I’m going a little out of my way today to write about anime, if only because I can’t stop thinking about this show and so I can use this as good context for a piece I’ll be posting in the next few days for Critical Distance’s Blogs of the Round Table. I’ll try to make the need for context from this critique in the next article as unneeded as possible, but if you want the context anyway, feel free to read on.
Sword Art Online- or SAO, as kids these days tend to call it- is an anime about people playing an MMO who then proceed to get trapped within said MMO. Now while this first may sound just like the life of that guy you met who plays World of Warcraft, let me also inform you about two very important differences in this case: 1. If you die in the game, you die in real life; and 2. This game uses uber-Oculus Rift virtual reality tech, so instead of mashing the keyboard and mouse like some twat, you actually live in the game.
Released last year, it was an anime designed to target the grown-and-still-rapidly-growing gaming audience. And by all accounts, it hit the bullseye. With flashy animation, adrenaline inducing (not really, though) action sequences, music that fits well alongside the animation, and, well… character… image… design, it quickly sprouted a very loyal fan base that continues to proclaim it as one of the best shows, let alone anime, ever created. There’s just one problem: Besides the four, and if we’re talking importance, three items I listed in this paragraph alone, there’s not much that’s legitimately good about Sword Art Online.
There’s no good place to start talking here, so I’m just going to jump in with characters… in that they don’t really give much development to any of them. Within the first four episodes, you’re introduced to a large variety of characters. The majority of them only appear in the episode they were introduced in, many dying mere minutes after their introduction, with the show moving on, assuming we were deeply invested in their growth when no one could care less. The rest, you could consider main characters, though of those, most only reappear two or three more times, and even then, they only stay there for a few seconds before anyone can even get to know them. The character that viewers get most invested in, from my own experience and what my Twitter feed was telling me during the episode in which he appeared, was an axe-wielding arms dealer named Agil, who people remember less for being well developed and an interesting character and more for being black. Specifically being black and not dying… possibly the best and perhaps only moral success of SAO.
But when it comes to main main characters, there are only two you really need to know: Kirito and Asuna. Asuna is originally introduced as a strong, badass player who, while known far and wide for her good looks, is herself very much capable in combat. Kirito is also very capable in combat. In fact, he’s the best. He’s flawless. He’s overpowered. He never shows weakness. He is the very essence of bad characters. His backstory is that his parents died and he’s been living under the assumption that his aunt and cousin were actually his mother and sister, which he uses as reasons to drift into a solitary life and get really into MMOs. There’s only one problem: while this issue is pointed to as the reason for his getting stuck in Sword Art Online, it’s only revealed after he’s both gotten out of SAO, AND gotten over his soloing issues. Actually, he got out of his soloing issues day one, where his first action in the game is to help out a random player who needed help. And while he continually talks about being a solo player and only playing alone, the show NEVER makes any effort to show you that. Every-single-time that you see Kirito, he is joining up with someone new. His only actual flaw is that he’s overconfident, but the show ignores that fact, instead deciding that it’s unimportant to his character. It’s his only flaw, and at no point in the show is it EVER challenged or exploited. Kirito always wins. (The single time he doesn’t was only because the system cheated him out of it)
This discrepancy isn’t an anomaly either. SAO suffers from these same contradictions episode after episode. Simply put: Sword Art Online breaks the first rule of storytelling. “Show, do not tell.” This rule comes from the basic idea that readers, viewers, or listeners aren’t going to grow any attachment to a character unless who those characters ideals, their characteristics, are proven to them. That doesn’t happen just because someone tells you that that’s the case, it happens because that IS the case. I could give you millions of examples, but really, if you’re all that skeptical of this idea, read any good book or watch any good movie where the characters are widely accepted by critical circles as well developed. They don’t get developed so well because the narrator or author specifically points to something and says that this is how things are, they get developed because, through what they do and what they say, who they are is proven to the reader.
And for a series to do this, one that continuously likes to pretend that it’s the second coming of Evangelion or Cowboy Bebop, only comes off as obnoxious and full of itself. It can’t possibly compare to any story that even attempts to develop characters through modern convention. What SAO finds itself rooted in isn’t the well-developed-characters of the anime that came before it, SAO is rooted in ancient lore, and epics such as The Iliad. At its core, SAO merely attempts to tell you about a world, tell you the names of some people in it, tell you what they did, and assumes you can imagine the rest yourself. And while this worked in the format it was originally invented for, it does not work when implementing it within conventions of modern storytelling.
Characters aren’t developed properly, even though the story focuses so acutely on them. Time skips between episodes ignore the developments of the previous episode while simultaneously not answering any questions about what’s happened in that time period. Characters act out of character for no reason besides to look cool. Characters who actually seem legitimately interesting disappear before even getting a chance to develop. And perhaps most disturbingly, everyone falls in love with the main character, Kirito, for no reason other than that he’s strong. Not strong as a person, but strong in the context of the game.
The “show, don’t tell” problem appears here again, mainly with the development of Kirito and Asuna’s relationship. Asuna is introduced in the first episode of the show, where, between exceedingly minimal character interaction, they fight a boss together, and Kirito acts like a douche in an attempt to draw blame away from other beta testers; a move that was ridiculous, not as much for how out-of-character it felt, but also how irrelevant it was to any of the character’s opinions of him. Rather, instead of growing wary of him, like any reasonable person would, Asuna goes after and talks to him, not because she’s confused as to what he was doing, or angry for doing it, but because he yelled her name during the charge.
