Sword Art Online – An Analytical Diatribe

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Sword Art Online is easily the worst TV show that I’ve ever watched to completion. Mind you, ordinarily when I don’t like a show, I stop watching it pretty early on, and when Sword Art Online first aired in Japan, I dropped it after seven episodes. However, over the next two years, I watched the show’s meteoric rise in popularity, and once I began making anime videos, people started asking me for my opinion on the series daily. Realizing that unless I made a video about it, people would never stop asking, I decided to marathon the show with my little brother, who watched eighteen episodes when it first aired and has literally bitched about it constantly for two years. We watched the entire thing, filming our reactions along the way.

Now, I know that a lot of you watching this video probably really enjoy this show. After all, it’s insanely popular, sitting at number eight on MyAnimeList’s most-watched shows; appearing on over 300,000 lists, and over 20,000 top fives, with an overall score of 8.25. Personally I would give it a 1, but I want you to know that I don’t begrudge anyone for enjoying this show. In fact, I think it’s great that this show makes so many people happy, which is always something to be celebrated. I don’t expect you to agree with anything I say in this video, and I don’t blame you if you don’t bother watching it. The purpose of this video is simply to explain why I, and so many others who feel similarly, hate this show so fucking much.

It’s hard to know where to start with SAO, because other than the fantastic character designs and generally solid visual presentation, it does almost everything wrong. If I had to start somewhere though, I’d pick the most obvious issue that pretty much everyone who hates this show complains about.

–Part One: The Main Character–

Kirito is one of the most bland, boring, humorless, inhuman lead characters I’ve ever seen. His personality sucks, his motivations never make sense, he acts inconsistently, makes stupid decisions constantly without any real penalty, and is pretty much impossible to like. Having an unlikeable protagonist isn’t necessarily a bad thing if the character is supposed to be an anti-hero or outright villain, and if there are other characters that we can root for, but Kirito is the straight-up hero of this tale and the series focuses on him almost exclusively. Let’s dive in and analyze this kid.

For starters, we have to figure out WHO Kirito is to begin with. The first episode paints him as a sort of moody kid who’s really, really into Sword Art Online. Almost all of his dialog in this episode is either him delivering exposition to some random douchebag that he met in the game, or having really straight-faced reactions to everything that goes on around him. By the end of the first episode, Kirito has no apparent personality whatsoever.

This isn’t so bad, though. The first episode mostly exists to establish the world and scenario, and while it does this through a fucking ridiculous amount of characters standing around dispensing exposition, at least it means that we’ll understand everything about the setup moving forward.

Episode two teaches us that Kirito was one of the game’s beta testers, but it still doesn’t bother giving him any personality. He seems to be really distant from everyone, though he takes an interest in Asuna just because she also seems to be a loner. They have some completely lifeless conversations and a huge battle happens, during which Kirito gets really emotional about the death of some blue-haired guy and screams a lot. Afterwards, everyone finds out that he was a beta tester, and for some reason this makes him an asshole.

Kirito’s response to this is one of the most baffling plot contrivances I’ve ever seen. Instead of trying to defend himself or come to an understanding. Kirito declares that he is the most powerful and badass player of all time, and pretends to be some kind of evil mastermind before abandoning the party and going off on his own.

Kirito has just completely exacerbated the idea that beta testers are assholes and painted a huge fucking target on his back, for no apparent reason. He ends up spending the rest of the show constantly hiding his power level and the fact that he’s good at the game because he knows that everyone hates beta testers, even though it’s his fucking fault that everyone hates them to begin with!

This retarded scene pretty much sets the stage for all of Kirito’s interactions throughout the first half of the series. Kirito always has to remain distant and secretive around other people because he doesn’t want to reveal too much about himself and his power level. The result leads him down a path of constant misunderstandings, betrayals, and general emo bullshit, which never gets any better because Kirito has no ability to communicate with other human beings.

Episode three jumps ahead a bit and shows Kirito with a party of lower-level players that he’s been hanging out with. It’s not really clear why he’s partying with weaker players, but he’s concealing his level and lies that he’s actually around the same level as them. Even assuming that EXP share is broken in this game and he’s not accidentally stunting the growth of his teammates by being in their party, you’d think it’d be pretty fucking clear that he does way more damage than any of them, but whatever.

Because Kirito keeps his level a secret, his teammates get overconfident in their skills as a group, and even though Kirito knows it’s a terrible idea, he tags along to do a mission outside their level range and everyone but him ends up getting killed, including the first in a succession of cute girls who are in love with him for no reason. This whole scenario only amplifies Kirito’s already abundant moodiness and convinces him that he should never party with anyone again because he’ll probably get them killed. Yeah, honestly, that’s probably a safe bet, considering his absolute incompetence at communication.

The next episode is a bit lighter, in that no one dies and there’s a cute little girl who reminds Kirito of his sister, so he decides to help her out.

Let me remind you that at this point, Kirito’s overall motivations and place in the story have no solid foundation. He isn’t participating in the raid groups who are trying to actually complete the game, and seems to spend most of his time dicking around on floors that are way below his already outrageous level.

As a result of this, nothing about his character has any weight to it. He’s just a wandering downer, winning the hearts of girls everywhere by being stupidly good at the game and looking cool and mysterious in black trenchcoats. In this episode, we find out that Kirito feels vaguely guilty about taking up a lot of his sister’s time growing up or something, which is pretty in line with his character as the most brooding asshole this side of Batman.

By this point, we really know all that there is to know about Kirito. His main character arc revolves around learning to trust other people and to trust himself not to get everyone killed. Through his relationship with Asuna he finds someone he cares about enough to not act like a total asshole around her, and that helps him find motivation to actually do something in the story. During the couple of episodes that show his domestic life with Asuna, we see the first specs of humanity from Kirito as he actually seems enjoy himself sometimes, although I still wanted to punch him in the fucking face when he was on a date with Asuna and had her fucking thighs around his neck, and all he could do was look annoyed the whole time.

The closest Kirito comes to developing any sort of personality is when he spends time with Yui, the little girl that he and Asuna adopt. Kirito gets a few random dad-like moments at this part, and while it doesn’t last, it actually seems like maybe he’s capable of human emotions other than sorrow and anger. I think it’s kind of hilarious to note, however, that Yui’s entire function in the game is that she’s an AI meant to help improve the psychological state of individual players. I couldn’t help feeling like the only reason Kirito experienced any levity around her is that Yui was literally programmed to bring those feelings out of him.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that a brooding, emotionally distant main character is automatically a bad thing. One of my favorite anime characters is Shinji Ikari from Neon Genesis Evangelion, who was exactly that. However, Evangelion was entirely built around the themes of isolation and personality disorders. In that show, Shinji was constantly criticized and punished for his mistakes and forced to slowly mature as a character and a person. And even Shinji, the prince of emo himself, experienced frequent moments of levity and calm throughout the series, which made him seem really human and gave more weight to the parts where he suffers. I could go on all day about how great a character Shinji is, but my point is simply that Sword Art Online doesn’t flesh out Kirito’s personality, nor compliment it well enough with the other story elements, to make him a likable character.

Kirito is unstoppably badass and has the entire female population of the game riding his nuts, yet he can barely bring himself to smile most of the time. The closest thing to a human moment he gets in the early part of the show is when he relaxes under a tree with Asuna at the start of episode five, and for once it actually feels like no one’s about to burst into tears or be horribly murdered at any moment.

Moreover, because Kirito is so ludicrously amazing, it’s hard to feel even a slight amount of tension in any scenario he’s put into. Kirito knows the game better than anyone and is overlevelled for every quest he bothers to do, in addition to being the unstoppable lead character anyways. There’s this fucking ridiculous scene in the fourth episode where he gets attacked by seven guys at once and they can’t even fucking scratch him, effectively ending any feeling that Kirito might ever be in danger for the rest of the show.

In episode nine, Kirito makes the baffling decision to hide the fact that he can dual-wield from even his close friends, and allows the deaths of several people before deciding that it’s time to step in and save them. It’s never established why he can’t tell anyone about this power, and he even explains that it’s not something he learned from the beta, but just because it popped up in his skills list at some point. If anyone asked him about it, that’s all he’d have to tell them; and sure enough, once he reveals it to the same friends he was hiding it from, there are no consequences. During his battle with the boss, Kirito had been taken down to low health solely because he hadn’t revealed this power, and as soon as he did, he crushed the boss immediately, proving not only that he didn’t learn his lesson that hiding his powers would get people killed just like it did in episode three, but also that he’s so powerful at this point that he can only even compare to the next-best players in the game if he severely limits himself.

