The Armchair Madcap

Anime and Manga — Reviews and Previews

The Curious Case of “Sword Art Online”: Character Agency, Impotent Villains, and Hope for a Brighter Future (Part 2)

JWatchYesterday, 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.

Looks, guys, I just want to forget about it too, but that’s not an option.

Looks, guys, I just want to forget about it too, but that’s not an option.

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.

Because this is the face of a woman who can consent to marriage.

Because this is the face of a woman who can consent to marriage.

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.

Hint: It didn’t.

Hint: It didn’t.

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.

You disgust me, adorable fairy child.

You disgust me, adorable fairy child.

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.

Like, you know, maybe not making his default expression a creep-tastic rape face.

Like, you know, maybe not making his default expression a creep-tastic rape face.

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!

6 comments on “The Curious Case of “Sword Art Online”: Character Agency, Impotent Villains, and Hope for a Brighter Future (Part 2)

  1. bluemenpachi
    February 2, 2013

    In short… I HATED ALO.
    Alfheim Online? Should’ve been called Elf-ear Online…

    The elf ears made some of the characters look cute/sexy (it gave off a weird-nice kind of fanservice) but I absolutely hated Kirito’s new look with his elf ears… It took away his look of intimidation that he had in SAO. (The little that he had…)

    Some of the side plots fell short too. Similar to the “item that revives dead players” side plot in SAO, what happened to Kirito’s “new amazing ability of turning into a demon” side plot in ALO? (Or did I analyze that too much…?) I really thought he was going to use that ability again, but it never came up.
    (When he finally reached the opening to the Sekai Jyuu where that endless onslaught of a robot/fairy army prevented him from progressing… I was nerd raging at my screen… “Turn into the demon! TURN INTO THE DEMON!” But NO.)

    Suguha’s love interest in Kirito irritated me to the ends of the Earth… I wanted her to get over herself and just help Kirito rush through the world, save Asuna and be done with it… But NO. They had to get touchy feely with her story…

    When Kirito FINALLY reached Asuna’s hospital room, I was hoping for some kind of frantic happy lovey dovey ending to fulfill my girlish romantic flame. But again… NO! Kirito and Asuna’s real world reunion… was actually PAINFUL for me to watch.

    SAO had so much potential! But the people behind the scenes really (for lack of better words) FAILED with ALO…

    It’s like someone dangled a beautiful piece of prime rib in front of you and then fed it to the dog… UGH.

    • AnonFleance
      February 2, 2013

      I had completely forgotten about the illusion magic. How sad is that? It was probably the second most visually impressive battle of the second season, and because they never mention that stunning skill again, it completely skipped my mind. Yeah, his demon-illusion magic is another mysteriously disappearing mcguffin, and now I’m even more sad about the second season.

      I personally didn’t like or dislike the fairy redesigns of the characters, minus Asuna’s which I despise with the intensity of a thousand suns. I do definitely prefer the original designs, and I can see where you’re coming from with regards to the intimidation factor. (Also, why is Kirito the only Spriggan we ever see?)

      And again, I can’t even remember Kirito’s and Asuna’s real-life reunion, which is probably a sign that I was intensely disappointed in it, too.

      All good points, my dear — thank you for articulating them!

  2. Justin
    February 2, 2013

    A brief look at some of the storylines of later volumes of the Sword Art Online novels have shored up that small hope

    …I have actually heard the opposite 😮 Also, Kirito is supposed to be a trap too in GGO

    But um yeah, SAO could have been really great. Instead it’s an anime for me that fell in between, but a series I’d rather forget. I’m pretty sure I won’t be watching a second season of it.

    Your new layout reminds me of what I used to use when I was on It was nice enough 😀

    • AnonFleance
      February 3, 2013

      Hm, I have to admit that the only summaries I’ve read of the next few arcs are the ones available on wikipedia, and I was mostly looking for some sign that the characters were actually in danger again. Goodness knows, the arcs themselves probably shear off drastically from those summaries. ^_^;

      And thanks for the comment on the layout! I’m looking forward to the day when I can afford to get full creative control over it (I so badly want to work with the header fonts! Gah!), but for now, I’m working with what I’ve got. 🙂

  3. ciddypoo
    March 8, 2013

    Good article and valid critique. I’ll admit it, the second SAO season was pretty subpar , but the ALO arc is my favorite in all of SAO ……… in the novels.

    I’ll go ahead and throw in my 2 cents on the whole deal, although I realize you meant for the articles to assess the animated version and not SAO as a whole.

    That said, having to watch the Kirito/Sugu relationship unfold like I did just didn’t feel the same as reading about it. There was a lot more turmoil and conflict … Something was just missing.

    It’s also difficult to really compare the Aincrad arc with the ALO arc. For one, Aincrad is extremely fleshed out (it’s the longest novel and has supplementary text in other volumes) whereas ALO is summed up in a single short novel.

    ALO is more character-driven since the conflict of DOOM IF YOUR AVATAR IS DEFEATED is no longer applicable. The conflict had to shift to character relationships to really stand I chance. I think it’s a bit hard to salvage that kind of transition when you have an audience expecting the frenetic action scenes from the first arc, which probably mimics the mechanics of current MMOs a bit more closely.

    If they decide to do the next arc, I think fans will jump back into it with more enthusiasm than ALO. I mean … you have guns this time, and none of the sugary fairy stuff that probably dismayed a lot of Aincrad fans accustomed to gloom, doom and despair. If you love Kirito and Asuna as characters, you’ll probably be on board for a whille, but the novels tend to push minor characters aside — a trend you’re probably familiar with if you’ve been watching the series so far.

    • AnonFleance
      March 9, 2013

      I suspect that, as you did, I would have enjoyed the Suguha and Kirito subplot more as written text than I did within the show; I’m usually a sucker for the tragic and forbidden love angle that Suguha was struggling with, but it felt so flat and forced I couldn’t get behind it… As you said, ALO was so much more character driven than SAO that it almost certainly will have benefited from the extra wiggle room a novel provides.

      That said, I still think my biggest problem with the second season was that it took away the elements of a show that felt fresh (the life-and-death stakes, the strong female protagonist, etc.) and replaced it with just another fledgling harem thing. I had seen how many other shows that season and in the seasons since that followed the same formula?

      Ah well, if there’s a third season of SAO, I’ll definitely give it a watch, and I hope to someday meander my way into reading the novels. 🙂

      Thanks for reading!

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This entry was posted on February 2, 2013 by in Action, Anime, Drama, Science Fiction and tagged , , .



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