Anime and Manga — Reviews and Previews
Yesterday, I posted the [first part] of my examination of Sword Art Online and my explanation of why I was so disappointed in what had been the most promising show of the Summer 2012 anime season. Today, I’m going to continue on with that trend, and I’m going to jump right in with the second season.
That annoying, frustrating second season.
When we last left off, Asuna and Kirito had joined together to defeat Kayaba in the final battle of season one, leaving themselves stranded in the gray area between life and death, convinced that they will never escape from the game they beat because they technically lost their lives while doing so. Slowly, the world fades from existence and… Kirito awakens in the real world. He finds himself, emaciated, in a hospital room, moved there during the SAO emergency and visited constantly by his family. He is happy to be reunited with them – ecstatic, even, that he has the opportunity to fix some of the problems that led him to seek solace in videogames in the first place – but his first priority is to find Asuna in the real world.
After intense searching, he finds her – still comatose, still hooked up the virtual reality system that was a prison for her and ten thousand other people, seemingly never to recover. Kirito’s love for her does not diminish. He visits her constantly, and her father doesn’t seem to mind his presence, especially as he’s the hero who defeated the mastermind behind SAO. One person who does definitely mind Kirito’s constant visitations, however, is Nobuyuki Sugo, Asuna’s real life fiancé as decided in a deal between him and Asuna’s father.
Once again, SAO is pitting it’s protagonists against incredible, bitter darkness, forcing them to rise above it and shine with their own inner light. But then SAO the anime makes some directorial decisions that have grated against me the wrong way from the first episode of the second season on: it introduces a second love interest for Kirito in the form of his sister/cousin, it replaces short-lived but fascinating villain Kayaba with greasy-haired, finger-twiddling, lip-licking stereotype Sugo, and it throws Kirito back into another popular virtual reality MMO game, one played by thousands of people as though the last one did not just kill people.
Woah, sorry, I had to let loose with a little vitriol there. Let me back up a bit: Kirito reenters the VRMMO community because he is shown a screenshot from a new game, Alfheim Online, in which he sees what he believes is Asuna at the very top of a location which no player has ever reached. He believes Asuna is trapped in the game, and that if he can just infiltrate it, he can rescue her from not only her virtual prison but also her real life engagement to a raging pervert. I can get behind this plot idea because it requires bravery and sacrifice on Kirito’s part, or at least I can get behind it until I remember that Alfheim Online should not exist. It is a VRMMO released while people were still stuck in a VRMMO that was killing them. Who in their right damn mind green-lit the project? Who would want to take on that particular public relations nightmare? In the real world, videogame publishers (and buyers) often balk at too much blood, too much violence, and too much foul language; how would they react if it was proven that something in the game allowed for its players to be physically killed?
Again, perhaps this is addressed in the novels. Perhaps they explain that some intrepid company came forward and declared that they had defeated Kayaba’s abuses of the system and had made it perfectly safe. But within the show, there is no explanation. People have gleefully embraced Alfheim Online even as survivors of the SAO affair are assigned to special schools in order to catch up to their peers and find solace amongst one another. Kirito’s own sister/cousin is playing ALO, even after seeing her brother/cousin waste away and suffer. Why in the world would their mother allow her to do so? (Of course, in the anime at least, she is the typical absent parent.) It seems chronically reckless, especially as the series progresses and it becomes clear that ALO is literally just SAO with a new coat of paint, a barely reworked version of Kayaba’s murder trap. Yes, that’s the villain’s intent, and yes, it factors in to the finale, but from a societal responsibility standpoint, it’s absurd.
From this point on, SAO had lost its credibility for me – it had required me to make too many leaps of faith and had delivered on only a few of them. I went into the ALO arc feeling a little resentful, but I wanted SAO to do what SAO had done a few times before: pull itself up by its bootstraps and nonetheless deliver something eminently watchable.
It failed. The ALO arc is only half about Kirito trying to rescue Asuna. The other half is about his sister/cousin, Suguha, and her conflicted feelings for him and his online avatar, though she doesn’t realize the two are connected. The entire pseudo-romantic relationship between the two of them is such an open pandering to the strange incest-fascination that has invaded anime of late that I practically gagged. You want to have a brother-sister romance in your show? Fine, but commit to it. Don’t waffle between them being siblings and cousins. Don’t throw it in just because you feel it might earn you more viewers. Better yet, don’t do it at all if it isn’t the focus. Suguha’s entire romantic character arc is a waste of space in a show that has made it clear that Kirito and Asuna are going to get together in the end. I don’t believe there’s any point where the audience thinks poor Suguha has a chance. I wasn’t on board with the Kirito-Asuna romance in the first season, but SAO damn well shouldn’t have muddied the waters after I begrudgingly accepted it. There’s not enough space in the show to give the subplot the attention it deserves. It should have been excised, regardless of what greatness the novels may have achieved with it.
