TV Review: SWORD ART ONLINE

Sword Art Online represents everything wrong with Japanese animation right now. No, seriously - and this isn't because the show is irredeemably bad or anything. Rather it takes a decent premise and over the course of twenty-five episodes proceeds to waste pretty much every last scrap of potential this premise offers up. Every time the plot presents an opportunity to explore a compelling moral dilemma, to better develop someone who could be an interesting character, to think about the implications of some new aspect of the world the writers have created, the show sidelines it without fail in favour of an easy out. This is what happens when you pander to a core audience of unrepentant nerds; the big questions never get answered, characters show neither growth nor depth and the world never gets explained in anything beyond lazy, formulaic clichés.

The plot is familiar territory, a near-future setting where the invention of fully immersive virtual reality means videogames have taken a staggering technological leap forward. The massively multiplayer epic fantasy world Sword Art Online has just come out of beta testing and thrown open its doors to the public. Thousands of players are taking their first halting steps through the game's early stages, only when they try to log out they discover something's gone terribly wrong. Their headsets won't let them log out, and the software's been wired to kill anyone who dies in-game. If they're forcibly removed, they die too. The only way to escape is to defeat the final boss - but persuading enough people to work together to get this done proves to be no easy task.

The audience surrogate is Kirito, a shy young man who's on familiar ground, to some extent, as an avid games player and a former beta tester for Sword Art Online. Painfully conscious of the drawbacks that come with being so much more skilled than most of the hoi-polloi, after an early attempt to make friends goes disastrously wrong Kirito takes to throwing himself into the fray solo, shunning human contact as much as possible. Then he meets Asuna, a girl in one of the most powerful guilds attempting to carve a path towards the final boss, whose single-minded determination to beat the game and free everyone means she's suffering emotionally. The two of them start a tentative personal as well as professional relationship, and in the process discover their new home is a world much deeper and stranger than they'd previously imagined.

"If you die in the game, you die in real life" may have become an instant punchline, a mark of a writer who's singularly failed to 'get' modern technology, but there's still life in the idea for all that. It's hardly wholly original territory - Tad William's monolithic Otherland books covered a good deal of this same ground already - but in some respects Sword Art Online seems poised to explore it further still. What would it do to people to be locked up in a virtual space for more than two years? How would societal rules re-establish themselves, or alternatively break down? How would this change given how differently the virtual world works to the real one? What could anyone do to get people to risk their lives breaking out? And what would happen when they finally did break out - how would it change them, and how would they act towards the people they'd shared that experience with?

Which is what makes it so frustrating that Sword Art Online squanders nigh on every single opportunity to do something interesting with answering any of these questions. From the moment Kirito helps one of the supporting cast acclimatise to the game, to combat in a virtual space, surviving and gaining experience, it's painfully obvious this is a show catering first and foremost to people who know all there is to know about the subject, or who like to think they do. It's not completely impenetrable to a newcomer, but there's a definite air of blasé indifference throughout. There's no real exploration of what it would mean to get stuck here for someone who'd never played such a game in their lives. Kirito spends a couple of episodes soul-searching then promptly transforms into awkward Jesus for the rest of the show - solving everyone's problems, trouncing enemy after enemy.

None of the big questions get picked over for more than a few minutes, if that. There's a moment early on where it's revealed everyone has been forced to use their real appearance, rather than their usual avatar - then it's never touched on again. Kirito and Asuna's halting friendship gets a couple of throwaway lines of development, then it's decided yes, online relationships are exactly the same as real life, case closed. The breaking down and rebuilding of societal conventions gets trotted out to justify a couple of tired, predictable subplots then promptly shelved again. Almost half the show goes past before anyone mentions that by the way, aren't we all wasting away in hospital beds in the real world? Shouldn't we try and get out of here before we, you know, die?

But why chew on something genuinely meaty when you risk the nerds tuning out? Sword Art Online is wish-fulfilment more than anything else; people don't watch this stuff to ponder the mysteries of life, they want to think wow, what if I were trapped inside a videogame, with a few token nods to something more substantial to make them feel they're not wasting their time. Witness how the show hits every idiot beat Japanese animation's been in thrall to for the past ten years, from a pointless incest sub-plot to a brain-dead cartoon psychopath of a villain to turning a reasonably strong female lead into a flower vase with a side order of tentacle rape (gotta have tentacle rape, eh, Japan?), to say nothing of countless plot holes and lazy writing (anyone want to explain why there's a convenient back door for the hero in a virtual world?).

