Hello hello hello again! It’s been a while – I’ve been both on vacation and busy writing essays on shows I actually really like, because I’m apparently not just a cranky asshole who only talks about things that are terrible. Not that Sword Art Online is terrible, of course – I don’t think it’s very good, but it’s still enjoyable, and I definitely get the impression of creator passion from it. Considering we’ve apparently just emerged from the Enchanted Forest of Twenty Minute Love Interests, I guess it’s a fair time to take stock of what we’re dealing with here. So what’s Sword Art Online so far?
It’s okay, I guess. The vignette structure has absolute killed tension, pacing, and character development, but some of the individual stories are actually perfectly fine in their own right. The fantasy world is pretty generic and kinda loosely defined, but the game-evocative elements are pretty nicely integrated into the whole. It has an unfortunate penchant for melodrama, but that luckily only crops up every other episode or so – the first episode’s conclusion, the “Beater” speech, the manic ending to CSI Aincrad. The show’s biggest, most obvious, must unavoidable problem is Kirito – he’s inconsistent, barely a character, without weaknesses, and apparently in possession of a devastating animal magnetism that all the show’s women are powerless to resist. Watching him do things is boring because there’s no personality or tension there, and the way the rest of the characters treat him versus the way he’s presented to us regularly breaks immersion and reminds us this show is fundamentally a power fantasy.
That’s frustrating, but it’s also partially due to the vignette structure, and so I’m hoping a return to continuity will offer the chance for him to undergo some actual consistent development. According to my very helpful commenters, the sequence of episodes I just left was both the best and worst part of the show, and so is the sequence I’m entering, and so is every sequence, so I’m actually kinda feeling like I can enter this without too many preconceptions. So let’s get to the front lines!
0:08 – Oh wow, this shot’s awesome! Where did that come from?
Kinda makes me wish this show had gone more dynamic and otherworldly in general with its world design. As others have commented, outside of the overt gamey mechanics, Sword Art Online really just feels like “generic fantasy world” – the fact that it’s an invented reality doesn’t really hit home that hard because it’s an invented reality that we’re already extremely familiar with. Some of my favorite moments of the show are the times when it leans on the theme of embracing this reality as a legitimate platform for human experience, and I feel that theme would have been better served by a more distinctive world. Take your cues from stuff like Dark Souls, not stuff like Everquest
This is pretty much always gonna be a point of disagreement between how I think stories should work and the fantasies this show is specifically playing to, but goddamn if it isn’t really boring watching someone be totally invincible like this. Games don’t start you at level 100 for a reason – there’s no tension or excitement when the hero’s a god, and watching someone triumph is only gratifying if there’s a real chance they won’t
0:54 – Jeez, time flies. I’m liking the shots they’re using here – this definitely feels like a prologue to an actually important narrative, and not another vignette
1:05 – I remember him!
1:10 – This is actually an interesting question! More of this please!
3:05 – Aw shit it’s romance o’clock. No time for the front lines now!
3:10 – Another nice environment
4:06 – The cheap answer is, “whoever it is, I bet they’ve got boobs,” but the show’s actually made “learning to cook” Asuna’s standard-bearer character trait that symbolizes her integration into this world. I’LL ALLOW IT
4:36 – 7/10 tsuns
4:54 – DON’T TAKE MY COOKING SO LIGHTLY. I actually also really like this. Asuna isn’t just “tough like the boys!” – she’s a character who has her own passions and strengths. A common way to write poor female characters is to just make tough dudes in sexy women’s bodies – but there are a million ways to be a strong person, and very few of them fit into traditional macho-man value systems
5:17 – Asuna’s knocking it out of the park this week. This is way better than the simplistic tsundere nonsense
Protip: if a list of your female protagonist’s desires begins and ends with “the male protagonist,” you have not written a character at all. Romance is great, but people are people before they are love interests. This is one of the central reasons why, fantasy-pandering aside, I basically can’t get into almost any anime romcom – the side characters are generally “single defining attribute” + “desires male protagonist.” What do these people think about politics? What do they think about music? Nothing – as they are written, they are only reflective of the desires the show is playing to, not reflective of human nature. I can’t relate to characters like that, and I also can’t relate to a main character who finds simplistic devices like that romantically desirable
5:56 – 4.5/10 tsuns
6:14 – Echoes of how weird and arbitrary this societal structure is. Recently, Mahouka’s kind of dominated this discussion because of how up-front it is about its politics – it straight up believes in libertarian ideals of “everyone succeeding according to their own merits and efforts.” This is a fantasy for people who think the world is “unfair” because it lacks this system of evaluation – in a world like Mahouka or SAO, people can just run the numbers and see how talented you “really” are, and thus how successful you “deserve” to be.
This is nonsense for a few reasons, of course. First, it assumes everyone actually starts at the same starting line, which is so far from the truth that espousing any meritocratic system in our current world is beyond laughable. Second, it assumes that the protagonist/audience is put down because “the system is broken,” instead of them just not being the most special/talented. Fortunately, SAO at least admits that the system just incorporates elements of social mastery outside of a simplistic leveling paradigm. Finally, it assumes that a “the strong rise, the weak sink” system is actually something fundamentally valuable, which is certainly one opinion, but far from the only one.
