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Sword Art Online
Sword Art Online is an anime that popularized the "trapped in another world" storytelling premise that is overexposed in varying capacities with a number of recent anime and was originally explored a decade earlier than Sword Art Online with .hack//SIGN. Like the mentioned show, both have divided opinions among fans for one reason or another as many were turned off by .hack//SIGN for being dialogue-heavy and not as full of action compared to Sword Art Online, an element which is one part of what drew fans more easily to the series. However what may be more accessible to casual anime fans does not always necessarily make for a good quality series, and Sword Art Online is rife with plenty of issues throughout its run.|
First, let us explore the core element of Sword Art Online that drew in its fans in the form of its "trapped in another world" premise. For the world of the series, the thousands of players trapped in the online game are forced to play through it in order to free themselves from within it and will actually die in real life if their online avatars are killed while within the game. The series gets into some decent ideas with exploring how this could affect players in differing capacities, but a myriad of reasons related to story focus and pacing kill the amount of depth this could have gotten and felt too dumbed down as characters like Kirito seem too well-adjusted mentally to their dilemma. This pales in comparison to its predecessor series, .hack//SIGN, which actually devotes time to exploring the mental trauma this situation would have on its affected player, Tsukasa, who goes through varying stages of development with his character throughout the series as he copes with and tries to comprehend the circumstances that have him trapped in the MMORPG he is in.
Plotting is another issue that Sword Art Online suffers greatly from. The anime is divided up into two arcs with Kirito getting into different conflicts with two MMORPGs that he takes part in for Aincrad and Fairy Dance. Many fans think of the Aincard arc as the best arc in regards of quality since Kayaba Akihiko was a seemingly competent and morally ambiguous villain with the plans he had to trap the players within his game. However, the arc suffers from rushed pacing that makes the narrative a bit disjointed as it jumps through different points of time in exploring Kirito's interactions with different players and fighting against either enemy monsters or rogue players. While Fairy Dance arc has a more smoother narrative, its storytelling lacks the high stakes of the Aincrad arc and has a rather pitiful excuse of a villain compared to Kayaba. Also as the series is heavily focused on Kirito (who has his own issues I will elaborate on shortly), he is rather overpowered as a player as this kills the stakes of any major battle we see him in and in cases where he would be in some sort of crisis, the anime resorts to deus ex machina a great deal to have situations swing in his favor.
Characterization is also an issue with Sword Art Online as this seems to have quite a bit to do with the series being a sort of otaku gratification title with how it is structured. As our lead character, Kirito doesn't have much going for him in the way of depth beyond being your typical good-natured hero who is overpowered and feels too much like an audience surrogate for fans to get immersed into his experiences within online gaming. In addition, he seems to have a lucky streak in attracting many relevant female characters within the series to him thus leading to a needless harem scenario. As there aren't many other major male characters within this series, the choice of having nearly the whole female cast attracted to Kirito appears to be deliberate from the show's creators as the mentioned female characters are not allowed to be on Kirito's level in combat and don't get much depth beyond whatever affection they have toward our male lead. This especially hits the female lead of the series, Asuna, hard in later episodes when she becomes Kirito's main love interest and her character's strong-willed demeanor from the Aincrad arc takes a big hit in the Fairy Dance arc.
In terms of visuals, Sword Art Online is a bit of a mixed bag. It sports gorgeous and highly-detailed scenic shots found within online and real-life settings that are a treat on the eyes and character designs are decent in detail as well. Battle scenes are a mixed bag as there are moments of decent animated sequences, particularly during the Fairy Dance arc when the flying mechanic is utilized. However, animation shortcuts are utilized at a number of points with still and pan shots, which stick out rather prominently during heated battle scenes.
Overall, I find Sword Art Online's reputation for the "trapped in another world" premise of anime to be greatly overhyped. It comes with plenty of issues for its plotting and characters, and feels too much like an otaku gratification title with the depiction of Kirito's character throughout its run. If you really want a good "trapped in another world" anime within an MMORPG, you'd be better off tracking down .hack//SIGN as the series does a much better job with exploring the psychological effects of being trapped in an online game.
Last updated Sunday, June 04 2017. Created Saturday, June 03 2017.
Sword Art Online
If I'm lucky, there will be a show in each season whose episodes are over before I know it, and that I eagerly await the next one. SAO is that show this season. Similarities with Accel World are to be expected, both series are based on light novels by Reki Kawahara. The original SAO novel included a fair amount of technical explanation of the game's rules and techniques, but I think the anime producers wisely left most of them out in favor of concentrating on the stories about the player's interactions (unlike the Accel World anime). Although the stories are chronologically disjointed -- the entire "game" of SAO lasts over two years -- the common theme running through them is the way being stuck in the game changes various people's behavior in different ways. While some use the game environment to escape society's restrictions and indulge their inner daemons, others find their humanity becoming their anchor in the struggle to survive. The hero, Kirito, evolves from one extreme to the other during the course of the game. The original premise of SAO is far-fetched and difficult to accept, it always seemed to me like external forces would have ended the virtual prison shortly after it was revealed rather than allowing the game's creator to continue to become essentially a mass-murderer. But if you can exercise a "willing suspension of disbelief" the resulting stories are a delight.
