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SECOND LOOK: Sword Art Online

What happens when you have a great story concept on paper and immediately waste the potential with clichés and a lack of effort? That is unfortunately the outcome of the anime Sword Art Online, based on the light novels by Reki Kawahara. With its official movie coming out this year, it made sense to look back on this popular yet a little overrated anime. Right away, the idea of 10,000 gamers getting trapped in an VRMMORPG in a life-or-death scenario sounds fantastic, but Kawahara relies on poor writing and some of the worst clichés and elements from anime to make it work. We shall mostly be examining the first season of the anime, which propelled the show into the echelon of popular anime. Yet, despite impressive animation, a catchy theme song, and crazy-awesome Matrix-style sword fights, the story and characters aren’t all that great.

The “Aincrad” Arc

The world’s first virtual reality MMORPG “Sword Art Online” is released. All looks good until players start noticing the log off button is missing. The game’s creator Akihiko Kayaba reveals this was deliberate, the gamers are trapped and the only way out is to beat the game. The only catch is that if they die in-game, they die in the real world due to their VR helmets secretly being death traps.

Our hero is Kirito, a teenage gamer who prefers the virtual world to reality after discovering he was adopted and became a shut-in as a result. For him, SAO allows him to show off his gaming skills but faces the now urgent need to form parties and make friends, something which he struggles with. The early episode of the season deal with the lingering threat of death and the crashing impact that now fantasy is the new reality. Kirito takes each death pretty hard despite showing little value for real life beforehand.

The biggest blow comes when he joins a small guild, hiding his high power level out of fear, which ultimately leads to his new team getting massacred in an inescapable dungeon zone. Amongst them is Sachi, essentially Kirito’s Gwen Stacy, who we only got to know for half an episode before her death, but there was enough chemistry there to make her death more meaningful. After that, the story grinds to a halt, jumping back and forth across two years in game-time as Kirito encounters various supporting characters in one-shot adventures and collecting his own harem flock, a plot in anime where one guy/girl has a number of potential love interests which he remains oblivious too. Sometimes it works and something it doesn’t, like here. Most of the supporting protagonists, though likeable, don’t grow much as characters.

Kirito eventually finds friendship and romance with Asuna, a beautiful girl from a well-off family who purchased the game on a whim to escape her domineering mother and a planned out life she doesn’t want. Asuna becomes a skilled player and acts as a more pragmatic character, compared to Kirito’s mix of shonen-esque headstrong decisions and lone wolf angst. Asuna remains the best character in the show, though the treatment of her is horrendous when we get to the second arc. Lots of gnashing teeth on that later.

Anyway, the first arc wraps up quickly yet nicely in fourteen episode. Yeah, the great concept which I presumed would be carried on for a couple of seasons is over halfway through the first. And considering there are ten-thousand potential characters trapped in the game, there could have been countless possible ways this story could go. But instead we following Kirito, who, in all honesty is not the most interesting character in the anime. In fact, half the time he is a Gary Stu, acting like he is Captain N, but has few redeeming qualities when he acts smug, pretentious, and all mopey. And do all the girls fall head over heels for him? Yeah, his romance with Asuna is sweet and she brings out his better qualities, and he is cool when he whips out the dual wielding, but Kirito isn’t interesting enough to be the focus of the story.

Of course, the highlight of the series are the battles, which are fast-paced, exciting, and mix imaginary gameplay with Final Fantasy-styled action. Speaking of the game itself, Sword Art Online comes off as a poorly designed game – there is no magic, no job classes, and boss fights and special events are one-time only occurrences.

But now the story goes on to…the “Fairy Dance” arc, a storyline that is just dreadful from beginning to end, chucking out the better elements of SAO in favour of god awful anime clichés that really have no place in a show that young children can watch.

The “Fairy Dance” Arc

See, at the end of the first arc, everyone was released from the game after Kirito killed Kayaba, apart from Asuna. Kirito discovers Asuna, who is still in a coma, is to be forcefully married to a slimy associate of her father, Nobuyuki Sugo, who plots to not only marry Asuna against her will but to then rape her! Kirito discovers Asuna is trapped in Alfheim Online, another virtual reality game with a fairy motif, trapped in a giant birdcage and the play thing for Sugo’s online counterpart Oberon. And by play thing I mean sexual play thing. Holy hell!

