I’ve recently turned my binge watching habits to Anime after enjoying mainstream successes of the genre as a kid. I was therefore already familiar with the Dragonball Z, Yu-Gi-Oh and Pokemon cartoons I’d grown up with, but hadn’t really ever dived into much else. Starting my education then with the recommendation of a friend, I’ve just finished watching the first season of Sword Art Online. There is so much to say about this I hardly know where to begin, although perhaps it’s best best to do so with a warning: I am planning on spoiling bits from the first half of the season.
This series has a great premise. Forget wardrobes kids, your real gateway to a fantasy world is through a futuristic gaming rig called nerve gear, linking you up to an MMO experience World of Warcraft users today can only dream of. Sadly, into this grand world steps our bafflingly inconsistent protagonist, a keen MMO player, who goes by the name Kirito. He’s a complete bad-ass in this world, having been the best player in the beta release of the game, and this experience proves a rather useful asset when the game’s creator shows up to tell everyone he’s removed the log-off button in the game. Not only is there now no leaving the world they’re in, but a death in virtual reality now means a death in real life too. Talk about a messy launch day. Freedom to return will only be granted once they have managed to defeat the boss on level 100. Kirito and the others have to get to work.
It’s unfortunate that this solid premise is then wasted, with a succession of episodes that repeatedly make insane time jumps so that by episode 8, everyone has been trapped in this place two years! Everyone being the 6000 that remain after nearly 4000 have died of course. Noobs. Amirite? The only real consistency throughout this for the viewer is the presence of lone-wolf Kirito, but certainly not his persona. The character is all over the place, from aggressive arrogance to self-deprecating reflection making for a truly disjointed start to the series. It’s easy to understand why it seems to have turned a few people straight off. He’s unflawed, an expert on everything in this virtual world, and that’s just unappealing.
This is a real shame as there is many a rough diamond peppered into these initial episodes that could have easily shone if only they were given a proper chance with a relatable cast. In one episode, for example, there’s the horrific concept of a Sleep PK introduced whereby murderous players discoverer an exploit whereby they can start duels with unaware sleeping ones. Such good ideas are wasted time and time again when they are not given the time or good characters to affect. All the emotional weight of such discoveries and the relative importance of side characters is mitigated anyway when our introduction to the world is delivered over a few episodes, not the whole season it deserves. One of my fondest memories of watching Anime when I was younger includes watching Dragonball Z’s Goku charge up one attack (that wasn’t even successful) across three episodes. I’m not demanding that level of self indulgence but taking a page out of that bit of manga would definitely have had me closer to the edge of my seat.
These teething issues aside, the show does start to flow more smoothly as it progresses. An unexpected plot twist provides as a well orchestrated surprise and the blossoming romance, which the season is really about, does start to give the show a more solid base. It’s a fun tale and though problems exist in it a plenty, some become so bizarre that they can’t help but entertain. The biggest one coming after a show down with the games creator, where we discover that the guy ooo… can’t really remember why he did all this crazy crap in the first place? He spent years working on this world, altered all the hardware to make them devices of potential death, killed more people than 9/11, all for some reason he can’t really remember. Cool. Super. We’ll not press him on that, after all Kirito doesn’t see the need.
The only idea I can construct that at least partly justifies some story decisions, is that it’s an attempt at a sort of bizarre male wish fulfilment. Every female fancies Kirito. Everyone. Even his step (as she stresses) sister. Given he’s so unrelatable though I can’t see who would root for him so strongly. There’s also really peculiar framing decisions where we’ll be looking at Kirito from the awkward angle of next to the butt of the girl he’s chatting with for instance, because why not add some cheek? Maybe anime isn’t the place to be looking for progressive entertainment, but I feel it’s only fair that every shot that slowly lingers on a female’s breasts should also be coupled with a Kirito crotch shot or something. Although probably not immediately after…
Another oddity is how digital some of the conversation flow is. It’s hilarious to see a civil discussion repeatedly give way to an unsolicited exclamation such as “Cut the crap already!” only to return to the civility of before immediately. There’s no build up or cool down at all. At times, it’s as if Kirito is being played through in an adventure game by a player who hasn’t yet decided if she’s going for the kind-hearted or the absolute arsehole approach. Or she’s just decided hitting her head against the controller would be the best course of action. Saying that is even a disservice to the way conversations are meticulously crafted in some such games, flowing smoothly regardless of choice (I’m looking at you Telltale, clever bastards).
Though they may sound it, these aren’t all necessarily criticisms I’m levelling at the show. These quirks are interwoven so consistently into the fabric of this world they actually help patch up the problems of it’s pacy start. These peculiarities all remain to keep you hooked as the show continues to relax into it’s own stylings. The animation detail always makes it a joy to watch and I enjoyed getting to know other recurring characters better.
The merits this show does have are often just hints towards what could have been, which should frustrate, yet, somehow it doesn’t. I’m okay with it being the way it is, pleased with it even, and I think that can only be because the show is so earnest at its core. It’s got a sweetness to it all that goes above and beyond it being a cutesy cartoon and watching it makes me laugh and smile. It’s not that ol’ classic “so bad it’s good” I’m furnishing it with here, nor is it the smug pitying critique encapsulated by an “aww, bless”. It’s that, once it has settled, it’s a nice animation in an enchanting world which does plenty to make you want to come back. I certainly plan on doing so with season number two.