So, I enjoyed the original Sword Art Online anime series, and even enjoyed season 2. I thought that the Gun Gale Online spinoff was also a fun look at things, if a little weird. The Ordinal Scale movie was “okay,” but frankly, the Alicization arc whose anime adaptation completed this summer was just disappointing.
Warning: There be spoilers ahead.
Welcome to “12 Days of AniTAY 2020”, a writing challenge in which I look to have an article a day for 12 days leading up to Christmas, all centered in some way on anime or anime-related topics. You can find re-posts of my 2018 and 2019 series (posted originally on the late TAY and AniTAY Kinja sites) now here on Medium.
So, a quick(-ish) history of the story for anyone who may not have seen it: Sword Art Online (SAO) is a series (well, a few related series) of light novels that have had multiple arcs adapted into multiple anime series. The show is a shounen power fantasy, and one of the prime examples of the “trapped in a video game” genre, particularly the “main character is overpowered in the game” (or in the isekai other world they’ve been transported to for other variants that have become big over the years). Kazuto Kirigaya, who goes by the handle “Kirito,” is one of 10,000 people stuck in the game “Sword Art Online”, a “full-dive” virtual reality game, in which the players are fully immersed for sight, smell, taste, feel, etc., when on the game’s launch, the developer removes their ability to log out, and reveals that death in game will result in death in the real world due to technobabble. Long story short, Kirito eventually helps beat the game, while collecting a “harem” of potential love interests. After two years stuck in the game, Kirito is able to meet up with most of the friends he made in-game now in real life, but his in-game wife, Asuna, never woke up — as it turns out, she’s been captured and stuck into *another* full-dive game. Kirito enters that game to save her before her real-life body is married off to the villain, and defeats him while discovering that he’s been adventuring alongside his cousin this whole time. In SAO 2, Kirito is asked to investigate people seemingly dying in real life due to in-game events in yet another full-dive game, “Gun Gale Online”, the dream of shooters everywhere. He meets Sinon, and inadvertently adds her to his harem, as they defeat the baddies in-game, and then again in real life. (There’s a theme, there.) The final arc of SAO 2 sees Asuna, Kirito’s love interest, actually take the lead, helping a small group clear a boss in the game all on their own so they can all have their names on a specific monument. She comes to find out that this group is all people who are very, very sick, including their leader, Yuuki, who is actually dying of AIDS. Meanwhile, Asuna is dealing with her mother’s disapproval of her attendance at the SAO-survivors school with Kirito and her other friends, due to its potential impact on her chance to get into a good college, along with Asuna’s general strained relationship with her mother. After the first arc, there are also some other hints/interactions with the original developer of SAO, and his mysterious “plan” (whatever it is), and how it’s still affecting things / things are still being found. Finally, the movie Ordinal Scale sees the gang playing an “augmented reality” game, instead of a full-dive VR, and dealing with former SAO players’ memories being taken from them, in order to try to reconstruct a deceased player via AI + everyone else’s memories. (The Gun Gale Online spinoff is about a different set of characters entirely who end up playing the game, although there’s some references to Kirito and Sinon’s adventures.)
So, background out of the way. I personally most enjoyed the first arc of SAO (the one that set everything up), followed by the “Mother’s Rosario” arc that was shown last in SAO 2 (the one featuring Asuna). In fact, part of the reason for enjoying the latter is that in some ways, it features the most “growth” of anyone in the series, as Asuna figures out how to communicate her own wishes and desires and some of her own experiences with her mother, alongside working to help make Yuuki’s last days and weeks special. Ordinal Scale was kinda nice in that, while everyone else has been playing this AR game for some time, Kirito hasn’t been playing it at all, and so he’s NOT automatically the most over-powered and best player around once he has to take it up to solve what’s going on. Otherwise, it’s pretty generic, and Kirito wins in a “no true bad guys” ending with the help of all his friends.
