Once in a while, there comes along a title (be it movie, book or anime) that takes the audience by storm, sweeping numerous off their feat, leaving several with a bad aftertaste in their mouth and making a few pass the work off as ‘average’ or ‘mediocre’. Online communities, forums, chat rooms and every other nook and corner of the internet known to the man turn into arenas of debates, discussions, fanboyism/fangirlism and flaming. It’s apparent that when something is popular, it doesn’t always get to bath in praises. With the acclaim, comes a sheer amount of criticisms. Also, it goes without saying that popularity doesn’t necessarily equate to quality.
Sword Art Online, abbreviated as SAO from this point on, is no exception.
SAO, the anime adaptation of a series of light novels of the same name by Kawahara Reki, has been the much talked about show of the Summer and Fall 2012 seasons, and taking into consideration the incredible hype surrounding it with reviews of mixed sorts, it’s likely to stay that way for quite some time. Keeping in mind the vogue of MMORPGs and the demand for something ‘captivating’, the team behind SAO attempts to bring an enticing work to the table by executing the intriguing premise of ‘players trapped in a VRMMORPG where death equates to death in real life and the only way out is to clear the game’. Unfortunately, SAO fails at many levels which is a shame because when the anime kicked off with the highly anticipated first episode, all seemed well and it gave the vibes of something truly worth spending your time on but then it does a flip and from this point, things go awry. And here we have it— one of the most controversial anime of the recent years.
Before proceeding with the review, let’s get one thing straight. I have not read the original source material— the light novels, that is. Hence, I’m not going to draw any comparison between that and the anime. With that out of the way, let’s keep the ball rolling.
SAO on the surface has a fairly interesting premise, no doubt, and it’s executed well to some extent or so did it initially seem. The very idea of a large number of people logged into a VRMMORPG with the intention of embarking on a virtual reality adventure but only to be struck with utter horror as they’re faced with the shocking truth of the game has been put into effect quite satisfactorily in the first episode. It’s pretty much what I’d call an excellent start. However, SAO effortlessly manages to send all my expectations and enthusiasm down the drain for it takes the show only an episode or two to reveal its true colours followed by the disappointment it has in store.
So, what goes wrong? Well, many things.
Following the Great Beginning, the first arc decides to take a detour and invests on a few episodes dealing with side stories in which our protagonist Kirito gets acquainted with one girl per episode and ends up rescuing her from a jam. This is precisely why I like referring to this bunch of side stories as ‘episodic harem’ wherein the primary heroine of the story and Kirito’s love interest Asuna is assumed to be constant and the other girls are variables. Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, these side stories have very little to nothing to contribute to the series as a whole. Admittedly, they equip the viewers with some clever, little details here and there regarding how the game world works but they hardly have any bearing to the overall plot. The primary goal of these filler-like episodes appears to be that of giving our hero clad in black an opportunity to flaunt how much of a chick magnet he is and how he has it all that takes to be the coolest dude in this world made up of zillions of pixels. To boot, the characters (read: cute chicks) that appear in these episodes have absolutely no substantial role to play in the story later on. ‘Side’ characters indeed. And SAO knows how to effectively sideline them.
When the arc finally gets itself back on track, it’s only natural to hope that the show will now have something worthwhile to deliver. However, that isn’t the case. If anything, some severe cracks begin to appear as very soon the focus of SAO is the romance between the two leads which is, in one word, cheesy. At this point, opinions are divided. The romance aspect, for some, can be appealing while for others, it can be a major turn off especially if they don’t like the characters involved. It all comes down to personal preference. However, personal preferences aren’t a convincing excuse by any means to overlook the fact that the story, world building and everything else take a backseat for the sake of allowing the two leads to be lovey-dovey in the backdrop of gorgeous sceneries. When the arc does manage to divert its focus on to some ‘serious business’, things look good for a while but with a rather unimpressive ending, the first arc concludes on a pretty bad note in my book.
And then begins the second arc which, to be blunt, is a letdown again.
