations have always been somewhat straightforward. There are clear heroes and villains with clear motivations and backstories, and they fight in pitched battles. Heaven’s Feel, on the other hand, quickly eliminates or sidelines the major villains from Fate and UBW in favor of introducing completely new villains who we know precious little about. These new villains’ motives and abilities are unclear, and they strike from the shadows and lay traps rather than engaging in more direct battles. Indeed, Heaven’s Feel has few big battles in the style of Fate and UBW. With the exception of an excellent battle in the middle of the movie, most of the fights are quick and hopelessly one-sided. All of these differences combine to create a sense of unease that pervades most of the movie. This is completely uncharted territory that ignores the basic structure we’re familiar with from Fate and UBW.
End of Heaven’s Feel spoilers.
The reason I’m comparing Heaven’s Feel to the prior adaptations so much is because the film expects viewers to be familiar with the other adaptations, both because it subverts our expectations from them and because it relies on familiarity with character who the other adaptations highlighted. Saber, Rin, and Archer are all given smaller roles compared to other adaptations, and their big dramatic moments all rely on investment built up by previous adaptations. That’s not necessarily a problem, though. The film would have been redundant and boring if it devoted too much time to retreading ground that other adaptations have already covered, and it makes full use of our investment in these characters (Saber in particular has one of the most emotionally raw moments in the franchise yet). Instead of retreading old ground, HF focuses on new content, especially around Shirou and Sakura’s relationship.
Sakura was one part of the film that I wasn’t too interested in at first. She was a complete non-entity in the other routes, and has a less than stellar reputation among fans, but I was pleasantly surprised. Other routes implied that her brother was abusive towards her, but HF fully dives into it. Even before Shinji’s abuse in confirmed, Sakura’s mannerisms hint at it. Her quiet but always happy demeanor, her insistence on being useful in some way, and her anxiety around any kind of conflict all mirror coping strategies used by actual abuse victims. The film never says she acts that way because of the abuse, but it doesn’t need to; her actions speak for themselves. She even shows some quiet strength when she demands that Shirou be more careful after he comes home injured. As she grows closer to Shirou, we also see her open up more and Shirou grow to care for her. He originally looks at her almost like a little sister, but that changes as they get closer. This film was mostly setting the groundwork for their relationship, but it’s a strong groundwork to have.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Fate without the Servant battles. Most of the battles are pretty short and one-sided, but that’s not to take away from their quality. Every strike has a force behind it that reminds you that Servants, even weaker ones, are inhumanly powerful beings of legend. Small details like how each character moves differently in battle give the fights flavor, even when they’re not using any special abilities. From Lancer’s speed and relentless attacks to Berserker’s raw power, no two Servants fight the same way. By far the best fight is a battle near the middle of the film that goes across the entire city and lasts for several minutes. It goes from setpiece to setpiece, never staying in the same place for too long as the character keep fighting and running at the same time. It’s an impressive feat that shines even among the largely excellent battles of Heaven’s Feel.
Part of what makes these fights so exciting is Ufotable’s stellar animation. HF incorporates the soft lighting and heavy digital effects that Ufotable is known for, and perfects them. It doesn’t have the same raw beauty as Kara no Kyoukai, but the animation itself is impeccable. Many of the fight backgrounds are meticulously rendered in CGI to allow for dynamic camera movement and character animation without ever standing out. Some of the backgrounds are so detailed that they almost look real. You will find nothing to complain about in the animation department. The soundtrack is similarly high quality. Yuki Kajiura returns for HF and her soundtrack manages to maintain that familiar Kajiura sound without coming off as a repeat of her previous work. It’s largely orchestral compared to her usual choral music, but it complements the film very well. What’s even more distinctive is when there isn’t any music and the atmosphere grows more and more foreboding. All in all, Heaven’s Feel is a technical accomplishment that Ufotable should be proud of.
If you’re wondering if Heaven’s Feel is better than the other Fate adaptations, I couldn’t give a straight answer. This was only the first third of the story, but it already established itself as being a different beast from the other storylines. Unlike the more action-focused UBW, Heaven’s Feel is far darker, leaning almost into horror at times. It relies on familiarity with other adaptations, but it uses that to great effect. Comparing them at this point would be like comparing apples to oranges. What I can say is that Heaven’s Feel is an excellent adaptation and a worthy entry in the franchise. I may prefer UBW’s tone and style so far, but Heaven’s Feel is still a fantastic anime that any Fate fan should check out.
Final Score: 9/10