To make a long story short here, the problem with Kirito is that he’s a fourteen year-old boy’s wish-fulfillment empowerment fantasy. He’s the coolest-looking, coolest-acting, most powerful gamer in the history of the world, and every single girl that he runs into falls in love with him immediately. And yeah, if I’d watched this show when I was fourteen, I’m pretty sure it would’ve been the greatest thing I’d ever seen. I was obsessed with video games to the point that I even enjoyed the snore-fest .hack//SIGN just because it took place inside an MMO, and I loved badass swordsmen characters, ESPECIALLY if they happened to be my age. Kirito would’ve been far and away my favorite character ever back then, and I can totally understand why some people could still enjoy a character like that. But you know, even though Kirito doesn’t do anything for me as an adult, it’s not so much the fact that he’s an unstoppable badass which bothers me; it’s the technique the show uses to make him seem like such a badass. Which brings us to–

–Part Two: Every Other Character In The Game–

The weirdest thing about Kirito being so overpowered is that he’s not even doing anything special. Sure, he knew the game a little better from playing the beta, but the beta didn’t run for nearly as long as the amount of time that everyone gets trapped inside the game. Plus, as early as episode two, it’s established that certain things have changed since the beta, so it’s not like knowing the beta gives you exclusive data that no one else would have. If the playing field is only barely skewed in Kirito’s favor, and literally anyone could get to be as powerful as he can, then why is he the most badass player in the game? The answer is that every single other player is a complete fucking moron.

Surviving in Sword Art Online is not actually difficult. The only reason you’d ever be in any danger is if you made a terrible decision. Moreover, the techniques for becoming strong in the game are very simple–grind low-level monsters that you’re really unlikely to die against and play with a strong party. MMORPGs might be a little bit complex for entry-level players to figure out, but it only takes a matter of days to learn at the most. Remember that the most powerful player in this game is a fourteen year-old boy who figured this all out pretty easily. It stands to reason that anyone with a gram of common sense could come to the same conclusions that Kirito does in a pretty short amount of time. Yet, after the first month-long time skip in episode two, most players still don’t know shit about the game, even after the beta testers provided them with a handbook.

Sword Art Online is a video game. Even though the players have been absorbed into the game, nothing has really changed about the its core systems. Most people can learn to play a game in a short amount of time, especially if they have guidance, even if they’re just playing it for fun. In this series, EVERYONE’S LIVES ARE ON THE LINE. You would think that every single person in the game would buckle down and learn everything about it immediately, while forming a strong community of adventurers, with adults taking control and protecting the children, and everyone concentrating their efforts on carefully grinding and exploring the world.

None of that happens. Instead, in episode two, a large portion of the gamers decide that beta testers are cheaters because they know more about the game and are working for their own best interests over those of the group. The most powerful, knowledgeable assets to everyone’s survival are ostracized by a community of idiots.

It takes a pretty pessimistic view of humanity to assume that if ten thousand people got trapped inside of a game, the majority of them would be braindead idiots who get themselves killed immediately or wander around the game world acting like fools until they eventually get picked off. But what bothers me more than the fact that most of these gamers should’ve learned how to play the game properly in a matter of days, is the fact that they should’ve ALREADY known how to play the game, because all of them were first-responders to the product.

Sword Art Online opens up on the titular game’s launch day. Most of the players had stood in line for the game or pre-ordered it, and the ten thousand copies that existed were sold out in a matter of hours. These people had already purchased the probably expensive Nerve-Gear technology to play the game and were hype enough about it to jump in immediately. And yet, of the people that Kirito encounters in the show, a lot of them barely seem to be gamers at all, much less having any concept of how MMORPGs work. In the first episode, Kirito has to explain the basics of gameplay to Klein, who claims to have been so excited about this game that he waited in line for three days with his friends. Klein doesn’t even understand how the Nerve-Gear works–he’s clearly done no research on the game whatsoever, for all of his excitement.

It is impossible for me to believe that this group of first responders would be so completely inept at this game that they die off in droves right from the beginning. Not to mention the fact that Kirito says there were one thousand slots in the closed beta testing, meaning that if all of the beta testers returned for the finished version of the game, they’d make up a whole tenth of the game’s population. Assuming that none of the beta testers were among the first wave of deaths, that means by the time episode two rolls around, with two thousand dead and beta testers being considered suspect, those players would still represent an eighth of the entire player-base. How the fuck can they all be legendary badasses to the point of needing to hide their power levels if one in every eight players is a beta tester?!

Every character in Sword Art Online is demonstrably worse at the game than Kirito, at times in ways that don’t even make sense. In the early episodes, Kirito teams up with newbies too stupid to live and spends a lot of time dicking around on the lower floors, laying low and level-grinding lowbie mobs. However, even though he spends most of the game soloing and wandering around using levelling tactics that he admits are inefficient, he somehow remains the highest-level player around.

In episode nine, Kirito and Asuna team up, with Asuna being pretty much the front-liner of one of the most powerful guilds, leading the charge into the higher levels of the game and generally being enough of a badass that everyone recognizes her. Given Asuna’s no-nonsense attitude, constant presence in high-level questing, and general badassery, you’d think she’d be at a much higher level than Kirito at this point. However, as mentioned before, when Kirito reveals his dual-wielding ability, it shows that he’s still exponentially more powerful than Asuna, or seemingly anyone else. We’ll get back to Asuna later, but for now all this talk of game mechanics brings us to our next point.

–Part Three: The MMORPG–

The anime series Sword Art Online is based on a series of web novels written by Reki Kawahara which were first published online in 2002. This was the same year that Final Fantasy XI, perhaps the biggest MMORPG hit in Japan, was released, and at the time its main competition would’ve been the likes of Everquest Online in terms of open-world MMOs. When interviewed about his inspirations behind the series, Kawahara has said that he’s a pretty low-level player when it comes to games, so when he wrote SAO he wanted it to be about one of the high-level players that he didn’t think he’d ever become.

Now, I don’t want to make any sweeping assumptions about whether or not Kawahara really understands high-level play in old-school MMO games. Maybe he does understand it and just chose to write a story that wasn’t all that true to the formula of those games. Whatever the case may be, the mechanics of Sword Art Online don’t seem to make any sense in the context of an MMO.

Before I dig myself too deep into this point though, I have to admit that I, too, have not really played any old-school MMOs. I’ve mostly played games from the post-World of Warcraft era such as Tera Online, which are more geared towards the solo player experience and are really easy for new players to get into. However, from what I’ve been told by friends who’ve played older MMO games, those games were strongly oriented towards party and guild play, with soloing pretty much not really being a thing. The whole point of MMO games back then, and arguably still now, was the in-game communities and playing with other people.

I’m not saying that SAO is broken just because it centers around a solo player, nor am I saying that it should be impossible for Kirito to play solo in this game, although I would argue that him playing solo is a stupid, bullshit way to make him seem powerful when it really just makes him a reckless moron. What I’m saying, really, is that Sword Art Online does not capture the essence of what it’s like to play an MMORPG. Being set in an MMO universe is more of a way to set up the mechanics on which to play out a death-game plot, but beyond laying the foundation of the story, the MMO mechanics aren’t really utilized.

If you’re going to set a game in a world where encounters are deliberately too difficult for an individual to handle, then it makes no sense to create a main character who can handle just about anything by himself. It implies that this game is actually easy to play solo, and that everyone who fails to do so is just really bad at the game, as I’ve gone over already. What’s really sad is that this contradiction isn’t just expressed through the storytelling, but even appears right in the show’s dialog.

In episode one, Kirito says that a single sword can carry you anywhere you want to go in this world. The implication there is that individual player’s strength is what’s most important. However, in episode two, Kirito tells Asuna that there’s an upper limit to what you can do playing solo, and that she should join a powerful guild. Apparently this advice doesn’t apply to himself though, because he still manages to be incredibly successful without ever joining a guild. When Kirito finally gets forced into a guild in episode ten, he says that he was reaching the limit of what was possibly as a solo player anyways, but in the end he beats the final boss entirely by himself. Do you see how everything that this series does to make Kirito seem powerful ends up breaking the rest of the series’ logic?

The mechanics of the game, as represented in the show, are horribly inconsistent, and at times just badly thought out. Even though a point is made to show us how hyper-immersive this game is, with food that you can actually eat and full range motion, when characters go to apply condiments to their food, it still happens through an immersion-breaking video game interface.

There is no job system in the game, so everyone just levels up whatever they feel like and gets whatever armor they want, in a system that more closely resembles the levelling in an Elder Scrolls game than it does the average MMO. Because the game has no classes, there are no tanks, DPS, healers, and support–everyone just rushes into combat at once. There’s a mechanic called “switching,” where characters continuously switch in and out of battle, but it’s never explained how this mechanic works or what it actually does. All of the battles in the show end up being a completely incomprehensible mess of people yelling SWITCH and running at enemies, attacking with all their might.