Then there are the problems inherent in Alfheim Online itself: the game lacks the life-and-death stakes of SAO, and therefor there’s no point where the audience is on the edge of its seat, waiting with bated breath to see if Kirito is going to survive this one. The story has its moments – the scene where Kirito resolutely refuses to lose a battle because he is so used to death being the reward for loss, for example – but for the most part, ALO is a much more relaxed, relationship driven affair that lacks the bombastic nature of the first season.
Kirito and Asuna’s rogue-data daughter, Yui, practically becomes a cheat code in ALO, further reinforcing my dislike of her as a tool of the story. There’s a point where, on the verge of rescuing Asuna, Kirito finds a system admin key that should allow him to reach his love, but Yui insists that they need to find a console in order to use it. A mere episode later, she uses the system admin key without a console to open the path to rescuing Asuna. She breaks her own rules, and it’s infuriating that SAO accepts this lazy approach to story-telling. By all means, find an excuse to stretch out your protagonists’ quest, but please stick to it when the bets are down.
And then there’s new antagonist Sugo. What did I call him earlier? A greasy-haired, finger-twiddling, lip-licking stereotype? Yes, that sounds about right. He’s the standard villain you see in practically any anime nowadays. He’s evil for the sake of being evil. He has no motivation. He has no depth. Kayaba was, in a sense, much the same way, but at least it felt like there were layers to Kayaba that we simply didn’t see. With Sugo, it feels like he’s a paper cutout that we’re supposed to root against for lack of anything better to do. He’s a simpering coward. He has no convictions. He has imprisoned three hundred SAO-victims for dubious scientific purposes that are never discussed beyond, “It’ll allow me to rule the world.” I found myself constantly wondering what had happened to Kayaba and why SAO had allowed him to disappear after a single season.
Long story short, Sugo isn’t the sort of villain you love to hate; he’s the sort of villain you hate to hate, because you know SAO could have done so much better.
I won’t dwell for long on the unnecessary fanservice that crops up in the ALO arc, as well. Suffice it to say that there are corrupt scientists represented as tentacle monsters that don’t need to be tentacle monsters, who attack and grope and threaten Asuna in a way that is sketchy and gratuitous, forcing the audience to participate in it even if it’s not their particular fetish. Sugo strips Asuna after binding her arms and dangling her off of the floor, throwing non-consensual bondage into the mix. An extension of Sugo’s perversion these things might be, but they are pushed to the point of exploitation and feel horrendously out of place in an otherwise fairly clean show. The biggest sin of all this fanservice, though, is that is reduces Asuna from ass-kicking warrior woman to typical anime plaything, there to be observed and fawned over but never to have her own agency again.
But, naturally, in the second to last episode, SAO did make one move that returned some small spark of hope to my heart: it made a smart decision involving the final battle. Kirito realized the connection between SAO’s code and ALO’s programming, and by using Kayaba’s system administration powers as Heathcliff, he was able to exploit that connection and rob Sugo of his digital powers. The move justified, at least in part, the existence of ALO as a clone of SAO, and it showed that Kayaba was not as forgotten as he seemed. This, coupled with the typically gorgeous artwork and well-choreographed battle scenes, proved that future seasons of SAO could put the ALO debacle behind it and return some teeth to the series after it had been lazily gumming at the teen romance market for far too long.
A brief look at some of the storylines of later volumes of the Sword Art Online novels have shored up that small hope. Kirito is again dragged into games that result in actual real-life consequences like death and injury, and of course there is always the connection between Sword Art Online and fellow novels-turned-anime series Accel World to keep future seasons feeling fresh. There’s hope for Sword Art Online, but it’s going to have to overcome a very shaky second season and some ill-will amongst its fans before it can feel like it’s lived up to the hype and potential that it had when it premiered last summer.
So, my parting questions to you are these:
Did you watch Sword Art Online? Did you enjoy it immensely? Were you disappointed with some of the pitfalls into which its story fell? Did you even notice them? Had you read the novels before, or was the anime your first experience with the franchise?
Have there been other shows you’ve wanted so desperately to like that have fallen short of your expectations?
Do you think I’ve put far too much thought into this? On second thought, let’s leave that last question unanswered, shall we?
By now you’ve probably noticed that the blog has a brand new layout. What do you think? Do you find it easier to navigate? I had a lot of (frustrating) fun getting it all set up, but I’m always on the look-out for new techniques to try. Please let me know what you think of the Madcap’s new fashion statement!