11th Day of Animas. SAO Review pt. 1

What can be said about SAO that hasn’t already been said about religion? It’s big and controversial; thought-provoking, yet mind-numbing; overrated, or perhaps awesome; some would die for it, while others die because of it. Hell. As the thousands of SAO fans can testify, it is a religion at this point. But here’s my take on the whole thing…

I guess this is a atheistic religion?

I guess this is an atheistic religion?

Here’s the rundown: SAO takes place some time in the future where virtual reality consoles are available. And we’re not talking Virtual Boy here; the consoles allow for a hyperrealistic simulation of all 5 sense through a direct link with your brain. Kirito a teenage kid, with a tendency for escapism, gets trapped inside Sword Art Online, the first of it’s kind in reality simulation games. Luckily he is highly talented, having an in-game skill set that’s sui generis. Along the way, he meets Asuna, a girl one year his elder, neither more, nor less skilled than himself, which he develops a requited romantic attraction to…

Really though, what's this about?

Really though, what’s this about?

Wait, wait, wait… Future? Hyperrealistic virtual reality set in a video game? Talented and unique protagonist? Love interest that’s older than him? Haven’t we been here before?… Reki Kawahara, it’s still considered copying even if it’s your own work…

Admittedly, there's a vast difference in their body type...

Admittedly, there’s a vast difference in their body type…

Not to worry though, the differences broadly outnumber the sometimes creepily specific similarities. But there might just be as many differences within it as there are outside it. SAO is really 2 separate acts, the first happens inside the eponymous Sword Art Online, the second happening in ALfheim Online, and more than just the setting changes. Every character save for the main trio is different, and so is the tone, direction, and pacing, in both of them. It’s scarcely possible to imagine mentioning these two acts in the same sentence without the sentence being about how different they are. And with that, this review will be split into two parts, each accommodating a single act.

As if...

As if… you were only there for 14 episodes…

With that out of the way, let’s get started on Sword Art Online’s Sword Art Online part. Wait! How do we get started on SAO? Even SAO’s SAO beginning part is highly fragmented, consisting 3 separate mini-arcs spanning no more than an episode, as if this was Pokemon. The first 4 episodes stand in revolutionary defiance of each other, having hardly any semblance of continuity between them. The terribly directed episode 2 precedes the emotions of an axial episode 3, which itself precedes the lighthearted episode 4, all the while months and years in between are ignored without the slightest hint of concern.

Graph of the date against episode no.

Graph of time against episode

Give Usain Bolt a heart problem, and put him on a treadmill, you’d get a pretty good idea about the pacing of this anime. Give Bolt enough steroids to make him bi-polar, and you get a pretty good idea of the schizophrenic tone  the first few episodes have. SAO is a play with a terrible opening, but much like the hypothetical Bolt, gives a spectacular performance even after his first or second heart attack.

Be honest, you'd watch the shit out of that...

Be honest, you’d watch the shit out of that…

What follows the tragedy of the first few episodes is a splendid resurrection of un-schizophrenic purpose and tone in the story. A surprising  form of a crime mystery that sounds like it came out from the pages of Conan-Doyle himself, with a twist, and a twist on top of that. The plot of this arc itself does not concern future episodes, and save for some crucial characterization, is completely self-contained. What makes it different from the mini-arc of episode 3 is that it’s satisfying by itself, reaching the potential it’s predecessor was deprived from.

A triple homicide, turns into a conspiracy, turns into a homicide... Not bad...

A triple homicide, turns into a conspiracy, turns into a homicide… Not bad…

Now, don’t get me wrong- many tears pay tribute to Sachi and the ending scene of episode 3, which was great in it’s own right. But the cruelty of time, sent brevity to sabotage the plot from achieving it’s total potential. Consequently, you leave episode 3, unsatisfied with the attention it’s given, feeling like it should have at least spilled into a second episode, especially with it’s significance later in the characterization of Kirito.

Not like it's permanent or anything...

Not like it’s permanent or anything…

After our brief encounter with Lisbeth there aren’t any more 1-episode story arcs, and in their stead we get a series of of episodes that finally have seamless continuity (though it might not be fair to call them arcs, which imply the traditional structure of conflict, climax and resolution). This feels a lot more like the SAO that SAO was originally meant to be: a romance anime in the guise of a shounen, or perhaps a shounen in the guise of a romance. Don’t let anybody tell you differently, the focal point of this anime has always been the relationship between Kirito and Asuna; the fight scenes, the secondary characters, and the entire world, exists to complement and compliment their relationship, not the other way around.

Presented VERY well.

Presented VERY well.

The romance enjoys 6 episodes dedicated almost in totality to their relationship before running into the all to familiar hiccup, time. 14 episodes was all that was given to this first act, and before you know it, you’re left with one and a half episodes left to wrap it all up. And unfortunately, only a single episode is left after the earlier half is used to set up the scenario. What follows is an abrupt, unexpected, and unwanted twist ending.

How it should've ended...

How it should’ve ended…

What happened to the promise of those 100 levels? Where’s the suspense? Where’s the conflict? Answer: It happened too fast for you to even notice. It would’ve been infinitely more entertaining to watch the buildup to the final climatic duel, complete with piqued suspicions and character development, than to just have it thrown at you from no where. Worst of all, I think the producers know this…

How more direct can you get?

How more direct can you get?

And my lack of an efficient segway into the next section leads me to point out what I think is SAO’s greatest strength: it’s themes. From deep philosophical questions like “Is Yui truly intelligent?” and “what is reality?” to the quirks of “If you have underage intercourse in virtual reality, do you still break the law?” (apparently as Kirito shows us, no.) From bottom to brim, SAO is filled with thought-provoking ideas and concepts- more than enough to comprise a dilettante philosopher’s wetdream. I’d pontificate further about just what these themes are, but being a siamese twin to a badly written review is hardly befitting the breadth and depth of some of these issues.

Kirito's a fan of Berkeley, who knew?

Kirito is a fan of Berkeley, who knew?

SAO is quite obviously not your average shounen anime. Deep complex themes, an exceptionally realized romance, and a story flow that’s captivating most of the time, is only hindered partially by terrible time management, and patches of bad direction here and there. Misleading advertisement might get you to believe that this an all-out, balls-to-the-wall, action anime with brief interludes of romance, but it really is the other way around. Well that’s at least for the first part.

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