Sure, Sword Art Online could be worse; it could be any one of the countless harem shows drowning the medium in a tidal wave of bland, interchangeable beautiful people character designs, or all the big shonen action shows currently running on fumes, desperately throwing increasingly convoluted plotlines and dumb spin-offs in all directions. Sword Art Online is different, at least, and shows flickers of promise across twenty-five episodes... but it simply can't forget that the same people who buy into the soap-opera crud and the action nonsense pay its bills, and the slavish insistence on giving them all the vacuous melodrama and incongruous fan-service they want ultimately brings it down, and hard. Sword Art Online has already been described in some circles as the best new anime in years: weep, weep at the idea that could actually be true. 
Around the Internet:
  • Josh Leitzel

    My own personal opinion: I loved SAO, very good anime. I'd recommend it for anybody looking for a good anime series to watch. I hope they make a second season (it's very likely, considering how popular it is) If there was one problem I had with it it would be how they completely disregarded the reason for the guy creating SAO and trapping people in it. It's like they just forgot about it!

  • justin1310

    The show left out a few details I felt were important from the books, but the light novels had me hooked, best thing in ages, honestly was one of the best anime that came out last year, mostly because I had already read through the books, they kinda skimped on the battle scenes though.

  • Mefi

    I know that you are reviewing the anime but a lot of plot "flaws" are actually covered by Kirito's "narration" present in original novels. Problems is that adding this "narration" into the anime "as is" would make it really hard to watch. Actually it would make show too boring for many viewers. So I guess producers decided to sacrifice details they could not properly transform into anime format.
    TBH this "transformation" could be done but it would require major composition changes and we might end with even worse show.
    So basically, while you are right in what result is the reason behind it is not just "everything wrong with animation".

    P.S. First novels are actually quite old so some details feels outdated considering current MMOs state of art.

  • Art Vandelay

    I don't get all the complaints about this review. So many people saying this was suppose to be a "fun" show. A show can be fun and smart at the same time. The two are not mutually exclusive. Then we've got people saying there is no point in reviewing it because it doesn't warrant any serious thought, But if someday doesn't call out the bad how will we know whats good? Animation is one of, if not, my favorite storytelling mediums because it can do anything live action can do and an infinite number of things it just can't. So to call anime fluff seems a bit extreme when you have intelligent pieces like Kaiba, Monster, berserk, and other shows that, I personally think, can rival just about any of their live action counterparts.

    If fan service, overblown fights, and wish fulfillment is your thing then that's great. Have at it. Objectively however, this show fails in almost every category. I think your review is spot on Matthew. Don't let naysayers stop you from trying to give a honest balanced review.

  • Hiroaki Johnson

    Those titles are exceptions, and I say that as a fan of anime for decades and a fan of animation as a medium. I don't think anyone in the comments called anime "fluff" but the simple truth is the vast majority of anime is disposable crap meant for little kids or teens, with lucrative merchandising tie ins to help fuel design over story. I think over 100 new titles launch in Japan each year, out of that we get a handful of Mushi-Shi's or Berserk's. My point was not that smart and fun can't co-exist (the GiTS show and Bebop being good examples of it working) but simply that expecting it or being surprised by it's absence seems naive of the realities of the industry. Now perhaps this show has some buzz (I haven't heard anyone sing it's praise personally) and Mr. Lee is putting out a manure fire, that's fine. I just feel like with the statistics being such that they are I'd rather hear about the 5 or so good shows rather than confirmation about something that looked like a turd from the teasers on. But that's just me.

  • Sean Smithson

    I've watched the first 2 episodes so far. I'll bail out after the first arc.

    I prefer stuff like the classics and the older stuff pre CGI...SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO and all it's incarnations (the new YAMATO 2199 is amazing and yes I am writing about it soon) being my overall favorite.

  • Markie Straub

    I absolutely LOVE Sword Art Online, especially the first half of it! The best anime I've seen in a LONG time! I'm a 29 years old Caucasian still enjoying anime and video games. I'm sorry but if you're gonna gripe about it, just watch something else.

  • I think the disappointment comes more as a mismatch of expectations and a bit of squandered potential. It's a touch unfair to expect SAO to push the boundaries of virtual world social issues just because there have been other literature that have already done it.

    In a sense, anime is meant to be fluff entertainment, and for what it was, I think it served the purpose well enough to address enough social and psychological issue instead of turning into a total inner turmoil "what does it mean to be in a virtual world" psychological analysis piece, which is it's own kind of self serving audience pandering.

    Yes, there were a lot tropes that just snuck in there. But for some, if you were able to look beyond it, there was substance to it. It did deal with real life repercussions, relationships, meaning and value of inside and outside of the virtual world, actions and consequences, and psychological impact. I think the reviewer chose to miss those on purpose explicitly because the show didn't live up to expectations, not that they were not present.