The “Alicization” arc, I had thought, or possibly been told, was supposed to be even “better” than previous arcs. Taking place after Ordinal Scale, Kirito is attacked, near-fatally, by a remaining bad guy from the Gun Gale Online arc, who also was a “Player Killer” player in SAO (players who deliberately killed other players). Kirito is spirited away by a government contact who worked with him in debriefing and follow up on “the SAO incident.” Asuna can’t find him, so she enlists the help of the woman who aided the original SAO developer during the 2 years they were all stuck in the game to get her into the secret floating base that the government contact is staying on with Kirito. As it turns out, Kirito’s been running a new type of full dive, interacting with a host of artificial intelligences that are being “raised” (since they don’t know they’re AIs) to see if they can eventually create an AI capable of breaking its own restrictions or something, presumably so eventually the military could make killer AI robots or whatever. To save Kirito’s life, he’s been put back into this world using an offshoot of the medical dive device that Yuuki was using in the “Mother’s Rosario” arc, I presume to a) continue the experiments, and b) keep his mind busy while his body is being healed. Time moves faster in the AI-world, so he’s spent multiple years over the few days it takes Asuna to find and get to him. While this is all going on, the floating base is attacked by… mercenaries? US commandos? Both? I was never quite clear on that, but who are looking to be the ones to swipe the first AI which will be the one that they’ve been building towards, and which is almost ready. In AI-land, called “Underworld,” Kirito and his AI-friend eventually become knights in training, and here’s part of where things really start to go off the rails for me.
So the basic setup is kinda handwavey technobabble-y, but that wasn’t a huge problem, other than “why is nobody arresting the woman who helped a wanted criminal for 2 years?” It wasn’t the greatest or strongest of plots, but it was moving forward. “People want the super AI that is just about to emerge, good guys want to prevent bad guys from grabbing it and taking it off to make killer robots” is basic, but understandable and workable as a plot. But one of the issues I had (especially with a young son who enjoyed SAO) was an episode in the second arc of the first season, when Asuna is trying to escape the game world on her own, but is recaptured, and subjected to tentacle porn (the first arc had some minor tentacle-y-ness in one episode, but it’s fairly brief, and seemingly more there for the humor value, as it’s just some basic monsters grabbing the cute girl with their tentacles — but this one involved people who were logged in as tentacle monsters, and who are deliberately assaulting Asuna). Allegedly, in response to complaints about these kinds of things, I’d thought that the author was supposed to be including less such situations. But in Underworld, Kirito and his AI-friend Eugeo intervene to stop the literal rape of their female apprentices by other Knight students from the aristocracy. A bloodbath ensues as I believe both the would be rapists (who go rather damn far for this show) are killed by Kirito and Eugeo. So, that was the first major disappointment, in that here was a complete episode that I could in no way show to my 8 year old son, due to inappropriate themes and extremely graphic violence. Like a real step up from anything that had come before in the series.
Anyway, now our hero and his sidekick are essentially arrested for violating the “Taboo Index” — only to meet Integrity Knight Alice Synthesis Thirty One, who it turns out was a little girl that both Kirito and Eugeo knew years before who’d been taken away, presumably to be executed, for merely accidentally violating the Index by falling and having her fingertips touch a region deemed out of bounds. It turns out, Alice is the AI everyone on the outside is waiting for. Long story short, for the first set of arcs, Kirito winds up bringing out her original memories, and the three of them defeat the first half villain — but Eugeo is killed, Kirito loses an arm, Alice loses an eye… and then, while trying to get Alice to the “terminal” so the both of them can get out before the real life attack (remember the baddies?) can do real damage and prevent things — not only for that attempt to fail, but for the baddies’ attack to send some kind of shock into Kirito, and render him (in Underworld) nearly comatose for most of the rest of the series.
So we’ve established and upped some stakes — massive damage to our hero, outside they’re still under attack by the baddies, plus they need to rescue Kirito, heal Kirito, and get Alice out. Asuna… is kind of useless here. At this point, though, it’s not yet her fault. No, that will come soon enough. To try and force the AI issue, the baddies log into Underworld themselves, using super-admin accounts that give them massive powers, over a whole bunch of monster races we hadn’t really seen before, or even really had referred to. The main baddy is a psychopath in real life, who likes killing people for some reason… I forget what it is, to experience their souls or something. His brother is another Player Killer survivor of SAO — as it turns out, not just any PKer, but the leader of the big PK clan, whose goal at some point had switched to turning Kirito into a player killer himself. Meanwhile, the “human empire” (of AIs), or what’s left of it, sets up to defend against a massive invasion spearheaded by the baddies. Kirito… is in a wheelchair. Comatose. He only responds to his sword and Eugeo’s sword in any way at all.
