This was the second time Mo Black opened his eyes for the first time.
It took him a few moments to collect his thoughts. His eyelids still stuck together as he blinked, his back was sore beyond comprehension, and, above all, he was experiencing the worst headache he could remember at the time. Nonetheless, as he sat up and surveyed his surroundings, the overwhelming sense of déjà vu was enough to make him even more nauseous than he already was.
“This isn’t the first draft of this part of the essay,” he said suddenly and to himself. It was the only explanation that made sense. How else could it all be so familiar?
The cold and soft earth under a carpet of brilliant emerald green grass. The rolling hills that flowed down to a crystal clear lake. The tiny lakeside town, the only sign of buildings for miles in any direction, and its one road leading in and out of the village.
Even the stillness of the air and the warmth of the bright white sun in the sky was all too similar to what had come before to go unnoticed.
Bullshit no Yuusha: Suffering from Capitalist Alienation, I Reincarnate to an Anime Crit Essay!
Volume 1 [you are here] — Alice in Wonderland and Sword Art Online
Volume 2 — Konosuba and The Hero is Overpowered but Overly Cautious
Volume 3 — Didn’t I Say to Make My Abilities Average in the Next Life!? and The Master of Ragnarok and the Blesser of Einherjar
Volume 4 — Re:Zero — Starting life in another world and capital’s effect on media
CW: General discussion of some pretty gross sexism, sexual assault (I’ll tell you when), bad writing
“Mo Black. You’re awake. I was beginning to think all you did was sleep,” said a mysterious, curious, enigmatical, sphynxlike voice. “If you’d slept for any longer, I might’ve changed my mind and summoned the Shield Hero instead.”
That exact list of pretentious adjectives definitely ripped from thesaurus.com was also just as familiar.
This time, if that was something that could even be said, Mo knew the source of the voice was not at all mysterious, curious, enigmatical, or even, to be frank, sphynxlike. It should be, if memory served, a ridiculously proportioned woman with rainbow hair and the power of a goddess radiating from her pale skin.
There was no denying it: after the many months Mo Black had spent perfecting the art of online essay writing, he’d finally done it. He’d finally achieved the legendary power of RETURN BY DRAFT. In exchange for writing the perfect anime crit essay, at every draft change he was fated to be reborn into his work, living through each and every edit in person until the essay’s completion.
It was a heavy price to pay. A burden that he would shoulder for the rest of time. This power was his fish to fry. His whale to catch. His seafood metaphor to make into gas station sushi. Alone. Solo. Unaccompanied. By himself. So tortured. So troubled.
Mo finally turned to address his interlocutor. “You don’t mean that, do you, goddess? I’m sure my abilities are far more suited to the task at hand than that other guy’s.”
“So you are already aware I’m a goddess,” the woman replied. “Very impressive. I suppose this is but a fraction of the true power of the Bullshit Hero.”
Mo winced. “Again with that name…”
The goddess cocked an eyebrow. “Again? How do you mean? I’ve seen you plenty of times, but this is our first time meeting face to face, as far as I’m aware. You’ve never heard me call you that name.”
Mo sighed. “That’s both right and wrong, ma’am. First, I really don’t need my TROPE VISION to figure out what’s going on here. I’ve obviously been summoned to another world by a goddess, who, despite her immense cosmic power, still needs some low-life 20-something self-loathing weeb trash to save her whole planet or universe or dimension or something from an existential threat.”
The goddess’s face turned sour. “You’re more or less correct, but I could do without your smug attitude.”
“Eh, it’s part of the package.” Mo cleared his throat. “More to the point, we’ve had this conversation before, in a version of this introduction that the audience will never read. I came back to this moment with the power of RETU██ ██ █████ — “
Time ground to a standstill as fear itself closed its fingers around his heart. The taste of blood crept up his throat. He couldn’t finish that sentence if he tried.
𝔚𝔥𝔞𝔱 𝔭𝔞𝔯𝔱 𝔬𝔣 “𝔄𝔩𝔬𝔫𝔢. 𝔖𝔬𝔩𝔬. 𝔘𝔫𝔞𝔠𝔠𝔬𝔪𝔭𝔞𝔫𝔦𝔢𝔡. 𝔅𝔶 𝔥𝔦𝔪𝔰𝔢𝔩𝔣” 𝔡𝔦𝔡 𝔶𝔬𝔲 𝔫𝔬𝔱 𝔲𝔫𝔡𝔢𝔯𝔰𝔱𝔞𝔫𝔡?
“I guess I can’t tell you,” Mo said finally, after taking a moment to catch his breath. “I’ll try not to make big deal out of it.”
The goddess took a step back, adjusted her skirt, then swung her arm in a crisp, sweeping motion. The sky got darker, even without clouds blocking the sun. The air was cold too. And almost too thin to breathe.
“Mo Black, the Bullshit Hero,” she declared.
“I’d still like a do-over on the name,” Mo said between shivers. “How about Cool and Popular Internet Essayist?”
“Silence!” The goddess’s voice boomed with a force strong enough to flatten the grass at Mo’s feet. “I’d be inclined to dispense with the trite even under less pressing circumstances. Needless to say I’ll forego the sex-comedy chicanery which typically heralds the first 100 seconds of any character’s given introduction sequence.
“I’ll also resist the urge to brandish any valueless BAKA!! tsundere clamoring, or the particular neurosis that concerns itself with callbacks to the utterly mundane — I’ll allow other deranged prospectors to stake claims on if I’ve managed to gain the attention of “senpai”, regardless of whether a being as powerful as myself would even have a need for such a thing.
“My introduction will be sparse. There will be no majestic prose blustering into the sails of medieval fantasy adventure as we embark on this voyage together. Nor will there be any hamfisted prose whipping its tentacles across the salty ocean waves of another fucking beach episode, for that matter. I won’t set the stage, or dim the lights.
“The mood, you will see, will be set soon enough.”
Mo gulped. “S-sure?”
