Content Warning: Graphic child death
Spoilers for Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works
What’s it about? As a child, Ragna watched the people around him felled by dragons over and over. When it seemed like he would be alone forever, a young girl named Leonica invited her to become her partner in dragon slaying. Now, twelve-year-old Leonica is preternaturally gifted when it comes to fighting dragons, but Ragna must train for hours each day just to catch up. He doesn’t mind that, or when other dragonslayers tease him for his inferiority to a preadolescent girl; all he wants is to stay beside her. When Leonica is killed by a particularly dangerous dragon, Ragna despises his own weakness. But then, his future self reaches out to him and offers a new path forward…
Ragna Crimson, at a glance, seems to be a perfectly acceptable shounen I sold to a stranger. You’ve got the pseudo-medieval fantasy world defined by a struggle to survive, the teenage boy hero with a drive to become stronger, the female compatriot who motivates him, and even a group of tidily ranked bad guys for him to fight off. A product of Monthly Gangan Joker and thus a sister series of The Case Study of Vanitas, it’s a bit more grimdark than your average battle shounen, especially with its dull brown monochromatic color palette, but nothing particularly striking.
But if you start to tease out some of its more distinctive qualities, it becomes a whole lot more interesting. Most hilariously, it’s a name change away from being an AU fanfic of Fate/Stay Night‘s Unlimited Blade Works route. While there are a lot of elements that don’t map onto the infamous VN one-to-one—and thank God for that, as we’ll get into later— there are too many similarities for it just to be a coincidence. Of the four people in the room when I watched Ragna Crimson, the three of us familiar with Fate spent half the double-length episode completely losing it. If you want to avoid spoilers for Unlimited Blade Works, please skip the next few paragraphs. I’ll let you know when it’s safe to read again.
So, the whole conceit of Archer Unlimited Blade Works is that he’s consumed by loneliness and regret and wants to murder his former self for the hell his ideals put him through, right? Shirou is a mediocre mage who supports his much more powerful girlfriend, and when he makes a deal for more power, it ends up with him isolated and angry at the ugliness of the world he has to face over and over. Ragna, too, is able to reach out to his former self after spending his life seeking greater power and becoming isolated as a result, but instead of wanting to kill himself, he is able to grant his current power and avert the tragedy that led him down this path.
That alone wouldn’t be enough to convince me that Unlimited Blade Works inspired Ragna Crimson; after all, “If you could back and do [whatever] knowing what you know now, what would you change?” is a classic interview question. After his power-up, Ragna’s silvery hair is slicked back into spikes and he dons a skintight shirt. There’s even a shot that’s basically a precise recreation of the famous image of Archer gazing over the emptiness of his Unlimited Blade Works, viewed from behind.
…And I just found an author comment from the manga describing Future Ragna as “Similar to a certain Holy Grail War archer?” That sure clinches it!
It’s now safe to read, free of spoilers! Welcome back!
What particularly leapt out to me, other than the undeniable similarities to a certain watershed visual novel, is Leonica’s position in the narrative. If I hear “shounen anime” and “12-year-old girl” in the same sentence, my hackles automatically raise. I’ve been around too long for them not to. There’s always something terribly wrong: the protagonist’s relationship with her is highly inappropriate, or she’s uncomfortably sexualized, or she’s just plain shrill and obnoxious. Leonica, however, was none of those things. She’s not exactly realistic, but other than some absolute territory that the camera never lingers on, there’s not a lot of male gaze issues going on with her.
Her relationship with Ragna is genuinely sweet! He loves her, yes, but as far as I can tell it’s an entirely platonic, even familial love as they settle in for the night in the room they share. There’s no awkward stammering about him being a boy and her being a girl to be found. Even more, Leonica is a genuinely powerful fighter. She swings around a big sword, kicking dragon ass left and right, and while some jerks may mock Ragna for relying on a preteen girl, he recognizes her strength and doesn’t feel any shame or competitiveness with her over it.
But also, her death is the inciting incident of the story. It’s not accurate to say that she’s been frigid since she gets better, after all, but so far we’ve really only seen her through Ragna’s perspective. She’s still the motivating factor for a boy, and thus far we haven’t really gotten a sense of her motivation or goals. She’s shown dying brutally repeatedly. It’s still only the first episode, so she could very well develop further. I probably won’t watch any further, but I’m curious to hear how things go from here.