Sword Art Online was probably the most popular anime to air during 2012. It had and has many fans, and many detractors. I for one liked it a whole lot. I liked it enough that after it ended, still in the throes of desiring to know what happened next, I’ve actually gone ahead and read all of the Sword Art Online novels. Well, from the 5th novel onward, so I didn’t revisit material which the series had covered. My opinion of the series might be coloured by it, but hey, I strive to give information for you to make your own minds as well.
I’m going to try and avoid spoiling the novels by Reki Kawahara and their content in-depth, but will touch more about plot-structure, themes, and how I felt about the books/arcs in general – so broad brushstroke/theme spoilers, not so much particulars. Furthermore, the second season is going to begin airing this weekend, so I will give some thoughts on what I think the upcoming adaptation will cover.
It’s Still a Light Novel Series:
I wrote a post about how Light Novels aren’t the best-written literature out there, and especially how that is relevant when one adapts the light novels to anime. Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei, which I wrote a post about the first 11 novels of, is the perfect example of endless internal monologues which replace characterization and action, a lot of non-action, and purple prose that is so overbearing and ubiquitous as to drown everything out. As one could see, a focus on non-action and internal monologues doesn’t translate well to the visual medium – either you kill the pacing by delivering these things, or you’re left with an indecipherable world due to the lack of explanations, or actions that support said things.
Thankfully, while SAO (Sword Art Online) still suffers from some of these same issues, they’re hardly as debilitating. But they’re still there, so here’s a random quote from the 7th book:
Putting their outstanding strength into consideration, it’d be reasonable to come to the conclusion that they’re an extremely obsessed group which spent everything they had on the game. However, Asuna felt that this wasn’t the case. On the Sleeping Knights’ faces, she didn’t see the intense self-depreciation which those guilds couldn’t erase. All of them enjoyed the game extremely naturally.
I mean, why not let us see these things through action? Why not let us do the comparisons? They’re taking a shortcut to characterization, and if adapted to anime, it could work fine – in this case, as it’s a couple of sentences – except it’s preceded by three more paragraphs and followed by one more. So, why is it not as debilitating, in my opinion, as more extreme cases?
First, there’s actual action here. A lot of what happens is actually stuff in the external world. It might seem obvious that an action show will have actual action, but it’s not necessarily the case. More importantly, action often isn’t the same as characterization, so the question is how characterization is carried out. To once more compare and contrast SAO and Mahouka – in both of them you have an action which is given more depth through the point of view character reflecting on the action, their own nature, and the motives behind others’ actions.
The difference is one of scale. In Mahouka, the smallest of gestures launches us to an explanation of people to the smallest of details, and almost all of the characterization is carried out via these internal monologues. In SAO, there’s more of a give and take, between actions and reflection. It’s partially a question of length, we all think to ourselves, and a single statement can be brought over naturally. Someone could recoil from someone else, and then reflect on that, shortly. But even if they don’t reflect on it, you can still follow what is going on, because characters actually act enough for you to form an opinion on them.
And here is another difference, which might not be good literature, but makes for easier reading and adaptation – the characters in Sword Art Online don’t have much character to them. Coming to the novels from the anime I noticed Kirito is much more wry and cynical, even jaded than he appears in the anime – which is understandable, considering we barely get to know him in the anime (due to the nature of adapting internal monologues), but all in all? Outside the “Warily wry protagonist” that most of these novels go for, there just isn’t much. Most of the other characters are the same. Mahouka has no real characters, but it tries really hard to sell you it has some. Sword Art Online does have characters, mostly defined in broad strokes, or through momentous events – it’s not how you make great characters, certainly not in dramas, but it’s how most characters in narratives, especially those focused on actions seem to be.
“Broad strokes characters based around specific events” is easier to transmit in a visual medium – you show us the events, and you let the small actions speak for themselves, or fail to, as with most characters. There’s one more reason I actually like Sword Art Online, while not caring for Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei – even if it’s extremely emotionally manipulative, there are at least emotions in SAO, while Mahouka is as dry as it can be.