“I am the queen of kings of dimensions infinite. I am the keeper of waifus. I am the satisfier of wish fulfillment. I am the guardian of portals and summonings abound. I am the shepherd of forced JRPG mechanics and the herald of overpowered protagonists across all universes and possible fanfiction timelines.
“I am Sakana, goddess of isekai. And it is your destiny to save this world from its assured destruction.”
Chapter 1: Bullshit! What Even Is Isekai Anyway?
“You’re pretty spot-on for the anime goddess archetype aren’t you? But your outfit isn’t very goddess-like, y’know?” The bones in Mo’s wrist screamed for relief from Sakana’s iron grip. Mo wasn’t quite sure where she was dragging him, exactly, but she seemed to be in a hurry. “It’s almost like the person who drew you wanted you to look a little like Ristarte from Cautious Hero, but then realized he sucks too much at art to actually draw a decent royal-looking outfit, and too broke to hire someone who could.”
She ignored him. “You will use your TROPE VISION to find the anime responsible for corrupting my domain. Then, I’ll use the full extent of my power, the LIGHT OF SOCIAL JUSTICE, to eliminate them from existence once and for all. It is the only way for isekai as a genre to survive for the years to come.”
“And what do I get out of it?” Mo asked.
“In return, I will allow you to return to your own world unscathed.”
Finally, the goddess let go of his wrist. With her power she summoned a bright white ball of energy in the middle of the field.
“This is the Summoning Seed. Through it, you will be able to see every isekai in existence, past and present. Use your TROPE VISION on the Summoning Seed, and find me the anime responsible for ruining isekai.”
“Right, okay.” Mo blinked. “Wait, hold on. I can’t. At least, not yet. I mean — “
“What now? What reason could you possibly have for hesitating?” Sakana’s throat let out a growl more ferocious than any human or animal.
“Well, like, I just think it’s kind of overgeneralizing to say that an entire genre is doomed to crappy stories, y’know? The format, well, reincarnation as a plot device, has a lot of potential. If anything, isekai is just popular right now, and we’re getting more isekai in general, both good and bad. How do you know you’re not blowing things out of proportion?”
The goddess looked more than a little displeased, but she complied with Mo’s request. A small ball of energy left the Summoning Seed and floated its way over to him.
“Aw, it’s so cute!” he cooed.
“That’s because it hasn’t been made into an anime just yet.”
Mo scratched his head. “Wait, this little ball of energy is a medium?”
“Correct.” Sakana flicked her wrist, and the little ball met Mo at eye-level. “This particular one happens to be Reborn as a Vending Machine, I Now Wander the Dungeon.”
“I…” Even at his level of mastery of all things bullshit, Mo’s brain couldn’t seem to wrap itself around that one. “Reborn as a what now?”
The light novels follow its titular protagonist who, after being crushed to death by a vending machine, is reincarnated as a sentient vending machine in a fantasy dungeon world. Shortly after, he meets and befriends Lammis, a young female hunter, who names him “Boxxo” and starts carrying him around on her back, and the two start their adventures in the dungeon together. Reborn as a Vending Machine has received positive reception from reviewers, with particular praise being directed at the novels’ unique take on the isekai genre. ~Wikipedia
“Would you like to take a peak inside the light novels?” Sakana asked, a smug grin on her face.
“Not really, but I know you’re gonna make me anyway.”
Finally over how asinine this premise is, and feeling a rush of adrenaline from borrowing the goddess’s ability to consume any piece of media instantaneously, Mo’s face broke out into a wide smile.
“You know, thematically speaking the story ain’t so bad,” he said. “The vending machine needs money to survive and progress through his magic skill tree. Meanwhile the big tiddy huntress loli needs food to survive. They need each other. It’s a simple, symbiotic relationship and a perfect, practical example of mutual aid. Consider, if you will, the duality of man. In Plato’s — “
Sakana slapped Mo in the back of the head hard enough to steal the breath from his lungs. “Do not defend this garbage! I forbid it!”
“Okay okay fine. Ow…” He rubbed the back of his head. “I guess I can see what you mean. Isekai has a reputation of being kind of a yikes of a genre. And it’s not exactly an unfounded belief either.”
“So you’ll help me.”
“I will. But if you want my help,” Mo smiled, “we’re taking this from the beginning!”
Sakana frowned. “What do you mean, from the beginning?”
“Well, let’s start with a few questions: What exactly is an isekai, anyway? And what does it mean thematically when a story transports its protagonist from the ordinary world to another world?”
“I was afraid you’d say something like that…” Sakana said with a roll of her eyes.
I can’t stress how bizarre isekai is as compared to most other genres of fiction in any medium. Imagine if every RPG was just Pokemon. Like, not in the sense that RPGs are similar currently, pretty much all of them share a leveling system, skills, items and turn-based mechanics. But I mean, what if they were all literally Pokemon.
What if they all took place in a small, utopian region with a few small towns and one or two big cities, where people and monsters live side by side and fight in battles? Imagine if every RPG that came out had a 10-year-old protagonist that was expected to go on a quest to meet all the monsters of this world and beat 8 bosses, an elite four, and a champion. Imagine if the genre was so saturated with this format that new games coming to the market now make jokes about how all RPGs are the same.
And yet is the state of isekai in 2019. Uh, 2020? See the essay takes place in a set point in time but I wrote it over an interval of months. Weird how narratives be like that.
So what is an isekai, anyway? The most common definition, given the fact that isekai is just Japanese for “other world”, is any story where a protagonist leaves the “real world” for some other world or dimension where the rules of reality have significantly changed.
Of course, on that alone we’d have to admit that isekai is neither new or even all that Japanese. I mean, this is just Alice in Wonderland. Or, more specifically, Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and the sequel Through the Looking Glass published by British author Lewis Carroll between 1865 and 1881.
Alice in Wonderland has entered the English lexicon as a series of expressions that literally refer to the experience of being sent to another world. If someone’s “in Wonderland” or you ever want to “see how deep the rabbit hole goes” or if it was like you were “through the Looking Glass”, everyone knows what you’re talking about, even without having read the source material.
