The super-hero genre is something that has not only cross-pollinated into different media, but has–in itself–been subject to a considerable amount of scrutiny. Superheroes have been changed into gritty, horrifyingly realistic beings by the Revisionism of the 1980s, only to be reconstituted back into their brightly-coloured Platonic ideals–with perhaps a little more character-driven depth–in what Julian Darius coins the Reconstructionism of 1995 comics onward. But what I find to be the most interesting aspect between these two points is how the superhero trope–that literary process of how a person becomes and continues to be a superhero–continues to be subverted while, at the same time, translates itself into another medium and culture.
In 2004, the Japanese game and novel development company Type-Moon created a visual novel for the PC called Fate/Stay Night which features the wannabe superhero–Emiya Shirou–as its central protagonist. Some of the story lines within this visual novel would be adapted into an anime series, an animated film, and a series of video games. In a medium which is essentially an interactive illustrated text with sound effects and voice recordings, the player-reader is introduced to the fictional Fuyuki City of Japan in which an event known as the Holy Grail War is about to be unleashed: a ritual in which seven Magi summon seven powerful Spirit Servants–or epic heroes from throughout myth and time–to fight to the death.
Whoever wins the War is allowed to claim a powerful mystical force called the Grail that will, apparently, grant the wish of the Master-Servant victor pair.
This is the background of the visual novel and part of a universe created by Type-Moon writer and video game designer Nasu Kinoko. It should be noted that Nasu’s world–or the Nasuverse as fans call it–can be rather clunky and awkward with regards to its various rules, terminologies and often jarring stereotypical “video gamer” attempts at reality-consistence. It’s almost as though, in this case, the Nasuverse in itself is Reconstructionist in that it is taking pieces of disparate elements from mythology, culture, anime, manga, and video games in an attempt to piece together something of a cogent overarching narrative universe. In this case it is an urban fantasy world where magic exists underneath and parallel to modern reality: often in secret and always deadly. Magi are people born with “magic-circuits” that can learn how to use this power and are often ruthless and amoral at best: though they must never reveal what they truly are to the mundane side of the world upon threat of pain or worse.
Emiya Shirou is a young man chosen by the Grail to be a Master in the upcoming War and is paired with a Servant in order to do so. This is the premise of the visual novel which the player-reader experiences passively for the most part as they would a piece of writing, or a comic book but also occasionally has opportunity to influence by clicking on a series of choices that Shirou has to make. There are many different endings depending on the many decisions Shirou is capable of, but there are three story-arcs that are paramount: the Fate, Unlimited Blade Works, and Heaven’s Feel Routes.
It is the protagonist of Emiya Shirou, however, that is emblematic of Fate/Stay Night‘s treatment of superheroes and what it might truly mean to be one. To be honest, Fate/Stay Night deals less with superheroes in the modern sense and more with ancient heroes in a Classical sense: as individuals with special skills and powers that fight with extreme prejudice for what they believe in. They are not all self-effacing, altruistic saviours like Superman with a strong moral background. In fact, they come from many different places and times of morality as well their own personal codes of conduct: where they are not adverse to manipulation or killing. And the magi that summon them–the Masters of the War–are generally calculating, cold ruthless potential killers in their own right: though some try to reduce or eliminate the amount of “collateral” damage or bystander deaths if only to keep their magic and their doings a secret from the outside world in which they live parallel.
Emiya Shirou is different from both his fellow Masters and most of the Servants in that he has adopted and attempted to internalize the sense of what a superhero should be. He tries to embody the traditional superhero trope against a very dangerous and capricious world. The idea of someone wanting to be a superhero and facing the very harsh reality of the situation is not a new concept. Certainly, Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass and even Jason Trost’s independent film Vs depict their own versions of what potential costumed or superheroes would face in a realistic world. It would be even easier to reference Alan Moore’s Watchmen: one of the staples of comics superhero Revisionism as a prime example of this ideal being taken apart to the extreme. Emiya Shirou’s situation in Fate/Stay Night is very similar to at least some of the above examples. By looking at Shirou and his actions, we can see how a real human being would actually handle trying to follow a superhero trope in a very real world.
