The Fate/Stay Night franchise is massive, spanning a multitude of visual novels, anime series, films, OVAs, spin-offs, manga, and video games. However, it all started with a visual novel from 2004 made by Type-Moon. Over the course of the franchise’s many iterations, the voice actors and actresses have miraculously managed to reprise their roles each and every time. The character designs have changed slightly, but overall have remained consistent with the designs from the original 2004 visual novel.
The biggest changes made to the franchise over time have been in the writing and directing, variations in adaptation styles, and the music, which is what I will be focusing on here. So many hands have touched this storied franchise, and it is all of these variations that make the Fate universe so rich. I am very much intrigued by how much the music has presented these characters and stories in such different ways.
Fate/Stay Night (Visual Novel, Type-Moon, 2004)
Opening/Ending Themes: Number201
Right away, one aspect of the original visual novel that impacts the type of music that is composed is the fact that it is indeed a visual novel. The composers had to take into consideration this fact when they were writing, so as to make sure that the music was not too distracting to the reader. As a result of this, the music in the original Fate/Stay Night is very repetitive in nature and is primarily comprised of a set of looping tracks composed for specific emotional purposes.
Into the Night (Click titles to listen to tracks)
Before even delving into the visual novel, you are presented with this piece of music on the main menu. It does a great job of setting a dark tone for the story. It also prepares you for the repetitive, rhythmic nature of the rest of the soundtrack by way of the constant, rhythmic bells.
This piece and the others like it all feature gentle melodies, acoustic guitars, and light percussion. Due to the limitations of consumer grade PC hardware at the time, combined with the shoestring budget that most visual novels are made on, you will also notice the synthesized, cheap-sounding production values. Despite this, the piece manages to fit the happier moments of the visual novel nicely.
Fate/Stay Night handles many of its’ suspense tracks with ambient, electronic swells and distorted percussion. The mix sounds expansive by making good use of reverb and delays. The piece is very repetitive. The drums are not distracting to the reader because they never change. The reader acknowledges the groove and it just sort of sinks into the back of their mind while they are reading, providing an almost unnoticeable musical underscore for the scene.
There are a lot of action scenes in Fate/Stay Night. Creating action music that is not too distracting but sill intense enough to create tension is a difficult task. Once again, this piece makes use of repetitive drums as the core of the piece, holding everything together and reducing distraction by being repetitive. Everything around the drums, however, is much more active, creating the necessary tension. This includes electronic filter sweeps and synth electronic guitars. Unlike the slice-of-life music, there is no melody.
This action track is quite different from the first. It is orchestral and it creates a constant, seemingly unending rhythmic tension. Around 0:52, the tone changes substantially and acts as a sort of heroic sub-theme for Saber, or as a theme for her sword, Excalibur. This piece is particularly important, as it is a major source of inspiration for many pieces in the scores of the anime adaptations.
For the most part, the original visual novel’s soundtrack did not make use of thematic material. There are not any major musical references between tracks and there are not many character themes that are utilized consistently, except this one and Shirou’s. “Unfading Thoughts” is used as a theme for the character Saber. The piece consists of a melancholic, somewhat nostalgic piano melody, punctuated with a chime-like instrument and accompanied by a simple pad and later by strings. I feel like this theme emphasizes Saber’s past and the sadness it causes her.
Of course, how could I talk about the music in Fate/Stay Night without mentioning this piece. “Emiya”, obviously a theme for the protagonist Emiya Shirou, has become iconic. It has been remixed and rearranged by a variety of composers for the anime adaptations and spin-offs. Interestingly, these remixes do not change the piece that much. The style and melody stay basically the same. I think this is a testament to how utterly awesome this piece is.
The opening “THIS ILLUSION” is an electronic-heavy song with fantastic melody and harmony, greatly hampered by poor production values in my opinion. This song is much improved and expanded upon in the anime adaptations.
I think this soundtrack works amazingly well for the material it was composed for, but I cannot help but find it incredibly inconsistent. The slice-of-life material is generic and could have come from any visual novel soundtrack, and the action cues, such as “Colliding Souls” and “The Sword of Promised Victory” are too contrasting. The former is comprised of electronics and distorted guitars, the latter is fully orchestral. They do not sound like they should be in the same score together.
I also think that the score is somewhat clique. Guitars and drums for action, swelling pads for suspense, piano for Saber. It is all very predicable. Considering that Fate/Stay Night contains an immense array of eclectic characters, I think that having more of a focus on specific character themes would have been beneficial, and as you will see, that is exactly how the scores of the anime adaptations approach it.