If we’re looking to understand other world stories, it’d honestly be criminal not to start here.
Alice in Wonderland
We’ll focus on Alice’s Adventures Under Ground and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The two are the same story, the latter was just republished by Lewis Carroll with added scenes as the story moved from manuscript to print.
The thing about Alice’s Adventures in the Wonderland is that, for the most part, the plot doesn’t actually matter. It’s a story for children after all. I think I read these and Through the Looking Glass when I was, 9? 11 maybe?
The original story has the title character, Alice, a young child, follow a talking white rabbit with pocket watch down a rabbit hole which transports her from her ordinary rural life into a fantastical other world. Here, everything she eats either makes her grow larger or smaller, animals talk, playing cards come to life, and everything is just a little bit off. It’s a world out of a child’s daydream.
Alice meets an entire cast of characters which would later go on to become some of the msot iconic beings in fantasy. There’s the white rabbit whose always in a rush, the Mad Hatter who’s stuck in a moment of time. She meets a dormouse, a talking caterpillar who’s constantly hitting a bong, and a Red Queen of Hearts who demands everyone around her who does something even slightly wrong be executed.
The story basically mixes these characters and some wacky antics around for a few thousand words until it’s revealed it was all a dream Alice had.
“If it was all a dream,” Sakana asked, “genre savviness tells us that’s one sure way of saying nothing in the story actually matters.”
“It’s an assumption we usually assert to be true,” replied Mo.
Sakana rubbed her chin. “Okay, Mo. I’ll go with your intuition here just this once and say there’s more to this story than meets the eye. We’ll say that Lewis Carroll was a competent enough author to not purposefully diminish the impact of his own narrative with an overdone cliché.
“At the end of the story, the fact that Alice wakes up, the fact that she returns to the real world from Wonderland, leaves us with two worlds side-by-side. It would be worth finding out how the real world and the other world speak to each other.”
Both versions of the story end with Alice’s older sister and guardian dozing off herself. She finds herself within Alice’s dream, listening to someone recount the story of Alice’s adventures to a new generation of children. In Alice’s Adventures in the Under World, it reads,
Then [Alice’s sister] thought, (in a dream within the dream, as it were,) how this same little Alice would, in the after-time, be herself a grown woman: and how she would keep, through her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood: and how she would gather around her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a wonderful tale, perhaps even with these very adventures of the little Alice of long-ago: and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days.
“The story puts an emphasis on the value of fiction for its own sake,” said Sakana. “If anything, the Wonderland story argues that it’s because Alice’s adventures were a dream of sorts that they are important. It’s these kinds of dreams that captivate children and make adults happy alike.
“If anything, the fact that Wonderland is a quasi-dream and a not a more concrete space allows Wonderland to matter more. Wonderland brings joy in the real world because it is a dream. Being a dream is what makes Wonderland matter. The dream makes Wonderland great.”
Mo nodded in agreement. “But there’s more to it if we look at Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”
That version of the story ends in exactly the same way, with most of the same text. But there are a few sentences added. Such as this,
So [Alice’s sister] sat on, with closed eyes, and half believed herself in Wonderland, though she knew she had but to open them again, and all would change to dull reality
So now we’ve got a second and equally important observation. To Alice in Wonderland, not only are fictional other worlds important because they bring happiness to children and adults alike, they allow adults to escape real life and all the problems and boredom simply existing can bring.
Isn’t isekai kind of a weird idea, if you think about it? The Hero’s Journey of course generally calls for the hero out of their ordinary environment to be thrust into the unknown. But the vast majority of stories don’t draw explicit attention to the fact that this new environment is “fictional” or unreal. Most myths and religions maintain that the fantastical elements of the world are already apart of the real world, and most stories just move the character between locations that exist in the same larger overall world.
Anytime we consume fiction, whether it be through novels, anime, video games, whatever, we’re already leaving the real world to spend time in fiction. What is the narrative purpose of constructing two fictional worlds, one that mirrors reality exactly and one that doesn’t, and then pointing to one and saying, “this one is real” and to the other, “this one’s fake”?
Well, the purpose is to explicitly draw attention to life itself. Adults, unlike children, can’t pretend the problems of reality don’t affect us. We have work, or school, and bills, and relationships that don’t work out, and a million other things that our parents can’t protect us from anymore. Having an other world in fiction serves to address this fact directly.
In a way, isekai is inherently political in a way separate from the fact that all art is political. It by necessity makes commentary on the material conditions of the world. Sometimes, like in Alice in Wonderland, the commentary is relatively inoffensive. “Adult life is boring sometimes”. Okay, sure.
But Isekai in anime isn’t made for 9 year olds. It’s made for teenagers and adults. What isekai has to say about the material conditions of life quickly becomes far more complicated.
“Well of course,” said Sakana. “After all, the archetypal isekai is a little more involved than sending the main character to another world because life sucks.”
“Hm. How would you describe it?” Mo asked.
“Well, you’re the Bullshit Hero! Wouldn’t you…” The goddess’s cheeks flushed pink from the embarrassment of describing her realm’s worst tropes and clichés. “Some… would say that my genre has a teensy bit of a problem with… uh — “
“Shut-in, horny, male nerd protagonists ages 16–22 being transported to another world where they’re given overpowered abilities and a harem of beautiful young women, half of which are underaged?” Mo asked.
Sakana growled. “If you knew, then why’d you make me say it?” she grumbled. The goddess paused. “Actually, you’re missing still something. Two things, actually. Your first omission was that, unlike Alice in Wonderland, most isekai don’t compare the real world to the fiction, they assert the real world has failed and propose the fiction as a permanent and superior alternative. The main characters are vessels for self-insertion, not really characters in and of themselves, to fit this need.”
“We’ll have to prove it,” Mo said, “but I can work with that idea for now. What’s the second?”
