To continue what I started with Emiya Shirou, I will try and extend the same courtesy to yet another overgeneralized character from the Unlimited Blade Works series.
“Evil” is a word that’s often utilized irresponsibly to great effect. When we say something or someone is evil, even if we mean it, we often end up obscuring the true character of whatever we’re applying it to. For example, George W. Bush used the word to coin the term Axis of Evil. In context of American foreign policy, it reduced national interests of enemy states to a self-serving narrative. Convenient for the politician, not so much for people interested in reasons for such heavy characterization. But I digress.
The topic of today’s post is the Heroic Spirit Gilgamesh. Even though I think Unlimited Blade Works has already shaped into one of the finest anime series of this decade, ufotable have made a crucial error with how they set up the King of Heroes as the final boss of the series. Despite having done their best to establish his character in previous episodes, what they left the audience with this last episode is the impression Gilgamesh is just plain evil. Yes, he intends to kill a lot of people, in a swirl of fiery mud nonetheless, but since this is a fictional character I see no problem defending him on this point. I’ll do so because “evil” is once again being thrown around without really taking into context where he’s coming from.
I have personally just started playing the visual novel, so apart from having read wiki information on certain topics I don’t specifically know how well-rounded Gilgamesh’s writing was in the original. However, in the anime he strikes me as a character that places immense value on the originality of entities, be them items of war and art, or living beings themselves. Making the audience suspend their judgment on a mad king intent on killing everybody was always going to be a colossal task, but it’s not impossible to pull off, I think.
For one, Gilgamesh wouldn’t kill indiscriminately for no reason. Recall his story of how he couldn’t bring himself to kill his slaves, because in his eyes they had more inherent value than contemporary free men. A similar example I remember from Fate Zero. During the Banquet of Kings, he proclaimed he would freely give away the Holy Grail to subjects that asked for it. Mind you, the Grail is a powerful wish-granting device, yet he is prepared to part with it because, in his words, loyal subjects deserve his compassion. This is a big statement for somebody who sees nothing but mongrels among his heroic peers. It’s not that he derives pleasure from killing just anybody, the act needs to have meaning and value he can extract.
I hope I’m not sounding too much like a Hearthstone player by now.
With the Grail making new rounds, Gilgamesh wants to use it as a weapon in order to purge away the unworthy. In contrast, what did his slaves do to deserve his compassion? This is where things get a bit tricky. I don’t think it’s coincidence that a subplot like Gilgamesh versus Archer came out at a time when it did. In 2001, three years before the release of Fate/stay night, Japanese literary critic Hiroki Azuma restarted the debate on the proliferation of simulacra with his book Otaku: Japanese Database Animals. What is a simulacrum, you ask? Let’s ask Google.
- an image or representation of someone or something.
“a small-scale simulacrum of a skyscraper”
- an unsatisfactory imitation or substitute.
“a bland simulacrum of American soul music”
Running a follow-up on Outsuka Eiji’s theory on the consumption of narrative, Azuma points out that derivative works such as doujinshi have started gaining traction among otaku in the 80s. We call doujinshi derivative works because most follow a certain internal logic put forth by the original. However, from a standpoint of the original author it’s easy to see them as nothing more than fakes. Not fakes in the knockoff sense of the word, but literary trespassing committed by doujin authors.
Let’s remember what was said about Gilgamesh’s weaponry. Team Emiya posited his weapons might as well be archetypes for other Noble Phantasms. In other words, Gilgamesh has in possession the originals that have at a later point in time inspired the creation of derivative Noble Phantasms. So he has all the good stuff and every craftsman that came after his time could only be inspired by what brilliance already existed in his vaults.
Let’s also remember that this is a guy who has attained true reincarnation at the conclusion of the last Holy Grail war. Of course his ego was boosted! He was a mere copy from Kongen no Uzu, summoned just like Archer and every other Servant, sustained by his Master’s mana, yet attained original status by simply being, at the core of the matter, awesome. An ancient king holding all the originals of the world, trapped in a time where culture is remixed and people shaped by trespassers … Of course he’d miss his slaves!
I hope it’s become clear why he hated Archer so much, calling him Faker amongst other things. Archer is the literary equivalent of a doujinshi author. He sees a Noble Phantasm, makes a copy of it, and appropriates it to his own devices. Killing everybody is Gilgamesh’s last resort in the face of immense pessimism about the value of a fake, a point Emiya Shirou can hopefully prove him wrong on.