Accel World is an anime based on the Light Novels by Kawahara Reki, the author of Sword Art Online, in fact, I’ve decided to watch this show after watching Sword Art Online and loving it as much as I did. Unlike Sword Art Online, I hadn’t read the books, and as such this review would be based only on the anime, and perhaps a couple of points would be drawn from SAO and other media, as usual. I also want to note that the seed of the idea I’ll use in this post, of the show’s protagonists as villains had been planted by this post on Kotaku, reviewing the show.
Let’s begin with the show’s premise, or the world it’s taking place at, and how it develops it: In 2046, people can access a virtual network known as the Neurolinker via their cellphone terminals. A perpetual victim of bullying, middle school student Haruyuki spends his time absorbed in games in a corner of his local network. One day he is approached by the most famous girl in his school, Kuroyukihime (Black Snow Princess). She gives him a strange program called Brain Burst that has the power to “accelerate the world.” (Source: ANN).
I usually post this later, but since the first half of this post will be dedicated to the show’s premise, including the very next paragraph, then this is going to come earlier than usual today: This is a Things I Like post, it’s not a review, but more a discussion of the show and of ideas that have risen in my mind as I’ve watched it. There will be a large amount of spoilers in this post.
Now let’s expand that a bit, with what the show actually shows you during its early episodes – Brain Burst allows you to enter a digital world where your mind is accelerated a thousand times the normal rate, every second of real-world time is a full 16 minutes of in-game time. A real world-minute is experienced subjectively as over 16 hours in the accelerated world, which is relevant later on in the show. You can use the accelerated world in order to pause and think about what is going on, have more time to study, dodge incoming blows and many other cool things. The catch? You begin with 100 points, each time you accelerate takes up a point, so sooner or later you’re going to run out. How do you earn more points? You fight with people in duels – you challenge someone whom has no option to turn the duel down, and 10 points transfer from the loser to the victor. Earn enough points, and you can turn in points for a “level up”, which can increase your stats and give you cool powers (Note, it seems one can also choose to voluntarily transfer points to another).
So.. what happens if you end without any points? The program gets deleted permanently and you can never reinstall it, and you also lose all memories associated with it to boot. Wait, what?! Yes, that means that the only way to stay in this world, to keep accelerating, is to deprive others of their points, and all the valuable memories and friends you make in this world? Gone should you lose enough times. Now, obviously you can keep adding new people to the world, but each person can only invite one person, ever, and the invite might fail. Now, if this isn’t enough, if you reach level 10 you get to meet the creator of the Accelerated World and ask them whatever you wish, the catch? A level 9 has to dispatch the other level 9s, and this is a “Sudden Death” fight – whoever loses, loses the ability to accelerate, forever. We’ll get back to this later on when we discuss the “Villains” aspect of the show.
Now, let’s begin with the premise – there are so many ways to discuss this world, so many possible ramifications, but as you saw in my description of the premise-world, it slowly moves from science-fiction to action and fights – not exactly Battle Royale in the sense of the Lord of the Flies-esque Japanese story, but yeah, fights everywhere, and a poor boy’s bildungsroman story, the tale of his growth into a more self-assured (and powerful!) person, and his budding romance with Snow-Black Princess, his “parent” in the Accelerated World.
The author is a bit poor about this. Sword Art Online also had a world and premise that could’ve been used for so much more when it comes to sci-fi, but only in the 10th-12th books or so did it truly begin incorporating actual sci-fi elements that I found satisfying, and even then they were mostly the background and easily overlooked (I might discuss them in a future post).
And yet, let us discuss what science-fiction elements do exist in the show, that I paid attention to, most are mentioned off-handedly, they make up the setting, they are the “normal world” everyone lives in and as such do not merit much discussion, so there’s not much social and/or philosophical exploration of these subjects going on here: People can connect to one another using cables, to allow them to talk privately without others being able to eavesdrop on you. This shows the two people are close, and if two high school students who aren’t the same gender do it, then everyone around them starts gossiping, which reminded me a bit of using one’s given name as a Japanese which marks two people as being quite close to one another. This is furthermore complicated by the length of the cable, as a shorter cable requires the two people to be closer to one another, and so the shorter the cable the more intimate the relationship, though this is mostly used as a gag/jealousy-trigger within the show.
Another thing which is kind of a given when you consider the premise is using the Brain Burst feature in order to score better grades, to win athletic competitions, etc. We have two characters, one is the main character’s best friend, who use Brain Burst not just in order to do well on tests, but in order to win Kendo matches as it allows him to dodge incoming attacks and sidestep enemies’ defenses, he can’t move as if time’s frozen, but he can plan his moves and react as if this were so, but he later is forced to give up on it by the main character. The second character who does this is introduced after the MC’s friend “reforms” and as such presents a lower moral evolutionary step, and is the antagonist of the second arc of the show.
