By Jared Cyhowski / February 7th, 2013
*Spoilers Follow For The Entire Series*
Seriously. After covering every episode of Sword Art Online for Operation Rainfall I have come to realize that this is a series made popular by cute girls and an interesting premise, with some narrative value adding to the mix. People have been pronouncing SAO as the best anime ever, best of 2012, and question how anyone could not like it. Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy the series for what it is (minus the jarringly-different second half), and I would like to see more of it made. But it’s time to take a minute and think about Sword Art Online from a macro level. Let’s do this.
Sword Art Online will always be remembered for its split storyline structure, divided by the now-famous episode 14 (“The End of the World“). Series protagonist Kirito determined that Heathcliff simply could not be anyone other than Kayaba Akihiko. This throws a wrench into the entire plot, as Kayaba was not meant to be defeated until the 100th level. It was a twist that fans of the novels could see coming a mile away, while those new to the story were likely thrown off guard. Sword Art Online had something going up until this point, but sadly everything changed once Kirito awoke from his two-year slumber.
The first six or seven episodes can be looked at in two ways: One, we received a display of short stories that helped to establish the world of SAO or two, we were given a random mess of horribly-paced glimpses into the adventures of Kirito the wandering “beater”. I tend to lean somewhere in the middle, as I enjoyed the majority of these episodes. Yet I can’t deny how awkward it was to jump ahead in time and somehow miss what happened to Kirito along the way. We receive the origin story of Kirito’s black cloak, see his depressed nature when he fails to protect a guild of players, and then we see a few harem-like episodes with Silica and Lisbeth. The point at first was to show how much Kirito was to be a “solo” player, but then we rapidly see his characterization change to having an unspoken need to be around others. Thus we receive the love story between Asuna and Kirito.
In my opinion this is arguably the best part of Sword Art Online. Beginning with episode 8 (“The Sword Dance of Black and White“), we see something more human in a series known for its digital premise. A solo player who tends to keep to himself discovers love with a young woman that has the confidence to lead in the front lines. At first Kirito seems to be a bit standoffish to the relationship, but thankfully the creators of the show decided to alter his perception of how things should be.
The main purpose of this small arc, of which certainly includes Yui, is that even in a digital world players can feel emotions such as love and sadness. One theme that takes hold is how so many remaining players have become accustomed to the life of SAO. At one point Asuna and Kirito have a conversation about the possibility of living within the game’s world for a longer period of time so that nothing would change. But the reality in the back of their heads, the gnawing fact that their real-life bodies are decaying in the real world, is evidence enough that they must continue on to escape Kayaba’s reign of a controlled situation. Though it’s clear that Kirito and Asuna were satisfied with making love with one another in-game, and that Kirito was surely impressed with Asuna’s in-game cooking skills, I think they truly wanted to be with one another in reality so that they could experience the naturalness of a physical relationship.
But things can’t be so easy, right? Just as Kirito defeats Kayaba and expects to wake up in a world with the real-life Asuna, he learns that she never woke up. If we halt on this premise alone it’s actually fairly interesting, and better yet we receive a new villain who affects Kirito in two ways. Sugou has held back three hundred players from logging out of Sword Art Online so that he can perform science experiments with their brains, and he also has some form of marriage arranged with Asuna. Kirito can’t allow for either of these things to happen, so after some narrative development he logs into ALfheim Online to resolve the situation.
But in my opinion this is where the series goes south and loses the spectacle of what we knew as Sword Art Online. Sugu, Kirito’s cousin who secretly loves him, was almost an interesting character until the opening theme for the second half clearly defines her as a piece of fan service. Her online counterpart in ALO as Leafa was also interesting at first, and her purpose as Kirito’s guide to the World Tree seemed to be standard enough. But the series leaves its entire former roots to the side and dives into a full narrative adventure with a goal in mind. Up until episode 14 we never really knew what was going to happen and we were kept on our toes in a deeper story about survival. Yet everything after Kirito wakes up is about him rescuing Asuna, our poor Asuna who can’t do a damn thing for herself anymore.
Wait, what? That’s right. Asuna, the strong-willed and sexy female lead in SAO part one is reduced to a princess in a locked-up cage. The few scenes she’s shown in are there explicitly for fan service moments. I’m sorry but a scene where Asuna stands up with a narrow and determined look on her face does not qualify as plot development, it qualifies as useless filler. And that episode where she actually escapes her cage to only be molested by some tentacle monsters? Yeah, that was crap too.
Unfortunately Kirito’s adventures in ALfheim Online are not that exciting beyond the occasional battle scene. I will admit that the battle scene between General Eugene (I still can’t believe that’s his name) and Kirito was probably one of the most epic moments of the entire series, but it doesn’t make up for a rather bland story. And while his adventures with Leafa are fun for a short while, the dramatic irony that she is indeed his younger cousin wears off before the series’ creators are fully able to use the dramatic reveal. She was thrown in as a sort of love triangle distraction for the longest time, only to be thrown to the side even after Kirito learned of her forbidden attraction.
Every aspect of ALO, from Kirito having ridiculous stats to Leafa leading him to Asuna’s location, all seemed to be a bit flat in narrative design. Everything was fairly predictable. But along the way I realized that all of this was for a particular reason. It was all for Kirito to reach Asuna no matter what it would take, which isn’t really that hard to see right? This isn’t some form of amazing revelation that I am presenting to you, it’s just a standard known fact that presents ALfheim Online as a straight line narrative. Though even after a ten-episode build of dramatic irony, the situation between Kirito and Leafa never really resolved itself. Yeah it can be argued that Sugu somehow came to realize that she could never be with her cousin, but we never really get Kirito’s side of the story. It actually makes future scenes awkward, like the battle scene between him and Leafa where they end up spinning together in mid-air. Or how about that really awkward scene in the final episode where they dance together? Asuna’s been freed from Sugou’s reign and we see more development between Kirito and Sugu than we do with him and Asuna. Some may find these to be minor gripes, or maybe you were a fan of Sugu all along, but in a series where everything has turned into Kirito rescuing his beloved I would expect to see more of him and her together once she has been saved.
I look back at Sword Art Online with a stronger memory of stories being adapted into animation from Kirito’s nightmare of being logged into a game where if you die, you will also die in real life. This concept seemed so much more real, more alive, when compared to a less-realistic story driven by destination and boring premise. The first half of the anime series gave us the building blocks to show us the fundamental rules of the game and why it was important for Kirito to live. The series transitioned into a love story between him and Asuna, who slowly eliminated his need to be a solo player. But then, to drive the series for another 10 episodes, Asuna is locked far away from Kirito’s reach and belittled to a damsel in distress. The value in these episodes let me down because I was expecting something more daring, more thrilling like the early episodes I had become accustomed to. While some elements were fun to watch, such as the battle scenes and the moment Sugu finally realized her sad truth, the series fell to a sub-par level of storytelling. Here’s to hoping that future installments of the Sword Art Online series will take its values back to the roots of not knowing exactly what to do with itself, because the outcome is that more entertaining indeed.
Do you agree with my thoughts or do you find more value in the second half of Sword Art Online? Let us know in the comments.
Sword Art Online is available via streaming at Crunchyroll.com.
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