Review: Sword Art Online (Anime)

It was the final week before my big move. The majority of my time during this time was concerned with tying up loose ends and seeing various persons “for the last time.”

On one of these days, a day was devoted to spending time with an old buddy of mine, and in true geek fashion, we sought out a new anime to watch on Netflix.

“Hmm,” said my friend, sitting at the dining table with a laptop in front of him. “What’s this? Sword Art Online, have you seen that one?”

“No,” I replied, an arm’s length away in the kitchen, fumbling with what would amount to our meal of the day. “Saw the title and cover but haven’t tried it yet.”

“It’s got four stars. Want to check it out?”

“Four stars, eh?” I said, doubtful. “Fine, why not?”

We watched the first episode, found ourselves hesitantly intrigued by the premise. We established that we would give the second episode a chance, and then the third. My buddy and I looked at one another, mutual understanding passing between us.

“I have an idea,” said he.

We promptly left the apartment to run out and acquire a monstrous bottle of cheap sake, returning to eagerly resume an anime series that, to both of our surprise and delight, turned out to be pretty damn good.

There are some spoilers to be had here, but mostly for the sake of sharing impressions.

A little backstory on my experience with anime. I’m no otaku, so I don’t claim to be any kind of expert on this subject. I consumed a lot of anime and JRPGs in my younger days, but when it came to it, I’ve had people look at me and say, “You’re not an otaku, Jesse. You’re just a nerd.”

Just thought I’d share.

Anyway, I haven’t had the patience to really sit and watch an anime series in some time. Most anime I come across follows the same tropy storylines filled with recognizeably cookie-cutter archetypal characters – and I won’t say that Sword Art Online is bereft of this. Let’s just say that it takes something particular to really catch my attention. SAO did so, mostly on account of the Gaming and Fantasy theme they have going on, but we found ourselves surprisingly engaged by some of the subplots and ideas explored.

If you’re yet unfamiliar with Sword Art Online, the story begins with with the official launch of a Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (VRMMORPG). Think World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2, Star Wars: The Old Republic – the difference being a piece of hardware simply called NerveGear, which echoes of the Occulis Rift. It’s essentially the kind of game that people like me used to dream about existing. No doubt millions of other gamers as well, no doubt the target audience for this series.

Then there’s that plot element where users (about 10,000 on that first launch day) discover that if they die in game, the NerveGear will fry their brains, killing them in reality. The only way out of the game is beat it, so the race is on. At which point my comrade and I exchanged glances once again, coming to an agreement that getting stuck in such a fantasy realm probably wouldn’t be so bad.

There was, in fact, a large body of players who became so accustomed to living in the game world – after the first 2,200 or so deaths in the first month – that they resigned themselves to never escaping. It became the new normal, while their bodies remained hooked up to NerveGear and IVs in (presumably) hospital beds. For the first half of the series, no one has gotten out and no external messages have penetrated the server.

Now, normally I’d be hesitant to invest in an anime like this, simply on account of the main character being a 14-year-old, which in writer speech means the target demographic is a younger audience. This series is undeniably shōnen, a term for manga/anime that can be best summarized by wikipedia:

…a popular demographic of Japanese comics, and often features a teenage cast as well as a combat based plot while exploring themes of protecting those you care about, understanding each other and developing friendship/comradery.

Sword Art Online does not fall short on any of these terms, and while I find nothing inherently wrong with these things, I’m just generally not attracted to such stories. Yet there were surprisingly dark moments scattered throughout the series – suicides, characters you find yourself liking getting killed off early, and a pretty damn despicable villain.

Bottom line is that if you aren’t, or weren’t, a gamer, much of this anime will likely be uninteresting. I’ve heard how the premise is really not all that different from another series known as .hack, so originality goes out the window. On the other hand, it’s often easy to forget the characters interacting with each other are all avatars, and maybe it was the sake talking, but the touching moments hit me right in the feels.

That and I am a self-confessed sap and hopeless romantic, so that factors in too.

