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Every couple of years, there’s a show that comes along that divides people into one of two camps. The first camp is comprised of all the people who love the show unconditionally flaws and all. And these people will defend the show like nothing else in existence matters. And the second camp is full of people who can’t see anything but the show’s flaws, and they just cannot understand the blind acceptance of everyone in camp #1, so much so that they ridicule anyone who does not agree with them that the show in question is complete shit. These are the kind of shows that get labelled as either controversial, overrated, or shonen. They’re treated like politics. You’re not allowed to sit on the fence; you have to pick a side. “You’re either with me or with them!” This makes my position on a show called Sword Art Online rather difficult, because you see I could finish an episode of this show, sit back and think, “Man, that was a good episode!” Of course, then I have this little voice in the back of my head, decked out in my reviewer outfit going: “Hahahahahah! Oh wait, you’re serious? Well, allow me to laugh even harder. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!”
Ladies, gentlemen and others, my name is Arkada and welcome to Glass Reflection. Today, the highly controversial anime of 2012, Sword Art Online. Let’s jam.
In the year 2022, a genre of video games exist called Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games. One such game in this genre is the newly released Sword Art Online, that coupled with a virtual reality helmet allows players to control their in-game avatars with their minds as if they are actually living there in that virtual world.
Of course everything is fun and games until the mysterious creator of SAO removes the player’s ability to log out, trapping them in this world until they complete his challenge. They must band together and defeat the 100 floors of the game before they are allowed to leave, and it becomes much more of a game when they are informed that in SAO, if you die, you die for real. No do-overs, no respawns.
Astute viewers may recognise the premise’s similarity with that of the .Hack// franchise, not only because both of them take place in a virtual MMO, but because they both involve players being trapped inside a game unable to escape. But the differences between the two are simple. One involves people standing in a circle talking, and the other involves a life or death survival game that is fucking awesome. Try and guess which is which.
One of the reasons why I believe SAO is as popular as it is, is because of how well it knows its audience. Whether you like it or not, on both sides of the ocean, a very large portion of the Otaku viewer base are also avid gamers. It is unlikely that they have never at one time, played an MMO before. The entire MMO genre is well-known for its repetitively addictive nature. So to create a story that capitalises largely on this fact was a brilliant idea in many cases, as it plays to the want and desires of those viewers who would generally do anything they could to be involved and play in this game that the characters are in. Heck, I bet some of them would even want to be trapped in this world, so that they can avoid the mysterious thing known as real life. And maybe it’s because of all of this that people are just willing to completely ignore all the flaws just so that they can have their nice little perfectly constructed fantasy. Speaking of flaws.
By far, one of the most disappointing factors of this entire show is its characterisation and development – or lack thereof – of the show’s major characters.
First off, there’s our male protagonist Kirito, a male gamer from Japan who began to play video games to escape his family and the real world. Kirito, is a power gamer, obsessed with being a strong character, though he’s also a lone wolf. Even though he plays games that are designed to be multiplayer, he goes solo.
A lot of people bring up the topic of how Kirito is a prime example of a “wish fulfillment” character, and while I would much rather have used a different term to describe him, because that makes me sound a little more original, it’s hard because that’s exactly what he is. Everything has a habit of going his way. He overpowers basically everyone he encounters, whether he should or not. He’s a higher level than most players regardless of the fact that he adventures solo and not with a party, something which any MMO player will tell you does not happen. He is able to complete superhuman feats not even possible by the system because, fuck it, he’s Kirito. And over the course of the series, he develops his own harem, complete with everything from token loli’s, to cat girls, to his cousin. No, seriously.
And there’s another thing. I’m not one to say that girls don’t exist on the Internet, because I know that they do. I know quite a few girls on the Internet. But it would be safe to say that the female population of Sword Art Online would be a rather small minority, wouldn’t it? And yet, all of these women look super-hot, making me question why they were playing online games to begin with, but also why more often than not they end up falling for our antisocial hero Kirito for no goddamn reason.
Next up, there’s the supposed lead female character Asuna. I say supposed because besides being heavily featured in the show’s first opening, as well as being one of the main plot devices for the entire second half, she is also one of the most neglected character in terms of development and stereotyping that I have seen in a long time. She starts off well enough, being introduced in episode 2 as a new player who, even though she does not know the game very well, plays exceptionally well and is more or less a complete badass already. Unfortunately, by her next appearance in episode 5 (after the plot goes and gets sidelined with filler), she gets transformed from lead female badass into token tsundere love interest, with moments few and far between to show otherwise, before ultimately becoming Princess Peach for the entire latter half of the show, if you know what I mean.
It’s the characterization towards her that just pisses me off. In an industry where strong female protagonists are few and far between, you have this character that starts off with amazing potential to become something like a young Motoko Kusanagi. Sure, she’s only 16 years old and can’t be exactly like the Major, but something in that direction was completely possible. Instead, I feel like they pulled a Metroid Other M and just completely disrespected her character by making her reliant on a man to save her. Like why do people always confine the main characters of these shows into the same archetype?
