Sword Art Online (ソードアート・オンライン) is an adventure, science-fiction anime adaptation of the original light novel series written by Reki Kawahara with artwork from abec. The first season aired in Summer 2012 with twenty-five episodes. It was produced by A-1 Pictures with direction from Tomohiko Itō (Occult Academy, Silver Spoon, Erased). I remember watching it during it’s simulcast year and liking it for what it was. Recently, after seeing how much hate that the anime community seems to harbour for the franchise, I decided to re-watch it to determine if it’s always been crap, or if people just needed something to complain about. Even though the answer was pretty obvious, after giving it a second go, Sword Art Online is not a bad anime, by far. It’s not perfect, but it’s not a hot mess of shit either. Today, I wanted to (attempt) a brief discussion on the drama that SAO tends to incite.
Sword Art Online takes us to the near future where the most-anticipated VRMMORPG (Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) yet has finally been released. New players login to the game with VR technology known as Nerve Gear and when they get ready to logout, they discover that they can’t. The game’s creator is basically entrapped all the players into the game. Until someone can reach the 100th floor and defeat the final boss, they shall be stuck in VR forever. As if things couldn’t get any worse, players soon learn that if they die in the virtual world, then they shall also die in real life.
Man, I remember thinking that this was such an original and amazing premise eight years ago when the anime first aired. Back then I was a very fresh and new anime watcher, but I was a voracious reader of science-fiction and I had never read or seen anything quite like SAO (Sword Art Online) then. Thinking back on it now, I feel a bit naïve and silly, but I don’t regret how I felt. I thought it was cool concept. During my re-watch, a few things occurred to me about this series, things that really confused me on why people love to hate it given that these elements actually made the series somewhat decent all around.
The animation quality is still reasonably good. There are so many scenic shots in SAO that I find to be stunning, especially in terms of fantastical environments, and the fight sequences are rendered smoothly without being awkward or clunky. I loved watching people pulling out their weapons and hacking-and-slashing their way through an enemy (or occasionally to their own demises). The virtual cinematography from this first season is about on par with medium quality stuff that releases today. A good example would be Goblin Slayer. It’s definitely not on the same level as Dororo or Fruits Basket, but for being almost a decade old, it holds up quite well.
The plot is rather linear and straightforward for the most part, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. I like that there was a very clear problem that needed resolving because that means that the journey to get to that solution would be the main focus. Fantasy and sci-fi (especially fantasy), put out some of the best character examinations when following a basic adventure trope. It was something to look forward to.
While the characters aren’t super complex or filled to the brim with contemplative depth, they’re still somewhat interesting in their own ways as they are shown to be normal, everyday people. Some are Uni kids needing a refresher between studies. Others are old businessmen that were looking for a way to unwind after a crappy workday. For many others it was a way to be social without having to jeopardise their anti-social or introverted tendencies or break their family obligations. Whatever their lives, they were basic and boring people. Everyday, normal folx, highlighting how the game didn’t discriminate over who it chose to screw over. Rich, poor, old, young, foreigner, local—they all got fucked equally.
The star of the series, Kirito, is kind of an over-powered (OP) dude in the game, but he’s also not perfect or invincible either. He’s a nobody in real life who’s avoiding responsibility. In VR, he’s a broody, loner nerd who’s depressed because he’s stuck in an environment that he practically worshiped from a technological standpoint. If I got stuck in a video game and learned how easily it was for my existence to be wiped away, regardless of how much my life sucked IRL, I’d be pretty depressed as well. More so if the creator of the game was someone I admired greatly. This is further heightened by the fact that every time he made a new friend, the chances of him having to watch them die was ridiculously high. That kind of thing can mess up anyone’s emotional capacities.
These are all fairly decent parts of SAO. If I had to pick them apart and name things that kept them from being outstanding, I would choose pacing as the first shortcoming. Instead of tossing together two separate story arcs in the first season, I would have spread out the segments somewhat and given more developmental attention to the side characters, or explore the psychological morality of being in a place where you literally can’t be punished for becoming a murderer, for the most part. Hell, maybe being able to explore more dungeons would have been neat too. But that didn’t really happen.
Brief snippets of these aspects were given with mild screen-time. When the players eventually are released from SAO (game), it felt anticlimactic to an extent because of how it was done and what came immediately afterwards. Rather than try and fill out another ten to twelve episodes, the first season should have just ended when SAO did with some cliff-hangers, especially since the plan to continue was already fairly set in stone. The whole Alfheim Online section should’ve been a separate season as the tone is severely different. Also, it wouldn’t have hurt it to have a better written finale.
Another shortcoming was having Kirito be so damned OP and then having all the women fall in love with him. Harems are great, sometimes, but seeing other couples being impacted or being brought together as a direct result of their dire circumstances creates a much more interesting layer and storytelling dynamic than just falling in love with the hero; than all the people falling in love with the scrawny, basic boy hero. That’s boring no matter what medium it’s in.
Even with all of this stuff, I’m still baffled as to why Sword Art Online gets all the hate that it does. As I mentioned earlier, it’s far from being perfect by any means, but it’s also not a terrible series at all. It did a lot for reigniting the isekai genre and putting it on the map for people who had never heard of it until then, mostly for newbies like me who weren’t familiar with titles such as Vision of Escaflowne yet, for example. The premise led to a mass influx of stories with similar concepts being produced—some of which were written far better than SAO—within manga and anime mediums. I’m sure there are other things that I’m missing. But y’all get the gist.
The hatred that Sword Art Online faces consists of masses of folx who are swashing in a pool of hollow complaints and whiny bitchiness out of a desire to be loud and proud at dehumanising others for things that bring them pleasure. Honest critiques of why the show sucked is a different story. I have respect for individuals who offer genuine reasons for not liking something, which can even be as simple as, “I just didn’t enjoy it. It wasn’t my cup of chai.” Okay, that’s cool, bro. But when enflamed hatred is taken and used to inflict judgement and mockery onto those who disagree merely because it’s something to do, I can’t help but wonder as to how much of those same acts of chastisement are just attempts at denying self-reflective feelings and insecurities.
All in all, Sword Art Online didn’t suck. It had some good stuff, some mediocre stuff and a a bit o’ bad stuff. It’s not an anime for everyone and not the best isekai-type series out there by a long shot, but it’s a moderately enjoyable series that I’d probably re-watch again sometime later down the road. If you hate it, great. If you loved it, awesome. If you’re somewhere in the middle, that’s cool too. Just don’t be an assbat and insult others that don’t agree with your opinions.