Oh yes, about sexual prose and such. I’ve flipped through the books while writing this post, and there are definitely situations where you’re told there’s sexual content, such as stripper-like sellers in the gun-shop, describing how someone looks for a moment, but it’s usually thrown there and forgotten. The text doesn’t languish lavishly over said text. Seeing it in anime, especially with how the 2nd part of the first season insisted on fan-service, I wonder how it’d go. I mean, in the case of Gun Gale Online for instance, after the first chapter or two, Kirito having a female-looking avatar completely slipped my mind, which isn’t something that will happen when we see him non-stop in said form in the visual adaptation.
Books 1-4 – Aincrad and Alfheim Online (Fairy Dance) – Covered in the anime, aside from a side-arc during the underground journey in Alfheim Online. As such I’ve skipped them.
Oh yeah, forget most of the characters you used to know. Most of them will barely appear from now on, except for a page or mention here and there.
Books 5-6 – Phantom Bullet AKA Gun Gale Online (GGO) – Alfheim Online had been about putting Aincrad to rest – about being met with the ghosts of the first world, of the death game, and ending it all, so we could start a new life. Except, when Alfheim Online ended, Kirito had unleashed “The Seed” onto the world, opening the route to many more online games. Furthermore, Kirito had been given aid in order to find Asuna, and old debts come to collect.
The preview present it as an investigative tale, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. This is an action story through and through, except where it’s emotional. The past comes back for Kirito, probably not in small part because the author couldn’t let go of the success of Aincrad, or of its suspense, and had a lot more story to tell about it – In Aincrad, the goal is clear – “You lose and you die,” while in ALO it was a tad more ephemeral “Get there before your love is taken from you,” but you can die all you want.
So we introduce a new way to die. This arc also revolves heavily around the concepts of morality and definition of self which underlie the show every time “player killers” appear in Aincrad, and most of Kirito’s interactions with Leafa. Kirito’s nature as a “Non-killer”, the nature of PTSD, redemption, and fear. Fear not just of others, but fear of the monster lying within us. Sinon, the other lead of the arc, is used to showcase these things – she’s a mirror of Kirito, in how they acted the same in the past, and through understanding Sinon’s rejection of herself we can also see how Kirito has a nugget of self-loathing.
Kirito did forgive himself, so his journey is naturally not as interesting, but some of the bits with Sinon, and especially the ending, really got me. The villains are classic “cackler villains” which seem to be the only sort the author knows how to write. But they at least mirror the protagonists, and further the exploration of “Who am I?” and the correlation between who we are, and how it moves us to act once we find it – the villains aren’t interesting as villains, but some of the ideas behind them are.
Book 7 – Mother’s Rosario – This book is interesting, as it’s a side-story, and doesn’t advance the “plot”. Not only that, but Kirito is a supporting character in this novel, getting roughly 3 pages of content. So who’s the protagonist, and what is it about? The protagonist is Asuna. The story for the most part shows us how the world evolves, after the ending of book 4 – Alfheim Online receives the floating castle of Aincrad, so we get to see how in typical MMO fashion, there are regular “expansion packs” where new floors of the floating castle are released, how people recreate the lost Sword Arts from Aincrad (the flashy sword-slashes that are system-assisted), which for the most part are the McGuffin giving this arc its initial momentum, and of course a way to show how Kirito and some other characters are “badasses”.
We also get some time with the cast in high-school, also continuing with “the world we now live in” as a result of the first two arcs.
But this is very much Asuna’s story. We get to see how life goes for “rich girl Asuna”, some moments of her relationship with Kirito, her family situation, etc. Much of it is “normal” though still better than most of what anime can crank out. There are a couple of moments that I genuinely liked regarding Asuna’s family, but for the most part it’s regular YA fiction, about this.