“A huge percentage of modern isekai stories are published on a handful of Japanese Internet forums by young, aspiring authors with no professional experience whatsoever.”
syosetsu.com is an anonymous Japanese web novel forum where literally anyone can publish anything, and stories get popular based on the popularity among anonymous users.
Sites like syosetsu.com are where light novel and manga publishers get ideas for books to make. I want to stress just how many isekai anime have been published here, and just how low of a barrier to entry there is to throw up a new story.
Imagine if a sizeable amount of the American publishing industry was just pouring money into browsing Wattpad fanfiction. And then if they found a story they liked they’d contact you to rewrite the story as a proper comic book. And if that comic book did well, Paramount or Sony would reach out and make it into a film. That’s sort of the state of, anime in general but isekai especially. The standard model of anime production starts with unconnected nobodies posting all kinds of stories online.
This at least in part explains the similarity of isekai. They come from the same places from authors who have maybe written like… one real story. Maybe two?
If you ever wonder why all these light novels coming out all have long, wordy, and pretentious titles, it’s because it’s the only way to gain attention on the Internet. When everyone’s anonymous and there’s so much content, no one’s going to read a story with a vague title like “Falling Stars”. But, “My beautiful and busty childhood friend was reincarnated as a shooting star” carries the premise of the story with it, as well as the knowledge that it’s probably trash. It’s more clickable in an Internet forum environment.
“That’s funny.” Sakana smirked. “The titles of your essays tend to be quite wordy and pretentious, Bullshit Hero. Curious how that works out.”
Mo coughed. “Well anyway that’s enough analysis on that wouldn’t you say? How about we move on to an actual isekai, huh? Heheh. Heh.”
The goddess cracked her knuckles. “I’ll do you one better. How about the isekai that launched my domain into infamy. When it comes to 16–22 year old horny shut-in nerds who go to another world, find out they have overpowered abilities and find themselves surrounded by attractive women, there’s one name in the game.”
Chapter 2: Bullshit! SAO isn’t isekai’s original sin?
Sword Art Online
To say Sword Art Online (SAO) gets a lot of crap would be understating the truth to the point of falsehood. In online anime circles, SAO is the very definition of trash-tier anime made for the common denominator, and liking it is a sure sign of bad taste, inexperience with anime as a medium, or both. At best, you’ll see SAO referred to as the “gateway anime” by online anime mainstays. It’s not uncommon for people to regard SAO as literally the worst anime ever made.
More relevant to this essay, the popularity of SAO is what most people cite as the reason why isekai is as popular, and as terrible, as it is today. The theory goes that, after SAO came out in 2012 and made a shitload of money, anime production companies have been trying to milk that same cow ever since.
The anime itself though? SAO is… uh… how do I put this?
“It sucks,” Sakana said.
“Mo. Mo. Look at me. Mo.”
SAO follows the story of Kirigaya Kazuto, or, as he’s referred to online, Kirito.
In the real world, Kazuto is a shut-in high schooler with few friends who doesn’t stand out in any particular way. Kazuto has always felt disconnected from his family, and finding out he was adopted only made it worse. He instead closes himself off from the outside world and lives through a variety of MMORPGs as Kirito. The time Kirito sinks into playing online games makes him far more talented than the average gamer.
Kirito is given the opportunity, alone with 1,000 other beta-testers, to play-test a new VRMMORPG (Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) called Sword Art Online. The show begins on launch day of the final version of the game. Kirito’s experience with the beta, as well as his general experience with video games, gives him a serious edge over the other players.
Just as thousands of players are about to begin their first adventures in this new game, they begin to realize they’re no longer able to log out of the system. For reasons unexplained, the headgear they use to play virtual reality games in this story intercept all the signals your brain would send to your limbs, so the players are unable to physically remove the headsets. The system also lacks an equivalent of CTRL+ALT+DEL, or ALT+F4, or sudo killall game, or CTRL+C, or…
It’s fairly contrived.
Kayaba Akihiko, the creator of SAO, appears before the players. He declares that from now on, all the current players of SAO will be trapped in the game until one of the current players clears every boss available in this world. If a player is to run out of health points in the game, the game is programmed to kill them in real life.
The first half of the show follows two years of struggle as the players organize to beat the game and free themselves from SAO. Dozens of people kill themselves out of fear, stress, or depression. Some players don’t buy Kayaba’s warning, and kill players because they don’t think that actually translates to killing a real person. Some players kill because they like it. Some players level up to join the front lines in a push to free themselves from the virtual world as soon as possible. Some players support the front lines with skills, strategy, and craftsmanship. Some players focus on surviving. Some players decide to accept their fates, and do their best to live a good life in the game.
SAO follows Kirito as he navigates his way through every kind of character. As the edgy, over-competent badass he is, he of course prefers to work alone. At least at first.
Kirito hides his strength and does his best to blend in with the less powerful players. He joins a party early on for companionship, but after watching them all die one by one as each of his friends pleaded for their lives, Kirito concludes he’s better off alone.
That is until he meets a teenaged girl named Asuna. She’s a loner like him, and the second best SAO player in existence after Kirito.
The two go on a few adventures together, fall in love, and promptly… get married before having sex. They adopt a kid together, a game construct that was designed to help players with mental health issues, but which Kayaba had deactivated to I guess spread as much misery as humanly possible.
I actually find it especially hilarious how pure and wholesome their relationship is. It’s the kind of “I married my high-school sweetheart” fantasy that somehow, despite the show’s other, numerous flaws, just kind of works. The anime cut a lot of the more overtly sexual parts of their relationship from the source material, so what made it on screen doesn’t get so serious and detailed it’s creepy, but leaves in enough that it doesn’t feel naïve. It’s literally just a young guy and girl in a healthy, loving relationship.
I joked to myself while watching that Kirito and Asuna are just a happy, modest Muslim couple but like,
the show basically makes the joke for me, even if on accident.