Fate/Stay Night (Anime Series, Studio Deen, 2006)
Composer: Kenji Kawai
OP/ED: Tainaka Sachi (OP), Jyukai (ED)
Note: I am excluding Studio Deen’s film version of Unlimited Blade Works. That film’s score was also composed by Kenji Kawai and the musical style is largely the same. My comments for the anime series also apply to the film.
The first anime adaptation of the Fate/Stay Night visual novel was handled by Studio Deen, combined with the critically-acclaimed composer Kenji Kawai, notable for scoring the 1995 classic Ghost in the Shell. Most Fate fans consider this adaptation to be atrocious. I will not go into detail regarding the adaptation’s directing and animation quality, but the music itself is quite good. (Comparison images between Studio Deen’s and ufotable’s adaptations can be viewed here and here. You can watch a video comparison here.)
Due to the linear nature of animation, the music is able to follow the story and characters more naturally and dramatically, instead of just creating atmospheric pieces for different emotions. The score relies heavily on female, operatic vocals and strings, particularly violins. It really drives home the fantasy aspect of the story, as opposed to the romantic and action focus of the visual novel. The score in general is also much more melancholic in tone, due in part to the absence of excessive slice-of-life scenes that tend to ruin otherwise great visual novels.
Kawai used the many characters in the Fate universe as an opportunity to establish character themes, even going so far as to compose a theme for the Holy Grail itself. In my opinion, this was what the visual novel’s soundtrack lacked.
This piece is similar to “Into the Night” from the original visual novel in regards to the fact that it helps set the overall tone of the story. The ominous bells are reminiscent of the bells used in the main menu theme, but more melodic in nature. However, Kawai quickly throws female voice and violins into the mix, an idea that will carry throughout the score.
Kawai’s version of this piece captures the mood of the visual novel version, while adding greater dynamic contrast between sections and more variety in the arrangement’s instrumentation. It is still very repetitive, just like the original.
“Roar of the Universe”, an over the top piece filled to the brim with choir madness, can easily be seen as being influenced by “The Sword of Promised Victory” by its’ use of a constant rhythmic pulse, only in 5/4 time. The piece by itself oozes drama, but I cannot help but wish it was less repetitive and followed the action on-screen more closely.
“La Sola” is an excellent example of Kawai’s usage of female voice. This is an absolutely beautiful piece and one of my personal favorites. The use of the “sigh” motif in the strings is particularly effective.
Kenji Kawai’s version of Saber’s theme is staggeringly different from the original. It still has a melancholic tone, referencing Saber’s tragic past, but Kawai’s version emphasizes the fact that she is a knight. The piece utilizes the Mixolydian mode to get that classic medieval sound. The instrumentation starts with just piano and harp, the piano on the melody, which is eventually taken by a warm string section. The orchestration is simple and clear. This is my personal favorite rendition of Saber’s theme and one of my favorite pieces from the Fate franchise as a whole. I feel like Kenji Kawai did the best at truly capturing the inner emotions of Saber.
As I have already mentioned, the many remixes of Shirou’s iconic theme are largely similar to one another. Kawai’s version is essentially a carbon copy of the original with the addition of a string section and choir providing harmonic support and lots of drama.
The title “disillusion” is obviously a reference to the visual novel’s opening “THIS ILLUSION” and it is in fact the same song, although completely rearranged and rerecorded with a different vocalist. It is an incredibly unique sounding song that manages to channel the original song’s overall tone, while greatly improving it. For 2006, when most anime openings were leaning more towards J-Pop and J-Rock styles, this opening really stands out. It may even sound a bit old-school to some anime fans. Similar to “Emiya”, this piece has also become quite iconic, but this version of the song is much more popular than the original.
This beautiful piece is my favorite ED from the Fate franchise. The first verse consists of just piano and vocals. It slowly builds as some violins and acoustic guitar enter the mix during the pre-chorus, culminating in the chorus with a fleshed out ensemble. Simple, yet effective. This song has a fantastic melody as well that I think really captures the spirit of Fate.
I think that Kenji Kawai’s musical interpretation of the Fate/Stay Night story is the best. The use of female vocal was a fantastic idea and it becomes the driving force behind the entire score. My only complaint lies with the action cues. As a result of drawing influence from the visual novel’s action piece “The Sword of Promised Victory”, much of the action music is repetitive, forceful rhythms and excessive use of choir. This segues into the next section, covering the prequel to Fate/Stay Night, which handles the action scenes in a similar manner.