The major guilds in the game often seem to have all of their members wearing the exact same armor, as if it were a uniform, which from a dramatic standpoint is probably a lazy way of making sure the viewer knows that they’re all on the same team. However, the idea of having all of the people in your guild playing the same character type is totally asinine. Even in guilds that aren’t particularly serious, there’s always a drive to make sure that you have a good enough balance of different kinds of players. If all you have is DPS players in your guild, with no tanks or healers, then the whole usefulness of getting guild members together for dungeons and raids will fly out the window. However, since SAO doesn’t have a class system, nor any tactics in its battle system whatsoever, I guess it doesn’t even matter.

There’s probably more to be said about why this world doesn’t make sense if I really dug into it, but the bottom line is really just that the world wasn’t well thought-out. Kawahara obviously wasn’t all that concerned with making sure that the world was an air-tight, believable MMO experience. In one interview, he openly admits that there are plot-holes in the Nerve Gear mechanic, but that it was the best thing he could come up with at the time. He also admits that when he wrote the second book, he wanted to flesh out the game world more because the first book was, by his own admission, rushed. After all, Kawahara wrote this novel because he wanted to submit it to a competition, which he didn’t end up doing anyways because he exceeded the page limit, so he just posted it online.

I think it’s rather obvious, in light of all this information, that Kawahara wasn’t taking this story all that seriously. It was something he wrote quickly, based on simple ideas, and didn’t take any time to iron out all the wrinkles. Sword Art Online was never about making a detailed and interesting world and characters, nor was it meant to be any kind of fully realized masterpiece. It was just a fun little death game story that rode on its very simple premise long enough to tell a story that Kawahara could submit to this competition. The direct result of the way that the Sword Art Online novels were first created brings us to-

–Part Four: The Structure–

While Sword Art Online was originally released on the internet, it was written with the basic intent of being a “light novel,” and as of being officially published starting in 2009, has become a light novel series running seventeen books in total. Light novels are a form of super-short young adult literature which usually feature anime-style illustrations; and the medium has grown into massive popularity in the last half-decade or so, with light novel adaptations becoming the most common source material for anime.

On average, a single light novel tends to translate to anywhere from three to five, or possibly six, episodes of anime, depending on the adaptation. Most light novel adaptations, such as Haruhi, Baccano, or Bakemonogatari, to name a few of my favorites, will adapt three or more novels for every thirteen episodes of show, often mixing up and combining the order of the books so that the they don’t need to feature multiple climaxes, but can have all the climactic moments at the end of the series.

The Aincrad arc of Sword Art Online covers the first two books, but in a semi-chronological order instead of in the order that the events are presented. The entire story of the characters being trapped inside of, and eventually escaping, the titular game, all happens in the span of the first book. The second book is actually a collection of short side stories that were meant to show some of Kirito’s adventures in the early part of the game, which otherwise would’ve been quickly glossed-over in the first book.

Fusing these two books together seems like a natural idea, and if you were going to have to adapt both books, then this was certainly the best way to handle it. However, the problem is that this results in truly awful pacing and a complete dissolution of the tension and urgency that the first two episodes establish. Arguably the strongest thing that SAO had going for it was its initial premise. The idea of a high-stakes death game set inside an MMORPG world was an exciting and grim way to start the show, and as stupid as the second episode seems on closer inspection, dramatically it was a strong way to start the series with a lot of tension and excitement.

However, instead of capitalizing on that, the show then immediately cuts away to a series of totally pointless one-off storylines. Any excitement the viewer might have had to see how the players were going to work to get out of this game, flies out the window around the time some random little girl gets a whole episode’s worth of fanservice for no reason at all. By the way, have you noticed that besides the scene of Kirito resting, I haven’t mentioned episodes five and six at all? That’s because those two episodes are so boring, pointless, and unmemorable, that if you asked me for a plot synopsis I’d probably just stare at you and say, “something about ghosts.”

The reason I originally dropped Sword Art Online after seven episodes, is that the show didn’t make a single ounce of progress between episodes two and seven. Any sense of urgency had long since gone away, and after episodes of Kirito dicking around being stupidly overpowered all over the place, it became impossible to take anything seriously.

I don’t know how faithful A-1 Pictures were to the source material in adapting this series to animation, but there’s no question that they should’ve taken some artistic license with regards to these episodes. Instead of loading us down with the random stories of people who don’t and will never matter, we could’ve learned more about Asuna, the one character besides Kirito who actually matters, and seen more of what happened on the front lines. Even hearing stuff now and again about how much progress had been made in the game over all, or keeping up the death counters and time counters that Kirito brings up in the important episodes, would’ve done a ton to keep up the sense of urgency. As it stands, it really feels like the whole mid-section of the Aincrad arc is a gigantic pointless distraction.

But even when the arc finally gets on-track, with Kirito and Asuna’s relationship coming into focus, it then immediately gets away from the death game and MMO aspects entirely by having Kirito and Asuna go off into the woods to get married and raise a kid. At this point, you could be forgiven for forgetting that this was a death game series at all. When the story finally comes back into focus out of literally nowhere, it’s like waking up from a nap–oh, fuck there was a story in this wasn’t there, we better hurry and like, wrap that up shouldn’t we.

It really does happen that fast. After two and a half episodes of Asuna and Kirito in the countryside, they get a call from the guild leader, whom we will soon learn is actually the game’s creator and arch-villain, telling them it’s time to take on the final dungeon. So they go to do that, and Kirito ends up figuring out after the first floor that the guild leader is going to be the final boss, so they have a one-on-one fight and Kirito kills him. It feels like the creator just got sick of waiting around for Kirito to take the initiative on finishing the game and just wanted to get it over with.

I can seriously picture Kawahara having gotten really into writing the whole Asuna and Kirito arc, only to realize that he was coming up on the page limit and/or due date for the competition, so he didn’t have time to naturally transition into the final arc and instead just kinda made it end. Maybe he didn’t have time to shorten or rearrange the story for the contest, or didn’t want to, or was just really attached to the Kirito and Asuna storyline, but by now had trapped that story inside this poorly thought-out death game plot. Whatever the case may be, the result feels like the first draft of a story that was posted online when the author gave up on fixing it, and which never would’ve been published if not for the fact that his later work got popular. Y’know, cause that’s exactly what it is.

–Part Five: Asuna–

While I have a few problems with Asuna’s character which I’ll dive into shortly, let me start by saying that Asuna is by far the best thing about Sword Art Online, and not just because of her jaw-droppingly gorgeous character design. Her personality isn’t particularly deep or interesting, but she’s definitely not hateable, and all of the best things about the show revolve around her involvement in the storyline.

At the beginning, Asuna falls squarely into the Type-One Tsundere archetype. This is a character who starts off not really liking the main character, often taking an abrasive approach in their interactions, but who eventually falls in love with and is nice to them. Tsundere is one of the most common archetypes of female characters in anime and it’s incredibly easy to get wrong, especially with the Type-Two Tsundere archetype that became popular in the mid-2000s, where instead of going from abrasive to loving, the character constantly flips back and forth between the two.

Asuna’s character progression actually makes sense, and she straight-up explains it to someone in episode thirteen. At the beginning, she was trying to get out of this world as fast as possible because she felt like she was losing her time in the real world by being here–and she was always stressed out and on-edge as a result. When Kirito taught her to relax and learn to live in the world they were trapped in, she calmed down a lot. After the two-year time skip in episode eight, Asuna is distinctly more happy and clear-minded, and her attraction to Kirito is readily apparent.

The fact that Asuna and Kirito actually enter a functional, sexually active relationship in this series is a gigantic breath of fresh air that I appreciated so much it actually made me want to give the show an extra point on principal alone. Even in most mature, smartly-written anime, it’s incredibly rare to see a relationship that actually becomes a legit thing, and the parts where Asuna and Kirito spend time alone were legitimately romantic and enjoyable. My metric for how good a romance is basically boils down to how jealous and lonely I feel when watching it, and when Asuna was staring at Kirito’s sleeping face in bed, I started feeling some type of way.

But unfortunately, the story ends up shitting on Asuna’s character at several key moments because of its insistence on pronouncing Kirito as the ultimate badass. In fact, the angriest that I ever got while watching this show was in every moment that Kirito’s actions ended up degrading everything that was great about Asuna’s character.

The problems really began in episode eight, when Kirito and Asuna first start showing an interest in one another. The first half of this episode was the first scene in the entire show that I actually kind of enjoyed. It depicted a relaxing conversation between two people first discovering that they might have some chemistry together, and actually gave them a chance to act like people for once. Plus, Asuna’s house was really pleasant to look at. This scene is immediately followed by Asuna falling onto Kirito in the town square, and Kirito accidentally grabbing her breast. Accidental gropings are probably the most asinine trope in all of anime history, and every single accidental groping that’s happened since Evangelion deconstructed the trope nearly two decades ago is the worst scene in whatever series it belongs to.

