Clash of Ideals: Shirou vs Archer Who is right?

It goes without saying that this editorial will contain complete spoilers for Fate Stay Night. If you haven’t watched any of the routes yet, particularly Unlimited Blade Works then you should hold off on reading this editorial. I will do my best not to go too into depth here with spoilers as they aren’t really needed for the most part but some of them are inevitable. Particularly any involving Shirou and Archer.

I really like philosophical debates. It’s something that I always find fascinating in a show or movie. Shows have a better opportunity to really get the views across though as a movie only has so much time. It’s also difficult to try and portray both versions well. Typically as soon as the debate starts you know which one the movie or show is going to portray as correct. As a result the other one may end up being portrayed with strawman arguments that don’t really work. An example of a recent movie that did this really well was Infinity War. While Thanos is a villain and there’s absolutely no denying that, the goal he was fighting for at least made sense and had its own logic. Same for Light Yagami in Deathnote. There are classic battles of good and evil to be found here with good arguments made for both. Even when the villain is losing he doesn’t suddenly disregard his ideals, they just ended up losing.

A big part of Fate is the difference between Shirou and Archer’s ideals. They are both pacifists who effectively work as heroes but go in very different paths. Shirou believes in the concept of being a Hero of Justice. He believes that this is an unshakable concept and as a hero you don’t compromise. Shirou wants to save everyone he possibly can without exception. If someone’s in trouble he’ll jump in even if he doesn’t really stand a chance in a fight. He’s always been about helping everyone ever since he inherited this dream from his father Kiritsugu. Part of this stems from how Shirou had to survive a mass death experience as a child. He saw first hand how it feels to have your life saved and it also underscored the value of life to him. Shirou may not have a lot of power at the start of the series, but he uses it to help others.

Then you have Archer. Archer was once a hero who believed in such ideals, but has become quite jaded with humanity. Part of the reason for this is that his role in life is to be an eternal deterrent force. He is forced to travel to different time periods where there is a conflict and destroy the evil side. He would destroy 10 people to save 100, 1000 to save 10,000, etc. After a while, Archer had claimed more fatalities than even most villains could. Technically he was helping to provide balance to the world, but after a while the whole thing seemed futile to him. He had to compromise on his ideals many times until he finally came up with the ones he has now. He won’t save everyone and believes that’s impossible. Instead he will always look for the logical choice of who to murder to save someone else. It’s a very different framework as you’re actively looking for targets. This eventually even leads him to target Shirou as that kid would ultimately go on to murder many people in the future if he wasn’t stopped.

It’s an interesting loop there and the show has lots of debates on this. Shirou and Archer confront each other on their ideals quite a bit and absolutely do not get along.

So in the end, who is right here? The show plays it out in a way where you’re left to your judgment on this to an extent. Shirou is the main character and he is a good guy while Archer is unmistakably a villain so to an extent you can say that Shirou will have the edge here but the show never demeans Archer’s arguments. In a way a lot of the show is Shirou basically admitting that he thinks Archer is correct, but that won’t stop him. “You may be correct but that doesn’t mean you’re right” was a pretty good line there since it shows Shirou may believe that Archer is logically correct but that it still isn’t the right thing to do morally. Shirou ultimately holds true to his ideals and Archer hopes that he can manage to carry it out, but we have already seen that it didn’t work out for Archer.

I think another subtle aspect the show gives us that makes the debate more interesting is Archer’s portrayal. To counter the fact that Shirou is the main character, Archer is portrayed as being a lot more effective. He’s far more confident than Shirou as well as being more powerful. He has everything that Shirou has ever wanted in terms of ability. Shirou’s main grievance has been the fact that he currently lacks the power to be a true Hero of Justice. He has the ideals but not the power and that’s part of why he really can’t stand Archer. It works for the audience well too because Archer’s points become more compelling considering the amount of power he has. If Archer, one of the strongest characters in the show (I know that’s debatable but purely from what we saw in the show I would absolutely say this) says it is impossible to save everyone then it adds credibility. He just appears to be very wise and knowledgeable. The way in which he articulates his thoughts always makes him appear to be a step ahead of Shirou as well. This brief clip below shows how they both decline Caster’s offer but how different their responses are.

In general he’s just a lot cooler than Shirou although of course you can’t factor that in when considering the arguments. It intentionally does make this task more difficult though. Even Shirou is always incredibly impressed with Archer, below is a scene where Archer effortlessly takes down an opponent that Shirou couldn’t even touch.

There are 4 main timelines in Stay Night: Fate, Unlimited Blade Works, Heaven’s Feel, and the one where Archer comes from. There are tons of other timelines of course but those are the main ones. Whether Shirou holds true to his ideals is what you have to decide, but I believe he will. He’s already lived through a lot of conflict and had to reaffirm his ideals so I don’t see him having any more trouble in the future. The whole final fight with Archer and Shirou was really about ideals. In terms of pure ability Archer could have destroyed Shirou in an instant but what he really needed was for Shirou to relent and say that Archer was right. Winning the physical battle meant nothing if he couldn’t win the verbal one. So, short answer here is that I think Shirou is definitely right on both accounts. Let’s tackle the first element of being a Hero of Justice first:

Should you try to save everyone?