The secondary characters all have very little screen time on their own. They’re usually focused on for one episode and then forgotten to make way for the massively important character that is Kirito. The only other character to get much screen time is that of Leafa, a player who helps Kirito in his journey in the second half of the show, since Asuna is unfortunately detained. As much as I like Leafa, she gets sidelined just as much as Asuna did, with her only major defining factor being her fanservice avatar and her love for Kirito, despite the fact that she doesn’t have a chance with him. And of course, other things…cough Spoilers cough
The story of SAO is in fact the most tragic thing about the whole show, even more so than the characters. It takes a special something to have a premise with as much potential as this one, only to railroad everything and employ time jumps whenever possible. The first half of the show is by far the most guilty of this, condensing two whole years of time into the first 12 episodes, with several months of unused time just filling up the in-between spaces. All the while, the viewer is presented with what could be classified as filler episodes. Sure, there is an overarching story, but it’s downplayed more or less the entire time. “We have to get to the 100th floor! But first we are going to help this token loli, and then we’re gonna make a sword with the help of this chick. Oh, and now we are going to go fishing because everyone loves fishing in video games.
For all the negative points I have mentioned though, there are moments of clarity when the story really grabs you. The most interesting aspect of the show early on is that of the death penalty. As previously mentioned, you die and that’s it. It could have been used as an excuse to make the story less like a game and more like an actual fictional fantasy universe with real life or death consequences but it became so much more than that. They spend time making sure that you feel the weight of death in this world and just how emotional losing people for good can be, and it’s not something that is usually focused on.
The mid-point of the show also decides to throw a wrench in everything by completely changing the overall plot of the show to something more or less entirely different, almost as if the whole first half was just a prologue to what would follow. I can’t really explain much about the second half of the show without veering heavily into spoiler territory, so here are some reaction shots: “WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING? Hey, listen! You expect me to talk? No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die! Oh, okay, you’re actually going to play this card…well then. Alright, at least it can’t get any worse. Oh, for fuc—
The animation for Sword Ass Online from A-1 Pictures is stunning, and it’s one of the merits of the show that not many can argue against. In the past, A-1 pictures have been knows for shows like Black Butler, Anohana, and Sound of the Sky, and while the production values for those shows tended to be higher than most, they never had the same amount of action that SAO does. It’s the fight scenes where the animation truly shines, showing the vast expanses of this online world for all to see. As well as fanservice, because why the hell not?!
For those of you unaware, I am a Yuki Kajiura fanboy. I have taken to watching shows specifically because she was the one to provide the soundtrack for it. So while I would like to give her full points on this soundtrack merely for just existing, I can’t. This is mainly because, as good as this soundtrack is – and trust me, it is very good – there was no specific song on this soundtrack that I would like to listen to on its own without visual accompaniment, which is rare for Kajiura. Madoka Magica had a myriad of choir tracks that stood out, Tsubasa had Song of Storm of Fire, Garden of Sinners had the fantastic M12+13, and Kajiura’s work on the entire .Hack// franchise had more good singles than I can possibly mention right now. So it was really disappointing that there were no stand out tracks this time around.
The show also sports two openings and endings, the only notable one of which was opening number one Crossing Field by Lisa. Originally, I didn’t think much of this opening. It seemed rather generic when I first heard it, but over time it grew on me mainly because of moments in the track where there’s this kind of build-up. I just love those moments, it is awesome. Plus the song is available on iTunes for a dollar, so go buy that shit.
Sword Art Online is a perfect example of misused potential. It hooks you early on with a strong opening, before meandering in filler, getting off-track with a thinly veiled overall story arc, and not developing its major characters as well as it could have. And that’s even before they reach the halfway point. The second story arc continues the depressing downwards spiral, with numerous unexplained plot devices, a pointless romantic subplot, and a final villain who was more laughable than menacing. Not to mention, what I considered to be the most important question asked in the entire show was never answered. Why did the creator of the SAO video game trap all of those players? Was it just a game of his? Did he have a God complex? Or was it a more personal or deeply psychological issue? We may never know, unless you read the original light novels most likely.
On the plus side, even though the show may have plummeted from its attempted rise up the mountain of Anime Greatness, the ride back down was to some degree, highly enjoyable, if for no other reason than to just watch the continual supply of fail – very pretty fail, I might add, with a soundtrack by Yuki Kajiura and everything. Plus, I honestly believe that the early episodes handled the death aspect of the setting really well, and it was a shame that they dropped the impact of the topic so quickly. Also, for the most part, the ending of the whole show was somewhat satisfying, which is more than I can say for other shows. And hell, I always say that the ending is paramount, and it could have ended a lot worse, so major props there.
With all that in mind, I have meticulously calculated values for the categories of story, characters, animation, sound, and my own personal enjoyment, which – after tossing it into a cage, having it escape and almost be raped by tentacles, before throwing it right back into said cage – has me awarding Sword Art Online with a 7.5 out of 10, with a recommendation to stream it rather than buy. It’s worth the watch certainly, but only buy this if you know you already like it. And thankfully, you can stream it, because at the time of this review SAO is available for streaming over on Crunchyroll. Even though at this exact moment it does not have a DVD release, it has been licensed by Aniplex, so a DVD release is most likely forthcoming, expensive as their releases tend to be. The show should also be distributed by Madmen at some point, for those people who live in Australia. If you live in Europe though, you’re kind of shit outta luck for the time being. Smoke ’em if you got ’em…or something. As far as alternate anime recommendations, one would think that .Hack//Sign would be a very good choice, but considering that said show is boring as sin, I will instead point you towards, Accel World, as it is by the same original author, and Fate/Zero because I haven’t had a chance to properly recommend this show yet and this seems like a good time because it was fucking awesome, so go watch it.
And with that, I leave you. Until next time – ladies, gentlemen, and others – stay frosty.