Last updated Tuesday, September 04 2012. Created Tuesday, September 04 2012.
Sword Art Online
(Rent+ or Buy)|
(All episodes watched twice):
As I rewatch SAO a second time and re-read my review of my first viewing, I wonder why I nitpicked so many minor problems the first time around and underappreciated the overall quality of the show. One thing that struck me about SAO as I rewatched it is that I seldom, if ever, got bored. The story moves at a brisk pace and doesn't waste time. In most shows, even those which I rate as Rent worthy, it goes without saying that I'll get at least a little bored at times, but not here. And the one thing I like best about SAO is that what happens in the climaxes of the two seasons are unexpected yet make perfect sense. The clues have already been made available to us, in a subtle manner, and when things work out the way they do we remember them and understand what just happened--we 'get' it. There are so, so many shows which for one reason or another cannot do this. It makes you appreciate how rare a talent it is to be able to tell a story which is unpredictable yet makes perfect sense.
An anime about a super sophisticated online role playing game? This was a relatively novel concept back in 2012 and as I watched episode one I thought that it sounded interesting. Far more interesting was the realization the players make that they cannot log out, and the claim that if they get killed while playing the game they will die in real life as well. Apparently the designer of this eagerly awaited game has gone insane and designed a virtual reality trap which forces the players to actually fight for their lives. The show has a definite sophistication, with bits like the remark that "eating food here only makes you think you're not hungry". Kirito and Klein quickly established themselves as likeable, interesting characters. At the end, I could only wonder whether this be more about how the characters deal with their ordeal, which would intrigue me, or how they slash and hack their way out of the trap, which seemed less interesting? Only time would tell.
It turns out that the show does both, and does each well. The fights are pretty cool, with neat animation. Mentions of concepts like 'switching' show that some knowledge of MMORPGs is being employed here, which is interesting, at least to someone like me who doesn't know much about them. Kirito's comment that "Some people would just rather play villains" was neat. It tells us a little about the psychology of playing these games. The story sometimes seemed to drift along in a dreamlike manner, leaping from event to event which take place months apart (It turns out that the first season of the story takes place over the course of something like three years while the second takes place within a week or so). Once or twice the story goes off on an amusing tangent then gets serious again. Comedy plays a small part but is by no means absent. I was curious about what, if anything, was being done in the real world to help the players trapped within SAO, but we aren't told anything about that. The story is told entirely from the perspective of the players, and they have no idea what anybody might be doing to help them. The fact that killing anybody in the game would also kill them in real life handicaps Kirito, and limits what he can do.
The first time I watched SAO, the manner in which it continually jumps back and forth between different storylines confused me. The second time around, I knew more or less what to expect, just went with the flow, watched the episodes in rapid succession rather than a week apart, and didn't notice nearly as many problems. Episode five begins what will be a two episode mystery arc: someone has been murdered, in a manner which ought to be impossible by the rules of SAO as Kirito and his companions understand them. Like a detective, Kirito attempts to figure out who is responsible. This change of mode was fun and interesting. I liked episode seven, where Kirito goes on a little expedition with a cute female swordsmith. It became clear that romance would play a significant role in the plot. It dawned on me that this series would surely be at least 24 episodes long, since an episode like this doesn't really move us any closer to 'winning' the game and breaking out of the SAO world.
Episode 14 really made me sit up and take notice. This was the first of the two season-ending climaxes which come about unexpectedly yet make a good deal of sense when you think about them. After getting used to Kirito and Asuna taking on various challenges within SAO and (not surprisingly) defeating them, all of a sudden something which I had come to assume would never happen really does happen. That implies that this show is daring to take a more difficult but potentially more rewarding route to its conclusion. But solving one problem only creates a new one, which is what the second season addresses (again, in somewhat more of a hurry).
Kirito moves to a second MMORPG, this one set in a fairy-world where people can fly and employ magic. Some intriguing twists are added in episode 17, namely the identity of the fairy girl that Kirito teams up with and how the real world problem regarding Asuna and her arranged fiancee has carried over into this second virtual reality. It seems that the plot of this second half is simpler and therefore perhaps easier to understand and enjoy: Kirito is trying to find Asuna, and doesn't have much time to work with. He cannot afford to be distracted by little quests—well, not as much. For the most part he knows what matters and is cuts to the chase. The first time I watched I liked this second-half plot better than the first one, the second time I liked both equally.
I thought episode 24, which includes the climactic fight between Kirito and the villain, was pretty neat. Kirito basically overpowers the programming of the game through sheer willpower--sort of like mind over matter, but more like mind over virtual reality. He does get some help from an unlikely source. I guess he did pretty much the same thing as at the end of season one (something like 'you can't declare me dead, because I'm not going to play by your rules'!). The story isn't quite over as Kirito must still deal with the villain Suguo in the real world, then reunite with Asuna—actually, this is the first time they've ever met in the real world. I had a lot more fun watching SAO a second time, again probably because I sort of binge watched it rather than watching the episodes a week (or more) apart. This show sets a high standard for trapped-in-virtual-reality anime, a genre it largely created, and few have managed to measure up.
Last updated Tuesday, July 10 2018. Created Thursday, July 12 2012.
|Official Japanese Series Web Site||http://www.swordart-online.net/|