-- Overview --
The SAO franchise, and particularly SAO II, is a very controversial series. It is disliked by a lot of people, and the complaints are quite damning. For these people the story seems disjointed, the characters make decisions that don’t make sense, and the pacing is all over the place. Those that make such complaints are happy to describe how they think they would act if they ever found themselves in a similar situation. These people generally have something in common. They have either never played any MMOs, or played them very casually. In this I am sorry because they will likely never understand the depth that this anime has to offer beyond a few nice pictures and pretty songs.
This anime, and the entire series, is a love story for and to the MMO players, made by MMO players. That means many, if not most, of the intricacies of the story and characters, and indeed even much of the message fails to come through if you do not have fairly extensive hardcore experience in MMOs. This is unfortunate, because the depth of this anime is on par with some of the greatest stories I have seen in this medium. To make matters more difficult, the story requires a very good understanding of the plot and themes of the first SAO to completely appreciate. It is simply not be well suited for casual watching; little details of vital importance flash for short seconds, often in completely unexpected scenes. Characters do things that are easy to misinterpret unless you can understand out what’s going on in their heads. The relation between the various events are rarely spelled out, leaving you to fill in some of the blanks yourself. All of these are things that make sense if you remember the source material is a book. The anime is very true to the book, and thus it should be watched with the same amount of attention and tolerance that you would put into reading a good novel.
If you can accept the level of engagement required, SAO II is an absolutely wonderful experience. It paints an accurate picture of what those of the mid-2010s thought life would be like in 2025. It covers some of the most important questions that you could ask. It tells a story that knows that it's better to show, rather than tell. Best of all, it does so in a package of impeccable artistic quality; sporting both gorgeous art, and very atmospheric music. This is quite critical for the story. Due to the absence of a novel’s narrator, the series has a penchant of dropping into the point of view of the various characters. This is often the only gateway the viewers have into the mind of the characters. It also helps justify a good bit of fan service; such is the mind of a teenage boy.
The biggest problem that I could really complain about were the occasional inconsistencies across scenes; spelling mistakes, characters in strange positions, and minor bits of continuity strangeness that you might notice on the second or third watch-through.
It's a series that meant to mature and bloom as you understand it better, and in doing what it set out to do it is an absolute masterpiece.
[Spoilers to follow]
-- Story --
Any discussion of SAO II must inevitable be prefaced with a discussion of SAO. This is a plot heavy sequel of a plot heavy anime, and it's simply not possible to understand the various character study arcs without some understanding of the message SAO was trying to deliver. At the core of SAO was the question of "What is Reality?" Eventually it arrived at the answer that your reality was what you made it, within balance and reason. In the process it followed the daily lives of a few perfectly normal people as they went through a dangerous world they could never have been prepared for. It let you see into the lives of two kids that suddenly had to fight for their lives, and mature long before they should have had to. Most of all, it did so in a perfectly believable way that any MMO player can easily relate to.
SAO set the stage for SAO II by introducing the characters and the experiences that brought them together, and then gave way to SAO II to truly study what this meant for each of them. SAO asks, attempts to resolve the question of "What is reality?" Then SAO II picks up this theme by asking the only question that hopes to achieve the same scope and scale. This anime is a thematic study of the question “What does it mean to live and to die?
Everything in SAO II is questioning the meaning of life and death, particularly when it comes to this world that the characters have accepted as being equal to their own reality. Everything from the first arc, which blurs the line between death in the real world, and the virtual, to the last which offers a bittersweet glance at what it means to live life to the fullest. Even the middle arc offers an interesting perspective on how alive the world the characters inhabit really is, and how deep the attachment to this world runs in each of them. Weaving throughout all these themes, the series manages to include a heartfelt romance, a good look at various cultural idiosyncrasies of Japan, entertaining fight scenes, and a variety of worlds each totally different from the other.
-- Characters --
The characters were probably the strongest point of the series, assuming that one took the time to really empathize with them.
Kirito is a normal teenage boy, with normal teenage interests. He’s fascinated with VR technology, and has dreams of realizing his own ideas developed over years in this sort of game. Behind this mask you have a boy who was forced to become a soldier, and bear the burden of thousands. He’s a person that wants to live his life in peace, but is willing to help those in need. He shows a deep attachment to the world that became his home; the world where he met his love. He acts like a person forged on the battlefield; when under pressure he takes charge, and when he is safer he understand the need to rest and plan. He actually shows traces of PTSD, with clear hints that he’s spent quite a while dealing with these matters, either alone or with professional help. He’s also a bit of a pervert, but what would anyone expect. The book makes it quite clear that he an Asuna share a rather intimate relationship.