You might ask how adults aren’t able to monitor this, which is due to a situation that can create more things for you to explore, but I feel in this story it’s actually used in order to shove consequences out of the way which makes it a good analogy for everything sci-fi related in this show – rather than bring up these themes and discuss them, it has this magnificent setting which it just pushes out of the way to not discuss again. So, why can’t adults monitor this Accelerated World which is accessible via Brain Burst? Because as a requirement to have Brain Burst installed you must have had the neuro-linker installed since birth, so the oldest ones around who apply are 16 years old kids. And of course, should the program get removed, you lose all memories of it.
There’s one more aspect to the accelerated world that gets touched on a bit, and I suspect is explored in more depth in future books, and is also explored somewhat in the later books of Sword art Online, or at least mentioned and thought of a bit by the characters – some people have spent a lot of time in the accelerated world, and we’re talking years’ worth of time – Spend a total of one real world day in the accelerated world, and your psyche, your mental self had spent nearly three years within it. Some of the level 9s around are 16 years old biologically, but have spent a couple of decades within the world, making them adults in a young body, in some respects. This isn’t touched upon much, and it’s a really rife avenue of exploration in future seasons, I think.
Protagonist Villains is the second issue I want to cover in this post. So, you have to beat people and take their points in order to keep accelerating, right? Unless you engage in a stinted pyramid scheme (because each person can only invite one person, ever), which means you have to take what others have in order to keep what you do. This is a zero-sum game of points, and the more you use your power or even just meet with your friends within the Accelerated World, the more you have to deprive others of the very same – the opportunity to use their powers or meet their accelerating friends. Heck, you can even rob them of their memories, have some of their friends lose the precious time they had spent together.
In Dungeons and Dragons’ original edition, alignment (a morality scale) for evil often had evil in some parts be synonymous with selfish, something that had continued into later editions. Shows in general often keep this “Selfishness is evil, when you’re willing to hurt others for the sake of your goals,” and this is exactly what is going on here. Haru’s best friend, Taku, creates a backdoor in his girlfriend’s neuro-linker in order to ambush people and attack them, in order to obtain points so he could cheat on tests and in Kendo competitions, that’s classic villain stuff, but he later undergoes a redemption arc.
Snow Black Princess, or Kuroyukihime in Japanese, is as a passerby in the Accel World who acts as an information giver to the show-watchers says when she finally assumes her original shape is “The Biggest Traitor in the history of the Accelerated World. (yes, this is really how they make the female lead and main love interest’s entry in the accelerated world)” Being one of the original “Kings of Pure Colour”, she is a level 9 burster, who led her own virtual army. When the kings had found about the requirements to get to the much desired level 10, they’ve decided to declare a truce and give up on it. Well, Snow Black Princess couldn’t accept that, and after appearing to accept it, she ambushed the Red King – while hugging him (and note, they trusted one another, all of the kings were apparently friends) she used her sword-arms and decapitated him.
So, why does Snow Black Princess act in this manner, what super-important reason does she have to reach level 10? She wants to meet the creator of Brain Burst and ask him why he created Brain Burst, what goal he had for it. So, she’s going to destroy her friends’ hope, she betrayed them, and will defeat countless of people to satisfy her curiousity. That’s classic villain behaviour. Haru? He will do whatever is needed in order to have his senpai achieve her desires, and while that sounds laudable, many villains which were remotely sympathetic in anime/shows in general have the goal of “Do despicable thing for the sake of my loved ones,” but usually it was more than just for the sake of their loved ones’ curiosity, y’know?
Now, before I move to discuss the show in general, just one closing statement – we have many shows where the protagonist is not just an anti-hero, but an outright villain in a classic story, Dexter, Code Geass, The Sopranos, Death Note, and others, but there it’s actually known and acknowledged. This show is too quick to cast it off and focus on its nature as an action show, and a bildungsroman (coming of age story) besides, which is why I took the time to discuss this at length here.
Now let us discuss the show in general, or things regarding its pacing and production values:
The Kotaku review addresses how bad the second arc’s pacing is, well, it’s not really bad as much as it feels like it draws on for way too long. This is similar to a point I’ve made in my Steins;Gate review, about “Compressed second halves” – First halves are often exciting because they paint the world in broad strokes, they keep zipping along from one plot-point to the other, introducing the cast, introducing the themes, and having things be resolved so we could move to the next point. The second half has a continuous story, which feels rather slow after the first arc is done. In this case, it’s even worse as the second half’s plot doesn’t grow organically from the first half’s, as it does with Steins;Gate.
