Sword Art Online II – Episode 3

And the journey continues! Last week’s episode was far and away the best thing Sword Art Online has ever done, so I’ve got moderate hopes for this one. ‘Moderate’ because last week pulled basically the most obvious and necessary trick for fixing Sword Art Online – it removed Kirito entirely. This, tragically, is apparently not allowed to be a long-term solution, so this week the challenge will likely be in maintaining last week’s energy without Kirito dragging everything into his power fantasy vortex. Fortunately, last week’s episode was also just well-composed and featured a number of solid action sequences, and that sort of stuff can work perfectly well even with Kirito around. And so, for maybe the very first time, positive thinking isn’t just a coping mechanism – things might really actually possibly turn out okay. Let’s do this, Sword Art Online. It’s a beautiful new day.

Episode 3

0:11 – Another Sinon episode? I am every kind of okay with this.

Sword Art Online

In all seriousness, if we’re actually getting a look into both Sinon’s real and virtual lives, then it kinda seems like SAO’s author has grown up a bit in his understanding of engaging storytelling. Character-building was essentially an afterthought in the original SAO – the plot was always foregrounded, which gave the audience little to actually hang their investment on. If you were invested in that first arc, it was likely either through a love of the base premise or an investment of personality in characters like Kirito that the show itself didn’t really demonstrate. This was somewhat improved in Alfheim through Sugu’s actually reasonable arc, but that was still secondary to the plot, and Alfheim’s terrible series composition didn’t help either. Hopefully the third time’s the charm – establishing Sinon’s reason for taking solace in a virtual world early would really help give this arc some emotional grounding.

1:59 – Goddamnit SAO you and your episode titles. This isn’t Shiki, calling your episodes shit like “BITTER SKULL” isn’t part of your damn aesthetic

2:09 – Good ol’ bullying. Sometimes the simplest explanations are the best ones – there’s little more understandable than taking refuge in videogame strength because of stuff like this

2:20 – Haha, those bully designs. It’s kinda funny how so often it’s just either side characters or bad guys who actually get to look visually interesting

2:27 – I could kill you all for this

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3:03 – Great shot. And Sinon’s actually terrified of gun violence because of something from her past? That’s definitely a more interesting place than I figured they’d take this. Hm

3:20 – I know SAO’s not the show to do it, but they could really take this to some dark, relevant places. A girl who’s bullied at school using videogame escapism to exert power and get over her fear of guns? I know school shootings aren’t the thing in Japan that they are in America, but this is a lot of really charged variables here

4:08 – Already feeling sorry for the guy I’ll assume will be this season’s Recon. A moment of silence for all ineffectual male rivals 🙁

4:37 – Aw yeah, talkin’ shop. I like the shop-talk – a big part of playing competitive videogames is talking about playing them, and I think it humanizes these characters to have them treat the game as a game, and not always as a Totally Immersive Alternate Reality Experience

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5:11 – Just like a sniper. Or maybe a shy person. Incidentally, Sawashiro was a great voice actress to choose for someone with a confident “alternate self”

5:45 – And they’re even playing up what she’s getting out of this. The game’s weird kind of violence therapy. Alright, SAO. I really do want to see where you go with this

6:11 – Aw shit he’s started moping. It’s all downhill from here

6:26 – Is the show actually drawing attention to the fact that even videogames are heavily influenced by arbitrary things? That you can’t really think of them as a “fair” fantasy, and thus they are still reflective of the real world? Is this season actively dismantling or addressing all the bad elements of the first one?

Seriously, what is going on here? It feels like the author respecced into self-awareness or something

Sword Art Online

6:45 – And he’s even begging off videogames because he has to think about his future? But… but what happened to my power fantasy? How am I supposed to call this escapism if it’s actually poking holes in its own private world? Goddamnit SAO, it’s like I don’t even know you anymore

Seriously, this is all great stuff. What an upgrade

7:40 – That’s a little ominous

8:38 – A classic but still effective shot

8:50 – Aw shit, moment of truth. Can SAO keep its cool and depict the loneliness of Sinon’s home life without destroying any of its emotional credibility by leering at her at the same time?!? Stay tuned

