Anime and Manga — Reviews and Previews
(This was not originally intended to be a two-part post, but I wrote enough for this review to qualify as an academic paper. Consider this my review of Sword Art Online season one, and tomorrow’s post my review of season two. By necessity, spoilers abound in both.)
You may recall from my Summer 2012 [season preview] that I was in love with the first episode of Sword Art Online – me and just about every anime fan who made time to watch it, that is. SAO was the most promising show of the season, and it coupled an intriguing storyline with bright, smooth visuals and a musical score that propped everything up with its quality. I hastily announced that SAO might “out .Hack// the .Hack// series itself” with its “players caught in a murderous MMO” plot. I wanted so very much to love Sword Art Online.
But the series as a whole divided the anime community between two camps: those who loved it (mostly comprised of those who had read and enjoyed the light novels from which the show is adapted) and those who were quick to point out the multitude of flaws, plot holes, and directorial missteps that plague SAO from start to finish. I suspect by now you know with which camp I stand.
Let me start this review by saying that I don’t dislike SAO: I enjoyed it for what it was, and I recognize that there were flashes of brilliance in both its animation and a few of its story elements (more on those in a bit). But I was frustrated at every turn by bizarre choices on the part of writers and directors, choices that either contributed little to the story or characters or, more specifically, actively damaged them. Those decisions are what I want to focus on here.
Please also note, however, that I have never had the opportunity to read the light novels on which SAO is based. Therefore, I must assume that they are perfect examples of the genre, devoid of any of the problems I am about to present, and worthy only of the highest of praise. This post is a critique of SAO the anime, not the SAO juggernaut as a whole.
First and foremost, the premier episode of SAO was an example of a well-paced introduction to a series: it presented the setting, the rules, and the conflict of the anime without losing the attention of the audience. It presented protagonist Kirito as a sympathetic persona who nonetheless had room to mature and grow. It had comedy that was relevant to the generation at which it was aimed, and it introduced a villain who was simultaneously grandiose and mysterious. It raised the stakes to the point of life or death.
In the first episodes of the show, a fifth of SAO players die in the first month, with even the first floor boss yet to be cleared. Players turn against one another; people cope with loss and grief; both the young and the old have to adapt to a world that does not function like reality, but which mirrors it in surprising ways. SAO presents us with a female character who is both a viable love interest but also her own woman, one who can stand against the tide of horror sweeping down on the surviving players and hold her own amongst the men.
Then, in episode three, SAO makes its first misstep. The entire episode revolves around Kirito’s reluctant decision to help a fledgling guild far below his own level and skill, his coming to enjoy their company, and his coming to see himself as a part of a group rather than a solitary player beholden only to himself. It’s a powerful examination of the loner mindset, and it’s well-served and complicated when the party finds themselves caught in an insurmountable trap and lose their lives despite Kirito’s best efforts. Wracked by grief, Kirito dedicates himself to the obtaining of a legendary item: one that can revive a person, so long as it’s within ten seconds of their death in the game. It’s too late to do anything for his lost party members, so Kirito passes the item along to Klein, the neophyte he helped in the first episode who has risen to the command of his own guild. Kirito then goes on his own path, a loner once again.
And the magical macguffin that is the revive item? It’s never mentioned again. Not when major characters start dropping dead; not even when Kirito’s life is on the line and Klein is present for the danger. No one remembers that this item exists at all.
I know, I know – it makes perfect sense to assume that Klein used it on the first person he saw die in front of him after receiving the item, but what makes sense in real life does not always make sense in storytelling. If that was the case – if Klein did use the item to revive a guildmate or friend – then SAO needed to inform us of this fact. To simply ignore the existence of this all important item is to violate the law of Chekov’s Gun: the idea that, if a gun is shown in the first act of a story, it must be fired before the end of the final act. In a story with limited time to convey its point, no item can exist simply for the sake of existing.
The next few episodes return to the high quality of the first two: they examine the tropes of MMO-play. The guild politics, the skill trees and their incongruities, the party system. Of particular interest were the player killers, those who could not or refused to believe that a death in the game equated death in the real world, and who played according to that fact.