But the stupid anime bulshit actually wasn’t what squandered the goodwill the first half of the episode had earned. What follows is a scene where some douchebag refuses to let Asuna do what she wants, so Kirito challenges the guy to a duel, with Asuna’s liberties on the line. Nevermind that Asuna is more than capable of speaking for and defending herself, and in fact by all rights SHOULD be more powerful than Kirito at this point; but no, it’s up to her new boyfriend to defend her honor. The whole time, Asuna keeps hiding behind Kirito, while he tells her to stand back and let him handle this, and I think you can see why I’m starting to get pissed off here.

Throughout the Asuna and Kirito arc, a lot is done to suggest that Asuna is a total badass, and that even Kirito kind of regards her as “crazy strong,” deferring to her as the muscle of the duo. There are several parts where Asuna hides behind Kirito, but when it’s something like the scene where she’s afraid of ghosts in the woods, I can totally accept that. She doesn’t have to be an iron wall of unstoppable fury, but when she can’t even defend her own honor against an opponent far inferior to her, it pisses me off.

In episode ten, the same guy tries and almost succeeds to murder Kirito in a trap. Asuna manages to save Kirito’s life and beats the guy back, and she has him at her mercy, but relents because she can’t bring herself to kill someone. As a result, the guy ends up attacking her, and Kirito somehow magically overpowers his paralysis in order to save Asuna and kill the guy at the last moment. What could’ve been a chance to show off how badass Asuna is and cash in on her promise before to always protect Kirito, instead becomes yet another show of how Kirito is so magically powerful that he can overcome status effects by sheer force of will.

During the marriage arc, Kirito and Asuna are established as a sort of power duo–the two most powerful players in the game, made even more powerful by their collaboration. It’s a really romantic portrayal of their characters as almost one unit–a pair of lovers whose love makes them unstoppable. In episode thirteen, it’s kind of suggested that Asuna is ultimately the more badass of the two when she takes out the giant fish, and during the big boss battle, the two of them are fighting side-by-side.

However, during the final boss battle, Kirito is the only one who’s allowed to fight. Asuna does get to do the magical back-from-paralysis technique to save Kirito from a killing blow, but Kirito just one-ups her again by getting killed anyways and then pulling off the ultimate COME-BACK-FROM-DEATH move before delivering the final blow to the boss. And that, uh, brings me to–

–Part Six: WHAAAAAT?!–

I’ve already talked a lot about the logical fallacies and plot contrivances that consistently undermine this series, but there are moments in SAO that are straight-up baffling, and completely destroy any suspension of disbelief which might’ve remained. Leaving out stuff I’ve already mentioned, like the blue-haired guy refusing to heal himself in episode two, and other such random suicidal tendencies of the characters, here are some of the most insane things that are possible in this world.

Number One: There is an item that can bring a player back to life, as long as it’s used within thirty seconds of the player being killed. Whaaaat?! I thought that when a character dies in the game, the Nerve Gear fries their brain with microwaves. Is there a thirty-second delay between death in the game and death in the real world? Does the Nerve Gear just put them to sleep for those thirty seconds, so that they won’t wake up and take it off their head? Or does it just magically bring them back to life if you use this item? The entire concept of being able to come back to life after losing in this game makes no sense whatsoever. I guess this is what Kawahara meant when he said that there were plot holes with the Nerve-Gear.

Number Two: In episodes five and six, a duo convinces Kirito and Asuna that they’ve been killed by a ghost, by faking their deaths in a part of town where no one should be able to die. It’s explained that they pulled this off by using weapons that were degrading to simulate receiving wounds, or something like that. Each of them is shown apparently dying, and the animation used looks just like the animation for dying, except that the characters are apparently teleporting away, which has a completely different animation. This is just a case of really bad planning on the part of the animators I guess.

Number Three: As I mentioned previously, Kirito breaks out of paralysis through sheer force of will. Why is Kirito able to do this when literally no one else can? No matter how strong their desire to live, or to protect someone else, no one else except for Kirito, and later Asuna, can break out of paralysis. The show actually does have a sort of explanation for this, but it’s even more baffling and insane.

Number Four: Kirito and Asuna are apparently the happiest people in the entirety of Aincrad. In episodes eleven and twelve, Kirito and Asuna find a little girl in the woods and start raising her as their own. It later turns out that this little girl is a rogue AI that was programmed into the game, sort of like Zelfie from .hack//LEGEND OF THE TWILIGHT. By which I mean, exactly like Zelfie from .hack//LEGEND OF THE TWILIGHT. Which also came out in 2002, but I’m sure that doesn’t mean anything.

The little girl, Yui, turns out to be an AI whose purpose was to monitor the psychological states of players and help to keep them on-track. However, for some reason, she was trapped and not allowed to help players, but only to watch them suffer. I don’t know why the game’s creator would bother programming this AI if he wasn’t going to use it. I guess because he’s just a sadistic asshole. Anyways, Yui spent years being horribly depressed watching everyone else be horribly depressed, until one day she found Kirito and Asuna, who were apparently the ONLY PEOPLE, in two years of playing the game, who had learned to enjoy themselves in this world.

Um… excuse me?! Do you mean to tell me that no one else in this game has been happy or had a relationship? We already know from episode five that other people have been married in the game, though in that specific instance the husband actually murdered the wife, so it might not be the best example. Still, I can’t believe that in two entire years of several thousand people playing this game, no one was notably happy and functional until Kirito and Asuna started their relationship.

This entire implication is so stupid and out of left field that I just wanted to ignore it at first, but in the end I realized that this fact is actually important. And that’s because of

Number Five: Kirito and Asuna come back from the dead through sheer force of will. I’ve already made my point about how coming back to life after being killed by the Nerve-Gear makes no sense, but at least before, there was a special item that made it possible. In episode fourteen, Kirito and Asuna come back because they really love each-other a lot. In perhaps the most asinine attempt to make something seem super-romantic and powerful that I’ve ever seen, Kirito wills himself back to life just to kill the final boss, and he and Asuna make it out of the game.

Given that we’ve established the possibility that it might take thirty seconds for the Nerve-Gear to kill someone, there’s actually a way that this could have been a clever twist. After Asuna was killed, if Kirito had immediately realized that he had a thirty-second window to end the game and bring her back, he could’ve wrecked the final boss really quickly and then the idea would be that he saved her right in the nick of time. It would’ve been a great way to make the stakes seem really high in those last moments where the viewer thinks that the show’s best character is gone forever, and bringing her back might’ve been pretty gratifying.

Instead, Kirito becomes a lifeless husk after Asuna is gone, and gets himself killed. Then, after he’s already dead, he gets angry enough to finish the fight, and he wills himself back to life to finish off the boss. It’s clearly been more than thirty seconds since Asuna has died, and there’s no logic whatsoever to the fact that Kirito can will himself back to life, but in the end Asuna survives anyways. She didn’t will herself back to life before, but there she is, still alive, when the world is coming to an end. Even if, right after Kirito had died, he and Asuna had BOTH willed themselves back to life and delivered the final blow together, this might’ve been an almost acceptable version of the most tacky ending imaginable, but with it being just Kirito, an extra layer of what-the-fuck is added onto the stack.

Anyways, with the final boss being killed now, I think I’ve said just about all there is to say with regards to this series. I could go on about how the high-intensity animation doesn’t save the badly choreographed and confusing fight scenes or something, but honestly, I think I’ve covered all of the major ups and downs that the series has to offer. With that, I can finally put this series to–oh. Oh no. I forgot.

–Part Seven: The Entire Second Half Of the Show–

Holy fucking shit. If Sword Art Online wasn’t already bad enough, the second half of the series is an entirely separate story which is even worse, but in totally different ways. Whereas the first arc was stupid, baffling, and structurally broken, the second arc is boring, offensive, and even more contrived than the first arc. It’s like a buy-one, get-one-free pack of terrible shows, one of which is idiotic, and the other of which is abhorrent. Just like with the first arc, there are so many problems that I don’t even know where to start, so we’re gonna have to break this down into subsections all over again.

–Number One: Asuna–

There are a lot of things that make the Fairy arc stupid, asinine, and boring, but most of the things that make the arc downright OFFENSIVE, are the things involving Asuna. You may remember how in the Aincrad arc, I stated that all the best parts of Sword Art Online were the parts where Asuna’s character was allowed to shine, and that all of the worst parts were where Asuna was degraded by the shows chauvinistic mindset. During the Fairy arc, Asuna gets trapped in a bird cage for eleven episodes and constantly sexually assaulted by a madman while patiently waiting for Kirito to come and save her.

Now, as I’ve been watching SAO, the hardest thing for me to comprehend is that so many people actually enjoy this show so much. However, almost everyone, even fans of the show, seem to have problems with the second arc, and most of them cite the villain as the problem, as well as the lack of Asuna. This makes me very happy, because it means that even if people can enjoy something as stupid as this series, at least I know they’re smart enough to recognize when a show does some really fucking uncomfortable shit.