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9:12 – Aaand she actually owns a gun. A sweet future gun, at that

9:38 – Another great shot. Nice choice to grey out everything except the blood. At that moment, it’s all she can focus on

10:02 – I like how the lights are framing this like an interrogation – like this is a story she’s told in a formal context many times before

11:51 – DAMN. That’ll do it

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12:45 – Too much. Yeah, the whole episode’s been building to this, but it’s still too much. When you play for the highest possible intensity, you tend to drown out all emotions but intensity, and it turns into self-parody. See: basically all of Attack on Titan

13:14 – Much better. Focusing on the gun while we listen to its repercussions. Even visual storytelling is in part about leaving some things to the imagination

13:36 – Another nice shot. They definitely overplayed the climax of that flashback, but these shots are all good

13:54 – SINON THAT IS SOME MONKEY’S PAW SHIT DO NOT WISH FOR THAT. Any wish granted, and all it costs is your agency. Kirito is the Ursula the Sea Witch of this story

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Goddamn you Sinon. God damn you

15:09 – Not really sure what that means but okay sure

15:16 – Remember when Sugu was a main character lol

15:34 – Detective Kirito is back in the game

Sword Art Online

15:41 – Yeah jeez that’s crazy talk. If anyone had ever died from a videogame, Kirito would definitely have heard of it

15:54 – Keep using that name SAO it’s not gonna get any less funny

16:28 – I am 100% okay with Kirito getting harassed for once

16:42 – I like how she’s still feeling him up all through this

Sword Art Online

17:18 – This is a very important shot. Well, at least they left Sinon alone this episode


18:58 – Wow, three episodes in and Kirito still doesn’t actually make it to the virtual world? Well joke’s on them, I don’t even actually care about that. But yeah, pacing is normally a thing that’s good to have, and so I’m sure some people are a little annoyed right now

19:13 – Some nicely indirect questions raised about her mother by this conversation

19:52 – So wait, why does she even need to be comfortable around guns? Like, once she gets out of high school, I doubt random people are going to be abusing her phobia all the time – most people don’t need to be comfortable with firearms. Particularly in Japan, which I’ve heard isn’t quite as crazy about loving death-instruments as some other countries

Sword Art Online

20:00 – So for her, there is a clean disconnect between the virtual world and the real one. It might have to do with stakes, it might have to do with emotional connection to others, it might have to do with memory – but that distinction is real in a tangible way for her. Hopefully this ends up actually conflicting with Kirito’s philosophy

21:48 – DUN DUN DUN

And Done

That was a pretty good episode! The ones focused on real-world drama tend to be better than the virtual world ones in general, and though I think this one tripped up with overdramatics at the climax, the base concept at least laid out Sinon as a reasonably articulated person. It wasn’t subtle, but SAO never is, and I’d rather have this than have Sinon just not having a character/arc – frankly, I don’t trust SAO to illustrate a character one piece at a time, so if it just wants to dump her entire characterization on us right now, I’m okay with that.

Additionally, a number of the ideas this episode alluded to seem to directly complicate either subtext or overt themes of the first season – the meritocracy of videogames, their “truth” as an alternate reality, and their value altogether were all called into question by Sinon’s actions this week. I don’t expect SAO to suddenly become a piercing investigation of its own prior mistakes, but these were certainly all interesting choices in their own right. This episode wasn’t nearly as fun as last week’s, but it managed to be respectable in an entirely different way, which is also a good sign. Carry on, Sword Art Online.

54 thoughts on “Sword Art Online II – Episode 3

  1. I was kinda weirded out by the reaction Shinon’s mother had to what happened.

    In fact, I’m still sorta amazed she lived through that. Not that I’m complaining, its just…not how those things usually go.

    • Yeah, I kinda figured that last shot was going to hit her mother. This might actually be more interesting, though, depending on where they go with it.

  2. I really enjoy your reviews, they help me view the show from a different and often times more thought out perspective then my own.

    I don’t look too deep into the themes and messages of anime, I tend to acknowledge anime as a story telling medium more then anything.

    Anyways, I just want to say thank you for working so hard on this blog.