After Kirito defeats the final boss of SAO, Kayaba keeps his promise, destroys the world of SAO, and frees the players from their headsets. Kayaba permanently transmits his consciousness into the dying bits of SAO’s source code.
Around 4,000 players over a span of two years were slaughtered in the SAO experience. Hundreds of more people, mostly young kids and teenagers, will be forever scarred by their time in the game. In the game’s last moments, Kirito asks Kayaba’s consciousness why. Why put so many people through so much misery?
Hm smells like bullshit but okay.
The second half of the season focuses on Kirito reconnecting with Asuna outside of the game. The CEO of the company who took over the VRMMORPG scene after the disaster that was SAO, Nobuyuki Sugo, used the end of SAO to keep a handful of players trapped in their commas for his own experiments.
Asuna is taken to another game, Alfheim Online. Nobuyuki’s goal is to use Kayaba’s technology to develop a way to control the human mind and sell that technology to foreign governments (most notably, the US, interestingly enough). For Asuna, however, Nobuyuki wants Asuna to be his wife, whether she likes it or not.
Also Kirito’s sister (did I mention his sister he has a sister) Suguha, who is also his cousin, really wants to fuck her brother.
She’s like… full speed ahead on incest cock so.
SAO as a whole makes some weird writing decisions. Like, truly bizarre ones.
The dialogue is… pretty not great. I watched the dub, as is my preference, and I had to suffer through what a boardroom thought early 2010s Internet slang was like. Throughout the show, Kirito is called a “beater”? Because he’s a beta-tester and he’s good at the game, so people think it’s cheating. Beta + cheater = “beater”.
Uh I mean okay.
“Can we talk about how bad this anime is at justifying its premises?” Sakana asked.
“Given how you can definitely blow me up with your mind or whatever, we can talk about whatever you want,” Mo said.
Sakana rolled her eyes. “Sword Art Online spends much of its first few episodes justifying its decisions to you. It spends a lot of time asking ‘how are they stuck in the game’ and ‘what would happen to the stock market if this was real’ and other such nonsense. It exhausts narrative energy into answering these questions when the truth is, there are no satisfying answers to such questions because something like this would never happen in real life. No one would wear a headset that interrupts all signals from your brain to the rest of your body. That’s clearly dangerous.
“The logistics of how Kayaba managed to accomplish what he did don’t matter. What matters is the emotional and philosophical impact of engineering a mass slaughter of innocent people. Sword Art Online forgets this quite a bit.”
“I could see that,” Mo said. “And I’ll raise you one more: SAO doesn’t seem to understand MMOs that well for a show about MMOs.”
It understands why people play them, and goes into the emotional aspects of online games. But neither Sword Art Online or Alfheim Online ever feel like they could be real games. Because of that, the fact that every interaction in the virtual world is marked by a menu, stats, and a game mechanic gets gimmicky quickly.
Kirito is overpowered. Kirito is a wonderful person. Kirito is great with girls. If Kirito was a girl, he’d be called a Mary Sue, but that’s not how online discourse works.
My definition of a Mary Sue or Gary Stu is a character that is competent to the point that other important characters are not allowed to develop. This isn’t true for SAO. Still, competent women get scrutinized and overpowered male protagonists are taken as a given. That’s unfortunately the world we live in.
Sakana folded her arms. “That doesn’t mean Kirito doesn’t get obnoxious.”
SAO was one of the most visually polished (and expensive) looking anime at the time. If it supposedly gave birth to modern isekai, it also played a massive role in defining the art style in anime from 2010–2019. I think Kyoto Animations (as opposed to SAO’s A-1 Pictures) in general probably gets the prize for shaping the art style of the medium for the decade but, like, KyoAni is a studio.
SAO is a single show. Credit where credit is due, that’s impressive.
It’s a shame then that, despite how visually impressive the fights are, they rarely have any impact because we know that Kirito is so strong and cool and badass that he’ll win anyway.
Kirito can duel wield in SAO because that’s just how he is. He takes down impossible monsters because obviously I mean he’s Kirito. He takes down whole hordes of experienced players at once without losing any HP. The other seasons get better at this, but in Sword Art Online, the only forces that pose a serious threat to Kirito are the mechanics of the game itself.
People have to hack into reality to stand a chance against Kirito. It gets stale after a while, that’s all.
“All of these criticisms are secondary,” said Sakana. “SAO’s biggest flaw is what the camera does whenever a female character is on screen.”
“I’ll agree that the female characters in SAO are sexual all of the time,” Mo said. “I would give the show credit for growing out of this phase in later seasons.”
“But it’s not those later seasons we’re reviewing here,” said Sakana.
With a series of hand motions, Sakana pulled up a segment of the anime. It was, like, super cool. So cool that it would probably lead to a copyright strike if represented faithfully on YouTube. And a very long gif if represented faithfully on Medium.
“In this scene,” Sakana started, “the viewer is lead to believe that a girl’s longtime friend has died. He died in the middle of town, which, up until this point, had been a PvP-free zone. As far as the viewer knows, the girl is afraid. For herself and for her dead partner. Everyone is worried about what this means for them. Are they safe? Can they no longer escape death by staying in town?
“Watch here how Asuna immediately goes to comfort her. Kirito, meanwhile, hangs back. He’s calculating what he needs to do next. How this’ll affect the other players in the game. He’s still unsure as to how to fix the situation. Asuna and Kirito both care about this girl, and they both want to help, but the pair are distinct people. What their help looks like is different.”
“It’s a subtle bit of character work,” Mo said.
“Sure,” replied the goddess.
“Anyway, here’s purple-hair’s ass because that’s important right now. I guess. Wow. What I really needed to know about this character at this very moment was not her feelings, but how far up her butt her tights tend to ride.
“Do you see the problem, Mo?”
Mo shrugged. “I mean it’s like 40% of the frame so it’s hard to miss.”
