Sword Art Online – Review
Sword Art Online:
Original Air Dates: July 7th, 2012 – December 22nd, 2012
Synopsis: Teenager Kazuto Kirigay, also known as Kirito, his gaming persona, along with the rest of Japan’s youth, becomes obsessed with a new virtual reality video game: Sword Art Online. The game allows players to exist in a virtual world, fully integrated so that the experience feels as realistic as possible. Kirito, having beta tested the game, jumps into the official release right at launch day. However, day one players quickly discover they’ve been locked inside the game with no way to log out. It turns out this is by the design of the game’s creator Akihiko Kayaba. Kayaba announces to his player base that if they die within his game, they die in the real world for good. The only way out is to beat the final raid dungeon and the game’s ultimate final boss. Trapped inside Sword Art Online, Kirito and the others must learn how to survive and eventually defeat the game’s final boss or face living out the rest of their days trapped within this sadistic virtual video game.
Review (Warning: Some Spoilers to Follow):
Tom: Sword Art Online adaptation is surprisingly faithful, taking the vast majority of the Light Novel’s content and accurately adapting it to the anime medium. A few details fall by the side here or there, events perhaps unfold from a slightly different perspective at times, and maybe a side story or two focusing on more minor characters was cut, but otherwise it’s the same story. For the first thirteen or so episodes, Sword Art Online is indeed fun and interesting. People trapped inside a computer game has been a gripping plot device since the 80s. Sword Art Online does the concept fairly well, and there are times within that first arc where things get incredibly intense. The whole concept here is kept together by introducing permanent death within the game: You die in Sword Art Online then you cease to live back in the real world too.
Linny: Sword Art Online, also referred to as SAO, was one of the more popular and raved about anime during its release period. While its basic premise of being stuck in a fantasy world had been tackled by other manga and anime before it, SAO put enough of a spin on it to engage and impress its viewers. The introductory arc of SAO remains one of its strongest, thanks to its mix of action and emotional content. All was going well as we watch Kirito fight to find a way back to reality. We meet interesting characters, watch interesting events unfold and then just as we enter a new arc, wondering what other entertaining stories await us, BAM! Here comes the incest.
Tom: Indeed it’s after Sword Art Online first arc, concluding the ‘stuck in a video game’ narrative, where things begin to fall apart and not just with a rather ‘in your face’ plot line revolving around Kirito’s potentially incestous relationship with his sister (or at least, that’s what she wants their relationship to develop into anyway.) Sword Art Online’s primary problem after its first arc is a lack of danger. As the series moves onto yet another virtual video game, the perma-death concept disappears. Instead Kirito simply respawns if slain in this second virtual world. While there is still a driving force for Kirito to work towards and accomplish, it never feels quite as compelling as that first arc and ultimately this back half of the series is all the weaker for it. Pacing is an issue as well, as evident by the series final episode, which is an elongated “where are they now” ending that goes on for entirely too long. It is nice to know where our characters end up, but the final episode is a good twenty minutes of wrap up, dwelling on details that just aren’t interesting. It’s this poor use of time that perhaps causes Sword Art Online’s second arc to feel so shallow, failing to devote enough screen time to building up stakes and consequences to offset the loss of the first arc’s much more compelling and ever present threat of death.
Linny: The second part of the season takes a nose dive in terms of story. While the art and animation were as pretty to look at as always, the story itself felt really weak with a lot of major flaws. And while I did point out incest first, there’s a lot more that perturbed me equally or even more than just that. Without giving away too much, there’s a completely unnecessarily perverted villain, the overtly sexual misconduct and treatment melted out towards a female character, and situations that feel like mere repetitions or copies of earlier events, which makes everything lose a sense of urgency or danger and even makes SAO feel like a chore to sit through.
Tom: Linny’s points indicate perhaps Sword Art Online’s biggest issue: It’s characters. Kirito and Asuna, our two leads, aren’t perhaps the most lovable, or even memorable characters. Kirito wins at near everything he does, almost infallible by design and Asuna is your cookie-cutter, put on a pedestal, perfect woman, heroine. Even so, they both stand as the most compelling characters of the series, for whatever that’s worth. The real trouble begins as we look beyond our leads. The remainder of the cast is lackluster, leaving no lasting impression, suffering from low amounts of screen time, or are introduced with such overly grating personas you wish they hadn’t even been included in the first place. This issue exists from episode one itself. Kirito initially makes friends with another player in the game, someone who would’ve made an interesting supporting sidekick, but he’s dropped by the end of that episode. While he does eventually appear again, he ultimately receives no real development. The only side-character to form any lasting impression is Yui, introduced late in Sword Art Online’s first arc. Without spoiling too much this, initially one off, character gradually takes a more prominent and active role in the second half of the series, but her initial introduction is so rushed as to fit it within one twenty-four episode that we never really get a chance to become truly attached to her, making her return that much less compelling. Sword Art Online just doesn’t know what to do with its supporting characters and how to utilize them effectively.