Fate/Zero (Anime Series, ufotable, 2011-12)
Composer: Yuki Kajiura
OPs/EDs: LiSA (OP1), Aoi Eir (ED), Kalafina (OP2), Luna Haruna (ED2)
Fate/Zero serves as a prequel to Fate/Stay Night and it is based on a light novel series, which itself was written by Gen Urobuchi, famous for writing Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica and Psycho-Pass. The composer is Yuki Kajiura, who was also the composer for Madoka Magica. From the first piece, she immediately distances herself from past Fate scores. She approaches the characters and themes with an entirely different aesthetic. It is dark, edgy, and relies heavily on driving percussion, ostinatos, and choir.
This piece serves as a very different starting point for Fate. The piece beings with a menacing melodic line on the cello before the rest of the strings come in. Next the aforementioned ostinato comes in with the cellos, followed by the choir, and then the intense percussion. Everything builds up nicely over the course of the piece. Eventually, it climaxes at 2:40 with what could be described as the main theme of Fate/Zero. This theme is referenced heavily throughout the score.
One of the big differences between Kawai’s score and Kajiura’s is their use of melody. Kawai always used big, romantic melodies in the strings and subtle, sweet melodies on piano, harp, and vocals. Kajiura does the same, but she also creates a lot of “moody atmosphere” as well, such as this piece. She did this kind of stuff in the Madoka Magica score, too. Some people criticize her for pieces like this. I think it fits the moody tone of the anime, but by itself, it is not too terribly interesting to listen to.
Unlike past Fate scores, Kajiura decides to give a character theme to Assassin. Its’ ethnic feel presents a nice change of tone from the rest of the soundtrack and subtly underscores Assassin’s characterization.
This piece sounds positively Kajiura. It closely resembles the action cues from Madoka Magica, specifically “Magia.” Kajiura continues Kawai’s trend of using choir for the action scenes, but interestingly, she returns to the use of electric guitar as heard in the visual novel. The piece builds better than Kawai’s attempt at action cues, but it still has that repetitive rhythmic force throughout. It follows the action on-screen more than Kawai’s music did, but not completely.
Kajiura’s version of “The Sword of Promised Victory” brings in her signature operatic vocals over the main motif of the piece played in the violins, accompanied by percussion and low strings. Subsequently, at 58:03, the music all but cuts out save for a graceful sweep of chimes. The piano and violins introduce a complete change in character. The melody continues to build until the full string section is back in full force wailing on the Excalibur theme for Saber. Both the original version of this piece as well as Kawai’s version had this change of character, but Kajiura hits it with much more force. I think that this is the best version of this piece. It does a wonderful job of expressing Saber’s heroism and the historic might of her sword, Excalibur.
This song marks the first use of a Kalafina song in Fate. Kalafina previously provided the ending theme to Madoka Magica, and after this, they would go on to do both ending themes for the next Fate/Stay Night adaptation. There is not much more to say about it. Harmonized vocals parts, chugging guitar rhythms. It is classic Kalafina.
I do not think that Kajiura handled the character themes as well as Kawai. She focused more on a central main theme and developed that instead. I do not think that one method is necessarily better than the other, but they definitely have different end results. Many people say that Kajiura’s score is a better example of a well written television or film score, whereas Kawai’s is more listenable as a stand alone work. For the most part, I agree with this sentiment.
Fate/Stay Night (Anime Series, ufotable, 2014-15)
Composer: Hideyuki Fukasawa
OPs/EDs: Mashiro Ayano (OP1), LiSA (Ep. 12), Aimer (OP2), Kalafina (ED1&2)
After the success of Fate/Zero, ufotable decided to succeed where Studio Deen failed. They made their own adaptation of the original Fate/Stay Night visual novel. This is a much more modern take on the story. It is dark and edgy like Fate/Zero, but because it features a teenage cast as opposed to an adult cast, it is filled with even more teen angst. Depending on your taste, this can be either a good or a bad thing. Considering the source material involved, I think it is a good thing.
Musically, Fukasawa approaches Fate similarly to how Kajiura approached it, meaning a focus on ostinatos and choir for the action scenes, and a beautifully developed central theme for basically everything else, give or a take a few ambient pieces. If there is one word that I could choose to descibe Fukasawa’s score, I would say “consistent.” The themes are good, the action cues are intense and memorable, and the score as a whole flows nicely from one section to the next. Overall, this is probably the most polished score for Fate/Stay Night.
