My journey with Sword Art Online has been a long and arduous one. I first started watching the show six years ago, in 2013. Like many, I was eager to see what all the fuss was about. Was it the momentous masterpiece that hordes of fanatical fans made it out to be? Somehow, I doubted it. But I had to be sure. I had to find out for myself. Unfortunately, though just eight episodes shy of finishing season one, I was forced to put it on the back burner, as the demands of university began to overwhelm me…
Though I wasn’t bowled over by the 17 episodes of Sword Art Online that I did watch, I always felt that it was unfair of me to slate the show without having seen how it managed to wrap itself up. After all, what if it managed to redeem itself with an absolutely cracking finale? Bolstered by this, somewhat naive, hope, this winter I finally plucked up the courage to go back and finish Sword Art Online…
While the pros and cons of SAO have already been exhaustively documented by hundreds of other anime fans (many of whom are able to express themselves far better than I), for those of you who may be interested, here are my thoughts on the show…
It was quite some time ago now, but I still remember how, when SAO first came out, people praised its premise. The idea of being trapped inside of an MMORPG, where game over really meant game over, and your only hope of escape was clearing the game, seemed to strike people as novel and exciting. This always baffled me. Did people just forget that .hack//, with its near-identical premise, ever existed?
But SAO’s unoriginality turned out to be the least of its problems… The show’s pacing was, quite possibly, its biggest issue. Every time time would elapse, Kirito would have levelled up, formed new relationships, acquired new skills and gear, and cleared tens of floors. This would almost always happen off-screen, leaving me, the viewer, feeling left out of the loop and trying desperately to fill in the blanks. Not to mention that it always struck me as odd that the show was called “Sword Art Online”, after the game that Kirito and co. found themselves trapped in, yet they were able to clear said game in just 14 episodes, quickly moving onto the next one. You’d think that SAO, being the titular game, would pose more of a challenge, but it was but a mere stumbling block on Kirito’s quest to become every 13-year-old boy’s fantasy.
Speaking of Kirito… During SAO’s first two episodes he was framed as somewhat of a lone wolf or a renegade who does things his own way, everybody else be damned. But almost immediately after he tries his best to ingratiate himself with other people. Kirito joins a guild, becomes its de facto leader, goes on wacky adventures with others, and even forms a love connection. This inconsistency made me feel as though I were watching two separate characters, as opposed to one, fully realised one.
Sadly, Asuna wasn’t much better… At first, she seemed like a strong, independent woman who didn’t need no man (forgive the cliched expression). But this aspect of Asuna’s character soon fell by the wayside after she began dating Kirito. Barely days into their relationship she swaps her sword for a spatula and commits herself to a life of cooking, cleaning, and playing the dutiful wife. Sorry if this comes off as a bit harsh, but it felt sort of, I don’t know… regressive? But at least Asuna chose this way of life for herself. She certainly had no say when it came to her treatment in SAO’s second half when, thanks to her creepy captor, she’s forced to play damsel in distress. I don’t know about you, but it made me super uncomfortable to watch Sugo, a man so much older than Asuna, force himself on her. I get that this was all to establish him as a loathsome villain, but I still felt like the show had gone a step (or several) too far…
In terms of romance, I thought that the relationship between Kirito and Asuna was positively insipid. I never enjoyed watching them play house. What could they possibly understand about marriage and parenthood at 16/17-years-old? And I could never get behind Suguha, Kirito’s sister-cousin, as a potential love interest. I don’t care what anybody else says, incest is not wincest!
Phew, that was good to get off my chest! But, you know, even though SAO is massively flawed, I have to give credit where credit is due… If you don’t take the show too seriously, it’s actually kind of fun, in a campy, over-the-top kind of way. And the world of Aincrad is actually pretty fascinating. Its mechanics are borked to hell, but each floor has its own unique look, feel, and set of challenges. It’s a shame that the characters cleared the game in so few episodes, I would have liked to have seen more of it. And you can’t deny the legacy that SAO has left. Eight years later and the isekai phenomenon is still going strong. So even though SAO sometimes left a bad taste in my mouth, I’m still glad that I’ve finally finished it!
I really enjoyed SAO (well, except the whole “forced to play damsel in distress,” which, as you charitably say, was creepy). So you’d expect me to take issue with your characterization, wouldn’t you?
Except I can’t. Episodes 1 to 3 (with 3 being the highpoint, at least in my opinion) seemed to be a different series. I still enjoyed it. I still maintain that it doesn’t deserve the hate people pile on it.
But I have to agree with every point you made.
And as much as I liked SAO, how much better could it have been?
That’s almost heart-breaking to consider!
What do you think of the Underworld arc? Any better from your perspective?
Though I was/continue to be critical towards SAO, I’ll say this much of it: I was never bored while watching it. Save for the scenes where Asuna was assaulted, I always had fun watching it. I wonder why? I guess I always saw it as good, dumb fun (its flaws only adding to that sense).
I’ve only watched the first season of SAO. I was under the impression that the series only went downhill from there, so I didn’t feel the need to continue. Though I’d be interested to hear what your thoughts on that are…?
“Though I’d be interested to hear what your thoughts on that are…?”
Thanks for asking!
I enjoyed the Gun Gale Online arc quite a lot. It’s mostly because Sinon is probably my favorite SAO character. I identify a lot with her on a meta level. She’s a strong character, consistently stronger than Asuna (who I don’t hate at all), though as with any female character within a light year of Kirito, he has to save her at least once.
Mother’s Rosario arc was really something. It gave Asuna a chance to reclaim some of her strength and independence, and it had some genuinely emotional moments, especially at the end.
Alicization? Karandi on 100 Word Anime reviewed the first cour, and I think she nailed it. It was often enjoyable, but I can’t point to it and say any particular part was great. The second cour (Underworld) is a completely different matter. There’re some seriously good moments in it.
Mostly, it’s like you said — it’s fun to watch even when it’s not great (with the exception you noted — and I heartily agree!).
Thanks for your input! Maybe I’ll give Gun Gale a go. It’d be interesting to see how the franchise’s treatment of Sinon differs from its treatment of Asuna!
All in all, I don’t think SAO deserves -all- of the hate it receives, but I don’t think it’s the ‘saviour of anime’, either…