2012 has brought us a lot of great Anime. From another to Fate/Zero, it has been a great year so far, and I can’t wait to see what fall/winter will bring us. For now, Sword Art Online is an amazing show airing right now in 2012. I’ve seen Angel Beats, Legend of the Galactic Hero, and Clannad, and dear this show is better than all of them! Well now to the review. Also, I am very aware of the controversial this anime has produced among the community, so please bear with me while reading this review.
Sword Art Online is a pioneer of its genre in that, the source material dates from all the way back in 2002 (.hack// being of the same vintage). This is important to note as with all pioneering feats, there is an initial sense of wonder and hype, followed by disappointment as the same concept is refined and improved upon. To give an example, the Victorians pioneered the underground railway in London, a marvel at its time but it was soon realised that they dug the tunnels too small. The tiny, overcrowded trains of today cannot be appreciated for its breakthrough in technology. SAO, due to its nature therefore shows the same seemingly obvious flaws that only become apparent in hindsight.
With that said, SAO is a fantastic piece of work considering how the author was only a high school student at the time, and how he ventured into previously unexplored territory. The author and the subsequent adaptation by A1 pictures successfully manages to impress the intended audience; the teenage market. This is done through a careful blend of adventure, cliffhangers , pacing, deux es machinas and a good cast of girls.
The show starts off with a highly interesting premise with players in a perfectly modelled virtual reality. Since their consciousness is surrendered to the NervGear hardware, the only way to return to the real world is through the “Log Out” button which has unfortunately gone walkies. We follow the life events of our protagonist, Kirito as he battles his way through his ups and downs, which is not limited to fighting.
Kirito also faces a daunting challenge emotionally, as the stakes are exceptionally high. A death in-game equates to death in real life. These obstacles flesh out the human nature of Kirito’s character in great detail. His behaviour, emotions and actions are closely related to his recent happenings and experiences. Kirito starts off as a social recluse who prefers to limit his interactions with other people. This leads him to shun the cooperative nature of MMORPGs and plays solo. Through a chance encounter, Kirito manages to befriend a group and re-learn the significance of friendship and comradeship, and how that improves his mental well-being. This does not lead to the unrealistic result of Kirito becoming instantly socially adept, as he faces further obstacles and setbacks that push him back to his reclusive old self. Such flaws truly show that Kirito is simply a mere mortal with variable emotions and feelings, which serves to connect with the viewer with empathy. For Kirito is only the strongest player in SAO due to his effort and research, rather than simply being perfect. Only through real experience can Kirito grow as a person, and the growth is closely tied in with the story.
A1 Pictures is to be commended for only highlighting the most significant parts of Kirito’s story as he fights to clear the game. Thousands of hours of level-grinding which was normal in the Everquest era of 2002 (when SAO was written) has given way to achievement caps relating to the hours you play in a day in 2012 (when SAO was adapted). To put it in simpler terms, the firms that make MMORPGs implementing such caps means the community has democratically voted with their wallets that level grinding is far too troublesome and boring.
We are therefore treated to relevant side stories instead of level-grinding filler. Each of these side stories involves an encounter with a supporting cast with wide variations in personalities and nature of the quest. Through the use of variety in the story, not only do we get to see Kirito develop, but also the world. The viewer is introduced to the world of MMORPGs involving Guilds, Raids, Smithing, Conspiracy and even a compelling virtual romance that becomes the foundation of a timely rejuvenation of Kirito’s character. Relationships however, are a two-way street and Asuna’s (the main heroine and Kirito’s girlfriend) worldview is also seamlessly influenced, and improved. The two-way nature of the relationship really makes it convincing, and leaves a lasting impression. The end product is an Asuna, despite her obvious flaws as a human, becomes a character whom many would look up to, due to her dedicated and faithful nature that was born out of hardship.
All of the above really shows that the writers performed an exceptional job. The accurate portrayal of the fickle nature of human emotions, and especially during the tumultuous years of adolescence really brings the show to life. The level of language, and the tones used by the voice actors were highly appropriate. They successfully avoid Kirito sounding like an aged professor with a PhD in SAO, and a realistic mix of rational decision making and emotionally-charged angst is used.
The quality of writing continues with the way the villains are portrayed. The first major villain, Kayaba is an accurate rendition of the genius, lost in his own world, which he seeked to control. He is the prime example of a person termed as a sociopath. The best aspect of him however is not his character itself, but the way he integrated himself into the storyline, and produced the most unexpected plot twist. This twist is a very crafty, and convincing one due to it being totally out of the blue yet in hindsight, perfectly plausible.
