Sword Art Online

SAO
What a glorious mess. Average should mean unremarkable. Average things can sometimes be worse than bad things, because they can’t make you react. At least something that’s offensively bad makes you angry. Sword Art Online is average because there’s a crappy, overly serious hero’s journey here mixed with a subversive, psychological sci-fi story.

Villains often want to make a change to the world, and that takes the form of destruction. Saving the world means not letting the villain destroy it, whether it’s a senseless bad guy or a specific idea. We rarely meet villains who are creators. We sometimes get the ‘death game’ creators (Saw, Death Race), but all they do is make other people destroy stuff.

Here, we get an actual creator. Our main villain is in a position of God. He created the world, he controls it and he doesn’t let people just easily exit. On paper, this sounds like an exciting adventure which will explore interesting themes like suicide and optimism. Harlan Ellison tackled the God-like character in his brilliant story about mouths and screaming.

Sword Art Online isn’t a death game like the aforementioned films. It’s a real world with slightly different rules. You can die in it just like you can in the real world, but unlike Death Race you’re allowed to do more things than fighting or dying. That’s why it makes sense when some people decide to stop trying to get out of SAO.

Instead of trying to Win at Life, they’d rather slow down and find a few things they like. For some of them, the world of SAO is far more exciting and beautiful. Then again, isn’t that why some people play video games and watch anime? They’re trying to escape from one world to another. Yet when they get trapped in that world, they want to escape back to the real world.

All of this sounds really clever, only there’s no character psychology to give substance to these themes. Akihiko’s motives for creating this world are, what? Just to observe people in action?

When Harlan Ellison created AM, who has the power of God, he tries to think what kind of power can do to someone. In his eyes, it would drive a person insane and made torture people because he got nothing better to do. I kept waiting for something like this in Akihiko, some motive that will make his actions make sense or how creating SAO affects him.

How does all this power affect him? What did he learn from his observations? Maybe he’s like Attack on Titan’s Hanji, a person who’s too caught up in his research to notice people? He delivers some speeches in the end of the arcs, but he might as well walked with a sign that says ‘a winner is you’. That would be funny and more clever.

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Wine bottles from Skyrim make a cameo appearance

It gets worse, though. Akihiko is an interesting character whose psychology was left on the floor of the board meeting. Sugou is just a cartoon. He’s evil for the sake of it. There’s no difference between him and your average Digimon Adventure bad guy, only he doesn’t look as cool. The package comes complete with grand speeches about evil ambitions, mind control research and slug-like creatues who want to molest poor Asuna. Just in case you didn’t get it, the bad guys are ugly slugs.

It was going so well until then. Some complained about the time skips, but I just see focusing on what’s important. The format of ‘This happened, and then this happened’ is boring. Storytelling is choosing what to include and exclude. In those Slice-of-Life-esque episodes, the creators chose stories that will illustrate how the world works and how people behave in it. This is how worldbuilding should be done.

Even the romance section wasn’t terrible. It was actually one of the highlights. A romantic story doesn’t end when the two get together. There’s a story to be told of how their relationships work. These romantic scenes make us care about their relationship because we see it in action. We see them laugh, think about the future and enjoying each other’s company. Put them next to the stories when they deal with death and it’s even more effective. Sachi’s episode remains hard-hitting, and the first episode hints at something unsettling like Digimon Tamers. We even get color schemes that echo the D-Reaper, and you can’t go wrong with that.

Then it degenerates into Rescuing the Princess. Kirito’s a Gary Stu, but it doesn’t become as annoying until that happens. SAO swings from a fun adventure to serious Sci-Fi without notice, which makes it just an admirable failure. When Sugou does his sexual molester stuff, the series just gives up.

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Personaliy + twintails. What a waste

I could tolerate Kirito in a more light-hearted context. He and Asuna are both pretty perfect, but there’s charm to his humble, yet powerful persona. He’s stuck in a show that keeps pointing to depth. Since we never get enough meaningful moments, the Gary Stu problem just makes it obvious how shallow it is.

I found myself more interested in Sugou than Kirito. We never get to see Kirito’s hard work. He’s doing nice things because it’s nice to do them. He never strives for something, but why should he? He’s an alpha male who get a beautiful girl and got some others going after him. He has all he needs in the world. Even the hard re-adjustment to the real world isn’t addressed. He just goes off to rescue the princess.

That’s a static character whose role is to mow down mooks, not to make things happen. Sugou is interesting. He doesn’t just react but acts, creates conflicts and his wants, needs and flaws.

Yet, even when this series gives up on itself you get a moment that reminds you of what it could have been. There’s a harem thing going on, but it’s much less prominent than people say. It also lets us see the rejected character deal with heartbreak and trying to get over it. The incest thing may have been out-of-place, but at least it’s handled well. Suguha isn’t cast aside, but reacts to the heartbreak.

Those moments were enough to make me curious to check the light novels, but the anime is just a collection of good ideas brought down by cliches. It’s Date A Live all over again, only less brave. It’s weird. Date A Live was more obvious in its harem, but it never settled on clear heroes and villains. Sword Art Online is a cool series that gives up on itself, tells the hero to go rescue the princess just because they’re sick of the whole thing. Someday, someone will remake this and fix these flaws. Until then, I’ll sit back and watch people get really angry over this on message boards.

2.5 swords out of 5

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