The second arc or the ALO arc is set within ALfheim Online, a VRMMORPG successor to SAO. Kirito logs in with a mission to rescue his wife (Asuna, duh) from the clutches of an archetypical antagonist who is a disgrace to all the villains in fiction we have come across so far. This arc showcases some really eye candy visuals but that’s pretty much its only redeeming point. It doesn’t have anything much going on except for a few climactic action sequences now and then with intense battle music playing in the background that last only for a while. Not to mention, there’s another girl added to Kirito’s harem.
And then the hilarity ensues.
The manner in which ALO is brought to a close is appalling to say the least and at the same laughable because it doesn’t hesitate to use the much notorious plot device dues ex machina, ruining whatever hopes there were for the final confrontation with the villain. The poor conclusion could be excused if it was handled more cleverly and convincingly but a blatant ass pull is by no means satisfactory. If anything, it only proves that the writer faced a dead end and was unable to think of anything better and creative, and expected the audience to swallow down whatever he could come up with, no matter how downright stupid it is.
Among all the other things, the most easily noticeable flaw without a doubt is the execution of the plot itself which is all over the place. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out after a couple of episodes that SAO suffers from poor pacing and inconsistency. It appears to be highly indecisive as to what exactly it wants to do and how to get it done. This is mostly evident in the first arc which is incredibly rushed at many parts. There’re timeskips and the next thing you realize is that the characters have already cleared quite a lot of floors while keeping us, the viewers, in the dark. This makes the plot disjointed, prevents any sort of correlation to the win-or-die situation that the characters have been put into and gives everything the feel of it being nothing more than a piece of cake. The struggle for survival and a sense of urgency are hardly felt even though the lives of the characters have been said to be literally at stake. The episodes dealing exclusively with the lead couple taking some time off for a ‘vacation’ and subsequently ending up building a virtual family can further make one wonder: Why are they so carefree when they’re supposed to chalk out plans to beat the game and make a quick escape? To put it in other words, the arc has a tendency to go off track. It lays down for itself one thing but ends up doing something else altogether. It’s uncertain as to whether to make itself come across as a story of survival set within a VRMMORPG or as a fluffy love story. In due course, it decides to juggle with both but doesn’t get either of them rightly done. Not to mention, when the situation demands it and the writer goes out of any creative ideas to move the story forward, the characters’ actions are made to contradict the established game mechanics and the only reasoning that’s provided for such miracles is ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way, and there’re times when true love and determination can overcome any obstacle in the game’.
Now, for those who look for substance in any given story, it’s almost a fact that no amount of fanservice, eye candies, self-insertion or guilty pleasure factors can possibly compensate for a substandard storytelling. Yet that’s what SAO tries to do. It brings in all the aforementioned elements to sugarcoat its sloppy writing. On the whole, there’re no sincere efforts made to incorporate details that would contribute in some way or the other to world building or characterization whatsoever.
While the poor quality of the writing is the key factor, the other aspect that contributes considerably to the mediocrity of the show is the characterization. Simply put, SAO’s characters are bland. Essentially, the show has its focus on only two characters: Kirito and Asuna. The others are just there; mere devices to move the story forward. And a few have nothing to contribute to the plot at all. For instance, the ones featuring in the side stories.
Let’s talk about the protagonist Kirito first.
An unsocial, reserved yet headstrong player who knows how to get things done his way and is determined to beat the game. That’s basically how Kirito is portrayed in the beginning. At this point, he seems like a good riddance from the generic wimpy male leads that have become so much of a commonplace in anime. A proficient main character who knows how to deal with things is something refreshing to witness once in a while. Unfortunately, the impressions didn’t last for long. In desperate attempts to make his character more ‘appealing’, Kirito is depicted as a ‘perfect’ being which leaves his character with little plausibility and much insipidity.
He’s a guy with a heart of gold.
He has an ‘ideal’ girlfriend/wife.
He’s admired by those around him.
He can ‘unintentionally’ make every other woman adore him, romantically or otherwise.