The second villain, Sugou on the other hand, is the purest example of a villain in recent times. Villains are meant to be bad, but not all can be successful at being bad and unique at the same time. A recent, highly successful example to compare is Raoul Silva, the highly-acclaimed villain in James Bond’s Skyfall. Not only was Silva bad, he was amusingly bad and obviously received pleasure from just being plain ‘badass’. In SAO, Sugou betters Silva by not only bringing amusement, but also the purest feeling of disgust against the character. In essence, Sugou is the victim of his own success, and the show goes to great extent by detailing his personality and motives. The icing on the cake is when Sugou subjects Asuna to the unthinkable, further solidifying the author and A1’s innovative risk-taking with the series.
Although show is somewhat lacking in all-out battle action which comes across as strange, due to its highly suggestive title; the art of swordcraft, the worry is misplaced. The rarity of such scenes only serves to enhance the excitement during the boss battles. The immersion is further exemplified by the convincing use of light effects during animated scenes. This highly appropriate use of animation technique serves to amplify the effect of each, and every single hacking and slicing motion. Instead of Diablo-style hack and slice spamming, we are treated with the significance of each motion. A1 Pictures have clearly taken on board the mantra of quality over quantity.
Unfortunately, following the mantra means the show tried to cover too much, in too little time. An attempt at too much quality in too little time. SAO attempts to provide a realistic and varied portrayal of the world of MMOGs. They have unfortunately made the pioneer’s mistake of being far too ambitious. Some characters are casted a little too far to the side and that includes those that greatly influenced Kirito’s development being one-episode wonders. This is especially evident in the ‘Aria’ sub-arc where A1 Pictures attempted to cover too much ground in a single episode when Asuna was introduced. Nevertheless, while this may seem detrimental, the flip side is of course, the less intrusive nature of the side cast. This approach avoids the trap of character bloat which other series have fallen into. Despite the blunder with ‘Aria’, Asuna gets the focus she needs later in the series.
The excellent writing and animation is greatly amplified by the renowned composer, Kajiura Yuki who worked on the music. The style of the music resembles her most recent previous work (Fate/Zero), but is sufficiently different to set it apart, reminiscent of the time she worked on Mai-HiME and Tsubasa Chronicles back-to-back. She forgoes her usual techno, and instead utilizes a greater reliance on classic instruments and the orchestra. A highly appropriate decision as the art of swordsmanship and the resulting swordfights are traditional in nature. Despite classical instruments being rather ‘soft’ in comparison with electronic music, Kajiura delivered beautifully with the softer style actually multiplying the effectiveness of the battle scenes. Her mix of opera in the battle tracks only serves to give a sense of ‘epic’, seen in the likes of “The Lord of the Rings”.
It is important at this point to mention that SAO actually has two, highly distinct arcs. The second arc is not a death game, but a race against time. It also gives a much-needed change in pace from the seriousness that hung over the first arc. Unfortunately, the benefits of a slightly light-hearted arc is also its downfall. The sense of urgency from the race against time was not portrayed in the best manner, with Kirito taking seemingly pointless detours, which in actuality was in fact, perfectly reasonable. A1 Pictures disappointed in this regard, disconnecting the viewer with the character’s decision-making. Nevertheless, the detours sets the foundations of Kirito developing in the real world, and explores his relationship with people that are the closest to him. Aside from the minor drawback, the quality of writing is still very good (but not excellent) and the quality of animation and music is maintained.
All in all, the excellence of the individual components (e.g. sound, animation) come together at the end to give the viewer an anime that is pleasant to see, awe-inspiring to hear, and minds in intrigue with the story. A1 Pictures has successfully created an adaptation that entertains a wide variety of audiences. SAO is a must watch for fans of adventure, fantasy, romance and even harem. Even the detractors derived a whole new level of entertainment, expressed in forms not limited to reaction videos on YouTube. The product’s success is clearly seen through pure, objective evidence by means of Blu-Ray sales as viewers have overwhelmingly embraced SAO.
Overall, SAO gets an excellent 9/10. A truly enjoyable series that crosses an extremely wide range of anime fanbases which is no mean feat. It is probably fair to deduct a single point in light of the slight weakness in ‘Aria’ and in the second arc but not any more than that due to the amount of ground that required covering in order to complete Kirito’s development.
Now that I’ve mentioned ‘Aria’, there is another anime of the same name. This series must never be watched, for it involves girls simply rowing boats for 3 whole seasons. Worst of all, a ‘moeblob’ (in other words, ‘moe[brown stuff]’) loli character is introduced, being evidenced by her having an S-tier Zettai Ryouiki. The wise community must avoid such monstrosity going after easy cash and stick to shows of a deep and profound nature, such as SAO.