So the first major superhero trope to consider is that of the origin story. Nearly every superhero story starts with some kind of trauma: be it someone being transformed against their will, getting injured, or having their parents and loved ones killed while the future hero in question somehow survives. This is generally how most superheroes, at least in the Marvel and DC Universes, start out: even when they are Mutants like the X-Men that already have powers inherent within them and mark their differences.
Shirou is no exception to this trope, but how he deals with what happened to him and how it is portrayed very much subverts its stereotypical nature. Ten years before the events of Fate/Stay Night there was another Holy Grail War that results in the destruction of Shinto: a residential area of Fuyuki City and Shirou’s original home. Because of an unsuccessful resolution to the last War, the Grail causes a mystical fire to obliterate almost everyone in Shinto. As a result, a young Shirou loses his family, his friends, his neighbours and everyone. He almost dies himself in the blaze and horror that follows. In fact, he is all but dead until the person who becomes his adopted father and mentor-of-sorts–Emiya Kiritsugu–saves his life with a mystical artifact known as Avalon.
However, this changes Shirou. Because Kiritsugu implanted Avalon in his body, we are told later that the artifact changed his very mystical Nature: having already possessed “magic circuits” even before the disaster. In addition, the trauma of the mystical fire burned away most of Shirou’s memories of his time in Shinto: save for a memory of flames and an ingrained feeling of survivor’s guilt. Shirou’s feelings of guilt for living while so many others have died, and for being powerless to help anyone else during the fire defines Shirou for the rest of his life: motivating him to help other people.
At first, this seems like a pretty straightforward rendition of the superhero origin story. A young boy’s life and identity is traumatically changed by an event beyond his control. He becomes an orphan less in the way of Superman losing his original homeworld of Krypton, and more like Batman watching his parents get killed right in front of him. The original family-part of his identity is gone forever and what is left as a result of the trauma is the different person made from a very young and as-of-yet undeveloped mind. It is also significant that Shirou’s home was called Shinto. Shinto itself is the native religion of Japan and it functions on the belief that the divine and the mundane coexist with one another. In Shinto, every object and subject has its own spirit or kami: a reality with its own rules that is similar to one that Nasu portrays in Fate.
But more symbolically, a Shinto Shrine has an entrance gate called a torii: a structure that, when someone passes through it, marks a journey from a physical to a spiritual perspective of reality. In this way, it can be argued that Shirou undergoes a one-way journey through the threshold of Shinto’s fiery end and gets introduced to the supernatural aspect of the world in a very hard way.
As such, another aspect of the superhero trope that Shirou falls under is that of having a mentor who is also an adopted parent. Emiya Kiritsugu is a former magus that participated in the previous Grail War. He not only ends up saving Shirou’s life, but adopts the boy and takes care of him for as long as he can. In this way, Kiritsugu is not unlike the Wayne Family’s butler Alfred Pennyworth, the Kansas farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent, or even Spiderman’s Uncle Ben and Aunt May taking protective stewardship over an orphan: to try and give him as much of a good life as he can provide. Also like the above, Kiritsugu instills a lesson to his charge. It is also a lesson punctuated by his death. But unlike one version of Jonathan Kent teaching Superman about humility, hard work, and personal limits, or Ben Parker’s speech to Peter Parker on great power equaling great responsibility, all Kiritsugu leaves Shirou with is his regret over his own failure at being a hero–at not being able to save everyone–and one last smile when Shirou vows to succeed where he failed.
Also, unlike Batman and his many mentors, or Jor-El’s imparting of post-mortem knowledge to his son Superman, Kiritsugu fails to train Shirou in any form of combat or skill due to his own limitations as a teacher and his dying body. So essentially, Shirou is left by himself with this borrowed ideal from his adopted father–an ideal that his own father realized was impossible–with only a rudimentary understanding of magecraft and the need to train his own body.