"THIS REVIEW IS SPOILER-FREE"
Isekai has always been one of the most iconic genres in terms of popularity among anime. However, and unsurprisingly, not many of its shows are actually held at the same regard as those from other genres.
The question for this truth ahead came into existence long ago, but still, yet to be answered. Is it because Isekai shows are always labelled with concepts of “trashy, childish and impractical series”, or are they too familiar to viewers in recent years and therefore are not capable of differenciating themselves from others?
Several shows are introduced every year, each portrays an aspect of the genre in its own way, but still retains the similarity of someone being transferred to another imaginary world with several designated purposes. Of course, this notion is not anomalous by now, but when it comes to the year of 2012, not all of us then had already been informed of “What is anime?” to say nothing of the term “Isekai”.
However, little do we know. Since the advent of SAO in that same year, Isekai genre has started a steady development in all aspects, and then somehow soared recently with SAO itself took a partial role of setting the ball rolling for this. Despite being the most popular and beloved anime in 2012, SAO anyhow gradually received one-upping hatred from its own viewers, which has casted plenty of questions with hardly any reasonable answers related to this incredible 180-degree turn.
I have never been such a fan of SAO, but I do not hate it either. This is partly because of the whole novel notions and ideas Reki Kawahara intending to deliver throughout this franchise. An exceptional VR world of Aincrad that blew us away with its magnificent looks and feels, the creative and innovative concept of introducing future technology (which is yet to be a daydream at the present) right in year 2012 as well as the hidden message that, on behalf of game addicts, expressed their inquiry about “What does real world mean?”. Such hilarious and foolish this type of question is. Howbeit, being dedicated enough to scrutinize this from its core in order to figure out the most reasonable answer is not a simple task. Deprivation of dedication is what thwarting us.
So, what brings about this lack among Isekai genre, or to be more specific, among SAO franchise?
One of the biggest problem SAO presented from its own beginning is that, it just followed one same pattern throughout the whole series, when we see an overpowered protagonist having to save the day and defeat an antagonist, who is unsurprisingly stronger than him. Such simply predictable the plot is, from which a sense of boredom may result, and likewise turn a beloved series into a total disaster just in one episode. I’m not saying that SAO 1 didn’t acquire numerous incredible potentials which were just as promising as it should have been when its first trailer was released. Indeed, this franchise was one of the most invested ones among Isekai genre with fascinating characters, spectacular animations, breathtaking scenes and full epic soundtracks. The pacing was somewhat reasonable and matched the plot fairly precise, thereby grabbed the viewers’ attention and made them follow the path of their hyperactive hero until the very end. Having said that, the show hardly introduced any breakthrough twists and turns with lackluster details, which really blurred the presence of some utmost fight scenes that ever existed in anime. These, together with unnecessary fan-service scenes, possibly served as rationales behind the hatred given to this franchise and turned it into a whole series designated for children thereafter.
Unfortunately, SAO 2 followed that same path of failures.
Numerous arguments have been made around this downturn and the most controversial one is “The fall of Isekai genre”. This is partly due to the rapid explosion of Isekai shows, in number not quality, during the next few years, which caused viewers to suffer a blasé sense about anime as well as their desperate need for a fresh alternative mainstream. This was probably one of the darkest ages among the anime history, but it practically left a huge question mark onto Isekai producers, whether they should reform the whole appearance and comply with the changing majority, or follow the same pattern that once succeeded as to gain back their position in everyone’s eyes?
This Gordian Knot has surrounded the genre for nearly a decade and is yet to be untied, with immediate submergences of almost every Isekai shows released after the year of 2013 till this day. Having said that, several ones which did not suffer from this seemingly inevitable obstacle, “RE: Zero” for instance, have actually proposed a solution for which the whole genre has always wanted, and thereby make the grand escape all away from this contradict reality.
Few have successfully managed to handle this, however.
And it may come even more amiss to many of you that amongst these, SAO is the franchise which I believe to have completed the most compelling transformation.
Before we enter the main part of this review, I just want to make out some point. I was first intended to encapsulate this latest season of SAO in a short and concise review, but the further and deeper look I gave onto the story, the more I realised the injustice of criticising it without touching on the whole journey it took to get to this very momment. SAO: War of Underworld (WoU), without a doubt, is one of the best long-lasting Isekai series in the anime world by far and the anticipation given keeps one-upping day by day, which is unexpected for a franchise exposed to that amount of love and hatred. And, believe or not, the time has come for SAO to rise from the ashes, stronger than ever.
The storyline, perharps, is the aspect should be introductorily considered for this. It is quite straightfoward with decent amount of information and frames displayed on each episode, therefore gives viewers a sense of being captivated with the flow of the show and somehow gets them curious about what is coming next. This, however, hardly appeared in any earlier seasons of the franchise. SAO 1 and 2 did have some great storytelling at first but then declined slowly afterwards due to the appearance of some “filler” episodes and fan-service scenes, which had no point to make with the entire story.