  3. This almost feels like if a completely different author took over and the original died or something. Well, I guess that´s not the case, but we can all dream. At least keep the hopes this won´t be an exception with the rest of the season!

    • Yeah, two episodes in a row is something to be celebrated. Though we still haven’t had Kirito and Sinon meet, so the biggest hurdle is yet to come.

  4. I don’t think Shinkawa is Recon, I think he’s Death Gun. There’s a part in the OP where they dissolve from a shot of him to a shot of Death Gun, and after I saw that everything he said sounded like “I am Death Gun” to me. I could be wrong, and there probably wasn’t enough information in this episode to decide that, but my gut tells me to call it now that he’s Death Gun.

    • All his whining about “agility points” in this episode, plus how Death Gun was introduced by shooting a guy who said, “AGILITY POINTS ARE USELESS” certainly points to something…

      • Sounds like a motive!
        (Seriously, I hope this is not actually the motive. This type of lunacy only really works in South Park .-.)

      • There are lots of things you could point towards him being DEATH GUN, to be honest.

        He’s a weak player and has invested his stats poorly after being lied to. He saw his friend advance much faster than him. He might have to quit playing games because of studies. And at the end, when we see DEATH GUN look at Sinon’s picture in a… certainly special way.

        His motive would be something along the lines of wanting to become a pro and cheating his way up to top due to an inferiority complex or something.

        Either way, hopefully SAO hasn’t made the mystery this easy.

    • Aw dang, Death Gun’s gonna be the one other new real-world character? Now that you’ve mentioned it, that seems kinda inevitable. Ah well.

      • I have no idea why, but I’m pretty sure they might have purposely spoiled who DESU-GUN is outright. They list his username on the computer screen which may or may not be one of the character names…

  5. the best thing about this episode (read: dumbest) was how during the whole chat bit at the end where they’re staking out their ~next target~ you can see the person’s username in the top of the screen and it’s just their actual name, thus spoiling the goddamn villain of the arc.

    good job, SAO

    • It seems A-1 just doesn’t care that much about spoiling the twist this arc (see: the OP) That said, his full name hasn’t even been said yet, soooo…

      • No, it’s a story that focuses on Sinon and Kirito’s “wounds”. The “plot” is just a vehicle to drive that along.

  6. Quite a meaty episode (I even got my speculations on who the villain is and with actual motives). It really feels like a different author this time around. We still got a long way to go, but even the other arcs tripped after their pilot episodes. GGO has been stellar for three episodes in a row. Even if it just ends up as a standard action flick, I must say it’s interesting to see Kawahara grow as a writer.

    I’m not sure I understood why you thought the climax was too much, though. I didn’t find it as self-parodying as Titan could be, so I’m not really following your line of thought.

    Also… uh, I’ve seen this tossed around a bit, but many seems to have reacted to the fact the robber could survive multiple shots. I thought he was drugged, cleverly shown by him drooling as he entered the bank.

    • I thought it was overblatant where it was trying to say “This Is A Very Traumatic Event For Sinon!”

      For me, it was the shot of the guy dead, with the bullet hole right in the center of his forehead, that made me think “they’re trying way too hard to make this gruesome and horrific”. They COULD have made the sufficient impact without all of the theatrics.

    • The direction just oversold it, I thought. Red filter + shaky cam + pounding soundtrack + long scream is just too much – the scene sold itself through the way it had been earned by the flashback, it didn’t need to convince us it was intense with clumsy stuff like that.

  7. One thing I’ve realized: after the events in ALO, I don’t understand how anyone has any real doubts that an Amusphere can be used to kill. We were told outright that setting the Pain Aborber level to zero had (bad) physical effects, plus there’s all the mental manipulation they were doing to their captive experimental subjects. Sure, the Amusphere likely has safeguards now, but if you hack your way past the safeguards there you go.

    (Kirito may not realize this, but the government sure ought to know all of this stuff. Of course they may well have been manipulating Kirito to get him to do stuff for them. I’m not sure the writer is this smart, but it’s my justification for the whole crazy scene in the first episode.)

