If someone were to ask me, “Aoi, what is the worst case of wasted potential?”, I would reply with Sword Art Online. I would say that only a minority in the anime community would say that they hated SAO from start to finish. It did have the potential to go somewhere and be able to work its way into the hearts of anime and video game fans alike. However, having potential and using potential are two completely different cookies. SAO, unfortunately, is in the former. Its been a whole year since SAO had started airing so to celebrate its One year anniversary, I thought I would commemorate this by bashing and ripping Sword Art Online limb from limb, Gary Stu from Mary Sue, Plot devices from Deus Ex Machina and QUALITY from PLOT.
There are two things that I will openly admit are good about Sword Art Online; The first three episodes and the soundtrack. The first three episodes are done really well. In fact I surprise myself looking back on it and how well they are done. Each episode serves a purpose, the first was to set up the world, the second was to show off the action and MMO elements in the anime and lastly the third episode was to show the harsh reality of this world and they weren’t just playing some video game. Then the fourth episode happened…lets get to that later. What I like about this trio is the third episode. Sure, the first two are cool and all but it is in the third where we see just how good this anime could’ve been. All thanks to one very special blue haired girl. I’m not the type to feel sympathy for characters that die in the same episode they are introduced in. But Sachi was different. It wasn’t just sad because she died, it was everything surrounding her death which made it great. Firstly, it showed how delicate life is in this world. Life is but a candle in the wind in Aincrad and no one can help that. That harsh reality hits Kirito and the viewer alike just like that strike that killed Sachi. Her personality, albeit not expanded on in great detail, aided to this disaster as well. As soon as she was getting over her fear of dying and living in Sword Art Online, she is unfortunately whisked away along with her clan to their demise. Her overall death scene as well was very powerful. Her “Thank you, Goodbye” really hit home with me. Even up to her death she was thankful to Kirito that he was able to put her fears behind her and be able to cope with this world. The fact that Kirito couldn’t do anything but watch his only real companion up to this point get murdered was hard to watch. I really appreciate when a character in a certain moment of intensity, they are as hopeless and helpless as the viewer. It was the only time in the show where I actually felt sympathy for Kirito. Throughout the rest of the episode, we see a mind broken Kirito, confused as to what his next move should be. Sachi is dead, but he had no other choice but to just play the game. When he hears news that there is a way to bring Sachi back, his last shred of hope is put into use to fight what appears to be a scary Santa Clause. It is only after this battle that the cruel reality of the world hitting him like a brick. People stay dead and should stay dead, humans should never be able to play God. He returns to the inn at which he, Sachi and their clan were staying. Maybe he was seeking some sort of nostalgic refuge there or simply chose to not live anywhere else for some morbid type of closure. Instead, what he got was something he sought for but never wanted. A post-mortem Christmas present from the late Sachi in the form of a message. In this message, Sachi thanked Kirito for letting her live happily in this world, even if it were for a short time. She proceeded to hum Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer and Kirito showed the most genuine piece of emotion that he will ever have in the entirety of SAO. It was a perfect finale to this harsh episode. And as Sachi died, the potential of this show died with her.
One final thing before I bash Sword Art Online. The OST composed by Yuki Kaijiura is fantastic. I see many people say that this soundtrack is “mediocre” and “decent”. I get the feeling that those people just listened to the songs that got overplayed like “Swordland” and the like. I believe its the fact that since Kaijiura has composed such great soundtracks before in anime, she was put on this pedestal by the anime community, so if a soundtrack doesn’t meet their expectations, then its not good but just “decent”. If some, unknown composer made that OST then they would be going places right now and everyone would praise the soundtrack more. Songs like “In The Cage” or “At Our Parting” are songs that I still listen to today. That’s what I think anyways.
Positives aside, its time to dive into the mess of this show, everything past episode three. I went into episode 4 with my expectations raised high after the latest episode. How would Kirito cope? What’s going to happen next? Is Sachi really dead? These questions were answered but not in the way I hoped. We got introduced to Silica and I knew that this show was going down the shitter. What we got for the next 4-5~ episodes was nothing but solid filler. It still baffles me that they put this here. Why was this needed? The conclusion I came to wasn’t a pleasant one. I believe the writer got insanely lazy. He came up with a great introduction and world, yet he couldn’t follow up with a solid story. As a an unfortunate result, he opted for a cheap, poorly written “story”.
The flags were raised when episode 4 came along. I should have threw caution to the wind and realized what I was watching was just pointless shenanigans, I should have realized that its only going to go downhill from here on out, I should have realized that effort being put into characterization was getting thrown out the window. I should have realized this. However, I was stubborn and kept giving this show chance after chance to redeem itself and return to the glory of the first 3 episodes. But if everything I wanted came true then Horizon would have a season 3 and we all know that isn’t happening. I felt helpless while watching this. I wanted to stop, I really did but it was like a car crash to me. No matter how horrifying it is, you simply can’t look away from it.
The relationships with the characters in the show are forced and quite cheap. Whenever something is brought up, it is quickly dismissed because Kirito has to help one of his harem slay a dragon or something. That entire murder mystery arc which was supposed to develop the relationship between Asuna and Kirito, was just a waste of time. What could’ve been time to actually develop the relationship was spent dicking about looking for some clan that was never brought up in the anime again. As a result of this, the relationship between Asuna and Kirito felt very shallow and weak. Their relationship reminds me of Tomoya and Nagisa from Clannad. The girl is introduced at the start to indicate that she will win, she fucks off doing whatever then comes back and suddenly the Casanova of the show is head over heels for her. At least in Clannad, I can somewhat understand why Tomoya likes Nagisa but in SAO, I cannot see the connection between the two.