Asuna only gets two really sizeable scenes throughout the Fairy arc–one of them involves her attempted break-out, which results in a several-minute scene of her being groped by disgusting and completely out-of-place tentacle monsters, and the other of which involves the villain doing everything short of outright raping her in the final battle. The only apparent purpose for all of this is to make the viewer hate the villain as much as possible, and it succeeds in this–but it also made me completely and totally hate the show for having me sit through this bullshit.

This could be taken as a biased emotional response, but I don’t know any better way to put it: I don’t fucking want to watch Asuna get sexually molested. I don’t understand why the fuck I had to sit through it, and the fact that these scenes are drawn almost erotically, as if to imply that I’m supposed to be able to get off to this shit, actually offended me. For eleven episodes, what the first season built up to be a strong female character who kicks ass and gets to be in one of anime’s few functioning relationships, gets degraded into a locked-up princess that Kirito has to save, who is constantly at the sexual mercy of the villains holding her captive. It was gross, disgusting, creepy, and it had no business being in this story.

Sword Art Online is not fucking Berserk, or Game of Thrones, or fucking Bokurano. It’s a thirteen year-old wish-fulfillment fantasy about overpowered video gamers using the power of love to overcome literal death. Yes, it has a dark edge to it, in that people die and suffer throughout the series, but the overall tone of the story is childish, immature, and simple. It is not a show with adult themes or a sobering, horrific storyline. This show has no business displaying these kinds of scenes in the first place.

Moreover, the scenes are handled with a lack of taste that I’d expect from an actual tentacle porn OVA. If they really had to make it so the villain was sexually molesting Asuna, it could’ve been handled with at least a degree of tact or subtlety, but instead we end up watching minutes-long scenes of this disgusting piece of shit tearing her clothes, licking her face, and generally tormenting her for what feels like an eternity. It was enough to make me legitimately uncomfortable, as I kept wondering again and again how the fuck anyone at any stage of creating this series thought that this was an okay way to present these scenes.

At the very end of the series, when all is said and done, Asuna and Kirito are finally reunited in the real world, and if nothing else the series does at least offer a pretty satisfying resolution. We see how the characters interact in the real world, and what they plan to do going forward, and the whole time I just kept thinking how much more satisfying it would’ve been to witness these scenes immediately after the Aincrad arc, instead of having it come after all the pointless, disgusting bullshit that I’d just been put through.

–Number Two: Kirito’s Sister–

Being boring and one-dimensional must run in Kirito’s family, because his fake sister gives him a run for his money in both regards, with the added bonus of being completely erroneous. I could supercut the entire Fairy Dance arc to include only the scenes where Suguha isn’t around, and it wouldn’t change the core narrative of the arc in the slightest. Everything that happens from the moment Kirito meets Suguha inside of the game, up through the moment that he leaves her behind to go take on the final boss, is a completely pointless distraction that adds nothing to the story of Kirito trying to get his girlfriend back.

Suguha’s entire character boils down to two words: “loves Kirito.” Every thought that she has, every action she takes, all of it revolves around the fact that she’s in love with Kirito. She becomes his companion for the whole Fairy Dance arc because she seems to be vaguely in love with his in-game character, whom she doesn’t realize is the same person as the fake brother whom she’s in love with. This of course leads to the ironic twist where, after realizing that she’s never going to get with Kirito because he’s in love with Asuna, she decides to chase his game avatar instead, only to find out that he, too, is in love with Asuna.

As viewers, we already know everything that Suguha is going to experience before it even happens. The moment we’re aware that she’s in love with Kirito, which is instantly, we know that she’s going to be let down eventually, and that she’s going to find out that the character in the game is the same as her brother. We’re then subjected to around eight episodes of Suguha being flustered over him, before she finally realizes everything, confesses, admits defeat, helps him out like she was already doing, and resigns from relevance.

Suguha’s presence in the story is obnoxiously boring, but it’s made far worse by just how stupid it is that she takes so long to realize Kirito in the game is her brother. Even if we assume that Kirito exclusively uses the name “Kirito” in online games, he still has the exact same face, eyes, voice, and attitude that he has in real life, plus his username is just a really obvious abbreviation of his first and last names. Suguha’s character looks nothing like her, and she roll-plays a more headstrong character, so it’s a little more acceptable that Kirito doesn’t notice it’s her, especially having barely heard her voice in the last two years. However, Suguha not recognizing the guy whom she’s hopelessly obsessed with when he’s barely different from his real-world counterpart is just utterly fucking stupid.

Worse still is the fact that Suguha never mentions to Kirito that she’s been playing a virtual MMO game. When Suguha explains how she got into the game, she specifically mentions understanding how Kirito felt about these games. So why does she never make this a topic of conversation? Here’s this thing that Kirito is massively passionate about, which would make an excellent conversation starter and bonding experience, and she never even mentions the game’s existence to him. In scenes where the two ask one-another about why they were up late, Kirito never mentions going into the game, which might be understandable because he doesn’t want to worry Suguha; but she lies and tells him that she’s been “on the internet.” Why? What possible reason could she have for hiding the fact that she plays this game? Is it because if she did tell him, then they’d find out that they’ve been playing together? Has Suguha been reading the script? What’s that? Is that the script over there in the grass?

–Number Three: Fucking Everything–

I’ve used the word “contrived” a lot of times in this post, and I’m about to use it a lot more, so for a moment I’d like to explain what exactly this word means. A contrivance is something which is created in a way that feels unnatural, spontaneous, artificial, and/or unrealistic. A plot contrivance is typically the result of when an author wants a certain thing to happen, but there’s no reason that such a thing should happen in the context of the story, so they come up with a reason for it to happen out of thin air. The Fairy Dance arc of Sword Art Online is founded entirely on a gigantic mountain of contrivances.

The arc seems to be formed around the idea that Asuna would still be trapped inside the Nerve Gear, and Kirito would have to go into another game to rescue her–and also, that Kirito’s sister, who’s in love with him, would take the part of his partner in the new game. All of the plot elements are constructed around making this story idea possible, regardless of whether any of it makes sense or flows naturally from one arc into the next.

So it turns out that Asuna’s dad is a big-wig at one of the companies that was involved in creating Sword Art Online to begin with. He wants one of his lead programmers or whatever to have long-run company control, so he plans to marry him to Asuna, even though she’s still in a coma. Because Asuna can’t sign the marriage documents, and obviously is going to refuse it anyways, Asuna’s dad decides to adopt the guy instead, which is actually a fairly common thing in Japan for businessmen who want one of their top employees to inherit the company. But the creepy guy wants Asuna to wear the wedding dress anyways, and basically tells Kirito that he’s going to rape her or something. If you’re wrinkling your brow right now, you’re having the appropriate reaction.

But wait, there’s more! This douchey guy is ALSO an evil maniacal programmer who’s trapping people inside a virtual MMO game, and he’s doing experiments on the brains of 300 trapped SAO players in order to figure out how to manipulate human emotions and… take over the world. Are you laughing yet?

Now, even if we let all this go–even if we can accept that virtual MMO games would still be played by ANYONE after the SAO incident, regardless of having better-regulated headgear–even if we can accept that Asuna just happens to be a part of this family, and happens to be getting married off to the biggest douche on earth who happens to be another evil programmer for Kirito to fight–the way that Kirito gets involved in the game is almost just as stupid.

In Alfheim Online, there’s a giant world tree which is meant to be the final dungeon. On top of it is where Asuna is being kept in a giant cage, but no one can actually reach that high up because the area is blocked by admins. However, a team of four characters managed to breach the top of the tree by launching off of one another, and the one who reached the top took a screenshot of what they saw, which, after doing a detail zoom, revealed a girl in a cage. These images leaked onto the internet, and Kirito’s buddy from SAO sent them to him, which causes Kirito to go into the game in search of Asuna.

If you’re like me, you’re probably wondering, if Suguha is playing the game already, couldn’t it have been so much easier? Why couldn’t Asuna be hidden in this game that Suguha plays, and Suguha could’ve been the one to find out about her, but she couldn’t save her because you have to play through the hardest dungeon to get to her. Then she gets Kirito into the game and they party together to go save Asuna. It would’ve been the kind of coincidence that actually feels kind of clever, and made the fact that Suguha ends up being Kirito’s teammate for the arc seem really natural.

Instead, Suguha and Kirito just happen to meet inside the game, and Kirito saves her at random, so like every other girl in the series, she immediately falls in love with him. The only reason that Suguha and Kirito have to meet this way is so we can have the dramatic turn-around when she finds out that he’s her brother… but why? That plot is stupid and boring! We know right from the third episode of the arc that Suguha is the player Kirito teamed up with, and it’s obvious that she’s going to be heartbroken. Why do we have to suffer this boring, pointless plotline, when we could’ve had an arc that made sense, and with the whole mistaken identity thing taken out, Suguha’s character would’ve had space to do anything other than obsess over Kirito.

