CONTENT WARNING for discussions of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. SPOILERS for Today’s Menu for the Emiya Family and Fate/stay night’s “Heaven’s Feel” route.
Cooking anime have been in the spotlight lately, from competitive shounen fare like Food Wars to episodic anthologies like Isekai Izakaya. This year, the immensely popular Fate franchise, spawned from the 2004 Type-Moon visual novel Fate/Stay Night, got its own cooking show spinoff.
Today’s Menu for the Emiya Family serves up monthly episodes about the characters bonding emotionally, having fun, and cooking for each other. Most of Fate/stay night’s characters do appear here, but largely without the rivalries and grudges they bore in the original, creating a warm and relaxing atmosphere rewarding to longtime franchise fans looking for lighter fare. However, as enjoyable as the show has been, May’s episode, “Bamboo Shoot Gratin” drew criticism from fans and reviewers over the way it depicted two characters, Sakura and Shinji Matou.
In Fate/stay night, Shinji physically, emotionally, and sexually abuses Sakura, and regularly attempts to sexually assault other young women throughout the game. Shinji starts off as main character Shirou’s best friend, but Shirou cuts ties with him as the story progresses (if Shinji doesn’t meet some violent end as a result of his cruelty first, like in some routes). Today’s Menu for the Emiya Family makes no direct reference to any of these events.
In “Bamboo Shoot Gratin,” Sakura and Shirou invent a recipe for bamboo shoot gratin and serve it to their friends. Sakura then goes home and secretly cooks the dish again without telling anyone but her closest companion Rider. She sets the gratin on the dining table before retreating to the kitchen. Through the keyhole, she watches her brother Shinji eat her meal, apparently finding it satisfactory before retiring to his room.
Relieved, Sakura celebrates having done something that pleased Shinji, and Rider congratulates her. Today’s Menu frames these events in its usual sunny style, but within the context of the original series, it leaves one wondering whether the intent here was to soften or erase Shinji’s abusive nature for the sake of a cutesy story.
The Fate franchise sprawls across dozens of games, anime, manga, novels, and affiliated merchandise aimed at both men and women, and a serial rapist isn’t an appropriate character to feature in all those iterations. Plot points relating to Shinji’s abuse of Sakura and other women have been softened or omitted in adaptations before.
Notably, the Fate/stay night manga omitted the sexual abuse, and Shinji ultimately repented and was forgiven by Sakura for his other transgressions. Fate/Hollow Ataraxia employed Shinji as a pathetic, comedic character who was kept in line by Sakura, and this gag-character treatment extended to many subsequent spinoffs he appeared in.
Fans can generally count on finding Shinji playing a minor villain role in a Fate story, whether or not his violent misogyny makes an appearance. However, outside of the aforementioned manga, Shinji typically does not enjoy redemptive story arcs after his treatment of Sakura.
While “Bamboo Shoot Gratin” doesn’t explicitly indicate that Shinji abuses Sakura, her obvious efforts to avoid encountering him while taking care of his needs and making him happy suggest that fear and submission still play some role in their relationship. If their relationship were warm and congenial, there would be no reason for Sakura to avoid Shinji; instead, the setup implies that it’s not safe for her to be near him.
This narrative choice is particularly dissonant in light of the fact that Fate/stay night’s “Heaven’s Feel” route, which centers on Sakura and unmasks the extent of her abuse in the Matou household, is currently being adapted by Ufotable into a high-profile film trilogy running in theaters in Japan and the U.S.
While only the first film has been released, it clearly shows Shinji’s physical and emotional abuse, and Sakura’s depiction by the same animation studio in Fate/Zero leaves little expectation that the sexual abuse elements will be omitted. On the contrary, these will likely be graphic and frightening. Thus, a heartwarming depiction of the Matou siblings’ reconciliation feels at odds with the dominant adaptation fans are currently consuming.
Fate/stay night’s original creators, Kinoko Nasu and Takashi Takeuchi, have explained their intent to depict Shinji as an irredeemable yet pitiable figure. Nasu has pointed to Saionji from Revolutionary Girl Utena as a direct inspiration. Both characters are young men corrupted by the machinations of evil adults they don’t fully understand and enact misogynistic violence on women close to them as a result.
In the original game, Shinji is an effective foil for Shirou and a loathsome enemy; however, outside of the original story, his character is often adapted to new contexts. While it’s perfectly understandable that spinoffs looking to strike a more comedic and heartwarming tone might want to omit Shinji and Sakura’s violent relationship, omitting Shinji as a character entirely is more effective than simply erasing or minimizing his abuse.
“Bamboo Shoot Gratin” focuses on Sakura’s actions and the small happiness they bring Shinji, subtly positioning the responsibility for repairing their relationship on her. This undermines Fate/stay night’s conclusion that escaping the Matou household is a much better option for Sakura than attempting to bear her abuse or improve Shinji as a person. Ultimately, Sakura is not responsible for managing Shinji’s behavior, but Today’s Menu might lead audiences to think otherwise.
There are ways for anime, and entertainment media in general, to take a more nuanced look at the deeper dynamics of abuse without falling into the trap of letting abusers off the hook. A narrative might investigate the factors driving abuse on a cultural or personal level, and even be somewhat sympathetic towards the abuser, without pardoning them or blaming the victim.
Today’s Menu tries to dodge Shinji’s accountability rather than interrogate his wrongdoing. By implying that Sakura should repair their relationship, it supports harmful narratives about domestic violence and misses an opportunity to challenge audiences to examine where they assign blame.
Though somewhat clumsy in execution, Fate/stay night still sends a better message. In the game, Shirou finally realizes the best thing he can do for Sakura is to support her leaving Shinji, rather than trying to mediate Shinji’s behavior.
These issues matter a great deal in light of the current struggle and debate around the #Metoo/#Wetoo movement in the U.S. and Japan. When popular media minimizes or romanticizes assault and abuse, it contributes to the pervasive message that victims and survivors should keep quiet and ignore the problem.
But pop culture can also provide a space where the narratives we consume offer a better example, or proof that we aren’t alone. Thus, even a heartwarming cooking anime can still be a site for an important conversation about the social discourse surrounding gendered violence.
Today’s Menu for the Emiya Family would have been better off omitting Shinji from “Bamboo Shoot Gratin” entirely. Instead, Sakura could have cooked for her estranged biological sister Rin or had a heartfelt conversation about her complicated feelings about her life with the Matous.
Of course, it’s possible that other survivors of abuse or assault might have a different opinion about the episode. For some, it may resonate as a reconciliation fantasy. Abuse is complicated, especially when it involves family, and viewers will undoubtedly have different reactions to how it is depicted in media.
Ultimately, what I’m hoping for is that this franchise, and anime as a whole, approach these issues more thoughtfully. Once they do, we can open a dialogue, in our stories and in our lives, about how to hold space for accountability and healing.