I’ll admit that I only first started watching Sword Art Online because so many of the kids I’m teaching here in Japan were into it. Sure, I had viewed the trailer with mild curiosity, but for whatever reason it just didn’t seem all that appealing at the time. In the end, after several earnest recommendations from junior high school students and fellow anime fans alike, I caved and gave it a go. And despite much of the negative attention this series has garnered, I’m really, really glad I did.
The premise has been explored before, albeit in different ways, in other productions both anime and live-action such as hack//Sign, Gamer, and The Matrix. It’s the year 2022 and virtual reality games, in which the player can control and experience their own in-game characters with their minds, are commonplace. However, when players buy into the latest and greatest of these games, the fantasy MMORPG Sword Art Online, they find themselves unable to log out. Trapped inside SAO by the game’s creator, players are told that in order to free themselves they must reach the 100th floor of the game’s tower and defeat the final boss. However, should their character die, the player will also die in the real world. The anime follows our main character Kirito as he attempts to survive and win the game over the course of two years.
I have to give it to the creators of the story – they know how to bring out the most tension without resorting to too much melodrama. When people die, it typically doesn’t take several minutes of drawn-out speeches or dearest friends falling to their knees and screaming tearful farewells. By the same token, the fight scenes of the series don’t muck about – no episode-long glaring competitions between foes or extended periods of grunting and totally ineffectual attack moves à la Dragon Ball Z or Naruto, thank god. This is no doubt greatly helped by the fact that in the world of SAO, magic can’t really be used for fighting. You can use special items but if you want to kill something (or someone), you have to do it with an actual weapon. Combined with some striking visuals – the artwork is nice and clean, and the animation is fairly smooth – this is definitely a point which works in the anime’s favour.
I also have to commend the music of the series. Not that this should be surprising with Kajiura Yuki behind the scenes – the woman can do no wrong. I particularly like ‘The First Town’, ‘March Down’, and ‘Swordland’ insert songs. However, the opening and ending themes are also very enjoyable, and everything a strong fantasy anime should be: catchy and easy on the ears but with a light rock flavour. The first OP is probably the best of these – ‘Crossing Field’ by LiSA (who anime fans may recognise as the voice behind the second-generation vocals of Girls Dead Monster in Angel Beats!).
For once I seem to be in agreement with the masses when I say that the two main problems I have are mostly to do with the later episodes of the show. This is in large part due to a major switch in environment, from the world of SAO to the real world along with a different virtual one, Alfheim Online. Unlike in SAO, the players aren’t trapped there and if you die in ALO then it doesn’t really matter – you take a forced break and then restart. And just like that, a huge chunk of the excellent tension that characterised the first half of the series is gone. On the one hand I congratulate the writer of Sword Art Online for taking a risk and choosing not to rely solely on the virtual world of SAO to tell the story. On the other hand, SAO is simply the far better setting. In comparison, ALO is a watered-down version in which some of the best characters from earlier are gone and where magic plays a far greater role. Not that I have anything against the use of magic in the fantasy genre, but random spell chanting has never made for an especially exiting watch, and Sword Art Online is no exception.
This is actually a minor gripe next to my complaints regarding Asuna. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike her character… it’s just that it could have been utilised so much better. In the first half of the series she’s a total badass – every bit as strong and smart as Kirito, possibly even more so in her own way. Then she falls in love with him and it all goes downhill almost immediately: cue random emotional outbursts, some poor decision making and occasional flat-out stupidity. Sure, people sometimes do silly things for love but in this case, it’s as though Asuna’s character has been completely rewritten. I also completely fail to see how loving anybody so much that they’d be willing to commit suicide if it meant they couldn’t be together could in any way be considered a good or desirable trait. That’s called being unhealthily attached, and I wouldn’t touch someone like that with a 10-foot barge pole. (Also, Asuna can get in line – Sachi, Silica, Lisbeth and Suguha all apparently want a piece of that sword action too.)
Regardless, I could have overlooked these issues if in the second half of the series Asuna hadn’t turned from sword-wielding warrior to damsel in distress faster than you can say tentacle rape, complete with human-sized bird cage and harem outfit (because her would-be husband really is just that cartoonishly fiendish). And that’s it from Asuna for about 10 episodes – she sits and looks molestable and occasionally gets visits by a groping mad scientist cliché. Oh, and does actually come close to getting tentacle-raped the one time she does briefly manage to escape on her own, while Kirito rushes around elsewhere trying desperately to save her. Not the most intelligent storyline to go for, and even less so after our main characters have settled firmly into their overly obvious Good/Evil stereotypes.
This might make it sound as though the second half of the anime has no redeeming features, or that I didn’t enjoy said second half at all – neither of which are true. Whether it’s the first or the second story arc, Sword Art Online is a solid series with a lot to offer. It’s pacing is consistently good throughout, there’s a surprisingly large amount of realism to be seen as far as the MMO settings and rules are concerned, and it gets bonus points for not getting too heavy on the fanservice.* Best of all, it offers up something original to an already interesting concept. Personally, I find what it has to say about the psychology and sociology of virtual realities to be particularly engrossing.
In short, while its flaws might stop Sword Art Online from being completely groundbreaking or sophisticated, I can honestly say that the series as a whole is both enjoyable and addictive. Its blend of action/adventure and romance against a science-fantasy backdrop means there should be something here for everyone, and I especially recommend it to anyone looking for a new take on gaming or to viewers with a vested interest in the fantasy genre. If there’s ever another season of this (certainly possible, given that as of this writing, the anime covers only the first four of the thirteen light novels it’s based upon), I would happily watch it.
*Poor Sugu cops most of that, presumably so that Asuna can continue to embody the pure maiden archetype.
Question of the post: Did you like Sword Art Online, and would you watch a second season if there was one? If SAO actually existed as a game (and there was no risk of being trapped there for a couple of years), would you want to play it?