One thing that is worth mentioning for this particular adaptation is the budget. ufotable’s Fate/Stay Night is one of the most expensive anime series ever produced, and inevitably part of that budget went to the music department. As a result, Fukasawa was quite lucky because he had so many resources available to him. The music benefited from this massively as you will notice by the high production values on these tracks, not to mention the animation. This is just something to keep in mind when you are comparing this score to the previous iterations.
The ufotable version of Fate/Stay Night opens much differently than previous adaptations. “Remembrance” acts as a gentle introduction to the main theme, which is also Rin’s character theme. Her theme is not played in its entirety, however. It is highly fragmented, the piano playing bits and pieces of it along side the accompaniment of a simple ambient pad. The piece continues to grow as the strings and some light percussion are brought in. Harmonically, the theme is completely there, but the listener is left wanting more due to the absence of the main melody.
After summoning Archer, this theme plays. It is technically labelled as Archer’s theme in the soundtrack, but the piece itself is loosely referencing Shirou’s theme “Emiya.” This musically links Archer and Shirou together, which makes sense, because they are actually the same person. Of course, the viewer purportedly does not know this yet, so having this piece play so early in the series is very clever. It musically foreshadows the realization that is to come.
This is an absolutely beautiful example of scoring. Even though Lancer is attacking Shirou during this scene, the music contrasts the actual on-screen action, instead focusing on Shirou’s inner emotions. It is because of these emotions that Shirou is able to summon Saber, despite his ineptness as a mage. The music starts with just a pad and some sparse piano melody referencing Shirou’s theme, and then slowly builds towards a climax when Saber is summoned.
“Face to Face” is one of those short pieces that I think are easily glossed over. It plays while Rin and Lancer are having a somewhat tense conversation. It is obvious that things are going to get violent very soon and the music captures this slow building of tension, eventually breaking out into the next track, a full blown action cue.
I love this track. The chanting is genius. The piece opens with come cymbals and a violin swell into some tasty low brass. Then we get an ostinato in the strings, along with the chanting and some more percusison. The low brass continues throughout, helping to keep the tension levels high. In the following section, the piece comes down to just strings and light percussion in order to make room for the dialog, but then the brass comes back when the fight between Archer and Lancer begins. About halfway through the fight, the choir comes in full force. Unlike Kawai’s action tracks, where the choir parts continue on endlessly to the point where they loose their ability to create drama, Fukasawa waits until the right moment to let the choir shine, propelling the piece to new heights. I think it is almost undebatable that Fukasawa’s take on Fate’s action scenes are the best. The music closely follows the action on-screen, which connects the two together in order to truly create emotional impact. It is dynamic and engaging.
This is just one of many tracks that references Rin’s theme. Fukasawa keeps coming back to it, cementing it into the viewer’s mind, whether they are aware of it or not. This gives the theme emotional impact when it is finally played out fully in the next piece.
“My Wish” is the first bold statement of Rin’s theme. After referencing it again and again throughout the score, it finally pays of when you hear her theme in full force beginning at 33:05.
The newest iteration of “THIS ILLUSION” from the original visual novel plays at the end of episode 12. This version, sang by LiSA, is very different from the previous ones. Although it loosely references the original in the beginning, it quickly turns into a more modern J-Pop/J-Rock song with drums, bass, strings, synthy bass, and other electronic arpeggiations and flourishes. I do like the change at 1:01:37 when the focus switches from vocals to the strings and the song almost acts as underscore for a bit.
Fukasawa’s score is more similar to Kajiura’s take on Fate than to Kawai’s vision. The action cues, although generic in the sense that they sound so much like something Hans Zimmer would write, still work beautifully. I think that Fukasawa has handled the action scenes better than anyone else so far. Considering how much action is in Fate/Stay Night, this definitely gives his score the upper hand. I personally like the character themes composed by Kawai, but his action cues left so much to be desired. Because of this, I enjoy watching ufotable’s version of Fate/Stay Night much more, but I think that Kawai’s music is more enjoyable to listen to by itself.
It is interesting to see how different directors, animators, and composers approached the same material. The original’s score was partly determined by technological and budgetary constraints, which it made it somewhat different from the others. Kawai’s score was beautiful and honed in on character themes and other memorable melodies. Kajiura brought her own personal style to the table, and Fukasawa brought the action scenes to life.
It is hard to say which interpretation is superior because I do not think that any of them are. They are just different. Even though it the same characters, similar settings, similar plots, and similar themes, the composers all saw it slightly differently. No one sees art in the same way. Everyone has their own way of viewing things.
The fascinating part is when people take these unique feelings and use them to create something, because then the whole process starts over again.