Again, everything in this arc feels contrived and stupid. It’s just a sequence of plot points that the writer wanted to get to, connected by threads of utter bullshit. And to make matters worse–


Oddly enough, despite how ridiculous the setup of the Alfheim arc is, I actually thought for a little while that it might be better than the Aincrad arc in terms of overall construction. This time, instead of jumping around through a bunch of random stories over a large span of time, it’s established right off the bat that Kirito has about six days before the douchbag is adopted into Asuna’s family, and the story is told in a linear fashion. Giving Kirito a clear motivation right from the start was a great idea, and with that motivation being the imprisonment of the only likable character in the series, I actually felt some reason to get behind him for once.

Including Kirito’s daughter, Yui, in the new game, is probably the best decision that the writer made going into this arc. I’ve mentioned before that Kirito shows more character around her than anyone else, and giving him a teammate that he was as closely tied to as Asuna was a great way not only to give him something to be happy about, but to give him a partner who would actually be in on his plans the whole time, and not just someone for him to act cold and distant towards. Plus, due to her nature as an AI, Yui could be a plot convenience and exposition dumper, but also just as motivated to save Asuna as Kirito is, because she regards Asuna as her mother. I also just like Yui as a character. She’s adorable and doesn’t piss me off.

Kirito is altogether a more likable and interesting character in this arc, because of the fact that unlike SAO, Alfheim Online just a normal game. Without the fear of death weighing on his mind, Kirito is able to enjoy himself a little more, and sort of remember that the reason he played SAO to begin with is that he really loves playing MMORPGs. Throughout the arc, Kirito is a little bit more lighthearted, and you get the sense that he and Asuna will probably actually play more MMO games once they’re reunited because they’re so in-their-element in those worlds. Which, in fact, is exactly what happens at the end.

But that’s about where my praise for this arc stops. Even with the clever setup going into Alfheim, what actually happens in the game ends up being a boring slog through a completely unmemorable world, populated by characters that I probably wouldn’t remember existed if I didn’t have Wikipedia helping me keep track of it all. Hey everyone, remember Eugene? No? He’s the guy who shows up out of nowhere and has a gigantic, ridiculous battle with Kirito in episode twenty. Did you know his name is Eugene? I didn’t.

The first half of this arc once again suffers because of the way that the source material was constructed. You see, the Fairy Dance arc is told across the third and fourth books of the original light novels. Now what happened here is that the first book needed to have its own climax so that it would seem like there was a point to splitting the story across two books, and so the end of the first book wouldn’t just be a big blue-balling disappointment. To make this work, there needed to be a side-plot which could be resolved at the end of the first book, which would tie into the second book at some point as well.

The side plot is this: some douchey guy in Suguha’s race wants to sell them and the Cait Sith race out to some mean dudes call the Salamanders for… some reason. It doesn’t matter, because Kirito beats the Salamanders leader, and the evil guy gets banished from his race. The end. Oh, and because Kirito saved the day, these races come back later to help him take on the final dungeon at the last minute. Hooray.

I can’t even pretend like this story takes up an enormous amount of time or is horribly distracting like Suguha’s arc, because it actually happens so quickly that I couldn’t keep track of what was going on before it was all over. I was too busy being distracted by the fact that Kirito transforms into a giant satan monster and completely destroys an entire group of players out of nowhere–which he never does again, even when he’s fighting hundreds of CG robots in the final dungeon. What the fuck is happening?!

When the game Alfheim Onilne is explained to Kirito in episode sixteen, Andrew tells him that there is no levelling in this game, as well as no skill system, only magic. When Kirito starts the new game, his data gets transferred over from SAO, most of which is worthless because of the rules of the new game–but apparently he’s incredibly strong anyways. I appreciate the idea to have Kirito’s stats carry over so that he wouldn’t have to start off weak, and it was a clever video game construct to utilize here, but I don’t understand WHY Kirito is powerful in this world.

In this game, a player has no overall level, but levels up each action that they perform through repetition, which actually isn’t that different from SAO’s class system. The problem is that none of Kirito’s skills from SAO exist anymore, so he’s only capable of doing sword slashes. Apparently his sword slashing data carried over, though, because he’s immediately a master at it and one-hit kills relatively high-level players right off the bat. He also totally uses what by all accounts appear to be sword skills throughout the arc, and even refers to something as a “skill” at some point. At the beginning of the arc, he says that his dual-wielding skill was lost and doesn’t exist in this game, but then during the first major battle he takes a second sword from Suguha and it makes him super powerful again. Okay. He then goes back to one-handed swordsmanship for the final dungeon until Suguha dramatically gives him a second sword again.

If they were going to go to the trouble of making this a totally different game world with totally different mechanics from SAO, then why make Kirito fight in the exact same way? In the third episode of the arc, Kirito is shown trying to memorize and learn spells, and he uses one to turn into a gigantic, overpowered demon at some point, but then he never uses any spells ever again. Even though it seemed like his demon mode was able to accomplish far more than his swordsmanship could, he never uses it. Ugh, the more I think about this arc the more it pisses me off.

–Number Five: Don’t Hurry, Or Anything…–

The premise of the Alfheim arc, and the presentation of the Alfheim arc, are kind of at ends with one-another. While both of the ideas on which it’s constructed–to present a story in which Kirito has a clear motivation and a time limit on getting his goal accomplished, and to present a more carefully-paced story in a more fleshed-out video game world, end up clashing with one-another.

As I mentioned before, Kirito is told by the evil douchebag that he basically has six days before Asuna gets raped. However, after that first mention of the time limit, it’s never brought up again. Kirito’s overall sense of urgency fluctuates wildly from scene to scene, with parts where he seems really driven to hurry up and find Asuna, and other parts where he seems content to dick around and enjoy himself in this fantasy world.

The problem here really is that the viewer is aware of too much going into the arc. We already know that Asuna is in the world tree, and we clearly see that characters can just fly around freely in this game. So immediately, we’re like, why doesn’t Kirito just make a beeline for the World Tree without talking to anyone? Why isn’t he trying to get this over with in the shortest amount of time humanly possible?

When Suguha has to go and defend her race or whatever in episode twenty, she’s like “hey I’ve got some stuff to take care of, so you can go on ahead,” and Kirito’s just like, “naw, it’s no big deal, let me help out with your business or whatever,” and tags along. He doesn’t even know what she’s about to go do, or understand how long it might take, but he goes along on this random tangent anyways like he’s got all the time in the world.

The idea to have Kirito explore a video game world in more depth, and to have a more relaxed pace was a good idea; but doing it on a six-day time-limit while constantly reminding us that Asuna is being sexually assaulted by some fucking asshole is about as stupid as it gets.

And the worst part is that for all the time the character spend dicking around in this game, the world itself is still completely uninteresting. At least the world of SAO had a unique setup, with a lot of variety in its locations and a lot of different mechanics which were brought up along the way. Alfheim online seems to just be a big goddamn forest where nothing happens. Apart from the spells, races, and PVP mechanics, nothing is really added to the world. We never get any sense of what everyday life might be like for players in this game, because the only characters we ever follow are Kirito and Suguha–and all Suguha ever does is obsess over Kirito.

Every ounce of good sense that this arc starts with is completely squandered by the way that it’s constructed. The second half of the arc consists of some boring, tensionless action scenes that go on forever, followed by a final battle that is offensive to all senses. Once again, Kirito overpowers the limits of the system, which at this point is literally presented as the point of his character by the ghost of SAO’s creator, who apparently has become the God of the Wired from Serial Experiments Lain.

After all is said and done, there’s a surprisingly satisfying scene of Kirito almost cutting the douchebag’s throat in the real world, and Kirito and Asuna are reunited at last. SAO’s creator gives Kirito what is basically the source code for Sword Art Online, and Kirito releases it onto the internet, spawning the creation of hundreds of new MMO games on private servers around the world. Because, you know, that doesn’t sound like the most insane and dangerous thing which anyone has ever done. And finally, after years of being traumatized and tormented in the worlds of two virtual MMO games, Kirito and friends all meet up inside of Alfheim online, and Kirito mods the game so that the entire final dungeon of SAO is now playable in this world. You know, so that he and Asuna can play through BOTH of their worst nightmares all at once.

–Part Eight: The Epilogue–

I can already tell you what a lot of the comments on this video are going to say. “You’re overanalyzing it. Why can’t you just enjoy the show and turn your brain off. Of course you’re not going to enjoy it if you go into it with that mindset. Can’t you just enjoy a show without analyzing it?” No. The answer is no, I can’t do that. And moreover, I shouldn’t have to. There are plenty of shows out there that I can watch that won’t insult my intelligence like this.