Thus, he serves as a mere self-insert character for wish-fulfilment and at the end of the day, there’s nothing ‘individualistic’ about him. Gary stu is probably what describes his character the best, and if paired with the Mary sue of the show, we get a lead couple that seems to have been cut out straight from a tacky romance fanfiction.
Yes, when I mentioned ‘Mary sue’, I was referring to Asuna.
Asuna as the female lead is as stereotyped as they come. Much like Kirito, her character is heavily idealized. She’s pretty, popular, kind, caring and every other man wants to have a piece of her. Oh, and did I mention her cooking skills that level up with each passing day? After all, her foremost duty is to cook for Kirito and show how much she cares for him. While initially she’s portrayed as a strong, independent female player with a tsundere-ish attitude, it doesn’t take her long to make a transition from that to a deplorable damsel in distress, requiring her knight in black robe to come to her rescue whenever she’s in a bind. Kirito fighting her guild leader to earn her some time for honeymooning is laughable to say the least. It soon becomes apparent that she doesn’t have much of a role other than serving as the love interest of the protagonist and being the object of fanservice now and then which might be successful in pleasing the male audience somehow but that alone can’t make up for her badly written character. In fact, the other female character the show cares to put the spotlight on also ends up becoming the target of fanservice but doesn’t have anything else going on for herself.
If you haven’t guessed it already, I’m talking about Kirito’s beloved imouto.
Throughout the first arc, the writer must have had been itching to include a love triangle in the story but couldn’t find a potential candidate to get the job done. As the first arc comes to a closure and the second arc begins, he grabs the opportunity, puts Asuna behind the bars (so that she’s not an interference in what he’s attempting to do) and introduces Suguha, Kirito’s cousin sister. The sole purpose of creating her character, it appears, is to make way for a generic love triangle and melodrama. Suguha loves her cousin but can’t do anything about it because he loves Asuna. That’s the bitter truth. Hence, she looks up to a certain someone she happens to befriend within ALO and hopes that he’d be able to sooth her aching heart. However, she gets trolled… badly. This, in turn, leads to more drama that’s somehow supposed to be heart wrenching but it isn’t.
The remaining cast consists of two antagonists, both failing to make any sort of impression though the one making his debut in the second arc can be a good comic relief at times, and a bunch of side characters that wouldn’t have had made any difference even if they hadn’t existed. The bottom line is, the characters of SAO are a half-baked lot devoid of any depth or development. They could’ve perhaps turned out to be interesting if they were more fleshed out but who cares about that as long as they appeal to the intended target audience?
Onto the technical aspects now.
In the department of visuals, A-1 Pictures does a pretty good job. Within the game, the vast tracts of greenery, the beautiful cities during the night, the castles… they’re all a pleasure to behold. The animation is also well-handled for the most part. Initially I wasn’t much pleased with the character designs but they gradually grew on me, and I personally find a few characters like Asuna, Heathcliff and Lisbeth to be very well designed.
The music is composed by one of the most renowned composers in the anime industry, Yuki Kajiura. While the soundtracks aren’t bad by any means, none of them stand out much except the one that plays during combat/intense scenes. In fact, that’s the only track that can be heard playing most of the time in the entire show. A few other tracks, though they aptly fit the scenes they’re played in, are easily forgettable. The same applies to the opening and ending themes. Nothing groundbreaking there. I’m a fan of almost all of Kajiura’s works and if compared to her previous works, SAO’s music is lacklustre to say the least and so much so that it’s hard to believe Kajiura is the composer to begin with.
To wrap up the review, SAO had the potential to be something good but that potential goes down the drain due to poorly executed plot and bland characterization. It starts off in a satisfactory manner but goes downhill thereafter. Nevertheless, it can be an entertaining ride if one keeps their expectations low and swallows down whatever it has to offer without questioning anything. One of the reasons why SAO has been a letdown is the anticipation the majority had for it prior to its airing but that’s justified since the light novel series from which the anime is adapted is one of the most popular ones out there.
[Edited on March 20, 2017]