Thursday, 14 March 2013

Spring Break Anime: Action

This is Day 3 in a series. You might want to checkout the previous day, or start at the introduction.


Alright, this is one that I didn't really want to review, but I feel so strongly about it that I have no choice. The most popular show of the past year was probably Sword Art Online, with everyone and their uncle talking about it. It was a very polarizing show as well. If you go to the Anime News Network website, you can see that it is #16 in the "Most Diverging Opinions" category, even with more than twice the number of votes for its score than anything else in the top 50, and well over 10 times the votes of almost all of the rest of the top 50. There's a really simple explanation for why opinions are so spread out: the show started out amazing, and ended horribly, on several different levels.

A piece of promotional art that showcases some of the main characters from the early episodes.
Back in the good old days...
The basic premise of the show is this: the main character, Kirito, is playing a new virtual reality RPG called Sword Art Online. It is the launch day for the game, and 10,000 people are playing. Suddenly, they realize that there is no logout button. The creator of the game then tells everyone that they cannot leave the game, and if they die in the game, they die in real life. They are basically trapped in the matrix, and the only way to get out is to beat the game by defeating the final boss in the palace on level 100.

Although not an entirely original premise, it is executed quite well. As soon as Kirito logs into the game, we never see what's going on outside again. Everything is from the perspective of the players of the game (specifically Kirito), so we get the same feeling of isolation that the trapped players do. If you've ever played an RPG, you know that there are things like inns and item shops. In Sword Art Online, these are all run by different players. All the features that you would expect to find in an MMORPG are included, except for the logout button. There are dungeon crawls, guilds, player vs. player battles, and safe zones in towns. It's really wonderful to see them realized in a virtual reality world. This is what I want the future of video games to be. This is where I believe we can go with our technology.

Throughout the series, there are several time-skips where the story leaps ahead a month or more for the sake of brevity. This world is an RPG, so we don't really need to watch the characters grind to get stronger. It tends to simply skip from important moment in the story to important moment, and that's fine by me. It keeps the pace up, preventing things from getting boring.

A picture of Aincrad, the digital location of the Sword Art Online game, 100 floors tall.
The world of Aincrad
The other characters in the show are pretty great too. We meet an item shop owner, a blacksmith, the members of a small guild of friends, and the leader of the largest guild in the game, all of whom are memorable characters. Most importantly though, we meet one of the coolest female leads in any show ever, Asuna. She's a total beast, possibly even more powerful than Kirito (which if you know anything about anime, the main character is always the most powerful one). We get to watch these people change and grow, and see their relationships evolve as they spend time living in the game, unable to exit.

All of this is great stuff. I loved this. But then something happened. At one point in the show, there is a massive shift where everything changes. And it didn't change for the better. Any detail would be massive spoilers, so we'll get into that later, but for now, let me just say this. The series changed to include everything that I try to avoid in an anime. Fanservice? Check. Incest? Check. Tentacle Rape? No, but uncomfortably close.

I deeply regret watching the rest of the show. If I could go back in time, I would never watch it again. The first bit is amazing; one of the best shows I have ever seen. The rest of it is something I can never unwatch. The worst part of it is that if I had known any better, I could have stopped before the bad part. The good part wrap everything up nicely (or at least, nice enough). I would have been content to stop there.

If you're going to watch this show, please, please stop watching at the obvious place. You will know it when you get to it, and you will regret it if you don't. If you want to know why you will regret it in more detail, continue on, otherwise don't bother.


OK, so in the first half of the series (up through episode 14) adapts the story of the people being stuck in Sword Art Online. During this time, Kirito and Asuna grow to like each other, and actually end up marrying. It's pretty awesome. The only instance of fanservice that I can think of in this half is one brief scene that's very PG-13. It's actually all very clean.

Kirito and Asuna are the best players in the game, and as a team they are unstoppable. There are also several episodes where they are taking a break from fighting and living as newlyweds. These episodes just show how deeply in love they are with each other, and how well they work together.

The main couple posing with swords drawn in front of Aincrad.
Aren't they such a great couple?
Unfortunately, this all changes on the 75th floor. Kirito discovers that Heathcliff, the leader of the most powerful guild, is actually the alter-identity of the creator of the game, who trapped them all there. He was supposed to be the final boss, but he decides to let Kirito fight him right there and try and end the game early. Kirito ends up winning, and the game ends. Everyone who didn't die during the two years they were trapped is freed. Well, not everyone. Asuna and about fifty other people do not wake up, and no one is sure why.

It turns out that it is because they are trapped in another game, Alfheim Online. This is where the second half starts. "How can the first half have resolution if the female lead is still trapped?" you ask. Well, when the first half ended, we simply saw Kirito wake up and leave the hospital he was in. We didn't actually see that Asuna was still asleep, so we can stop there and make up our own happy ending.

Alfheim Online is not a game that traps its players, so people can logout. As a result, the second half spends a lot of time in the real world, and this is where the problems start. First off, we meet Kirito's little sister, who it turns out isn't really his sister, but is his cousin. This somehow makes it OK for the writer to then cast her as a love interest. Not only does this feel very wrong because of their family relationship (they grew up together as brother and sister), but it rubs me the wrong way to try and start a love triangle with a character who is madly in love and was even married in the first half of the show. Although it eventually comes out that Kirito's "sister" is in love with him, it is never dealt with, so the triangle still exists at the end of the series.

Fanservice is the bane of my existence. If you don't know what it is, it is when a show has a closeup of a character's breasts or butt or shows off a particularly elaborate transformation sequence for a mech. Basically, it is what makes up a Michael Bay movie. I hate it. I really don't think that it needs to ever be included in any show, and for the first half of Sword Art Online, they did a fairly good job keeping it out. I guess thy decided to make up for that with the second half, because they pulled out all the stops here. Female characters suddenly are wearing skimpy outfits that get a lot of screen time. The "forbidden sibling romance" is added. I don't know if it counts as fanservice, but there are blob monsters with tentacles who seriously discuss molesting a female character. It's disgusting.

Another problem I have is more of an annoyance at the show than disgust with it. Asuna, one of the most awesome females in anime during the first half, is completely sidelined in the second half. She is stuck into the role of damsel in distress, and is suddenly unable to do anything useful at all. She just sits in a cage for the entire second half. Why the writers would decide to turn one of their coolest characters and turn her into a useless prize is beyond me. Well, it's not fair to call her useless. She did do one thing, she just failed miserably at it, and in the process, led to the tentacles.

Back in the real world, Asuna is going to be married to a rich man who is about 10 years older than her. The problem is she is still asleep, and he is a pervert. He leans over and smells her while licking his lips. Creepy. Then it turns out that he is the one who is keeping her hostage in Alfheim Online, and he is visiting her in her cage in the game and threatening to rape her. He doesn't do it...until Kirito shows up to rescue her. Then he traps him and forces him to watch as he rips Asuna's clothes off and fondles her. This is not PG-13. We don't see any nudity technically, but that doesn't make it any better. Not even a little. Honestly, I'm getting angry just remembering. I feel like I need to take a shower now.


Now, not everything about the second half was bad. The world of Alfheim was really cool actually, and everyone has wings in it. Just thinking about the day when virtual reality will allow us to have our own wings and fly makes me all excited! There were some other cool things in the second half too, but I'm so frustrated right now that I can't think of any.

Bottom Line: Stop after episode 14. Please. And if you can make me forget episodes 15-25, I will totally take you up on that offer.

Alright, tomorrow let's talk about a more positive show. Or at least, one that doesn't make me angry. Next up: an existential journey into the internet.

Full Series

Day 1Slice of Life
Day 3: Action
Day 4Existential

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