“There’s a time an place for sexualizing all characters, not just women. But when you’re sexualizing someone, you’re not actually listening to what they have to say. And if women are constantly sexualized, they’re never being taken seriously.” The goddess returned the glowing orb that was SAO to its original state. “Not to mention, the idea that women are inherently sexual, as if they are responsible for the inability of some men to act appropriately around them is…”
Mo snapped his fingers. “Backwards?”
“I was thinking gross.”
Mo sighed. “This is just thesaurus.com again.”
This season of SAO never really drops the habit, and it leads to just the worst scene in the entire season, if not the show itself.
CW: Sexual Assault [cw1]
(Use ctrl+f “cw1” to skip ahead in the essay if you desire)
Asuna spends the second half of the season trapped and objectified. She’s literally a bird in a cage, and a damsel in distress, and the princess trapped at the top of the tower, all at once.
Up until the end of the season, Nobuyuki Sugo has always stopped short of outright sexual assault with her. I mean, not like using your wealth to pressure the family of an underaged girl into marrying you isn’t disgusting enough as it is. What I mean is, there are scenes where Sugo will, like, sniff Asuna’s hair or touch her and then back off and go “lol jk I’m not a rapist ha ha”.
It’s uncomfortable and gross every time. And, to the narrative’s credit, I think it understands that this is uncomfortable and gross. You’d be surprised at the anime that straight up don’t.
We’ll get to those later.
But anyway, in the final fight with Nobuyuki, the CEO decides to drop the pretenses and just cross the line into full-on rape. He gropes and kisses and touches Asuna while Kirito is forced to watch, which of course gives Kirito just the strength he needs to beat the crap out of Nobuyuki and save his his wife. He also threatens to tape the in-game footage of the assault to use with and against her in real life when he forces her to get married to him.
The fact that the camera sexualizes Asuna even in this scene is super disturbing.
Rape isn’t sexy. Rape isn’t edgy. It’s disgusting. It’s one of the worst, most traumatic, things a human being can do to another human being, short of straight-up killing them.
This scene is why SJWs like myself complain so much about sexualization in media. The camera in this season of SAO is incapable of seeing women outside of being sexual. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that all women in SAO are nothing but sexual objects, but women are inherently sexual and sexual all the time.
Even when they’re getting raped.
It would be impossible to describe in words just how dangerous the ideas put forward be these couple of scenes really are. The idea that the camera forwards, that women are always sexual even when they’re victims, is sexist and is used to blame women for their own abuse.
In general, you can’t use rape as a plot device. I’m not saying no stories should include topics of sexual violence, but, broadly speaking, if you have a character that has lived through sexual assault, it can’t just be this one-off thing you do to move your plot along.
It especially can’t just exist to motivate the men around them. To reduce any traumatic event, especially things happening to women, down to simple motivation boost for a man is a disgusting trend. (See the long history of Fridging female characters) Sexual assault is one of those things that takes up a huge part of any good story its a part of. You need to handle it with care and respect and that’s not what’s happening in this episode of SAO.
Having your female lead get raped for drama doesn’t fucking make your story mature. It doesn’t show you’re able to talk about real issues. It only shows how little you understand about what you’re trying to talk about.
I get where the thinking comes from, because I used to think this way too. You have a thing that’s bad? You make the bad thing the villain. Racism is bad, so my villain is going to be a racist. Rape is bad, so my villain is going to be a rapist. “I’m not endorsing rape, I’m condemning it! That’s the bad guy!” You need but listen to the stories of people who have experienced this to realize reductive and incomplete that logic actually is.
And the worst part is, this isn’t even the only season that treats sexual assault this way. This is a consistent problem throughout all of SAO’s properties. The seasons tend to throw an attempted rape or two in to raise the stakes, or whenever the men in the story need something noble to fight for. It’s inexcusable.
So yeah. SAO.
It’s got flaws, to say the least. [cw1]
“Well, I guess that settles it,” the goddess said. “You should be headed back to your own world, soon.”
Mo frowned. “Why?”
“Well the answer is obvious enough. Modern isekai all stems from a cheap, rotten show that panders to the male gaze over the well-being of sexual assault victims. That’s abhorrent. The leaves are browning because there’s poison in the soil. If I were to just destroy SAO here and now, I’d have a chance in saving my realm!”
Sakana commanded the glowing orb that was Sword Art Online to float over to her. Her eyes narrowed as she clasped her hands around the show. A forceful gust of wind stole the heat from the air. Aside from her voice, all became quiet.
“Sword Art Online,” she chanted. “Thou who hast spilled such wretchedness into the soil of my realm. Thou shalt cease thy worthless existence and flee to the twisted synapses from which thou wast born.”
“Wait, Sakana. Erm, Goddess!” Mo pleaded. “Just, hold on.”
“Winds of darkness, prose of flame, DD waifus, tropes of shame. I condemn thee, Sword Art Online for thy crimes against women, decency, and good taste. Thou wilt be erased from the minds of anime fans and executives alike. Never again shall thy filthy name be pronounced on Reddit threads. The — “
“I don’t actually think SAO is the worst thing ever made?”
The air returned to normal. Mo reached for his throat and gulped huge gasps of air as his breath finally returned.
“I’m sorry what?”
SAO has flaws, no doubt. And when I’m about to talk about the things SAO does right, it’s by no means to excuse those flaws.
But when this show was pitched to me, it wasn’t pitched to be as “SAO is a flawed show that mishandles its female lead towards the end of its first season.” No, SAO was pitched to me as LITERALLY THE WORST ANIME EVER CREATED BY MAN’S UNDESERVING HANDS. The only reason why SAO is even in this essay is because it’s supposed to be the reason why isekai is the way it is.
And if that’s the standard, if I’m trying to assess whether or not SAO is the original sin of isekai… I have to say the answer is no. It’s decent sometimes. In a phrase: Sword Art Online is rancid horse shit and nuggets of gold sharing a plate.
SAO has, like, competently done themes? They’re on the nose, sure, but they’re clear and obvious. The second half of the season is about how games can set us free. It uses the player’s ability to fly in Alfheim Online to show us this idea. Likewise, Asuna is trapped in a bird cage. The fact that she’s in this game but unable to fly, unfree, can be read as a perversion of the potential of both games and fiction more generally.