The revelation of Kirito’s unique ability to duel-wield swords was a nice change of pace, and it presented one of the best action sequences in the entire first season. There was a definite thrill when Kirito unsheathed his second blade and unleashed his final attack on the boss of the 74th floor. The action as a whole is the high point of SAO – it’s dominated by expensively animated sequences with interesting, MMO-based choreography.
The intriguing character of Heathcliff – the leader of Asuna’s guild – is introduced, and it is strongly intimated that he has somehow modded or hacked the game. This presents interesting implications about not only Heathcliff as a character but also the world of SAO as a place of unbreakable rules.
I was still onboard with SAO at this point. It had delivered what it had promised: high-octane MMO-action, with some breaks for filler stuff that is a given in any anime series. But then SAO made a directorial decision with which I did not in any way agree. It became a show about a teenage love story. It forsook its action roots and focused on a PG-romance that felt awkward and forced.
I am perfectly willing to admit that I am hard on SAO on this point because the idea of a romance between two teenagers who ought to be more concerned with the fact that their lives are constantly in danger does not appeal to my personal tastes. It is easy for me to forget, at this point in the show, that years have passed. Kirito and Asuna have known each other for longer than it seems. They have, ostensibly, had time to grow close enough to love one another and want to be married.
But SAO doesn’t show any of this growth. It just jumps awkwardly from one set piece to another, hoping the audience will buy into this romance because, technically, the opportunity for this love is there. In other words, because love might have grown from the circumstances, the show expects us to believe that it has. But the show doesn’t make it so that this love was inevitable, and that is why it loses so much value here in my eyes. The appearance of Yui, the rogue AI who becomes like a daughter to Kirito and Asuna, only further alienated me from this new plot. Neither Kirito nor Asuna are prepared to deal with this childlike entity, all-powerful computer program though she may be. They are in no way emotionally mature enough to jump into their parental roles the way they do. Well, perhaps they are, but SAO hasn’t shown me that they are.
That’s really the brunt of the problems in the first season of SAO: it relies too much on the audience just following along with the plot, rather than explaining things appropriately and making things seem like a perfect fit instead of happenstance. I suspect that this is a problem of adaptation. There’s less time in an animated show than on a page to express the intricacies of character growth; there’s a greater need to focus on the showy fight scenes that will draw in the viewers. Characters and plotlines suffer.
But then, as always, SAO begins to redeem itself. The finale of the first season is another example of a well-paced episode, one that understands the stakes and plays to it. Fresh on the heels of a devastating boss battle, Kirito finally acts on his suspicions about Heathcliff. He accuses the man of being the ultimate villain of SAO: Akihiko Kayaba, the architect of the game and the man who locked all 10,000 of those players in their perpetual death match. This confrontation sparks the final conflict between Kirito, Asuna, and Kayaba – the battle that will determine the fates of the remaining players. Only Kirito can defeat Kayaba, the man who fights with his system-administrator powers. But his victory requires the ultimate sacrifice from Asuna. She gives her life in order that Kirito and the other players might live. Kayaba is struck down, but Kirito’s avatar is killed at the last second. The game is won, but Kirito has lost everything nonetheless. He and Kayaba have a discussion in the white space of the fading game world. Kirito demands an explanation. Kayaba gives it to him, as best he can. Then Kirito and Asuna share their last embrace, convinced that they are both staring their deaths in the face. Convinced that they will cease to exist when SAO ceases to exist.
It’s the perfect example of a pyrrhic victory. It’s crushing and uplifting at the same time. Sure, it’s also where the specter of the revival macguffin rears its ugly head the worst, but that can be overlooked in the face of otherwise masterful storytelling. It’s poignant. It’s devastating.
It’s also where SAO the anime should have ended.
Tomorrow, I’ll examine the less-than stellar second season of SAO, the implications it makes about the show’s world and characters, and the steps I hope SAO will take to ensure that future seasons delve more into their strengths rather than into their weaknesses.