But, like Steins;Gate, part of the reason it feels so slow is due to the content. We meet a jerk, an asshole, a douche who is unkind, blackmails others, frames Haru for peeping on girls, tries to separate Haru and Taku from Chie, their childhood friend who is also Taku’s girlfriend, and in other words is a classic petty villain, complete with a psychotic laughter and self-loathing, as well as a troubled past involving his brother. The reason the arc feels so slow is because we’re oppressed by the presence of this character – not just the characters, but us, as he’s annoying to watch, and the story isn’t moving anywhere because this antagonist isn’t letting it move anywhere.
I want to make one final point about this villain – one of the things that makes him a villain is his unique power – he has the ability to take others’ powers from them and apply them to himself, by ripping the relevant body parts off them and splicing them onto himself. He takes Haru’s wings, which symbolize Haru’s desire to be better, to reach for the skies and no longer be confined in his short body, and Haru is also the only one capable of flight in the Accelerated World (making for your usual “The Hero has a power no one else does!”). Well, his power involves taking things from others, so they don’t have it and he does. That’s quite a metaphor for the Accelerated World’s fights in general, and the desire to reach level 10 in particular. This villain is no worse than the main cast, even if he still uses his powers for personal gain which Taku stopped doing, which is a thinly veiled attempt to paint him as not morally evolved as the cast.
The action scenes are good, there are a couple of deeply emotionally resonant scenes in the show, such as when Snow Black Princess sacrifices herself for Haru. The relationship between Taku, Haru and Chie, the three childhood friends, two of them are a couple, is quite well done. The relationship between Haru and SBP is weird, used often for gags, and how SBP fell for Haru is handled so-so, but it doesn’t mean it’s not believable.
There are some really good directorial touches in the show, such as when in the final fight Haru glides down and from his alien and cold battle form we see chibi-Haru with angel wings gliding down like a happy baby, and back to his combat form.
The actors mostly do a fine job, but sadly it is one of the two leads, Misawa Sachika, who portrays Snow-Black Princess that delivers a very anemic portrayal of the big villain, the army leader. Now, Snow-Black Princess is indeed very pale, frail and even anemic-looking, but her role demanded someone who can deliver powerful lines and sound like they mean them, and she ultimately fell short. The animation and soundtracks are both top-notch and I find nothing wrong with them, especially with how well done some images in the show are, such as when Haru tries to grasp the skies in his dream and then just before spreading his wings for the very first time.
Conclusion: I give this show 7.9/10 inches long connector-cable. This show had an amazing premise, and is full of villains, which it hadn’t done much yet with, but it’s a well-crafted and well-paced (for the most part) action show. You could do so much worse with your time.
I think you would benefit greatly from reading the novels, as they address many of the issues you point out in this post.
So just as a general comment, fighting full out is never considered evil in the Accel World even if it were to result in your opponent going to 0 points. Things that are considered evil: breaking the rules of the game through hacks (Taku, Noumi), bringing the fight to the real world (Noumi) and any usage of the Shin’i/Incarnate system for personal gain (Noumi). The Black Legion also deems any use of Brain Burst for personal gain in the real world as evil, but not all legions forbid this. Kuroyukihime’s attack in the middle of a peace treaty talk was evil because it was underhanded, not because it robbed a king of his program. Likewise, Noumi’s power was not evil by definition – he had every right to use it to its full potential. It’s the points mentioned above that made him a villain in the story. The wing-stealing just gave Haru a very good reason for things to be personal.
Basically, it’s just a game, so everyone is entitled to do their best against other players as long as they follow the rules.
That said, there are novel characters that discard this “accepted selfishness threshold”, and attempt to reform the Accel World so as to allow people to make use of it without robbing others of their points – you might call those few the true “heroes” of the story.
I might read the novels, at some point :3
Well, that’s why I don’t rely on what they describe as evil, and mentioned the Dungeons & Dragons alignment system, where “Selfish” is often counted as evil.
Personally, I don’t think they are “evil”, but they are villains. They do set out to rob others of their position. The whole setup of this world which is either “Zero-sum game” or “Pyramid Scheme” not only promotes an antagonistic mentality between the participants, but is one that promotes unhealthy interactions, what with the mere act of accelerating – to meet your friends having a cost, so you can’t just collectively chill-out.
And the concept of “How far to go to win?” which is really prevalent in games is sort of the deal here – this isn’t a game, this is their lives. And if we go with that question, then Snow Black Princess is doing whatever it takes to win the game. I think they are villains, but that doesn’t have to mean they are “Evil”, especially in the caricature way that the author usually paints his “VILLAINS” such as Noumi, or using sexual violence in SAO.
You could say though, if it’s accepted by everyone, it’s not villainous, but we also get to judge as observers from without. Otherwise dystopias wouldn’t be dystopias – they are from our perspectives.
Seen like that, there are a whole 2 characters in the series who aren’t villains – Saffron and the Green King. Though that would imply you need to be a saint not to count as a villain, heh.
Interestingly, the main characters strongly believe that AW /is/ a game, and mixing it up with real life can only have bad consequences.