    And yes, I do also think that if they went all out, dealt with the ramification issues on life and health of being trapped in a world, it could have been interesting. But just because it didn't go in the direction I wanted it to, it doesn't mean that it wasn't there to some extent nor that it was a failure. It just catered to a different audience.

    Would it have been really interesting to be able to use the second half to completely deal with societal integration instead of another VMMORPG (ALO)? Sure, but was the time spent in ALO meant as a showcase of the stark difference in attitude between SAO and ALO worlds? That could be one way to see it. It had its own meaning, and a little clumsily and longwinded, but at least it tried.

    As for anime not needing interpretation and not needing analysis or reaction just because it may be geared towards "immature" kids and not "adults". Sure. I guess. You can treat everything as fluff. But so can you do the same to things like Alice in Wonderland, Gulliver's Travels, even Tolkien and just enjoy things superficially. Analysis is a choice. Everything can qualify for it especially since it is subjective to your own experiences.

    (some more of my SAO thoughts here: http://goo.gl/bjR86 )

  • Arthur Bond

    There are still plenty of quality anime out there, though, if you know where to look. I've found Kaiba, Tatami Galaxy, Steins;Gate, Eden of the East and Mawaru Penguindrum to be interesting and rewarding. Even this most recent season had Tsuritama, which looks to be an enjoyable little romp about (what else?) fishing.

  • fergus1948

    Is it at all possible, Matthew, that the reason you were disappointed in SAO (and recent anime generally) is that this kind of anime is beginning to suck because you are finally growing up? This art form is usually aimed at emotionally immature young people wanting to escape the real world and so it deliberately deals in cookie-cutter characterisation and plot development. Some of the commenters are correct in saying that this kind of stuff doesn't need proper analysis because the form of the product doesn't warrant it.

    I'm not knocking animation per se as Mamoru Hosoda and Makoto Shinkai make fascinating and thoughtful stuff but the likes of SAO is disposable bubblegum for teenagers. There's nothing wrong with that in itself, it just doesn't warrant serious scrutiny. Maybe time to move on?

  • Hiroaki Johnson

    Unlike multi-demographic manga, animation in Japan (like the states) is considered a "kids entertainment". Obviously plenty of animators and studios don't recognize that limitation, but especially with 2 decades worth of stagnant economy the pressure to make safe choices is higher than the 80's early 90's. So I'd agree, it makes little sense to complain about this. People don't realize that in years past the import market was more curated. When a company brought over NGE or Bebop, they also passed over literally 100 other shows that ate shit. People just didn't have simucast and torrent distribution for fansubs to know how much suck was out there.

  • Hiroaki: pretty much. My, how I used to hate Manga Entertainment when I was younger: despite their turnaround as a company I still think they did more to tarnish the image of Japanese pop culture than countless other individuals put together (by bringing over more or less anything with tentacles, it seemed, at one point). And I don't say that lightly.

    fergus, that may be true to some extent - I'm in my 30s now - but at the same time I don't like to dismiss anything simply because it's aimed at a younger audience. Even juvenile fanservice can still be quality entertainment, art, if you will, if it's done right. Hell, I greatly enjoyed the first few arcs of Naruto, even, before I realised just how much shonen plots tend to drag on, and on, and on. I can enjoy dumb fun, if it's good, solid dumb fun, and I can explain at length why I think one dumb show is 'better' than another (or, well, I like to think I can).

    Sword Art Online was one of the few shows from the last season I actually thought looked promising, as I liked the basic premise and hoped the show could do something good with it. I didn't have particularly high hopes - so my expectations weren't that great - but I didn't go in trying to bash the thing. And in the opening few episodes it promised far more than most shows from the past few seasons have done... it just monumentally failed to deliver.

  • Anon

    I thought SAO was a pretty good anime, I mean I did say, "What the Fuck" when ALO popped up out of no where. In the end I still enjoyed it, loved it from start to end. I'm not saying it's anime of the year or anything, but it kept me interested. Alot of animes now a days don't do that.

    (Remember folks this was a opinion, don't throw a fit because of it.)

    Also someone give me some anime suggestions, I don't have anymore to watch lol.

  • Eli Manning

    sorry, but you are an idiot. SAO was suppose to be fun, and it was. Why do you wanna psychoanalyze the show ?? lame angry review.

  • SAO isn't fun. Milky Holmes is fun.

  • Alex Smith

    read the first line and thought the reviewer was trolling... no way someone went Freudian on a fun show for Japanese teenagers...

  • Anime Guardians

    Truer words have never been written. Very nice. I noted all of these issues myself halfway through the series and all the fans lashed back. There's just so much wasted potential and people default to the "it's a fun show" argument to justify them. Can't a show be fun AND contribute uniquely to anime? http://goboiano.com/read-more-...