Let me summarize their relationship in detail : Kirito meets a hooded girl and is more or less forced to party up with her cause vidya. They team up, Kirito gives Asuna some butter and they share a DEEP conversation. They kick ass in episode 2 and then Asuna decides to do her own thing. Two years later, Asuna is head of the major clan and Kirito is the edgy lone swordsman of SAO. Asuna criticised Kirito at a meeting for saying that they shouldn’t kill NPCs (which is a valid argument since Kirito should know, being the “beater” that he is, that NPCs can just respawn, but hey, ethics in VRMMORPGs are past my time). They solve a mystery together and decide to go dungeon hunting for whatever reason. Kirito sees that Asuna doesn’t like being in the clan and says “Time to show why they call me the messiah!” and challenges Heathcliff to a duel. Kirito loses cause hax (I like the way the anime shows that he only loses when someone hacks the game.) He’s sad cause he is forced to join the clan and Asuna is all like “Hey Kirito, Cheer up! I have tits, look at them!”. Kirito goes on a fetch quest and nearly dies to only get saved by Mary Sue herself. Kirito “sacrifices” his arm to save Asuna. They kiss. They fuck. They get married.
Now, I’m not sure if its only me but that is all of their character interactions before they get married. People call their relationship one of the best in anime. I know it could just be the obnoxious fanbase but I still need to prove my point. Honestly, their relationship is laughable. From what we are given, we are expected to accept their relationship as a genuine thing between the two. If the Murder Mystery arc was dedicated to just them then maybe I would appreciate it more. Maybe. But the fact still remains that that fantasy romance was not to be as filler is always a good thing to see in anime. As a result of this, the relationship feels incredibly forced with flags being sprung up out of nowhere and BOOM, love couple of 2012. I guess people are misinterrupting their relationship simply because of how attractive they are or how “perfect” their romance seems. I won’t deny that their relationship is very idealistic for their situation but by no means does that mean its solid. Pacing isn’t the real problem here, its the actual characters themselves. Kirito is just a male power fantasy for otaku to self insert into and Asuna is your stereotypical tsundere whose only real defining traits is that she can cook and is good at a video game, nothing more, nothing less. When you just take a step back and look at it, all I can see is this: Kirito is the greatest in the game, so good he can defeat bosses 1v1. He meets the uber kawaii girl of the game world that everyone either wants to fuck or imitate. With a dash of bravery, he woos her and they get married through a video game. Plus, she can cook. Yeah, this totally wasn’t just mindless pandering.
Every other character interaction in the show is either worthless in the long run or is just there to advance the plot. Its either a girl from Kirito’s harem trying to get his dick or mindless EVILNESS. You know what’s funny about it though? Everything that happens in the show revolves around Kirito in some weird shape or form. There isn’t any plot development while Kirito isn’t on screen or that doesn’t involve him in a way. Its like every character in the show is defined by how much they want Kirito’s dick or how much they want to chop it off.
Character motivations in the show are insanely illogical as well. The actual players have a very clear and distinct motivation; to get to floor 100 and beat the game to return to their world. I understand that completely, in fact any other motivation would be incredibly stupid. Its in the villains motivations where the cracks begin to show. All their motivations boil down to is “Cause why the fuck not” or “lolidunno”. When the villains motivations aren’t stated then there is no point in having a villain. You might as well replace him with a sheet of cardboard saying “Look at me, I’m evil GRRRRR!”. Imagine if Bal Masqués motivations weren’t stated in Shana S3 and all they were doing was getting the Tomogara to another world because “Why the fuck not” or “lolidunno”. Wouldn’t that just be the most ridiculous writing ever? What about in TTGL, the anti spirals were fighting the Spirals “Cause why the fuck not” or “lolidunno”. You get my point. So, with this death game being created, wouldn’t it make more sense to have an explanation rather then leaving everything up in the air with the excuse of “Shit, I forget, Teehee!”
So when the romance side of SAO is more or less done with, its time they move on to the DRAMA of it all. And when drama is applied to poorly developed characters, you get sloppy drama. Developed and interesting characters is vital in producing good drama. If an anime hasn’t established any real conflicts within characters, troubling backgrounds or just personalities in general then we are left with nothing but situations that feel incredibly dull and unnatural. The biggest instance of DRAMA in the show is the part where the Yui disappears cause reasons. Yui made her initial appearance in episode 11 during Kirito’s and Asuna’s lovely dovely honeymoon. She was presented to us without a hint of what she actually is, so I guess that was the show trying to be mysterious but it kinda back fired on them since there was pretty much nothing else to her other than her being “mysterious” and a idealistic daughter for the idealistic couple. She’s just a plot point that the author thought up to advance the plot, So when she suddenly says “Turns out I’ve been pissing off the higher ups so I’m going to be erased or some shit”, it was just a “oh….well ok” moment that felt iimmensely underwhelming. We have a poorly developed character adopted into a poorly developed couple for 2-3 episodes to only get erased because she performed Deus Ex Machina on some boss thing. It was a cheap way of evoking tears that just left an insanely bad impression on me.
The animation is something that gets praised as well. To be fair, the action scenes do look somewhat smooth and fluent but I always have the personal believe that the animation within the show is something to be credited as an aside. As long as the show is a great watch, I don’t really care if the animation is sloppy and vica versa.
I think I covered everything I wanted to say about Sword Art Online. In retrospect, I can see why the popularity of the show is immense. Its a very easy to watch “gateway” show that combines two huge media into one. It did have the potential to go somewhere. However, like I said, having potential and using potential are two completely different things. However, one thing left satisfied…My OTP.