The first thing Asuna does when she escapes is she heads back into the game and takes to the skies. On her own volition, she too has become free. In fact, everyone who was trapped in SAO with Kirito takes to the skies too to challenge the world of Sword Art Online on their own terms. They’re all free to do so and whatever else.
It’s simple, but how many isekai fail to do even this?
Asuna’s character was certainly mishandled at the end. But, compare her to her competition. Most female isekai leads are either despised by the narrative (we’ll get to this one), slaves (we’ll, uh, get to those), or no-personality harem tropes (we’ll get to those too).
Asuna has character. She has a personality. I’ve heard it asserted that she’s useless but, at least in the first half of the season, that’s simply not true. She fights alongside Kirito. She challenges Kirito’s assumptions. She’s more than the two-dimensional waifu characters we normally see in isekai who validate very decision the male lead makes.
Kirito is boring, sure. He’s obnoxiously cool. He’s overpowered. He’s a male gamer fantasy. But he maintains an open and healthy relationship with a woman, and it’s one of the better parts of the show.
I’ve seen it complained that Kirito is a no-personality self-insert who’s always right. And after having consumed, just, an unspeakable amount of SAO, I can’t say that’s true. Kirito is Kirito. He’s a paragon, in the style of Superman or Paddington. He doesn’t have arcs because his role in the story is helping others realize their own potential. The secondary leads have the arcs and those arcs are pretty standard. The viewer is encouraged to be like Kirito (as we’re encouraged to be like Superman), rather than take his place in the story.
I mean, could imagine if Kirito was a proper self-insert MC? Kirito wouldn’t have half the backstory he does because it gets in the way of self-insertability. SAO’d be way worse and also your sister would want to suck your dick.
Things happen outside of Kirito. Kirito is strong, but he’s not literally the center of the multiverse. The circumstances surrounding the characters and their consequences are relevant and touching and thought-through. SAO maybe hasn’t thought through its premise all too well, but it has thought through the emotional beats of its entire cast thoroughly.
If you want to learn more about SAO and how well it portrays war and PTSD, I’d suggest checking out Posadist Pacman’s take on it. The fact that he’s an unironic posadist aside, he did a better job on this than I could have.
Just because Kirito is usually the strongest person in the room, that by no means makes him the best person in the room for every task at all times. In fact, by the end of the season, he can’t get through the final level to save Asuna without teaming up with the people around him. He gets the one-on-one fight with Nobuyuki, but only after he accepts that he might need help to do so.
Kirito is given a “seed” by Kayaba, a program that allows any person from anywhere to run their own VRMMORPG server on their own computers. Individuals and small companies take over where corrupt CEOs left-off, and soon, anyone will be able to make their own personal worlds and explore their own possibilities.
SAO literally argues that the solution to gaming is to take it out of the hands of capitalists and under the control of regular people.
Same genus, different species. SAO isn’t Marxist, but that’s about as anti-isekai as you can get in mentality, which tends to favor individual action as part of the all too common hero fantasy. Most isekai argue that being rich and powerful, taking what you deserve, is a good thing. The typical isekai male-power fantasy has no room for democracy or horizontal power structures.
In early 2019, Kawahara Reki, the author of SAO’s source material, did an interview with one of the Japanese voice actresses for SAO and the author of the manga Bloom Into You, Nakatini Nio. In response to Nakatini praising Kawahara for the strength of his female characters, Kawahara responded that he plans to give his female characters more strength and more room to grow in the future.
He explained that, after traveling overseas and receiving criticism for how his work handled female characters, he decided to learn from his mistakes and write with (gasp) a bit more “political correctness”. Which is to say he stated he agrees that a character’s gender shouldn’t determine their role in stories, and women in fiction should be more than trophies for men to gain.
He admires how, in English for example, we have gender-neutral terms like “protagonist” and “antagonist”, and admires the fact that, in lesbian manga, anime, and light novels, both women can be protagonists, whereas in stories featuring straight romances, the man must be the “hero” while the “heroine” stands to the side. He recognizes that writing stronger female characters doesn’t have to mean downplaying male protagonists like Kirito.
A month before that, and here’s the best part, Kawahara apologized to the voice actors of his show for their discomfort in voicing a sexual assault. Kawahara recognizes that he’s used sexual assault as a crutch in the past since all the fantasy stories he grew up with did the same thing, and has since stated he wants to avoid using sexual assault like a plot device in his future work.
The writer of SAO has evolved over time, and SAO has evolved with it.
Yet, isekai in general hasn’t changed. It hasn’t kept pace with SAO’s improvements. If anything, isekai as a whole has been folding in on itself while Kawahara has been working to make SAO more inclusive and applicable to everyone. If SAO “started” this current strain of isekai, it’s since moved far beyond it.
I find it hilarious that the weebs who hated SAO never really had a problem with how the show treated women. They maintain that SAO hasn’t changed one bit and it’s still the same poorly-written mess it was when it started. If anything, the fact that SAO is “PC” now makes it worse in the eyes of anime fans.
The simple fact is this: SAO has never been like the standard run-of-the-mill isekai.
Kawahara Reki has read Alice in Wonderland. I mean, there’s an entire season of the show based on the story. It’s a story for another time. Still, if we see Alice in Wonderland as the archetypal other world story, Sword Art Online shares more thematic similarities with Alice’s Adventures in the Under Ground than it does with most other isekai. Specifically, Sword Art Online doesn’t reject the real world with its virtual ones.
SAO argues the exact opposite.
Alice in Wonderland argued that the reason why Alice’s dreams were so important was because it was a dream. It argued that there is an inherent good in fiction through its ability to provide joy to children and adults alike.