On the plus side of the ledger, we DO start getting this view that the monsters of the dark empire aren’t (for the most part) just evil “mob” NPCs — they’re seemingly AIs in their own right, with their own wishes and dreams and feelings. But it’s poorly explored, whether just in the anime adaptation, or in the original story arc itself, I don’t know (as I’ve only watched the anime, not read the originals). But massive battle starts, things aren’t looking good for the humans… and then Asuna logs in using a literal god account to help out. And here’s where I really have a problem. Asuna logs in. The other friends log in, either with “God” accounts themselves, or by converting their normal game accounts — a move which puts their whole account (progress, etc.) at risk, as Underworld is not a normal game that’s backed up and so forth. They also make an impassioned plea to the other players in their regular game — with eventually *some* response, but not as much as they hoped. To counter, the bad guys… BS players from the US, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan to come and be mooks and take on the server allegedly to “save” it from the “evil Japanese who are taking it over” kind of thing. While there’s some interesting interplay between the humans and monsters (and the humans amongst themselves), with some decent “not so different” / “worthy of respect” / etc. kind of things, my big complaint is that Asuna seems to have badly regressed. I know she’s worried about Kirito and all, but this girl who was like, second in command of the main floor clearing group by the end of SAO, is a crying, near-useless mess half the time. And it doesn’t really get better.
Eventually, the good guys win, as Kirito is eventually roused via some kind of “connecting people who remember him to rebuild his Ego” mumbo-jumbo, along with a ghostly Eugeo who still inhabits his sword or something, and then Kirito is once again massively over-powered. They get Alice to the terminal, one of the human baddies is permanently(?) turned into a tree in Underworld, and the other one is literally killed, only to have his ghost return to his body, but then be pulled down to the afterlife by the ghosts of his victims. Which, WTF. We’ve never really had any true mystical / paranormal stuff here, and it feels odd to introduce it now. Metaphysical, yes, potential “ghost in the shell” and/or memories/personality still hiding around the ‘net or something, yes, but ghosts, no. The rest of the baddies make their escape, with their mission having failed.
So, Kirito and Asuna (who joins him) end up stuck in the game for 200 years (from their perspective) due to the baddies turning up the in-game acceleration to max, something which should supposedly kill them or something in that like, their souls or brains or ??? aren’t equipped to handle that length of time and that many memories. They manage to pull them out, and somehow they survive, and hang in there by having their memories of the 200 years wiped (maybe?).
THEN Alice is introduced to the world in a robot body that mimics her own in game. And at some point, she has herself shipped to Kirito’s house (see the top image) to let him know they need to dive back into Underworld. At which point, we get a bizarre ending, where… they’re in space? Fighting in space? With, possibly descendants of the apprentices who were almost raped (oh yeah, I’m pretty sure I’m blanking on there being another rape or near-rape scene involving the two main baddies at some point) in spaceships? I don’t know, this ending was so not explained, it’s just ridiculous.
So, really to sum up, the Alicization series was 40–50 episodes of disappointment, due to the continued use of rape scenes, some new extremely graphic violence, on top of some really poor explanations (I have heard that some of the stuff such as main baddy being dragged to hell are better covered in the light novel source), just poor plotting, and worst of all, a bad regression in Asuna’s character.
And to top it all off, at the end of the series, they put up the announcement that an adaptation of the “Progressive” arc is coming. As I understand it, “Progressive” is essentially, “let’s go back and re-do the original SAO arc, but actually expand it to really cover most-to-all of the floors, rather than a dozen episodes that start with the early floors, hit some middle points, then jump to the ending.” So, potentially sounds good — one of the big complaints of the arc in the anime (and possibly the original light novels) was that it’s too short. But I’ve heard that allegedly, this is going to be a movie, or series of movies. Which if so, would rather defeat the purpose of going back to it. So at this point, I am actually *not* excited by the thought of this adaptation of another arc. I’m not even interested in my usual thing, which is a re-watch, this time of the English dub. So we’ll see, but at this point, to me the trend lines are all pointing down for SAO.