“If we make it back to the real world, I’ll find you again and fall in love with you again.”
– Asuna, episode 11
Sword Art Online (SAO) has caused quite a bit of controversy being touted as both the best and worst anime of 2012. With large numbers of people at both extremes of the spectrum, I think it’s necessary to get down to the details on what makes Sword Art Online good or bad.
First off, for anyone that has been living under a rock for the past year, Sword Art Online is a 25 episode adventure-romance produced by Aniplex and directed by Atsuhiro Iwakami. The plot summary is as follows (courtesy of MAL):
In the near future, a Virtual Reality Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (VRMMORPG) called Sword Art Online has been released where players control their avatars with their bodies using a piece of technology called Nerve Gear. One day, players discover they cannot log out, as the game creator is holding them captive unless they reach the 100th floor of the game’s tower and defeat the final boss. However, if they die in the game, they die in real life. Their struggle for survival starts now…
The main character, Kirito, is determined to complete the game and return to the real world. Within the game, he meets Asuna, who he develops a relationship with.
First, lets consider what the series did well. SAO managed to combine fantasy and sci-fi seamlessly by making the fantasy component a (virtual) result of the sci-fi component. This merger allowed the series to have monsters and sword fights while the characters maintained the intelligence of modern society. Another aspect that SAO did well in was not getting lost in the details. SAO side-stepped issues of pseudo-science by stating a few facts and leaving out the explanation. An example involved the nerve gear, which apparently had an auto-kill design that not even the government could crack (though they could disconnect it to move you to a hospital), but the series never explained the design.
Likable characters was another strong aspect of SAO. Despite Shinji Ikari’s prominence in the anime world, historically, the emo teenager has never been a popular archetype among anime fans. Rather, the strong-willed and slightly insecure hero has always been the main character of choice, and Kirito fits into that role perfectly. In the face of death, he pushes on with unmatched determination to not only live, but win. Kirito gains a reputation as an unbreakable force. The series then brings him back to human status as he shed tears of hopelessness in front of Suzuha. THIS is how you develop a character, not by chopping off a hand and having him return with attitude (I’m looking at you, Guilty Crown).
If Kirito is the ideal male lead, then Asuna is the ideal female lead. Beauty, brains, and brawn, Asuna has it all; did I mention that she’s an excellent cook? She is just as strong-willed as Kirito and has an even stronger sense of justice. She saves Kirito’s life on occasion, proving herself to be more than eye candy. Her personality is also the type that most guys would drool over: tsundere enough for you to notice, but not exaggerated to the point of annoyance. Asuna is also very devoted as you can tell by the quote at the top; who wouldn’t admire a girl like that? Together, Kirito and Asuna make a very likable pair, which is the highlight of SAO.
Some of the other good things that the series has is the animation, specifically, the battle animation. A lot of anime tend to distort the body or weapons because of all of the action, but SAO still looks great and correctly proportioned. It’s easier to see for yourself than have me explain, so here’s a good clip:
Now for what SAO did wrong. Kirito and Asuna essentially carried the series so I was in disbelief when Asuna was suddenly taken out of the equation and turned into a damsel-in-distress. You wouldn’t take Kurisu out of Steins;Gate or Saber out of Fate/Zero; you don’t lock Asuna in a tower like a Disney princess. With half of the main cast gone, SAO went downhill fast. What about the other characters, you ask? Nearly all of them were inconsequential. Klein, for example, was the first person Kirito met in the game and all he did was show up every few episodes to say “hi”. Most characters had little or no role to play in the story. While Suzuha did end up playing a larger role in the second arc, she was ultimately just another side character as well.
When you see the quote I have at the top of this page, you immediately think of foreshadowing, and for the most part SAO planned things very well. What really irks me is that they laid all of the groundwork for the series – setting up the rules of the world and what can and can’t be done – only to break them in the end. A clear example was the paralysis effect: it was clearly shown that players cannot overcome paralysis even when they’re about to die, but during a boss battle, one person blatently ignored the rules of the game.
The shift from Kirito x Asuna in the first arc to sibling incest in the second arc took me by surprise and seemed out-of-place. For a while, SAO was developing a romantic relationship, then throw in a little sister and you have some fan-pandering on the scale of Ore no Imouto ga Konnani Kawaii Wake ga Nai. The shift in gears makes it awkward for fans who were hoping for a traditional romance.
Something else that really bothered me were the final bosses of the two arcs. The appearance of the first arc boss was sudden and left little room for lead-up, it was almost as if the writer just wanted to get the arc over with. The battle with the final boss of the second arc had far more build-up. These things usually end with an epic show-down, but SAO decided not to have a real battle, leaving me very disappointed.
In summary, Sword Art Online had a wonderful setting with exemplary characters, but it was bogged down with inconsistencies and sudden changes in direction. Simply looking at the main characters and their development, I can see why many consider Sword Art Online to be the best anime of 2012. Then again, looking at the story and its execution, I can also see why many consider it to be a terrible anime. In the end, it’s all up to whether you value character development or plot cohesion more.