Kirito joins the game to reach Asuna, aided by his adopted AI daughter Yui (just roll with it), and Leafa, a veteran of the game who quickly comes to develop a crush on him. But, wait. It gets worse.  It is revealed pretty early to the audience that Leafa is actually Suguha, Kirito’s sister/cousin, a clumsy, somewhat shy, yet diligent girl and skilled kendo student. The only downside is all this gets buried under the decision to make her defining characteristic and story arc is her incestuous crush on her own brother! But for some dumb reason, Suguha can’t put two-and-two together that Kirito and her brother (his real name is Kazuto Kirigaya) are the same person, even when his game self looks exactly the same. And hello, “Kirito”, is just his forename and surname fused together. But, wait! It gets worse!

Meanwhile, Asuna manages to temporarily escape her imprisonment, and, oh, I don’t know, use the game’s flying mechanic to flee her tormentor, explores the game’s giant tree and discovers Sugo has captured fellow SAO survivors and trying to find a way to control their minds. Asuna then gets captured by octopus monsters, who decide to throw in some dodgy tentacle rape, because, hey, why not. They’ve done every other dreadful anime trope so far.

Kirito and Yui find Asuna and rescue her, only for Sugo to show up, runs Kirito through with his own sword, and then proceeds to…(FUUUU–), chain her up and molest her right in front of Kirito! Who thought this would be a great idea to put in an anime which children and families could watch? In all honesty, Sword Art Online has a heavy dose of fanservice. Not as bad as say High School of the Dead, but most of its female cast get caught at one point or another in embarrassing moments or Kirito becomes an accidental pervert. But in this arc, Asuna’s treatment is just horrible and insulting. Such a compelling character who built up a reputation as an independent warrior is reduced to a damsel in distress, and is caged and sexually assaulted. They should have eighty-sixed this anime’s writers as soon as they suggested this.

Thankfully, the arc wraps up pretty quickly. Kayaba makes a miraculous return, now a being of digital consciousness, allowing Kirito to hijack Alfheim’s programming and satisfyingly kick Sugo’s wretched perverted ass. He then has to beat him in the real world before having a touching reunion with Asuna. But, then, all of Kirito’s friends decide to start playing Alfheim and Kirito uses a gift left by Kayaba to summon the Sword Art Online world into the system with the plan to beat it. Why on earth would anyone want to return to the place they were trapped in for two years? Remember all the people who died and the trauma you experienced there? The anime certainly doesn’t until the second season. Speaking of which…

Season 2

After the debacle of the second half of season one, Sword Art Online‘s second season was mostly good from the start, split into three arcs, though the second is pure filler. The first, the “Phantom Bullet” arc, involves Kirito venturing into “Gun Gale Online”, a VR game based around competitions involving gun fights. A masked assassin named Death Gun is somehow murdering players in the real world whilst shooting their game avatars, and it is up to Kirito to identify who he is so the government can arrest him. Kirito goes into the game with a hilariously girly avatar and specialises in using a lightsaber, allowing him to dodge bullets and chop them in two.

He befriends Sinon, a reclusive, icy sniper, who carries a fear of actual firearms after she shot a robber with his own gun during a frightening bank heist. It becomes clear that Death Gun is in fact an SAO survivor and a member of a player-murdering guild called the Laughing Coffin. Having killed several people during his time in SAO, Kirito’s long-suppressed trauma bubbles up, and he forms a bond with Sinon over their past horrors. It is nice to see a different relationship between Kirito and a girl who doesn’t have the hots for him. The new involvement of Call of Duty-like gameplay offers new challenges for Kirito and different kinds of action scenes, and the character arcs are probably the best of the series.

Beyond that is the filler arc, which consists of harmless, wacky RPG adventures, before moving on to the more emotional “Mother’s Rosario” arc, in which Asuna becomes the main focus, recruited to help a guild leave their mark on the world by beating a boss fight in SAO. They are led by the excitable Yuuki, a really likeable yet tragic character, and very relatable to on a thematic level. Though the arc is short, it is very enjoyable. Strange how the show has improved over time. In my eyes, that has allowed Sword Art Online to pull itself up to become a better, more enjoyable anime. All along, the anime has maintained a good production quality and great battle scenes, but the scripts dragged it down throughout its first season.

Sword Art Online is a very, very flawed anime but yet has some redeeming qualities to it. Kirito and Asuna’s romance is cute and remains one of my favourite couples in anime. I hope the movie is good and we gain a third season at some point in the future.

Have you watched Sword Art Online? Like it or hate it? Leave a comment below or on our Twitter feed.

About the author

Mark Russell