This is one that My Hero tackled as well with Lemillion being satisfied with saving 1 million people while Deku aims to save everyone. They both failed Eri initially, but that’s the concept Shirou is going for. You have to at least try to save everyone even if it appears to be impossible. The instant you decide that someone can’t be saved you’ve compromised on your ideals. It will become easier in the future to suddenly decide that someone else can’t be saved and that’s when it’ll all start to snowball. That’s exactly the issue Archer came up to. As soon as he started murdering someone, he found it easier to keep on going and that didn’t exactly work out. At the end of the day as a hero your duty is to try and save everyone.

Shirou throws himself into danger quite a lot in order to do this. He may be outmatched and certainly got a lot of heat for this but he made the right decisions. In the first show he was a bit overboard with how he would try to fight instead of Saber though. I understand fighting side by side with her like in the second show more which makes sense, but he does need to realize that he’s weaker. If he dies then he can’t help anyone else. I think you gotta risk your life if there’s someone that needs saving but if there’s someone else that’s already doing the job then jumping in is more about getting the credit. In this case he just thought she couldn’t handle it so at least the intentions were good.

This is a point for Shirou. Archer tries to say that saving everyone then goes as far as counting the villains and will always be impossible. He’s right if you take it to the extreme of course, but in that case Berserker was attacking Saber and going for the kill. In that sense it makes sense to save Saber and not worry about Berserker at the moment. It’s not to say Shirou wouldn’t try saving him in the future but in that moment it wouldn’t make sense. What it boils down to is that Archer is looking at this from the numbers and sees that it’s impossible to save everyone. As a result he thinks the whole notion is no good. I understand that take, but he is missing the important piece which is that you always have to at least try to save everyone.

One Life vs Many

The second point is risking it all to save one person at the possible expense of many. This is a point Archer would be completely against. Lets say you have one person tied to a bomb that’s about to blow up. You can disarm it right away but the person attached to the bomb will die. Alternately you can try to untie him but the process will take a while so there’s a large chance that the bomb will blow up first and destroy 10,000 people. Archer would very quickly take out the bomb so that only one person dies while Shirou would just trust himself to be able to untie the hostage in time. This is another one where I agree with Shirou. I’ve always thought that you have to try and save the one even if it risks the many. There is just no point in everyone living if you had to sacrifice someone. If it doesn’t work then you all die together at least.

It’s why that always ends up being one of the most sympathetic reasons for a villain. In Sub Zero this is what made Mr. Freeze a compelling villain because he was just trying to save his wife the whole time. At no point in the villain do you forget that he is in fact a villain. It’s important not to lose sight of that. However, it’s a goal that you can understand and relate to because there aren’t many things you would not do in order to save your significant other. A lot of times this one is portrayed as the right thing to do is to save many lives. It’s a very interesting concept and one that has had many books written about it. It’s a very popular philosophical take. I’ve always been with the one life here. You have to do all that you can to save the one even if it ends up risking the many. If someone close to you is at stake then even if you have to fight off whole legions to save her then that’s what you have to do. In quite a few series this ends up with the heroes being forced to take on a ton of other “Heroes” (They start to lose their status when they defend this) or villains. Sometimes the hero even relents to the peer pressure and submits which is always unfortunate and can ruin an ending for me (Flashpoint Paradox) but at the end of the day you have to stay true to your ideals.

It may be logical to sacrifice one if it’ll save thousands or even millions, but the numbers don’t matter to me. Even if it’s to save the whole universe, if you have to sacrifice someone to do it then that’s clearly not worth it. You can’t sacrifice your ideals to save everyone. At the end of the day the one life that is in trouble is the one that you have to worry about. Even worse is if you want to save someone but don’t do it because someone threatens you. There are quite a few Saint Seiya characters who are guilty of this but this editorial’s about over so I won’t go into that here.

So at the end of the day Shirou was right. I do appreciate the debates he had with Archer in the show though. Both characters were given a fair opportunity to explain their piece and rationalizations. It’s also portrayed in a way where you aren’t meant to feel bad with siding with one over the other. Both of them have very valid takes and I imagine there will be fans of both ideologies. It’s not as if one of them is the “correct” option. It really depends on if you’re looking at it logically or morally. The value you put on your ideals vs the amount of lives. There are a ton of factors here and it’s what made Archer an excellent antagonist and he is still one of my favorite characters in the series. I could really link the entire 21 minute fight as clips here since it’s all great stuff with the back and forth but I try to keep the clips minimal with the editorials. They should enhance the points as opposed to overtaking the whole thing. That said, if you want a good debate just look up Archer vs Shirou dub on Youtube and you’ll see theh whole thing there.

Archer did have another good point that is worth remembering as well. You need to know why you are saving people. People say that doing the right thing is its own reward. In a lot of ways what that saying also means is don’t expect a reward for doing so. A lot of times doing the wrong thing will be easier and doing the right thing will go unnoticed. There are times when doing the right thing will ultimately hurt you temporarily as well. He reminds Shirou that if he’s going to save people, it needs to be what he actually wants to do as opposed to doing it for someone else. It’s an important distinction and something to keep in mind. Doing the right thing is always what you should do, but you need to have a strong resolve as well to accept the consequences. Ultimately I do prefer Archer’s more heroic version from the 2006 version though despite all of this. Since all routes are technically the same character I suppose that means he was never super heroic but if you just saw that show you wouldn’t know any better. That may be worth an editorial some day as well comparing both Archer versions but that’s definitely for another day.

The Hero of Justice is a valid ideal and one that I agree with. Shirou wins this round.

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