Sword Art Online is a series that had occupied an important part of my psyche for a while, and even now I think of it often and fondly. It was the right show at the right time for me, though I suspect any time it’d have come out in the past few years would’ve been the right time. It’s not without its blemishes, but it’s still one of my all-time favourite shows.
It also helped that the concept was something that had immediately drawn me in – “MMO, the players are stuck within, and if they die inside the game they die in reality.” I probably expected it to be a lot more “Lord of the Flies” than Shonen kick-assery, but I liked it, it had a lot of heart moments as well.
EDIT: This is something I meant to write in but forgot – I watch anime in large part in order to feel, this is why I watch anime. As such, the story is often secondary to how much the show makes me care, so long as the story isn’t broken so much I can’t stomach things any longer.
When I’ve began watching the show, it had about 15 episodes out. I’ve watched them, rapt with admiration for the show. And then, about episode 9 I’ve caught myself thinking, “Wait, in a couple of hours I’ll catch up to where the show currently is, and what will I do then? How will I wait one week at a time for an episode?!” and indeed, I’ve been in nearly physical agony at times, thinking of the show, undergoing withdrawal as I was waiting for the next episode to come out.
But, I did not just wait for the next episode to come out, as I will go over in a future article, I’ve rewatched episodes, I’ve rewatched sequences that were fraught with emotional impact in the show, for me, and those scenes did not only keep my attachment for the characters, but it reinforced it, and made me think of the way emotional attachment can form, and how we can grow to like characters more.
(This is a “Things I Like” post, and as such covers more my thoughts, and is less focused as an actual bona fide review. There will be a medium amount of spoilers in this post. I will also talk a bit of things happening in the Light Novels but not yet covered in the anime, but only with regards to pacing and emotional manipulation – not story content.)
Now, there are the obvious sequences to rewatch, where Kirito is all cool – where he unleashes Double Sword for the first time and takes on a boss more or less on his own to save everyone, when he becomes the anti-hero to shoulder the blame for having participated in the Beta and not having shared the information with everyone else, when he adopts the form of the boss he defeated in Aincrad to fight the Salamanders in the second arc of the show… these are all “cool” moments, but they’re not what had me really coming back to the show.
Let us look at a sequence I found especially important, as early as the third episode. Kirito ends up feeling responsible for the deaths of a group of other players. He hears a rumour of an item that can resurrect players who die within the game, and sets out to obtain that item. I am not going to tell you exactly what happens, but it’s sad, it’s heart-wrenching, in fact. Now, the first time I’ve watched it I’ve had the slight pressure in the back of my throat which I often experience while taking in sad moments in media, but as I’ve watched that sequence time and time again (And I’ve probably watched it more than a dozen times), is that I’ve shed tears. The sequence acted in two different ways depending on when I’ve experienced it.
You see, it’s like infatuation – when you meet someone who looks average, they look average to you (surprise!), but if you keep on meeting them and actually grow to like them, then slowly they might look better to you. Now, if anyone watches the series and accuses the writers of being heavy-handed in how they lay on the emotional manipulation, then they are probably right. This sequence is horribly sad. The goal of this sequence is to make us care for Kirito, and for everyone else who is trapped in this insane death-game. They lay such sequences in every single episode going from episode 1-4, and at episode 7. These episodes truly make us care for Kirito, because how can we not?
(Episodes 5-6 cover a side-story written much later in the Light Novels, so the reason it feels kind of out of place is unsurprising).
But then, when I’ve rewatched the episodes, it was different. Beforehand, the sad sequences were made to make me care for Kirito, but what happens when you read or watch really sad things happening to people (characters) you deeply care about? You are sad. Before, the connection was created, later, the connection was there. By rewatching the show time after time I did not only pass the time until the next episode had been released, but I had deepened my connection to Kirito, Asuna, and the other characters. As I watched the series more to alleviate my need to watch it I only needed to watch it more, in turn.
This is also part of why the second half of the series doesn’t feel as impactful. After we sped the first half of the show growing attached to certain characters, the characters who have the more emotionally heavy and impactful scenes are different characters. We’ve grown attached to not just Kirito, but his relationship with Asuna, which doesn’t really exist until the final two episodes, and even Kirito’s scenes pale compared to Suguha’s, his cousin. But the scenes with Suguha, which are nearly as sad as some of the ones Kirito goes through in the first half of the show don’t impact us nearly as much – they mean a lot to her, but sadly, she doesn’t mean a lot to us, just yet.
Not only that, there is a pacing “problem” in the second half of the series. The first half of the series does end on a sort of resolution, but we really didn’t resolve everything, especially not what we really cared for – which wasn’t people being able escape the game, but Kirito and Asuna, our friends, outside the game. But after the first half of the show ends explosively, with things happening quickly each episode, we expect the second half of the season, if it’s not to start explosively (after all, we could use a bit of exposition), that it’d at least get back to the action pretty quickly.
This doesn’t happen, and things go on quite slowly for the most part, with not a lot of “Action” action – or say when Kirito saves the Sylph and Cait-Sith meeting in half an episode, you expect them to keep on advancing the plot in the latter half, but they just talk.
In understanding this, it helps knowing how the light novels are constructed – what happens in the second half of the first arc, all the “Action” and Kirito and Asuna’s relationship happens in the first light novel. The moments that make us care about Kirito happen for the most part in the second light novel, which is about side-stories from Aincrad. The second half of the anime series is contained within the 3rd and 4th books. As such, those who’ve been reading the books had been waiting a long time for the story to resume, and in books it is much more natural for there to be a journey and exposition. It’s just that the anime really left us hanging, and then the break in the pacing came as quite of a shock.
But, if you watch the second half of the show patiently, you see a lot of the non-action is the same as the emotionally heavy sequences of the first half, while more care-free, they’re still there to teach about the new world, to get us to care for the characters, and because as far as the books are concerned, this is a new journey. Could it have been done better? Certainly, but it wasn’t bad.
Now, about the future of Sword Art Online. I am sure there’d be more seasons, seeing how immensely popular this show seems to be. And as you can imagine, I couldn’t really say goodbye to Kirito and all the others and had read some of the upcoming light novels. While the next world “Gun Gale Online (GGO)”, will definitely start slow, it’d come off more natural – it’d be a completely new season, and things HAD been answered to a satisfactory level after the first season ended.
I’ve also read Mother Rosario, which is sort of a side-story. The emotional manipulation there is extremely heavy-handed, and there I realized once more that Reki Kawahara, the author of the series, is probably not the best writer there is (part of it could definitely be the fan-translation I was reading), but recognizing that I’m being emotionally manipulated did not make it any less effective, at quite a few sequences, and I still found myself tearing up reading the story or thinking of it.
This is a blog post about the Shigofumi anime, which deals almost entirely with emotional manipulation.
Score: Sword Art Online gets 9.7/10 loving tears from me. The art is very well done, the music score works very well to complement the show, and the voice actors have all done an admirable job, for the most part.
The first half is a perfect 10. I suspect that watching this series all at once might have made me feel different about the second arc – it might have made me like it more because I wouldn’t have kept thinking “Man, where is the action, when will we get to Asuna?” which I kept thinking, but maybe without rewatching so many scenes and episodes time and time again I wouldn’t have cared as much for the show to begin with?
- Infinity Moment Takes Everything You Know About Sword Art Online, and Turns It on Its Head (kotaku.com)
- Sword Art Online’s Third Story Arc is Excellent (kotaku.com)
- Sword Art Online (safelass.wordpress.com)