Kaushik here, back in the new year to review another anime. Merry Christmas, by the way! Anywho, today I’ll be reviewing my number 10 anime of 2012, Sword Art Online. One of the more highly-anticipated anime of the year (though not by me) and definitely a blockbuster in terms of popularity and sales, I couldn’t go without offering my opinion on the matter. Sword Art Online, or as it’s more popularly known, SAO, aired from July to December 2012, and was produced by the Studio A-1 Pictures. A-1 Pictures has produced several other popular anime in the past (Fairy Tail, Anohana, Working!!) so giving them a high quality, highly-anticipated series like this was a good idea.
Full disclosure: I was actually totally uninterested in SAO when it first started airing. I knew it was popular and was going to be popular, but the synopsis and the story line I had gathered from reading tidbits here and there didn’t grab me. It was really by chance that I picked it up, and I have to say for the most part I’m glad I did. The basic plot of the series is fairly simple. A bunch of people are trapped in a virtual MMORPG by their headsets, and must survive within the game. The only way out is the complete the 100 floors of the game, but if you die in the game… You die for real.
Honestly, it sounded dumb to me too. It like a tired concept to a degree (.hack anyone?) with a forced “edginess” from the possibility of death. As I watched the show though, I slowly got more and more into it. The plot progressed in some directions I hadn’t thought of, which was cool. It got decidedly more light-hearted than I thought possible, which I greatly enjoyed (and was the high-point of the series to me). There was an unexpected and surprisingly deep (and fulfilling to a degree) romantic element. It even culminated in a sweet and very cool ending, at least for the first half of the series.
And this is where my good impression of the series fell apart. There was a lot of build up and anticipation for this game, Sword Art Online, and halfway through the series… It was done. I enjoyed how that arc of the series ended, but the fact that it continued afterwards kind of cheapened the previous and subsequent experiences for me. The next arc, ALO, or Alfheim Online, was decidedly less dangerous (at least in terms of death to the player). Instead, it seemed to force a lot of drama into the series that felt hamfisted and in general poorly done. Moreover, the characters and plot of the second half was just less enjoyable and the first half, and soured an otherwise positive experience. I was doubly disappointed since I didn’t think much of the series going in, and really enjoyed it for a while. Then the entirety of the second half was a poorly produced mess.
A lot of people will refer to Kirito, the main character, as a sort of Mary Sue (or Gary Stu, if you prefer) character. That simply means that everything seems to go right for him and he can do no wrong, and he’s the most powerful character in the series. And it’s most definitely true. Kirito is pretty much the best at everything in the show. That’s not to say he didn’t go through his share of hardships, but it did get a little boring that pretty much every situation could be solved by adding Kirito. But it’s his story so I grew to accept that. Unfortunately, besides that Kirito isn’t that interesting a character. He’s very single-minded in focus, and in general a good guy. Kind of the stereotypical shounen lead, except he’s not dumb. Which only serves to reinforce his status as a Mary Sue character. There aren’t really any negatives to Kirito’s character, which ultimately made him boring.
Conversely, I actually enjoyed Asuna’s character. Asuna is the other main character in the show, and ended up being Kirito’s romantic interest. Unlike a lot of girls in these kinds of shounen-y shows, Asuna was surprisingly capable and useful in a fight. Unfortunately whatever she could do, Kirito could do better, but as a standalone character I think Asuna was well-designed and executed. At least for the first half of the series, it felt like Kirito and Asuna were a competent team.
In the second half, however, Asuna fell into the position of damsel in distress, and was largely removed from the show. In her place, we got Leafa (who was secretly Kirito’s “cousin”, Suguha). Leafa was by and large less useful than Asuna, and I think the attempts to make her somewhat useful were hugely overshadowed by Kirito repeatedly saving the day. Eventually they just stuck her on healbot duty, while Kirito did all the work. Sure, that’s useful, but it felt like Leafa was a lame character that couldn’t contribute much else to the series.
On the real-world side of things, Suguha was similarly uninteresting. Her single defining characteristic (besides her breasts. ha. ha) was that she was hopelessly in love with her “brother” Kirigaya, who was actually Kirito in the game she played. That was it. And unfortunately, all this led to was a lot of uninteresting and poorly-executed drama. It felt like since there was no actual immediate danger from dying in ALO, this romantic subplot was thrown in just to have some drama. And it felt boring and thrown in my face. As a result, I think the potential for Suguha’s character failed, and the potential for anything interesting to happen in the second half of the anime failed as well.
I didn’t think the art was anything special, but the animation quality was surprisingly good. The fights that needed to be handled well I thought were handled particularly, which was cool. The music was hit-or-miss to me. In a rare twist, I actually preferred the BGM to the OP or ED themes.
— Surprisingly strong first half, with a good fulfilling romance subplot
— Good animation quality
— Solid BGM
— Some of the minor story arcs were really good
— Fell apart in the second half in terms of story and characters
— Kirito is a boring and overpowered character
Studio: A-1 Pictures
Director: Tomohiko Ito
Character design: abec & Shingo Adachi
Music: Kajiura Yuki
Original run: April 12, 2012 – November 19, 2012
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