Asuna doesn’t even appear in the two episodes following this. Instead Kirito meets two new girls who fall in love with him almost immediately. One of those two is killed off halfway through the episode that she’s introduced. The other was clearly put into the show for fan service purposes and doesn’t show up until the epilogue in the final episode. When Asuna finally does reappear, she and Kirito are apparently closer, as they are shown at a strategy meeting and proceed to spend more time together than those who don’t know each other rightly should. There’s nothing showing how this happened, the show is, again, just telling us that it is as it is. The next two episodes aren’t even based on Kirito and Asuna’s relationship, they just team up to solve a mystery. The episode after that, Asuna barely appears, as another girl is introduced, who, of course, falls in love with Kirito. The next episode, Asuna starts crying because she can’t imagine living without Kirito and the two get married.
If this all sounds stupidly rushed and unrealistic, it’s because it was. This relationship was never EVER developed properly. It took around six or seven episodes after their marriage for me to finally feel comfortable with them as a couple, let alone as husband and wife. And the worst part is that the feeling I have towards their relationship was the exact same one I felt before I watched the show, when I knew they would end up together and get married. It wasn’t grown, it was forced onto the viewer. In other words, it was done terribly.
The show continued developing relationships with women the same way. After less than five minutes with a child they picked up in the woods, Kirito and Asuna can’t imagine being without her. And while there’s a multitude of tangents I could go on about THAT character and how everyone interacts with her, I don’t have that much time. The only relationship that ever felt developed came late in the show between Kirito and Suguha as well as Kirito and Leafa. Did I mention that Leafa and Suguha are the same person? Did I mention that she’s his sister- I mean, cousin? All moral implications aside, it was the most interesting and experimental relationship in the entire show- perhaps the most well-done part of it, in my opinion. And like all the other relationships, it was ignored because Kirito was focused solely on Asuna.
Which brings me to the end of the what-was-supposed-to-be-objective part of the critique and to the part where I include problems I had with the themes the show presented. In that it tended to ignore all of its themes and cemented its place as a the retarded younger cousin of ancient fables.
Like I frankly think the show should have done, let’s start out with Asuna. Rather, how she’s depicted. Now the show tries to do a lot of things to pose Asuna as a strong female character. She can fight alongside Kirito with no problem, and ends up in a high-ranking position in a guild (below and at the mercy of a council of men, though, might I add) At the end of the mystery arc, Kirito tells another character, and through him, the audience, that “women are not objects!”
So can you guess what the show does next? Even ignoring that surrounding the episode where Kirito says that “women are not objects” are episodes where women aren’t developed and all throw themselves at Kirito (aka. woman being treated as objects), Asuna’s character is used thusly: held back while Kirito fights, used as an object for Kirito’s revenge, and placed in a castle (er, birdcage in a tree) for Kirito to go rescue. “But she escapes from that cage and tries to get out of her prison!” Well, yes, but then she gets captured by scientists- who, for some reason, are within the game as… slugs- and is put into an almost-tentacle-rape scene before being put back into her cage. It’s a real shame that for a show which runs for much of it on the idea of people overcoming the system that their living in, Asuna can’t beat the system; they won’t let Asuna’s character break the “princess in a castle” mold they so desperately wanted in this show. Kirito is the one who beat the system. But even though he did, he did so because the creator of Sword Art Online chose him to beat it. He was granted special powers. Kirito beating the system was planned. It was meant to happen. It was… part of the system.
Again, this is an example of show, don’t tell. The show keeps telling us that we need to break the system of our world and overcome. Yet Asuna never overcomes and Kirito only follows its rules to accomplish a barrier the creator knew had to be broken. The show keeps telling us that women are not objects. Yet women in the show are consistently treated as objects.
Sword Art Online is the exact definition of a power fantasy. Kirito is invincible. He pulls out powers that no one else in the game could possibly match. Everyone falls for him. The system bends to his will. And then it tries to mask this by throwing out themes that it doesn’t even bother to support. Honestly… to me, it’s fairly disgusting.
After all I’ve said, I think it’s safe to say that I don’t think Sword Art Online is anywhere near good. It has terrible plot structure, pacing, character development, themes, and ignores the first rule of storytelling. But if you like amazing action sequences and music alongside it (which I found only enjoyable in the show, but forgettable out of it), you may find some enjoyment out of it. Maybe you’re like me, and found enjoyment in seeing how terrible the solid parts of it were.
If Sword Art Online were a sheep, it would be cripple, missing a few organs, probably has some brain damage, and has leprosy, but it also has so much fluff that most people won’t be able to tell unless they look closer. It’s not solid. It has no heart. But the concept is interesting, the characters look good, the animation is excellent, and the music is okay. For many, that may be enough.
For everyone else out there, there’s only one way I can legitimately suggest this show: Watch it so that you know what it’s like when a show does virtually everything poorly. It’s a good learning experience to know what awfulness looks like.
I think it’s a good idea to look at how this show was made and presented in the context that it was marketed to gamers. Perhaps it is an indication of how the general public views the gaming community and what we want out of a story. The scary part is that based on the fan base for this show… they might be right.
I’ll have another piece up in a few days for Critical Distance’s Blogs of the Round Table. See you then!