This is not a story about the mind-bending exploration of A.I. or the realm of the digital, as seen in Ghost In The Shell or Lain, nor is this about epic adventures in a fantasy realm a la Record of Lodoss War.

They do, however, explore a number of interesting online-gaming themes. Falling perfectly in line with the shōnen genre, we are faced with the question of: “Are the feelings I develop for someone online real?”

The idea of what kind of person you play in an online game reflects your true colors is revisited several times. I found one of the most interesting mini-plots to be a murder mystery. There’s this real-world married couple, and the wife is killed in-game — meaning of course her real-world body died as a result. It’s eventually revealed that the husband had her killed because, outside the game, she was “…the perfect wife. Pretty. Submissive.” But in-game, unbound by the restrictions of conventional life, she was able to blossom. She was strong, brave, independent. The husband hated it, seeing it as though the woman he had loved had died, replaced by something else.

Well done, series. The fact that this opinion was pretty much regarded with disgust by the other characters is pretty progressive, especially for Japan.

We watched the entirety of the series in two days, which is something I ordinarily wouldn’t do, let alone mention in public, except that the experience, shared with an old comrade, made it worthwhile. The idea of binge-watching anything is strange to me still, since it screams “consumer.” I rather prefer get into binge writing or binge editing.

Sword Art Online isn’t mind-blowing, isn’t amazing, isn’t the best anime ever — in fact I’ve read that it’s rather overrated. Perhaps so. But I liked it, and I found myself amazed, at myself, for the range of emotions the story provoked out of me.

That, says I, is what makes a good story.

…And then the second half of the series rolled around, and the experience started going downhill.

Basically, it felt like the series (25 episodes) was actually two separate seasons. Halfway through, the hero defeats the game, and SAO users are set free. But there’s a new VRMMORPG out there in which the love interest is still trapped, so it falls to the hero to dive back in and get her out for reasons. This time around, the new world is fairy-based; players can fly, they still use NerveGear, but there`s no stakes this time around. In-game death doesn’t mean real-world death anymore; the only thing keeping us in the audience rooting for the main character is so he can Save The Imprisoned Girl and defeat the Big Bad holding her there.

I suppose the most interesting stuff coming out of the second half was actually the real-world ramifications of Sword Art Online. The world (as in, mostly Japan) found itself beset by a small population of peculiar people whose bodies and minds were shaped by their 2.5 year long period trapped in a digital fantasy realm. Some users were small children, and a few years could mean 1/3 or 1/4 of their lives. Formative years.

Adjustment, or readjustment, to the real world would be akin to PTSD in many people. This would have made a more interesting story, but no — instead the second half of the series focuses mainly on the awkward one-sided romantic feelings that the hero’s adopted sister (who is his cousin) develops for him. Thankfully the developers did not take this in an even more uncomfortable direction, if one were to take that factor out, then there’s suddenly almost nothing left to half or a quarter of a series.

A shame.

Some pretty sick art, though. This here is a tree.

The ending left a sour taste of disappointment in my mouth, especially since things started off so great. Apparently there’s a Season 2, but I think I’ll be skipping that. The music wasn’t half bad, either; I confess having had the first 15 seconds of the opening theme as an earworm.

All in all, though, I feel a familiar feeling when something I enjoy ends. At the end of a great book, or game, or movie or show, there lingers a sense of emptiness. That sounds a lot more dramatic than it actually is, but personally I hate unfinal endings.

The most satisfying endings to an anime, you ask? Not counting Studio Ghibli or other standalone anime: Samurai Champloo, Evangelion (as in, The End of Evangelion), and Death Note (though it took forever for it to end) left me happy.

If you’re into games, fantasy, teenagers going berserk with oversized weapons and the all-too-frequent awkwardness that comes with over-animated young adults, then you’ll likely dig this series. I was really invested for awhile, and despite my willingness to set aside my usual causes for hesitation, the series fell through.

Two out of Five stars. Overrated.



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