Since I wasn’t able to discuss my issues with Sword Art Online in the mini review, I’m making up for it with this full-on rant. Prior to watching Sword Art Online, I found that there were a lot of mixed views towards the show. People were largely divided, either loving or hating it, and as a result of the mixed reactions I avoided watching it for a long time. But at some point, there are some shows you just have to watch for yourself so you can form your own opinion. So with that in mind, I binge-watched Sword Art Online for a weekend, and as you know from my review, I wound up not liking it. There were aspects of it that I enjoyed, but as a whole it was a weak show for various reasons.
Warning: There will be spoilers about Sword Art Online (Season 1) in a good amount of detail.
Story Arc One: Sword Art Online and the Absurd Pacing
If there’s one thing I noticed about the “Sword Art Online” story arc it’s that the pacing is all over the place. The story arc spans over the course of two years, and yet it ends in fourteen episodes. If that’s not short, I don’t know what is. The sad thing is that so many of these issues I have with the show could have been remedied if the story arc was simply longer. Not just the journey and battles through the dungeons and floors of the game (which are skimmed over way too often as it is), but if the ideas were more fleshed out as well.
1. The notion that their lives are potentially being wasted in the virtual world. The idea is hardly discussed – and not only that but it’s quickly rebuked because the characters realize that, after bringing up the topic, their lives are not in fact wasted. But that’s beside the point, it is still a shame that the idea isn’t explored more on its own. Without the rebuttal, it could have led to some very philosophical and psychological reflections more than once in the show. This idea could have even been exemplified by having scenes of the family members dealing with the pain of losing their loved ones to the virtual world and how it’s affecting them, further reinforcing the idea that the players do have a reason to return home. But these ideas are so quickly entertained and then ignored that they ultimately become wasted and bogged down by the absurdly fast pacing of the show.
2. The realization that their real-world bodies cannot be sustained while their minds are trapped in the game. The time limit adds urgency to the plot and provides additional motivation for the characters to beat the game. It’s a fascinating idea that had potential if it wasn’t mentioned for the first time in the second to last episode of the “Sword Art Online” story arc. But instead, so much of the time is spent following Kirito’s non-committal “lone wolf” image rather than really trying to drive any of these themes home.
3. A legitimate explanation of the villain’s motives. One of the biggest problems with this first story arc is the fact that the villain is hardly acknowledged. He is introduced in the first episode explaining how the game functions, but gives no reason as to why he has rigged the game to be so brutal. Then, the ultimate revelation at the end of the arc explaining why he created the Sword Art Online MMO to perform a certain way is because of his obsession with a castle. A castle? People are dying for a castle? Even if this “castle” serves as a metaphor for the villain’s desire to rule the virtual world in his image, these reasons don’t justify his actions. If the game is already under his control, then why do innocent people have to die in the real world if they fail to beat it? Sure, it creates very high stakes for the plot and characters, but from a practical standpoint, it seems absurd. If it was more along the lines of punishing people by making them realize that virtual games are damaging and time consuming or something to that effect, it would have been much more interesting and fascinating. I was looking forward to understanding the villain’s motives, but all I got was an extremely poorly written and non-interesting character.
But even with all of those issues, there was still a chance for me to enjoy the “Sword Art Online” story arc. Before I realized that the arc only comprised the first fourteen episodes, I had hoped that the season would end with the main characters waking up in the real world and searching for each other. That would have been a satisfying ending, leaving some things open to interpretation while also closing out the season on an ultimately good note. Instead, what I got was a fourteen episode arc spanning over two years that jumped into another arc so quickly that I barely had any time to realize what had happened.
Story Arc Two: FAIRY LAND OF SUNSHINE AND DAISIES, because it’s not SAO anymore
The second arc is immediately bogged down by silly quarrels of love (namely, the perverted man wanting to marry comatose Asuna and Kirito’s cousin’s infatuation with him). Both of these side-plots are boring and lead me to my second problem: Why are they dragging out the show by putting Asuna in a coma in the first place?
At the end of the first arc, the creator of the Sword Art Online MMO confirms that he logged everyone who’s still alive out of the game and that once the game’s deleted they will wake up. If he did that, then why did at least three-hundred of the players, Asuna included, not wake up? Sure, the narrative explained why, but that doesn’t mean my questions aren’t still legitimate ones. The reasoning for it doesn’t make any sense and it was just a bogus excuse to milk a season that failed to prioritize ending on a strong first story arc.
I realize that the show is based off of a manga series, but that doesn’t change the fact that the show feels extremely disjointed. The first two story arcs alone are pretty indicative of this. Yes, the characters and ideas remain the same, but the fact that the MMO’s are different leads to each story arc adopting a different tone. In shows such as Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood or Gurren Lagann, each story arc is connected to one another, and is built upon by the previous arc. The tone, at its core, remains the same, and each arc helps to enhance the other. Sword Art Online‘s narrative consists of two barely connected story arcs, whereas Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood and Gurren Lagann’s story arcs form a cohesive whole tied together by continuity and thematic links. When you have a show called Sword Art Online, but the MMO of the same name is only shown in fourteen episodes, that’s not an example of continuity or smart planning.
I’m sure that this genre can be somewhat difficult to write in that you want to create new and exciting worlds. I get it, but with that said, there’s only one way that it would work effectively without betraying the fans by giving them a different feeling show every time a new story arc begins. The only way it could work remotely well is to have different main characters and a new full encompassing story each season. At least then it wouldn’t feel quite as detached every time a new story arc begins and would allow for a diversified cast that isn’t ignored.
Sword Art Online (Season 1) does end happily even with all the nonsense of the second half even though it should have just ended with the first arc. It would have been a much better way to end the season, because tacking on another unrelated story changes so much about the show that it hardly resembles itself anymore. The sad thing is that I wanted to like the show. I liked the fluid, fast-paced sword fights (unlike the action scenes solely comprised of still shots of the characters swinging their swords), the romance between Kirito and Asuna was sweet, and when the show did hint at the psychological effects of the game it managed to be mildly interesting.
However, so much of the show is rushed to the point that the hints of psychological repercussions of the game are often overlooked. Combine that with arguably one of the most poorly written villains in anime and a second story arc that serves no purpose, it becomes an extremely disappointing, time-wasting show. Sword Art Online (Season 1) had the potential to be deep and interesting, but it fell short in so many ways that it led to an ultimately bitter viewing experience that I don’t want to go through ever again.