  • DEAR.GOD.MAYBE

    "Sword Art Online has already been described in some circles as the best new anime in years: weep, weep at the idea that could actually be true."

    I hope you are not serious about this. The last year alone (when SOA came out) alone have been enough shows to not warrant that though. There is a reason the SOA fanboys are so vocal and belive that show is genius...

  • Nigel

    You know something?. There is a reason why i don't read most reviews for anything relating to movies,tv or anime. Reviewers always nitpick how shows don't do anything different or talked about missed chances for this and that, rather than just enjoy it for its own sake. Everything is a matter of opinion.
    This anime is based of a very popular manga series so i imagine the anime was made to follow the manga (i have not read the manga) and to appeal to the broad fan base rather than to satisfy critics (how many times have films been very popular with audiences while critics have panned hell out of them for not being original blah blah blah etc, and how many times have films or series been critically acclaimed but failed to appeal to the broad masses).

  • DEAR.GOD.NO

    Nigel, what the hell? You say nothing of value.. so you think this show is good? All you did is moan (I won't bother to correct you, wasted effort). And just for your information: This show is NOT based on a manga but a light novel. This means text with some illustrations inbetween.

  • sorynnotrevo

    Sounds like a bad knockoff of .Hack//SIGN

  • anichrom

    to be honest... I never really thought about it that deeply... it was just a nice anime to pass the time... me thinks you're taking this way too seriously... its fluff... not terrible fluff... not great fluff... but fluff...

  • Tim

    Absolutely agree with your review. I wanted to love this anime, and enjoyed the first half of the season but once *SPOILER ALERT* they got out of the first game the whole thing fell apart completely. Such a disappointment.

  • Iro

    Bullseye.

  • Velda

    Wait... Did we watch the same anime?

    I don't agree with the "best anime of the year" thing and it's a bit over-hyped but I thought it was well-done overall.

    "What would it do to people to be locked up in a virtual space for more than two years? How would societal rules re-establish themselves, or alternatively break down? How would this change given how differently the virtual world works to the real one? What could anyone do to get people to risk their lives breaking out? And what would happen when they finally did break out - how would it change them, and how would they act towards the people they'd shared that experience with?"

    I thought all of these questions were answered in episode 25??? What more do you want? What would have you done differently?

  • DEAR.GOD.NO

    I concur - it is WAY overhyped and awful. Just look at how many shonen-kiddos love this show to death and how well it actually sells in Japan. There is a reason somethin like this exists? http://i.imgur.com/vezpF.jpg

    Spoilers:
    The only thing decent was the first episode. The show then makes a two year time skip and shows the side story in chronological order which to "newcomers" are pointless filler. When does the plot pick up? Not for 8 episodes for sure. This is as the reviewer stated: wish fulfillment at it's worst. There is nothing explored of it's basic outline. In the first battle a guy prefers to die (in real life) than taking a potion from Kirito. Many of the players are either 24/7 crafters or "low level". No one works towards the goal of completing the game besides that one guild and a few others. Note that the MC is well known among lower and higher ranks and solo's everything and is high lvled by doing what... helping low lvl players? Makes sense. Regarding the plot anyways: This is the most annoying thing in the show... there is none. You know, fighting for my life is not GOING TO A REMOTE HUT WITH MAI WAIFU who enjoys piggyback rides and fishing. Great traits in a woman these sandwhiches (and cooking). Then adopt a godmode NPC as a child (most annoying loli ever) move forward and do what, hack into the admin console? deus ex machina bust the bad guy (who doesn't even have a motivation to trap and kill countless people), getting my own skill in an mmo, getting saved from mai waifu who is PARALYZED but can move to save me with the POWER OF LOVE. And of course survive the permanent death. Have a talk with the nemesis bro aswell.

    Don't get me started with the second arc: Faggot faries, incest romance with big breasted half sister, boring plot, nemesis wants to marry your waifu while she is in a coma, tentacle rape and a fucking stupid ending. Get an keycard from your waifu who is trapped, get the LOGIN INFORMATION of the nemesis of the previous game and SLAUGHTER the nemesis (Kirito is a fucking psychopath anyways). Happy end everything with going back to the old MMO world (which is rebuilt thanks to you spreading the SEED of the old massmurderer nemesis) together with all your friends that are psychological damaged from having been trapped there for a long peroid of time.

    (Oh and for being an action show: the fights are terrible choreographed and not even properly animated, just some animated glowing lights that should be attacks)

    ...I was going to bed so this is terribly written - forgive me. Just read up on bads on MAL (myanimelist) and save your time of watching this.

  • cody

    I SEE YOU CLICK BUDDY

  • cody

    HI

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