    • The problem is that the HARDWARE doesn’t allow the AmuSphere to do as much as what the NerveGear did. It’s explained that the experiments done on the 300 players CAN’T be replicated by the hardware of the Amusphere. Thus someone would have to directly tamper with your Amusphere to get it to kill you.

      If somehow the AmuSphere was in fact hacked, then it would be more likely for the damage to be neurological, instead of a heart attack.

      That said, they’re just sending Kirito in to see if “Death Gun” isn’t just a rumor.

    • I guess Kirito was sort of being tricked in the first arc, when the villain was hiding among them, but yeah, that’s not the same as him being used as a tool the entire story. That certainly would make more sense of this whole situation, though.

  8. Goddammit, SAO, spoiling your own twist. Goddammit comments, making me realize what the twist is. I don’t even get the satisfaction of feeling smart from finding it out ;_;
    Sinon for main character. She is easily the best character ever in SAO, and she made this very clear in the span of a mere two episodes.
    I’m almost 100% OK with Kirito being harassed. I’m only scared of the fanfiction .-.
    And, to be frank, I think the name Death Gun+the last scene pretty much established [spoilers] as a lonely, flamboyant and ridiculous (DEATH GUN) troll, who just happens to be a sociopathic cold-blooded killer.

  9. Haha, the fact that SAO actually bothered to give a character a backstory and some personal motivations is something to celebrate! Come to think of it, I don’t think any character in SAO I got a reasonable backstory…Kirito and his cousin had the “We’re not really siblings” angst but they took maybe 30 seconds on that…Three episodes in and Sinon is already more realized than any veteran character!

    • Yeah, I was gonna say, Sinon’s already far surpassed Kirito as a full person. I guess it’s nice to see this author becoming a better writer, but I’m still not sure if I should be impressed or disappointed.

  10. I told you this arc would be almost kind of okay! Well, maybe I didn’t, but I certainly told someone.

    That said, I’m not a fan of the directing very much. As you’ve noted, they’re very big on overselling dramatic scenes almost to the point of parody. This happened last episode too, where there was a big fuss in the comments about Dyne overreacting to the losing battle. Frankly, you could read the exact same lines in a calmer voice and it just sounds like your average whiny ragequitter.

    These sorts of moments don’t kill the series or anything, but I’d call them weaknesses anyway.

    • It’s a shame, too, because outside of those melodramatic moments, the production here is actually quite solid. I get the feeling they’re actually an intentional choice – considering the style and success of the first season, maybe they’re deliberately steering away from subtlety for the big moments.

  11. I just realized something this episode. I was watching the OP thinking “why haven’t we seen Kirito’s character in the OP?” then I realized the girl with the light saber IS Kirito. She has his face and fashion sense. It’s pretty obvious in retrospect but I certainly wasn’t looking for it before. He’s going to have a female Avatar in GGO. I wonder how that will effect his agency stealing powers. Maybe Sinon isn’t going to be a love interest at all. I’m curious to see where they take this. For the first time I’m actually looking forward to more SAO.

    • Unfortunately Kirito doesn’t turn into a girl, he is just becoming very very feminine somehow.

  12. Ahhhh, you’re so hopeful about this show that I almost regret what I’ve written up until now. I get so caught up on the execution in each episode that I forget to mention how this arc sets up stakes a lot better than the previous season. Shino is miles ahead as an interesting character (mostly because of the increased screentime) and while I don’t appreciate EVERY step taken to explain her trauma I respect that the story is about her, with Kirito sort of taking a support role for now. My pessimism says the focus is going to change back to Kirito being Digital Jesus Qui-Gon Jinn, so perhaps I should be enjoying these episodes while they last.

    I wish I could be as positive about this show as you are, but my confirmation bias and S1 trauma is just too strong.

    • Yeah, they could very easily make Sinon’s story just an accessory to Kirito’s – if they’re actually exploring the “consequences” of his time in the first season, his arc could be something like “learning to be a healthy person so he can fix Sinon,” or something equally disappointing. But I’ll be disappointed by that when we come to it, I guess.

  13. @8:50 I think I’ve written already that Every Love Interest In SAO Must Get An Obligatory Lingerie Scene. I really think it’s there in author’s/animators’ contract somewhere.