Along with Kirito the first season introduces Sinon, who is a bit of a "foil" that the story uses to help compare and contrast with Kirito. Like him she had killed someone, but unlike him she never had the experience to deal with the result. Instead she built herself a nearly schizophrenic persona of a quiet sniper running with the rough and tumble gunmen of the world of GGO. As the first arc progresses we get to see as she slowly manages to put her trauma behind her, and recaptures the more friendly and outgoing persona that you might expect of a girl that age. She does fall off in importance once the first arc is over, being relegated to an minor role for the rest of the series. This makes sense when you consider that the Sinon is Kirito’s friend, while the second major arc focuses on Asuna.
This brings us Asuna, arguably one of the most interesting characters in the series. While we are only treated to hints of her problems during the first half of the series, the second half does an amazing job of telling her story. Here we learn that Asuna is facing some serious challenges of her own. Despite her normally happy appearance we get to see that Asuna is troubled by her position in society. As the daughter of influential people she is faced with certain expectations that run counter to what she wants from her life. However, her upbringing, and the cultural gulf between her and her mother makes solving those problems quite difficult. Despite all of that she manages to put on a strong face for all of her friends, even when she finds out that the first female friend to truly understand her is a young girl in the terminal stages of AIDS. In this she acts as a pillar of stability for those around her, protecting her family above all else.
Yuuki is a mirror into Asuna’s character in the same way that Sinon was a mirror of Kirito in the first Arc. Like Asuna, Yuuki strives to protect her friends in the face of insurmountable circumstances. She too puts on a mask of the happy, cheerful girl, even when her reality is a broken body constantly on the verge of death. She works hard, and does her best so that the technology which let her live the last of her days in happiness can help others. With her strength of will she even helps Asuna find the strengths to confront her mother, passes on a legacy that will live on in the VR world, and receives a true champion’s farewell.
Then, we have the "harem." Despite what some chose to see, this is actually a fairly normal a group of friends who have formed a bond akin to family with this alternate world. These are people that lived, bled, killed, and faced sorrow with the main characters. Some of them have traces of an old crush on Kirito, though that is rarely played out beyond exasperated sighs as they watch Kirito and Asuna cuddle in the distance. Nevertheless, all of the members of this group are well fleshed out characters with interesting personalities and unexpected depth. For the most part these characters add a softer, often more comedic edge to the interaction. That’s not too say that they lack serious moments, but unfortunately they simply cannot get the serious treatment that the main characters enjoy.
Finally, I cannot let the review go without bringing up Yui. The character that gets the most complaints for not being human enough, and for her role as a silly diversion. Ironically, Yui is the one that best exhibits what she was meant to; she is an AI, and behaves herself in a consistent fashion with the rules of the universe that we are introduced to. There are even hints to a deeply technical side of her that is very close to Kirito, and helps him in his day to day life. Unfortunately we rarely see her outside a tentative support role, though I believe there is a lot of potential there had the show dared to explore it further.
-- Art & Sound --
There is little to say here. The both the artistic and audio direction were top notch. The studios selected were clearly picked for their ability to deliver a complete package, and I believe they managed to catch the mood and the theme of the series perfectly. The music was quite amazing and thematic, connecting well with the ideas of the show. It’s truly difficult to match the melancholy feeling that the last ending theme evoked when you realize that the song was something shared by Asuna and Yuuki, as the last notes fade out over Yuuki’s memorial.
I will take some issues with the character animations, particularly during dialog. While the backgrounds are always utterly amazing, the characters are often too still, and too simple to really do justice to the backdrop. It’s something that’s fairly easy to forgive given the consistent style, and exciting battle scenes, but it still stands out at times.
-- Enjoyment --
If you are willing to invest some time into this show, and truly dive into the world then it offers an experience few series can match. If you can relate to the experience of farming rare items for weeks on end, of gathering materials for a rare recipe, of spending weeks and months on a new boss, and of meeting friends that will last a lifetime through the screen of the game, this series will speak to you like no other. If you are willing to treat this series with the care and attention given to a book, then you will find an involving and captivating plot. If you can look beneath the surface you will find a deep world full of wonderful characters. Unfortunately if you are just looking for a normal anime experience to fill out your list then you might not even see a glimpse of any of the things I speak of.
-- Overall –
This series completes the package that is SAO. Even if we never see SAO III, I will hold it in my heart as one of the greats.
I would be a fool to claim that this is a show for everyone. Clearly it will not appeal to every person that picks it up. However, I do not believe that this is a shortcoming of any sort. I simply do not see how it could have delivered such an experienced to a wider audience, at least in anime form. Maybe more people might understand it if read from the book, but that’s not really here or there in an anime review. In short, when seen by the target audience, this show offers an experience that matches and even exceeds some of the very best masterpieces of the past decade. For that I give it 10/10, and to those that understand why I raise my glass. May we meet again, and share the stories of the worlds that we have seen.