The reason I decided to make this video was partly because I wanted people to stop asking me about this show, but the motivation to actually watch the entire series and make a video about it came when I started watching Log Horizon. Similar to Sword Art Online, Log Horizon is a show about a bunch of players being trapped inside of an MMO, but the series literally fixes every single problem that I had with SAO in the span of like two episodes.

Log Horizon is actually built around exploring the core concepts and ideas of MMO games, and could even be considered something like an analysis of what makes those games fun to begin with. It utilizes video game mechanics brilliantly to create a fully realized and deeply involving world that I find myself wanting to know more about constantly. And the show delivers–it ties world-building into the core narrative of the series, which is about a bunch of gamers realizing that if they’re going to be trapped inside of this game, they need to form a functioning community so that they can all live here comfortably.

In Log Horizon, people don’t die when they are killed, but the drama comes from the human conflict of different level players taking advantage of one-another. In this show, the main character, who, like Kirito, is one of the best players in the game, but in this case is a strategist in his mid-twenties who’s both humble and likeable, realizes that someone needs to take hold of the situation they’re in and try to improve the lives of everyone trapped in this game.

It’s a show about people coming together, and even though there are a lot of dickholes playing the game, common sense usually wins out and people fight to keep their world balanced and liveable. The show has a large cast of characters, all of whom are unique and interesting in their own right, and the plot construction is fucking brilliant. It tackles the human experience of playing the game, develops a firm political backdrop, and stays intriguing and exciting even when characters are just sitting around talking for most of the episode.

Log Horizon doesn’t have the flashy, over-the-top animation in its fight scenes that SAO has, but its fights are comprehensible and the characters actually have to use tactics in battles as they would in a real MMORPG.

I’m not saying this show is perfect–it’s got a silly and repetitive sense of humor which can get really old, and because it’s balancing so many characters at once, a lot of them don’t really stand out. Still, I’d easily recommend this show to pretty much anyone, and have been greatly enjoying it so far.

Like Sword Art Online, Log Horizon was originally a series of light novels. Both of them are probably aimed at a young male demographic, and both are more or less wish-fulfillment fantasies about a nerdy gamer whose skills end up making him the most important person in a virtual world. Sword Art Online aired on a late-night time slot, most likely aimed at otaku viewers looking for trashy entertainment. Log Horizon aired in a prime-time slot on Japan’s government-funded public broadcasting network aimed towards educational shows. In other words, for all intents and purposes, Log Horizon can be considered an educational family show.

Understanding this, I feel that there’s no excuse for Sword Art Online to be the way it is. When I see a show with better writing, characters, execution, and themes aimed at an even younger audience, I wonder how anyone could stand there and say that it’s acceptable for Sword Art Online to be so fucking retarded. I understand if you enjoy this show, and I won’t blame you for being entertained, but DO NOT try and excuse this show’s shortcomings by making it sound like I’M doing something wrong by recognizing them. You can enjoy this show all you want, but you can NOT make excuses for it.

Sword Art Online has a second season beginning soon, and I think it goes without saying that I don’t plan on watching it. Even if it turns out to be better than the original, I’d be hard-pressed to believe that it could actually become a GOOD show. Frankly, I’ve been disappointed by pretty much every A-1 Pictures show that I’ve ever watched with only a couple exceptions, and by now I think it’s clear that Reki Kawahara is a hack writer, so I’m considering my involvement with the series done. I can finally move on now and finish Log Horizon in peace. I encourage you to do the same.

13 thoughts on “Sword Art Online – An Analytical Diatribe

  1. This show is, to me, a classic case where different people watch the same thing and perceive it in different ways. I won’t try to “make excuses” for your complaints, although I did see some of the issues differently, and there are some points that made sense to me that didn’t seem to make sense to you. But the main thing I’d just say is that the things I loved about the story were almost as though they happened in parallel to the parts you focused on; it’s the same basic plot elements, but it added up entirely differently to me (or rather, it actually *did* add up, and didn’t seem like a sum of disjointed poorly-executed storytelling mechanics). And that vast divergence in perspective is probably almost as interesting as the show itself to me. I don’t think it necessarily has to do with intelligence, age, experience, refinement, or capacity for critical thinking (although I realize that any popular work will have its share of less-than-critical, less-than-refined fans). It has something to do with the way we each perceive and interact with stories, but I’m just not sure that I can quite put my finger on it. Perhaps it’s just the elusive sense of “taste” — who knows.

    • You calling this show a classic is only proof of how overrated it is, let alone your, allow me to be blunt, poor attempt at glorifying it by saying people watch the same thing and perceive it in different ways. Well, DUH! OBVIOUSLY all people will perceive EVERYTHING in DIFFERENT WAYS. Even the most reviled work of fiction or art will have someone who finds it appealing. Heck, there are people that even nowadays believe Nazis were role models.

      The only way you could fail to see how this show is cliché and poorly written is by turning your brain off. Not only it has many faults, all of them named here, but to make matters worse they have been used many times in the fanfiction community and widely reviled! This is just a power fantasy for guys who can’t hitch a girl even in real life, a show that tries to be many things and ends up being none of them, and mostly a badly written fanfiction about MMOs. Show SAO to anybody who knows a bit about fiction and they will pan it. It’s not about opinion, but a badly written show using a gimmick to attract people. Those who can see through the gimmick are able to see all the show’s faults.

  2. I thought SAO was pretty awful. I don’t think it made sense, and the whole second half pretty much ran over anything that was remotely OK about the first half with a steam roller. Even the oft-praised action scenes I thought were boring and badly made. But for some reason, aside from episode 24, I don’t have any hate for it. Not like I do for, say, DearS. DearS just made me feel like the creators hated me, like behind the scenes people were saying “let’s crank this shit out for a quick buck,” but I did get the sense that someone behind SAO believed in it. Probably not Kawahara, but maybe the director or animators, or even Yuki Kajiura. Even though if you stripped away all the nonsense and bullcrap it would still be a rather generic show, any time something big happened I felt like someone behind the scenes must have been thinking “People are really going to like this!” It’s just so damn self-serious. I can’t despise this show. All I feel is profound but slightly sympathetic disappointment.

  3. SAO was one of the popular series that I was never able to finish watching, so I’m midly amused by how bad things got _after_ I stopped watching. Glad I never tried to force my way through it.

    I did, however, want to recommend a piece of SAO fanfic. It’s a crossover with Wildbow’s web-serial, Worm, and puts that series’ main character, Taylor Heber, in SAO after Worm’s completion. Not only is Taylor a much, much, much more interesting character than Kirito ever could be, her background and personality throw SAO’s storyline off track very quickly. It’s called “…Fucking Tinkers” (hope it passes any filters) and is available at http://forums.spacebattles.com/threads/fucking-tinkers-worm-sao.276498/ Hasn’t been updated in a few months, unfortunately, but what’s there is solid.

  4. Late to the party, but I thought I’d chip in because I really like MOST of what you said here. I can’t say I agree with your assessment of Log Horizon, but the statement of yours that bothers me the most is actually this one:

    “In fact, I think it’s great that this show makes so many people happy, which is always something to be celebrated.”

    A show’s creators can’t really be blamed for pandering to their audience. If they do something mindless, inconsistent, or outright offensive because they know that the audience will enjoy it, is that really their fault? The fact that so many people love SAO is really a big reason why SAO does the terrible things it does. As you said, everything about the story, setting and characters is wish-fulfillment, and thus I think the fact that the so many people enjoy the show is, in itself, terrible. SAO’s existence and popularity are symptoms of social issues that range from merely sad to outright abhorrent.

    And, from a strictly selfish viewpoint… as long as shows like SAO keep making people happy, we’re going to keep getting more of them rather than shows that I actually want to watch.

    • Yeah I’d say you are selfish. And extremely pretentious if you think that its popularity lead to symptoms like that.

  5. So, I’ve come here to tell you I agree with everything you said. I enjoy Sword Art Online due to the high quality animation, Asuna’s character, and the overall basic idea of the first story arc, Aincrad. The rest of Sword Art Online generally makes me uncomfortable and sitting through it makes me feel like I’m in detention.
    Because you get so many negative comments I wanted to give you a positive one, and tell you that I very much enjoy your videos, especially the ones you make about shows you hate so much. I’ve watch all of your videos pertaining to Sword Art Online and I laugh every time. I wanted to give you props about your analysis and also your ability to make people like me laugh.
    I was going to write this on your youtube channel video but I have just seen that it was taken down. So I’ll tell you here that I’d like to say thank you for not being afraid to post your opinion that is vastly different than the show’s obsessive fans. And also for making your videos hilarious. Please keep making videos like this!