Linny: While shown to be peerless and undefeated for the most part, Kirito can be described as an appealing lead initially because he’s shown going through personal and emotional losses, rather than depicted as just another cool and unfazeable hero. It’s later on when he starts to lose that human touch and devolves/evovles into yet another classic, perfect protagonist. On the other hand, while Asuna is shown to be a strong and equally, if not more skilled player than Kirito at times, she is eventually reduced to a damsel in distress and yet another girl who just wants to play homemaker with husband and kid in tow. It is frustrating when her introduction glorifies her skills as a gamer, yet none of that comes to matter as she’s turned into little more than a trophy wife for Kirito. It’s even more infuriating as all that impressive skill and ability is nullified with her role in the second arc. Then there’s the fact that a lot of the average male characters seem to be constantly drooling and gushing over the female characters, which made it feel like the women were there mostly to be glorified and put on a masturbatory pedestal. It’s not only offensive to women, but also men as it propagates the stereotype that male gamers lose all self control or logic when there’s a girl involved. On a positive note, Klein, Kirito’s friend in episode one and who briefly returns late in the first arc, was one of my favourite characters to the point that I found myself wishing he was the lead instead of Kirito. His comedic charm and naive, optimistic nature may make him feel like the standard Mr Goody-Two-Shoes character but he worked it well. But even SAO’s villains aren’t a point of praise, content to offer up a typical case of ‘villain who can’t stop licking his lips.’ It doesn’t make me find them intimidating, it makes me want to hand them a chapstick and tell them to moisturize better.
Tom: The primary villain of Sword Art Online’s first arc is quite fun, even if his screen time is a bit on the low side. However, the 2nd arc’s villain, who does get quite a bit of screen time, feels much weaker and exceedingly one dimensional. His plans are outlandish in nature and he’s of course made exceedingly creepy in an effort to elicit a repulsed response from the audience. But perhaps the biggest downside to the second arc isn’t in the form of its villain, but rather a new major character– Kirito’s sister. Yes, she is the source of Linny’s and My complaints of incest. Although not directly blood related, which makes the incest ‘okay’ by anime standards, Kirito’s sister has an exceedingly unhealthy obsession with her brother. Over the course of the 2nd arc she grows increasingly more and more in love with him, only saving us from a full blown incestuous ending by Kirito remaining faithfully in love with Asuna. It’s likely this pseudo love triangle was introduced as a way to inject more drama into the story, since the perma-death mechanic’s absence left a big gaping hole in the tension department. Ignoring the whole incestuous angle for a moment, it’s painfully clear that by utilizing Asuna as a damsel in distress during this arc, Kirito’s entire reason for entering this second game world, that Kirito and his sister will never be a thing, effectively undermining whatever tension may have been generated. And while Asuna was never all that deep a character, and exists more as a pandering fantasy of the perfect woman for its teenage audience, she was still a strong woman who could stand on her own. But the 2nd half of the show fails to understand that appeal of the character, content to throw her away as a mere plot device and goal for Kirito to reach.
Linny: If there’s one thing that is undeniable about SAO, it is that the show has great visuals. Set in a fantasy gaming world, SAO has a premise that allows it to render some amazing combat sequences and scenery. And it does just that in a pleasing manner, keeping its quality consistent for the most part and presenting a show that is a delight to the eyes.
Tom: The animation is often beautiful, thanks to a vibrant color palette and generally smooth visuals. They help to sell this computerized fantasy world and the designs for the game play elements look sharp and on point. Couple that with a powerful soundtrack and it’s no wonder Sword Art Online still has such a large following, even if the critical hammer has come down unfavorably on the series the farther we get from it’s original airing. It’s that sense of style and realization of Sword Art Online’s world that can make it feel a whole lot more compelling than either the characters or plot allow for. Audiences more concerned with style than substance can easily become lost in the more superficial aspects of the series, making its faults below the surface so much less noticeable.
Linny: At this point in time, SAO seems to have become a universally loathed show, which is a shame since it did start off as a great watch, SPECIFICALLY that first arc. However, it is by no means a perfect show and began to stumble more and more the further it went on. If by some miracle, you are one of the few who’s never seen it but has grown curious, the first arc is definitely worth a watch. Though set in a gaming world, the show doesn’t ever explore its actual gaming mechanics and aspects seriously, if ever. It’s more interested in presenting its characters and stories, which might be a negative for those who were initially intrigued by the MMORPG aspects. Since SAO is one of the more famous series in recent years, you might want to try it just to find out what all the fuss or criticisms are about. While I cannot vouch for the second half, you might find the first half an entertaining watch as it does a decent job of portraying the dramatic side of finding yourself trapped in a virtual world with no means of escape.
Tom: Sword Art Online caught a lot of attention in the anime fandom, and a plethora of more mainstream attention that bought into the hype and delivered some truly hyperbolic headlines like: ‘Sword Art Online in the smartest anime in the last decade’ or some such. If you’ve somehow managed to avoid the series up to this point, and are wondering whether you should bother watching it at all, I’d suggest giving, at the very least, the first arc a try (the first fourteen episodes.) That arc is the franchise at its best and, depending on how much the world, its style and its characters suck you in, you should have a good idea whether you’ll still enjoy it even after it all drops off a cliff in terms of quality.