And then we have the main storyline. This book is the most emotionally manipulative of all the SAO novels. It worked for me, even if I would’ve found several of those scenes cynical and sigh-worthy in real life, but that’s why I consume media, to feel sadness, which I’ve discussed before. We’re presented sad things, and sad things happen to characters, and we’re expected to feel sad. Whether or not it’ll work for you will probably colour much of your impression of this novel.
We meet a character who is used to mirror Yuuki Asuna, which is made manifest since they also have a family situation, and are named Yuuki (though as first name rather than surname, as it is for Asuna). I won’t say much more for too many spoilers. I will say that this arc has the most ridiculously bad description of AIDS I’ve ever seen, that I had to stop reading the book and face-desk a couple of times. Is there something in Japan about AIDS and preconceptions of it? I have no idea.
Some people might latch onto the “Sci-fi aspect” of using virtual reality to treat and give “more life experiences” to people who can’t leave hospitalization, but eh, it’s a small detail, and not real exploration.
Book 8 – Early and Late – Short Stories – A collection of three short stories. The first is “A Murder Case in the Area” and was adapted in the first season as episodes 5-6.
The second story is “Caliber”, about how Kirito obtains the strongest weapon in Alfheim Online, Excalibur, which had appeared in his duel with Sugou as Oberon in the finale of the first season. We get to meet everyone, including Klein, Silica, Lisbeth, etc, and we go on an adventure involving Nordic mythology. The problem with adapting this story is that it requires catching up on the missed-content from Alfheim Online, as both the environment and method of transportation, and the whole set-up reference it heavily.
I think they won’t adapt it, and captured most of the important beats, including Suguha (Leafa) being a mythology buff in the original content in Sword Art Online: Extra Edition, the “recap film”, which also followed a similar narrative plot. It was interesting, and has relevancy to what came later, mostly in how “Cardinal” works. Cardinal for those who forgot is the system that maintained balance in Aincrad. Cardinal is in charge of all commerce, monster spawn-rates, etc. in all Seed-based games, and so, on its own, had launched a “Grand Quest” which could change the whole world of Alfheim Online as to make it unrecognizable from what it used to be prior to the quest – no human Game Master needed!
The third story is the most interesting, titled “First Day” it covers Kirito as he left Klein behind at the end of the 2nd episode. Usual MMO shenanigans are met with people in a death-game, and the blame for letting people die truly sets in.
Books 9-12+ – Alicization – Oh boy, this series already has reached up to novel 15. I think the author said he plans for it to run up to novel 18, which would make for 10 novels, more than half the series. Due to the series being licensed, the usual place I’ve read translations stopped hosting them, I just found out translations of novels 13-14, and will likely read them next week. Regardless, this is what SAO is building up to, if only by dint of how much time and effort is spent on it, and it’s all that is best and worst about SAO as a series. I’ve read 4 novels, so I’ll tell you my thoughts on them.
Alicization is the bridge between Sword Art Online and Reki Kawahara’s other work, Accel World, which happens in the same setting, but twenty years into the future. Gun Gale Online already introduced the concept of soldiers, military, and terrorists using the virtual world to train – because you can train without expending resources, and without people dying. Aincrad introduced us to self-aware AIs in the form of Yui. Alicization introduces us to artificial intelligences raised as people, in order to be weaponized.
This is the first time Sword Art Online truly delves deep into science fiction, with concepts such as nature versus nurture, what makes up a human, how a cloned mind reacts when it meets the original mind, on the age of one’s soul and the value of experiences (which is also a small sub-theme in Mother’s Rosario, where the more “real” you treat the virtual world, the more powerful you can be within it), and we also have actually solid world-building, when in a chapter that spans half a book we learn the history of a constructed world.
It also raises the philosophical question of “What is real?” bringing back to mind how Kirito in episode 5 would not allow NPCs to die, and the moral question on the value of life, and consciousness.