  6. Oddly I find myself agreeing with both sides of the argument about this show but on different topics. I can’t disagree with much of what you’ve said, particularly in the way Asuna is treat in the second arc and that we don’t see her as the powerful heroine often enough. However when people talk about the good points of the show, I agree with much of that too.

    I think SAO’s problem might be it’s consistency, it throws back and forth a lot. Asuna’s strength being one of those consistency issues. She is supposed to be really powerful and in the context of the story and against other characters, she is. But Kirito (I believe and authors a wish fulfillment character) contradicts that when it gets down to the action, even though the dialogue itself explicitly states her as being one of the elite.

    I think it does some stuff really well though, such as Asuna and Kirito’s relationship which is such a breath of fresh air, Asuna’s character, at times some sensitive topics… least in the context of light entertainment and excluding Asuna’s treatment in the second arc, and finally at times it can be quite smart and have some depth. But that gets offset by it being unbelievably dumb or inconsiderate – sometimes at completely the same time.

    I find myself really conflicted with this series and I can completely see how people can veer to either extreme.

  7. Unmemorable world? Yeah tell me one other anime or MMO that depicts fairies as Tolkein style elves with wings and the ability to cast Final Fantasy spells AND is divided into multiple races including a cat people one? I can’t think of one that fits that description.

    I can’t get behind you haters anymore. For every good point you make you make twenty stupid or pretentious ones.

    • Also telling me that Log Horizon aired on Japan’s PBS tells me that it’s really just for little kids. And I’m supposed to grow up and watch something like that instead? Very mixed messages here.

  8. While I disagree that Sword Art Online is “easily the worst TV show”, I admire your commitment to watching it to completion. I could never slog through Bleach’s slow combat, and that’s popular too. And you watch a lot of Anime, so I’m surpised that you missed what I found redeemed the show.

    TL: DNR: In summary, I think you’re missing some of the conservative Japanese cultural assumptions (*) about these characters, and while SAO is not the best ever, it’s certainly not the worst.

    Part One: Is it good to be the Hero who Saves the Day? Not if you’re from Japan in an Anime.

    In anime, a hallmark of Japanese schoolyard culture is that it is better for the whole class to fail, working together, than it is for one student to stand out, excel, and solve the problem. I do not know if this cultural trait is exaggerated for dramatic purposes, or if it is even invented, but we’ve seen it in a lot of anime, and my “avoid cultural misunderstandings” training for work emphasized the role of harmony in Asian workplaces.

    That’s why Kirito feels so torn up about being a solo player. He’s good at playing the game, and is a successful loner, but the anime does assume that you understand that by being a lone cowboy hero, he’s making himself enemies in the same way as if he played a Goth Metal concert in downtown Nashville on the Fourth of July! That’s his inner struggle.

    It’s a very unAmerican way of looking at things. Kirito doesn’t come from a culture where Zuckerburg puts “I’m CEO, bitch” or Donald Trump puts his own name in giant gold letters on the outside of a building he owns. Oda Nobunaga is _very_often_ portrayed as a demon because he set out to conquer Japan and said “F You” to that chains of honor and duty that were supposed to limit him.

    Whether or not that culture rings true to you, that’s the world SAO is representing. Everything Kirito hides are those things that make him special, because in his mindset, it’s better to be a team player, or at the least keep quiet and don’t make waves. Which is where most of the other players come in. Most of them are not willing to risk their lives, so they stay on the low levels and wait for someone else to rescue them. They learn to cook, they buy houses, and, because some people are douchebags, they get taken advantage of.

    Part Two: Structure and Design
    Since you haven’t read the novels (and shouldn’t have to to understand the anime), I agree: it’s a weakness. The books cover Kirito saving Aincrad and ends with everybody freed, but then the next book goes back in and tells non-chronological short stories about Kirito and Asuna’s time in the game. When they wrote the anime, they straightened out the timeline, and it shows. The short stories stand out like lumps in the gravy, and we lose some characterizations as the mini-arcs don’t blend into each other well.

    Part Three: The Romance In Anime
    I had to chalk a lot up to the Japanese Schoolkids culture here, and I agree, it’s a weakness to an American audience. American Kids have no problems with occasional PDA. While making out in the lunchroom is a little gross, holding hands is not such a big deal as it appears to be in Japan. According to Anime, just a single afternoon spent alone with a girl is enough for everyone to start planning your wedding. Just telling a girl that you think she’s cute is enough for everyone to decide that you’re either destined to be together forever or you’re an immense pervert for even considering the fact that you’re a teenager with hormones. So the fact that Asuna agrees to live in a one bedroom MMO house with him (even if there’s no real sex possible) says more about how she sees their relationship than if she was an American girl.
    So I sweep a lot of awkwardness under that particular rug, but I can see how it could be annoying.

    Part Four The Fairy Arc
    This is a weaker arc, I agree:
    Asuna goes from being one half of a power couple to a damsel in distress. Every time we see Asuna on screen, she fights back until someone shows they’re capable of mind controlling her into being a sex doll. Then she manages to slip a passcard down to Kirito who uses it to get past the villain’s unwinnable trap scenario. So she’s active when she’s on screen, she just spends most of the story off camera locked in a cage.

    Suguha’s story suffers in that in order to show the audience that Kirito is still Kirito, they made him look himself in all worlds. Suguha looks different as an elf, so I guess they failed at Kirito’s Imp design. I blame the artists. However, I enjoyed her total FML moment when she realized that in order to avoid the icky near incest of falling in love with her brother/cousin, she channeled her romantic feelings into love with the… online avatar of her brother/cousin. She’s disgusted with herself, and just stuck, and has to get herself through the heartbreak.

    But you think that it’s stupid for her to fall in love with the wrong person. There are a lot of reasons why I don’t, but they come off as ad hominem attacks on you, and that’s not fair. If something doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work.

    The pacing of Alfheim: You totally got a point here. Just about every show, live action included, has pacing problems, but SAO is pretty Egregious

    Part Five : The Coincidences.
    I think you’re looking at it wrong. Asuna’s Dad owns an Evil Corporation that is working on using Virtual Reality to achieve Real World Power. Everybody who works there is part of the Evil Plot to get Real Power. The Evil Game Designer gets blamed for SAO, and the rest of the company (like in Daredevil) gets sold back at auction to itself. Then the Evil Lead programmer (who has a crush on the boss’s daughter) continues on running the Evil Corporation.
    The only thing I wish they would have written about is Asuna in the Real World saying WTF, Dad? Either you’re a very incompetant CEO or you’re an Evil Bastard who didn’t realize his VP was planning a necrophiliac wedding or both!

    Asuna is the key to both plotlines, and so Kirito (by being in love with her) gets dragged into both conspiracies.

    SAO vs Log Horizon
    I watched both of them, both seasons, and i agree , Log Horizon is a better representation of an online MMO, and a better storyline overall. There’s a little too much sex comedy with Naotsugu for me, but nothing is perfect.
    There’s a whole storyline about how Rudy literally risks a million times more than everyone else, just to try and fit in with the group. Akatsuki and Minori’s rivalry for Shiroe’s affections (and Shiroe’s inability to even tell Minori – you’re thirteen and I’m a grown ass adult: it’s never going to happen) is a little cringe worthy too, right?

    Season Two will only aggravate you. While I enjoyed them, Asuna’s Rosario plotline comes across as a little Lifetime Network For Women and old-fashioned for American audiences, and to understand the GGO arc, you have to believe in the unAmerican idea that Murder in Self Defense is still a horrible action, and a person who can kill another person has tapped into a sociopathic part of her brain, so much so that a mother would treat her daughter as a bit of a monster for shooting a crazy attacker dead. Very UnAmerican, but you have to swallow that to accept Sinon, as well as an Anti-American amount of privacy that doesn’t let the government subpoena IP addresses of players in order to investigate a potential murder. There is no Patriot Act in SAO’s Japan.

    Try and Watch some of the horrible fantasy action anime rolling around now on American Screens: JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Is it Wrong to Pick Up Girls In a Dungeon, Freezing…
    And American designers seem almost determined that they can’t do a cartoon action series without skewing it for younger children: Clone Wars into Rebels, Young Justice into Teen Titans Go, and I don’t understand Adventure Time. The alternative is to make the cartoon a comedy, about how hipster you can get about subverting the genre (Archer, the Awesomes, etc).
    Unless you get into the animated superhero movies, and that’s a whole other rant:

    (*) I cannot stress hard enough how Internet and Anime-generated my assumptions about Japanese cultural reference points are. No cultural appropriation here, move along, thank you.

    • After all the hate in the video and in its comments section, it’s refreshing to read the words of somebody who actually watched the show instead of watching a screen and hoping it would show EXACTLY what he wanted to see and nothing else.
      You said it best: Digibro’s are the views of an average US person, looking for his own kind of wish fulfillment and calling everything else dumb. I can understand why his grumbly complaints are so popular.

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