I am the first to admit that I am quite selective when it comes to choosing an anime show to watch. I like character development, impressive fight sequences, strong characters and character moments, with a little love and tragedy mixed in. Is this too much to ask? I am not saying that all who watch anime should have the same standards, but if an anime satisfies my standards then it is something I would want as many people to see and love as possible. Keeping this in mind, I would like to use my very cunning persuasive skills to get all who read this column to start watching a recently finished anime series that I discovered called Sword Art Online (SAO).
Sword Art Online takes place in the near future where ten thousand players have logged into a state-of-the-art virtual reality RPG game, which looks and feels real to those who have interfaced with their Nerve Gear helmet. Once inside the game, the players quickly realize that they are trapped by the creator of the game, with no way of logging out and returning to reality. Their only way of freeing themselves is to clear all 100 floors of the game, and beat the main boss at the end. However, if their avatars die in-game, their bodies will also die in the real world. SAO follows Kirito, a skilled solo player, who must learn how to survive the life and death challenges ahead as he is determined to beat the game for everyone trapped inside.
Sword Art Online is unique because it captures the imagination of all who watch it in a variety of different ways. Whether a person is a fan of well drawn anime, amazing sword fights, clever online gaming references or interesting character arcs, SAO has something that will appeal to each of those aspects. Kawahara Reki, the writer of SAO, tells a well thought-out and surprisingly realistic story. The progression of the series happens fluidly and naturally, despite the fantastical events occurring, while giving interesting insight into the human condition. One cannot fault Reki’s understanding and representation of the human psyche as he shows the different sociological changes this small community within the game go through to adapt to their horrible circumstances.
Another part of SAO’s allure is that it constantly asks indirect questions based on the many situations Kirito finds himself in. Questions like: ‘Join a guild or go at it alone?’ ‘What weapon or role in the game would you choose to maximize your survival?’ ‘Would you share tricks and knowledge, or keep it for yourself?’ ‘Would you rise to the challenge or fall into despair?’ Coming up with an answer and then letting your imagination continue down the road Reki has laid out for you in his story is as much part of the fun of SAO as watching what happens to the characters.
The villains are another reason to watch the series, especially when one looks at their differences. There are two narrative arcs in Sword Art Online, ‘Aincrad’ and ‘Fairy Dance’, and both have their respective villains. The truly fascinating part of both villains is not their actions, which are quite terrifying and cruel, but their psychology. The first villain, Kayaba, is a cold, calm and indirectly cruel antagonist. I say ‘indirectly’ because his actions are meant to maximize his own enjoyment of the game he has created and in which he has trapped everyone, but his reasons for doing so are what make him so fascinating. No one can really say whether he did all of this to purposely torment all these players, or if he was trying to force the people in the game to become something he wants humans to be in general. Reki creates a complex and psychologically interesting character, one who is capable of being fair or even rewarding strength to those who have opposed him when it could work against him.
However, the second villain, Sugou, is almost the exact opposite to Kayaba. He is not at all enigmatic and actually boasts of his plans and intentions constantly. He is cowardly, perverted, and cruel. He does everything he can to maximize his wants and desires and behaves very much like an overgrown child when things do not go his way. In this series, Kayaba is the representation of a mature and logical villain whose intentions one looks forward to uncovering, and Sugou is merely the evil villain that you look forward to seeing die because he is just so despicable and aggravating. One stimulates the mind as his actions constantly make you question his motives, while the other stimulates your emotions as you constantly hope you see him die in each episode he appears in.
Another appealing aspect of SAO is that, unlike other anime, it actually has a fully fleshed out love story. In most anime, the love story between the characters is usually hinted at, unresolved or up to the interpretation of the viewer. It can be more than a little frustrating for those who are hopeless romantics, or who just wish to get some resolution to an important plot point. I am fully willing to admit that this could be my own westernized/Hollywood-brought-
Recently, many anime have attempted to finish off the romantic element between the main characters all within the last episode or epilogue of the story, but this series actually makes it one of the main plot points. Personally, I enjoyed watching love blossom between Asuna and Kirito, as they work together and partner up as equals, to beat the game and become true heroes. Just as the series progresses organically, the love story between Kirito and Asuna follows the same intuitive pattern with many sweet and heart warming moments that make their relationship believable.
Unfortunately, Sword Art Online is a double-edged sword when it comes to its female characterizations. Reki creates powerful and strong women working with Kirito as partners, ones who have even saved his life. These women are smart, strong individuals who do not ‘take crap’ from anyone. A feminist would be proud to see them, and mothers would want their daughters to grow up like them. It is truly remarkable how they do many great and heroic things throughout the series. However, while these women are raised up to such great heights in the first arc, Reki brings in some truly ridiculous twists for them in the second arc just so Kirito can have some conflict in his journey. Asuna is turned into a damsel in distress, when she was once an equally high-level character in the first arc, and Sugu/Leafa is given a strange incest side story. While Asuna’s circumstances could be explained as a disappointing plot decision and a lack of creativity on Reki’s part, the incest angle attached to Kirito’s little sister is one of the story’s biggest drawbacks as it just gets uncomfortable to watch and takes away from the overall narrative as it develops. It is, ultimately resolved decently, but one has to question why it occurred to begin with.
Despite these drawbacks, SAO is a very entertaining and thoroughly imaginative anime that constantly impresses and has the viewer on the edge of their seats. It is unexpectedly insightful and realistic in its development, and makes one want to see what happens next after each episode. It is well paced, well thought out, and has some great battles between monsters and people. Sword Art Online is a smart and entertaining anime, one that can satisfy multiple interests all at once.