SAO takes that exact theme and updates it, broadening the definition of fiction to include technology. The anime again argues that the only reason why other worlds are important, the only reason why fiction is important, is that fiction, in a way, is real. How we interact with fictional worlds is real. The friendships we make online through games are real. SAO argues not only that we can’t escape reality, but that we don’t need to, because fiction is reality, and that’s what makes fiction great.
To call SAO “escapist” is to fundamentally miss the point, actually (which is hard to imagine for a show that has spent the last decade being torn a part line by line by every AniTuber up and down the block). You’re not running away from your crappy life to meet your other world waifu.
The game is your life, or at least, a valid part of it, she’s not a waifu she’s your flesh and blood girlfriend, and you should act like this is real life with ups and downs, not some game. This isn’t a case of 2D > 3D. This is using the fictional world as a tool to finding a real, meaningful, healthy relationship with an actual woman.
SAO maintains that ignoring fiction and focusing on the real world leads to melancholy. By not being able to explore ourselves we miss out on a huge number of potential experiences and feelings. At the same time, throwing ourselves into fiction and ignoring reality is also untenable. Each and every one of our lives is valuable in some way and worth going back to after we play a game or read a book. SAO argues that leaving the real world behind is as impossible as it is immoral.
In episode 23, Kirito states,
Those two years I spent trapped in SAO taught me something. The difference between a real and a virtual world is slim at best. It’s a waste of time asking people who they really are. All you can do is accept them as is. And have faith in them. Because, in the end, whoever you think they are, that’s who they really are.
Again, the dialogue is, uh, not the best. That last sentence is kinda awkward. What with repeating “they are” twice.
But the point of isekai is that there is a difference between the virtual and real world. In most isekai, in the real world, you’re nothing. You’re a loser shut-in NEET who can’t get a girlfriend. There’s no hope for you. But in the virtual world, you’re a badass. You get all the girls. You’re a lv31 Magic Knight with a Spirit Sword.
SAO takes that and it says no. It says if you’re confident, popular, and outgoing online, you have that capacity in the real world too. That person that people like online exists off-screen too. And if you’re a harasser or an abuser online who gets a kick out of making people miserable in a virtual context, or if you justify gross behavior in a fantasy context, it’s not good enough that you say you’re not that person irl. You are that person irl, whether you know it yet or not. It’s all just you.
At risk of sounding cheesy here, Kirito is an empowering protagonist to me. Not necessarily because he’s a “nerd” like me (we’re not very similar and I don’t game). But I found Kirito empowering more in the sense that I write behind an online persona, projecting a level of confidence and expertise that doesn’t translate in real life. I have accomplishments online that I tell no one about and it’s not always easy to think of them as belonging to who I am outside of… well… this world. The world of my online content which I’m apparently stuck in until I figure this out.
“You bet you are, Bullshit Hero!” Sakana snapped.
But SAO, through Kirito, argues that what I can do in this world, I can do in real life after I close my laptop. It’s a message that makes me feel good. And I honest-to-God can’t name an anime that argues this exact point any better than this.
SAO is less a reactionary shitfest and more a decent show brought down by how much it feels the need to copy tropes from other stories that are actually reactionary shitfests to the core.
Kawahara Reki wrote a ton of assumptions about how stories are “supposed” to work and how women are “supposed” to be into his art. He went through a phase where all his dialogue was cringe, his protagonists were simplistic and overdone, and his philosophy was poorly thought out. All writers go through some version of this. But not all writers have the misfortune of publishing their cringe phase into one of the most successful media franchises of all time. If SAO has an original sin, it’s that.
Kawahara going on record saying he’s trying to get better doesn’t undo the harm his old work caused, but it happens so rarely that he absolutely deserves some credit and praise. Not so much credit and praise that we forget the actual female and LGBT+ authors who’ve been getting this right since for ever. But, y’know, some credit.
Sakana made a small motion with her finger. A tiny speck of light broke off from the Summoning Seed and made its way to Mo. “Have you seen this?”
He shook his head.
“This is Sword Art Online Progressive. It’s Kawahara Reki ‘s latest attempt to rewrite the story of Sword Art Online week by week, with all the lessons you say he’s learned in his time writing the original.”
Mo cupped the little speck in his palms. “No bullshit?”
“You are the Bullshit Hero, but okay.”
“I’m looking forward to reading this,” he said.
Sakana frowned. “Uh-huh.”
“I want to know how he handles his themes this time around? How he addresses the problematic elements he knows exist in his earlier work. How he gives characters like Asuna more agency. Does he change the events of the original? Does he gives us more female perspectives? Is it an aesthetic change that fails to do anything different?”
“It’s your time to kill,” said Sakana.
Mo’s eyes flashed with a paralyzing intensity. “I will consume anything that will make a good essay, hear me? Anything!”
“Y-you’re creeping me out!”
SAO is a show with mediocre writing written by a guy who hacked together a web novel once for a contest that happened to take off from there. It’s got things going on it that are worth talking about. It has characters that you’ll either relate to or not, and relationships that you’ll either love or hate. It dips into the problematic tropes of its genre too many times to ignore, and its critical we understand what a show this popular does wrong and why it’s harmful.
That’s about it.
This is not the worst show ever made. It’s not even the worst isekai ever made. It’s literally just okay. It’s one of those things that you watch, you recognize how it’s problematic, and you move on. The fact that AniTube has shat on this show for 10 fucking years and not once has worthwhile conversation come out of it is… frustrating. But not surprising.
Sakana smiled. A faint chuckle left her throat. “AniTube must feel like a whole other world to you. What with your spicy takes all the time.”
“I swear it’s involuntary,” Mo said. “It’s like a medical condition. I have to be contrary. Or, at least, I think the only things worth writing down are things that haven’t been said before — or enough.”
“Sure.” Her mischievous smile widened. “Would you say you feel like you’ve gone… through the Looking Glass?”
Mo blinked. “Alright smartass, just give me the next show, already.”
A special thanks to KranasAngel for helping me with this one as they always do. They’re seriously the best.
Click here to step through to the next part of the essay: link.