As this anime has been out for a few years, and a proper discussion involves how people have reacted to it, which involves exactly what they are reacting to, I will not be nearly so careful about spoilers as I usually am.
When I first heard about Sword Art Online – SAO for short – and watched the first episode, it looked like it would be .hack//Sign on steroids. It’s the second anime I ever saw that used the idea of trapping players within a virtual game, turning it into something real, but SAO does it on a much larger scale. Instead of one player being trapped by what eventually (in the manga and games) turned out to be a computer program that became a computer virus, instead we now had ten thousand players trapped in the game’s fantasy world by its own creator.
With a setup like that, the first episode, the first few episodes, in fact, promised us a thrilling, gripping adventure with extremely high stakes as all these people have to fight through the entire game just to survive.
Oh yeah, this was going to be epic!
…and then it just fell far short.
Sword Art Online gets a lot of hate even from its own fans, and I think it comes down to how it began as one thing, and then it became something completely different. It was original, and then it became formulaic and predictable. It was strong and complex, and then it became weaker and simpler. We still like the anime, but it made promises, and did not keep them.
The most spoiler-free example is the first storyline’s overarching villain.
I remember, right after watching the first episode, I excitedly described it to my best friend. His first and only question to me was, “Why is the villain doing this? What’s his motivation?” I didn’t know, of course. It was the first episode. I figured we’d get to that in due time. Except… we don’t. I’ve watched the entire series, it’s been out for years, and I still do not know. In fact, when the villain was straight-up asked, near the end of his plot, he says, “I’ve forgotten.” So, after all he’s done, the people he’s murdered, even he doesn’t know why?! Come on! What kind of reward is that for the audience?
Now, going into more specifics.
When the story begins, it’s basically the ideal setting for a tale about human nature, both good and bad, in extreme situations of life and loss. There’s definitely a main character, Kirito, but there are plenty of other awesome characters as well. Some of them die, and some of them live, but for the first little while, the story feels like it follows Kirito without being solely about him.
And then, somehow, the show becomes far too Kirito-centric. It’s always what he’s doing. It’s always about him and his glory. It’s always him being chosen to save the day. And it’s always his righteous, screaming anger and sanctimonious speeches that hog the limelight. The other characters are all relegated to background characters, popping up when it’s convenient, but almost never being important ever again.
Nowhere is that more keenly felt than with Kirito’s love interest, Asuna. She begins as a strong, independent woman whose relationship with Kirito is both believable and adorable. Then, almost every moment where she ought to have triumphed is taken away from her. When she saves Kirito from a traitor, she dominates that fight, but then she makes a careless error and needs Kirito to save her. Then they turn her even more into a damsel in distress when he has to go on a quest to save her and she’s all but helpless on her own. When she finally, towards the end of the anime, has her own storyline to follow, even then, Kirito is popping up to save her. Heck, even her love story with Kirito is undermined as the show shifts towards a harem storyline where Kirito saves every girl he meets and they all fall for him.
So, what do we have thus far? The villain is undeveloped, the main character dominates the spotlight too much, the other characters become irrelevant even after stellar introductions and developments, and the female lead is robbed of the limelight she should be sharing with her man.
And the whole point of Sword Art Online just says, over and over and over again, “The game is real.” What we do in the game is real. How we play the game is real. Why we play the game is real. The relationships we make in the game are real. The things we feel in the game are real. The person that we are in the game is real.
Yes. We know. We get it. You don’t need to repeat it so much, SAO. We heard you already.
Oh, and they even managed to make it all about feelings and willpower overcoming everything else. When Kirito is on the brink of death, for instance, there was an item from an earlier episode which could have saved his life. But they didn’t use it. It would have been so easy. Instead, they just had him miraculously hanging on with a will to live, as if all the other people who died would not have wanted to live just as much.
Really, SAO? Really?
So, with all of this working against it, why is it still so popular, even among people who hate on it?
Well, it’s many flaws notwithstanding, it’s still pretty fun to watch. It doesn’t do so great when you follow it from beginning to end, but each story arch has its own endearing charms and epic moments. The first arch is more than a little choppy, but still emotionally gripping. The adventure Kirito shares with his cousin as he fights to save Asuna is fun. The change-up when he moves to a game based on guns instead of swords and magic is interesting. The emotional impact of Asuna’s almost-independent adventure had me tearing up. And so it goes.
And the fights and drama really were fairly entertaining, most of the time.
So, in summary:
Sword Art Online is flawed in ways both obvious and numerous, but somehow it’s just so fun that we tend to forgive it even as we hate on it. It’s dramatic and packed with action. It has characters we love. It’s often pretty funny. It has sick, nasty villains we love to see getting thrashed. The music is awesome. And the theme of our behavior in a game being as real as our behavior in the real world is fairly pointed and perhaps necessary these days.
All in all, I like it, and a bit of me loves it, even when I hate it.
Rating: 8 stars out of 10.