It also has antagonists that aren’t villains, which returns for the first time since the defeat of Kayaba Akihiko at the end of Aincrad, people with motivations which we can understand, people we can’t just kill or do away with. We are introduced to new allies which are given a good deal of screen-time and share narration duties with Kirito, and once again we have a situation where Asuna gets to be proactive. The action is mostly solid, but it’s nothing out of the ordinary, for the most part, though there are a few imaginative pieces which would make for impressive set-pieces.
And then we have the bad stuff, where I literally groaned. While the antagonists that matter aren’t cackling villains, we have a couple of cacklers, and what better way to set them up as “Despicable villains” than the same way that Reki used with Sugou, namely them molesting/off-screen raping(?) female side characters, and our protagonists reacting with retributive rage? That was very unfortunate, and a slide back to shitty antagonist-writing, and made me sad. Also, it seems there’s another “proper villain” coming up, hinted at at the last couple of books, which might be a cackler/petty greedy person.
Alicization has more proper storytelling, it doesn’t have the emotional impact of the books which preceded it, but it trades it for solid world-building, actual sci-fi thoughts, and some proper antagonists, but in some spots it reaches about as low as the lowest points of the series did. Two steps forward, one step back.
Summarized Feelings & Adaptation:
I like SAO. I like it because it made me feel. The writing isn’t great, but it’s also not terribly overwrought. It’s the sort of fiction you’re likely to find if you’ll read YA action fiction. I’d probably rate it 3/5. The characters are mostly characterization, and the “main” being Kirito with his “wry” attitude is the least interesting one. The action is solid, but nothing spectacular, in written form. The other characters serve to show us what Kirito is like, for as supporting characters their situations almost always reflect his, and through learning their situation and seeing more into their personalities, which we actually see to an adequate degree, we can learn what Kirito is truly like.
How well will it translate to a visual medium? That’s a good question. Kirito is pretty much a cipher in the novels as well. He’s more of one in the anime, but you still get the feeling he’s somewhat of a sarcastic jerk, driven by an idealistic notion of “honour” that’s often backed by blood-thirst in the anime. So there’s not much that is lost. Though the text never languishes on sexual content, it does set up some situations that could be used in said manner, which the anime adaptation as we’ve seen in the second part of the first season is all too happy to embrace.
So I think it’d be fine. GGO is a good arc. It deals with people being emotionally fragile, it deals with people dealing with their past and inner demons. The action is good, and the characters are better. To me GGO and Mother’s Rosario are the strongest parts of the series thus far, though Alicization sometimes reaches higher, it does so in a more clinical way, but it also reaches to the lowest parts of the series.
The second season had been confirmed to be 2-courses long, meaning 24-26 episodes long. I’m actually a tad worried by it. I think Gun Gale Online should support up to 12-13 episodes, though I guess it could be stretched a bit more. I can already see how some scenes which I’d have given 5-6 minutes to will end up consuming half an episode if not more to pad things out. Mother’s Rosario to me, due to its self-contained nature and the pacing it requires, should’ve been adapted as a film, an actual movie. But I guess they’ll give it around 8-10 episodes. I can already see how a quiet scene or two from the novel could become most of an episode. I think it might work, since it’s actually full of legitimate drama.
And then of course, they might give us an episode or two of Alicization, to tease us off. I hope they don’t. As for Alicization’s adaptation, some novels could easily be adapted in 3 episodes or so, less than the standard of 6 episodes per novel – there’s one great chapter that’s a telling of the history of the virtual world – it could easily be one episode, though it’s half the novel, while I can see how other chapters may be dragged on to multiple episodes.
Am I hopeful for the second season of Sword Art Online? Yes, because I think this material is the strongest in the series. But hey, I liked the first season, so what do I know. I think it’s better than the average shounen, and much more heartfelt. Am I eager to keep reading Alicization? Yes, but mostly to see what’s happening beyond the immediate goal of endless fights, where we are now. There’s already a lot of foreshadowing going on.