Another point worthed noting is that, the show has incredibly expanded from the very beginning, no matter how many new ideas and concepts coming out each season, it still manages to retain its unique “VR world versus real world”. The whole franchise has heavily relied on this premise, with the introduction of future technologies, from the Nerve Gear to The Seed, to its prequel AmuSphere and lastly SoulTranslator, which was the basis for the whole Underworld to operate. The way they are presented plainly matched the storyline, and therefore did not make viewers feel overwhelmed for such a lot of novel concepts to adhere to.
The pacing of this season is what also gain it a plus mark. 12 episodes, when they end, just feel like that same amount, no more no less, but are stil able to convey the whole meaning of the story with scarcely misunderstandable details. Additionally, the season is far less dependent on random and meaningless comedic moments, none in fact, which offers a more fluent and cohesive plot ever than what used to exist in two first seasons.
Animations and visuals are still astonishing as always, breathtaking sceneries of the Underworld together with the absolute contrast of ones belong to Dark Territory somehow stuck into my mind the scenerio of our real world future if we continue to destroy our planet. Aside from these, SAO WoU undoubtedly possesses winsome original soundtracks which are highly memerable and play an immense role on inculcating the series itself into its viewers. What’s more, alluring character designs as well as highly genuine expressions on their faces absolutely got viewers interested further into their development, but we will get to that in a bit.
Let us take a deeper look into the content. The main story is still surrounding our protagoinst Kirito as he entered the Underworld created by RATH in order to seek for an AI named Alice and take her with him to the end point of Underworld then log two of them out. This has contrastly grown however, with Kirito having his Fluctlight damaged and is now incapable of moving or communicating with others. Several altercations have been made around this twist, but mostly emphasizes on the incentive this will give to other characters of the show to take the spotlight, and the studio incredibly make use of this.
We have Alice now having to make a difficult decision of proceeding to protect Underworld and its inhabitants as an Integrity Knight or to take a step down and protect Kirito as a more-than-close friend. The dilemma given to such a special AI like her initially seems to be overwhelmed, but as her own character has been strikingly well-established, she somehow manages to equally contribute to both side of the coin.
Furthermore, we get to see our supportive characters having been exposed to us for a decent amount of time throughout the season, and when it ends, they really leave an impression on us of not ceasing as “supporting” but really being an essential part of the entire story as well as making it lively and captivating. This absolutely reminded me on the second season of AoT where we got to see some important characters later on (Krista, Reiner, Bertold, Ymir) being put to more than enough amount of screen times and secure their spot throughout the story. The improvement in this aspect really shines as a spotlight itself of the whole season, which assures that the show is now independent on the only one protagonist to carry it along, because the rests all can.
Whilst the story plus the character design of this season simply outweighed its former in many facets, one of the biggest issues with it, and surprisingly has not changed since the first one, is the world building. I’m not saying this season’s world building has partly surpassed the prequels, but we need to concentrate deeper on the actual premise of it. What I mean by that is Underwold, unlike orther VR worlds introduced throughout the franchise, is created and operated on the basis of what is inside its designer’s mind. Trees, mountains, fields and rivers all exsist in the same way their creators want them to be, or in other words, they somehow mimic that exact same trees or mountains appeared in the creators’ memory. As for its inhabitants, they depict real world’s people but in another point in history, around the mid 15th, 16th century. The dwellers live the lives of humankind and are obligated to obey the rules given, and consequently pave the way for a whole society to flourish.
However, can this exact same scenerio applied to those come from the Dark Territory? This is one real big issue that SAO so far has not given any clues. The Underwold’s inhabitants must follow the given rules notwithstanding any contexts and in fact are utterly unable to break them. As a result, this raises more questions about the existence of Dark Territory. Who constructed it, why would ones do that and especially how could it be done if RATH had taken control of Underworld since its very first beginning? Another question that should be raised during the season but it has somewhat to do with our real world is that why wouldn’t an AI question the fact that they are the production of human’s hands and are roaming in an imaginary world but just simply accepted it in the same way that Bercouli did? Or, if that’s on the table, why are they being created, what purposes do their creators want them to serve? Or something else to those effects.
Furthermore, the origin of this region was succintly mentioned in the light novel, which should have also been presented in the anime from the very first. This actually cast a doubt onto the reliability of the show’s world building in the eyes of viewers, and even though A-1 Picture actually completed a great job on giving viewers insights into SoulTranslator, the basis technology behind the operation of Underworld, this is just superficial in comparison to the urgency of comprehending what is truly happening at the momment.
Taking everything into consideration, SAO WoU has fully evolved into something entirely new which we have never predicted when we first watched it, and thereby changes its name from a whole childish Isekai show to one that deserves to be celebrated by all walks of anime fans and manages to distinguish itself from other series among the genre. The show is not flawless technically, but as it dares to stand out right in front of the viewers and affirmes its position in the anime world line, we should probably give it another shot. SAO now is no more a long-lasting series that we all want it to end as soon as possible, but the one that worthed our time waiting every week with definite hype, excitement and anticipation, which may be a bit uncommon among Isekai genre. However, because it has somehow been able to not only overcome the challenges given to the entire genre but also keep itself up a notch, this may be the case.
It’s unsurprising by now that SAO is truely worth watching and deserves the wait for an epic finale.