Sword Art Online isn’t particularly invested in exploring this idea, but understanding the base appeal of this worldview is kinda necessary to make sense of some elements of the central fantasy.
6:30 – And this is how shows predicated on this fantasy tend to characterize the opposing perspective – as angry mobs that are just jealous of the protagonist’s “earned” mastery. It’s a strawman that basically invalidates the debate before it begins, but these shows are a fantasy playing to the crowd, not a political essay
6:59 – Pretty!
7:11 – This is interesting. Why would Kirito be poor? He’s one of the highest-level front liners, right? Shouldn’t he be swimming in cash relative to most of the players?
It feels like there are two interesting and one much less interesting possible explanations for this. On the interesting side, this could be indicative that in this world, you either can’t thrive alone, or that those who simply master the combat systems are mastering the “world” to a much lesser extent than those who embrace commerce and become merchants or whatnot. Both of these possible explanations would say interesting things about what this game really represents
The less interesting one is that he’s poor because that’s an easy, kinda meaningless weakness to have in a narrative sense
8:41 – Fortunately he happens to have an all-black casual suit as well. Goddamnit Kirito
8:53 – You’re going to turn the rarest meat in the world into a fucking stew?! Asuna, did someone powerlevel that cooking stat for you? Stews are not for S-level meat!
10:02 – First of all, goddamnit Asuna I’m still mad you turned that meat into peasant-food. But more importantly, looks like we’re putting the capstone on “Asuna appreciating life in this world”
10:26 – This stuff is fascinating. Earlier episodes sort of framed this as “if you squint a bit, at its most beautiful moments, this world could be a home as well.” But at this point, you don’t even have to try anymore – after a while, people can become accustomed to and find meaning in anything
10:52 – This line, and various others like it (the third episode was big on this) play in weird ways with this show’s underlying politics. “It’s fair for some people to be stronger than others, because the strong people will take care of and show the way for the weaker ones.” Some kind of uncomfortable stuff there
11:15 – AHAHAHAHAHAHA
13:38 – I’d assume so! If he’s taking pointers from the real-world versions, actually manipulating this world wouldn’t be playing fair – people construct their own “real worlds,” and can make a hell of heaven, a heaven of hell
13:57 – Oh anime
14:04 – OH ANIME
14:10 – WOMP WOMP WOMP. Just in case you forgot this was a light novel adaptation
14:48 – I like Kirito’s unenthusiastic impression here. Much less impressed by the fact that we’re apparently about to follow up a boob joke with a battle for m’lady’s hand
Well, I guess Kirito was gonna have to earn that trenchcoat at some point…
15:12 – Wow, this guy. It’s a good thing there’s a big strong man like Kirito here!
…this episode’s going downhill real fast
15:46 – Isn’t she the vice-commander of the most powerful guild in the world? The lunacy of some random guy having to “protect” her aside, how did that happen if she folds the moment her subordinates act unreasonably, and has to be saved by Kirito?
This is kind of the opposite of Kirito’s problem – unlike him allegedly being a social misfit but actually being charming, here the show says Asuna is strong, but it’s actually portraying her as a weak character the protagonist then gets to protect
16:02 – A DUEL, YOU SAY?!
Once again, Kirito is easily this show’s biggest problem. This actually could be an interesting conflict, maybe, but instead it’s just a device to show how awesome Kirito is as he saves another helpless woman. We’re not going to resolve this through dialogue that actually reveals more about the guild structure, we’re not going to have Asuna demonstrate her own competency – we’re gonna have her hide behind Kirito as he defends her from the scary sword guy
And again, I have to ask – was that supposed to be exciting? They ran past each other, and apparently Kirito’s equipment was so much better that it just cut through the other dude’s sword. The end
17:48 – Welp, there she is. Wonderful. Let’s put this ridiculous scene behind us
18:05 – This is exactly how I’d have hoped the scene would end before, but we had to make time for an awesome Kirito moment. Man, just cut him out of the show!
19:20 – All of this would WORK if they didn’t actually make him AWESOME AT EVERYTHING. Seriously. Goddamnit. The difference in the philosophy between solo players and guild players, their ambivalent feelings towards the world – everything would be better if Kirito weren’t this stupid fucking hero-savior who everyone has to turn towards and worship a few times every episode. It is really, really frustrating to see what could be a fairly reasonable show so hamstrung by this ridiculous non-character
19:36 – 2/10 tsuns
Well, that… that was Sword Art Online, I guess. I actually really enjoyed the first half of this episode… and then it dissolved into a puddle of its own power-fantasy terribleness. There are some potentially interesting ideas here, and the other characters are fine enough… but Kirito just drags everybody else down with him. Hell, even aside from his inconsistent articulation, nonsense magnetism, and boring in-world perfection, even his story isn’t interesting – I’d much rather hear about the give and take of guild politics in this world than have the Mysterious Loner always solve things all on his Mysterious Lonesome. Kirito, you are ruining this show.
Well, whatever. Next episode promises a big fight scene, and this show certainly has an animation budget, so that should be entertaining. A shame the main character is still going to be Kirito.