    • This one actually wasn’t bad! She wasn’t “performing” for the camera at all, and the camera wasn’t learing at her – it was actually just an unhappy, private scene with a character. Huuuge improvement over the Sugu scenes.

  14. I don’t understand why Sinon removed her skirt and jacket only for the camera to not peer lecherously at her- don’t get me wrong, it’s a good thing, but the camera has stared at the Nurse’s boobs and Sinon’s own in-game ass, so the scene (besides the obvious trauma thing) feels like an attempt to convey to the audience the idea that Sinon isn’t going to be sexualised this season. That’s a good thing… I guess? But it seems rather cynical.

    Again, the camera still looks at other places, and Sinon still pleads for someone to ‘save her’ before cutting to Kirito. I’m worried that buying into the scene’s lack of sexualisation will be the equivalent of flying into a venus fly trap.

    • I thought the camera panning across Shino’s shirt and underwear appearance were quite tame in comparison to how the camera quite clearly zoomed in on Sugu’s cleavage in multiple instances last season. Besides, I’d imagine wearing a skirt and blazer in the privacy and leisure of your own home to be very uncomfortable.

      • Oh, I agree whole-heartedly, it is tame and it’s a great improvement over Sugu’s scenes and such.

        If only to spark discussion however, I’m looking at the worst case scenario, and questioning if the reason Sinon removed her skirt to begin with was to draw the attention of critics who will note that the scene didn’t sexualise her character in order to seem more feminist. I can’t think of it otherwise- having her remove her clothes immediately plants the idea of ‘fanservice’ in your head as you watch, and we’re already comparing the scene to Sugu’s scene in particular. The scene would have played out the same is she was fully clothed, or even if she had undressed off screen.

        I’m not really concerned about the realism of the scene, I’m sure lots of people are less clothed indoors. But I feel that every choice made in the animation and writing usually has a greater purpose to it than just conveying a sense of realism.

        • Nakedness, even in anime, can mean more things than just fanservice. Let’s take the best case scenario, for instance. You could argue that the purpose of undressing was because she was preparing herself to hold the light gun. Why does she have to undress to do this? Because she wouldn’t know for sure how far she’s progressed with her self-imposed therapy otherwise unless she lays her state of mind, and her self, bare. It is a ritual of sorts to disarm herself both physically and mentally.

          Also because if she were to vomit on her school uniform it would be kind of gross.

      • She was still wearing her school shirt so it would still be bad. Still regardless of whether it might be practical “in story”, I think the writers must have put it in for some reason. Perhaps it was, as alberenza says, an attempt to show how they aren’t doing all the excess fanservicey stuff they were doing last season.

      • True, that reasoning makes sense, but it’s simply speculation, as nothing is directly stated by the show.

        Even if the show did offer an explanation, I fail to see how that conveys anything to the audience other than context, it’s just details. By ‘purpose’ I mainly refer to what the animators want the audience to be thinking as they watch. In anime, when a girl (or boy, if we’re talking about a show such as free) removes her clothes, they want the reaction to be ‘oh, she’s removing her clothes. I’ll get to see some bare skin, which I find attractive’.

        She doesn’t remove her skirt and blazer so that the camera can leer at her, so why did the animators and writers choose for her to remove her skirt? Other than simply details, which can be written any which way and justified however, it doesn’t matter. I’m offering the idea that I outlined above as a possible reading.

        After last season, I’m not ready to say that the author has somehow completely dropped all the old habits and bad narrative choices that got his LNs and adaptions popular to begin with.

        • I’m offering the idea that I outlined above as a possible reading.

          As did I. Neither of us are really saying that SAO II is somehow going to be a good anime with good directing decisions. My point is that both scenarios we’ve outlined don’t have enough evidence to be the “correct” interpretation and the both of us are just speculating based on the past failings and qualifications of the author and animators.

          However, I’m personally against the idea that, in anime, characters undress/appear naked solely for the purpose of fanservice. Especially when the motive is kept in the dark as it was in this scene. My definition of “purpose” is more closely in line with the narrative while yours is more focused on the animation. That’s where we differ.

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