So I was working on a review of the anime Tears to Tiara but then I ended up watching and finishing Sword Art Online on Crunchyroll.com and I felt a deep desire to talk about it while it was still fresh in my head.
Sword Art Online is a 25-episode anime based on a still ongoing (as of this writing) Light Novel series by Reki Kawahara first premiering in 2012, making the most recent anime I’ve ever reviewed. Produced by the studio A-1 Pictures it was licensed by Aniplex of America and is scheduled for DVD/Blu-ray release on August 13th. It’s also currently in it’s first run on Americans television on Adult Swim’s Toonami block but it can currently be legally streamed on Crunchyroll, like I said.
Now this is base do a light novel series so that spells trouble right off the bat, especially since it’s still ongoing. I’ve reviewed several anime based on that medium and while they’ve ranged in quality (some awesome, others not so much) the mostly seem to have unsatisfying endings in common to leave off on either cliffhangers or otherwise imply further adventures that never seem to happen. Even Baccano!, one of the best anime of all time, did this. Seeing as of this weekend there will be thirteen books in the series and this cartoon only covers the first four I foresee history repeating itself.
Full review after the jump.
[WARNING: There may be some minor spoilers in this review]
|This is the last thing you want to see when you're hooked into a VR helmet|
I need to point out that while the premise of this series sounds pretty dark, with Battle Royale levels of terrifying unwanted situation, the tone of the show is fairly lighthearted. Oh it’s pretty tense and there can be plenty of angst at times but for the most part things tend to feel more hopeful and optimistic than anything else. This is partly because once the show settles into its status quo (which happens around episode four or so) all the players have been trapped in SAO for so long that they’ve adjusted to their fate and settled into a routine. So rather than a thriller like one would expect it ends up being more of a sword and sorcery fantasy…you know, with a lot more internet slang. But that works out well as the tone helps make the series fun. In addition there also was a romantic subplot that untimely became critical to the main plot. You might assume I’d hate that based on previous complaints but what really bugged me weren’t the romantic plots themselves but rather poorly written ones, of which there are a lot of in fiction. SAO has a good romantic subplot that builds slowly and naturally and where the characters for the most part act logically and passionately. It was well integrated into the rest of the story.
|A love story in a anime that I didn't hate? Insanity!|
The characters are really what make or break any piece of fiction and I have to say that I was surprisingly engrossed with the main cast here. Kirito is something of an anti-Ordinary Schoolboy archetype by nature of the MMORPG inspired world where he plays a hero. This is a good thing because I would never have been able to get through the whole if he had been a wishy-washy, spineless tool like in True Tears for example. Kirito is passionate and strong willed and never avoids confrontation to get what he’s set his eyes on. Best of all he grows as a character from beginning to end and we even get to see it happen, which is great. Kirito is actually one of the better developed protagonists in a fiction that I’ve reviewed. Asuna is almost done just as well but from a likability standpoint I loved her just as much, if not more than Kirito. She’s surprisingly understanding and mature, just as determined her counterpart, is never afraid to call out people on their bullshit, and, let’s face it, one of the most badass characters in the anime in terms of fighting skill. As a duo I think Kirito and Asuna are among my favorite protagonists in an anime, even though it’s technically only Kirito who’s the main character. Their story is what drives the plot and it’s done in such a way that it actually makes you root for them to somehow, someway, find their happy ending. Compare this to True Tears, an anime where the romantic plot WAS the main plot, where I wanted practically everyone involved to die in a fire.
|He's kind of a beanpole though|
On the flip side I really liked the villain of this show, Kayaba Akihiko. His actions, which result in the death of thousands, and his motivation, which seem to be able to be boiled down as “I want to be a god of a world of my own creation”, make it clear he’s a psychopath and certainly as evil as any villain. However he has a twisted since of fair play and honor that contracts with this, though perhaps it’s his flair for the theatrical and dramatic that causes this (which is also a pretty neat trait). What’s more in the few times Kirito encounters him Kayaba is respectful and even borderline friendly towards the boy, possibly seeing him as something of a successor. He’s a cool antagonist, the kind you intellectually want to see punished for his crimes but emotionally you want him to stick around.
|This show could have used more of this dude|
Other things I liked about this show included the action, of which was stylized but fun, and the animation, which was consistently good quality without a noticeable dip. In a twenty-five episode series like this that’s a pleasant surprise.
With all this positive crap you probably think this show could do no wrong but SAO has a lot of issues. The problem though is a lot of these issues involve spoilers and I’d prefer not to spoil anything. I’ll try to avoid as much as I can but you might want to skip ahead to the Panda Score if you’re worried.
|Pictured: A sword wielding girl who isn't a short tempered asshole|
Also, and this stuff all happens in the second half, there were a few scenes that were weirdly sexually charged, even invoking hentai at some point. This show DOES NOT have a huge fan service problem, and indeed those scenes are in no way fan service, but they still felt out of place and gross. Speaking of gross a major subplot in the second half of the series is that Kirito’s cousin Suguha, was raised as his sister (!) comes to the realization that she’s in love with him! F**king messed up. Now even if I was super cool with Kissing First Cousins (I am not, for the record) the fact that they were raised as siblings and that she only very recently learned they were not in fact siblings, creeps me the hell out. As an older brother who is in fact very close to his younger sister the idea of having that plot point pop up in an otherwise awesome story will always bother the hell out of me. That said it’s a subplot and doesn’t affect the main plot so much as it does Sugaha’s own development as a character so it’s comparatively minor. Still creepy though.
Despite the issues Sword Art Online manages to be an insanely enjoyable ride. It had an engrossing plot, main characters I loved, fun action, a cool setting, and a proper ending. All those things make the negative points pretty much non-issues for me. When I first started watching this show I thought I might like it okay but by the time I finished I could not stop gushing about it. This show managed to not only get on my favorite anime list but it also made the first time that I 100% felt that the experiment I started three years ago has been wholly worth it. This is a great show for anyone who likes fantasy, video games or romantic stories that don’t suck and it has a very strong recommendation from me.
|I'm actually a giant sucker for love stories...if they're not insanely stupid|
-Has an actual ending (and it’s pretty good)
-The romantic plot is done well
-The second half is overall weaker than the first
-There are a few instances of creepiness