Sword Art Online.
Three words that will absolutely start a fight in any anime fan community. A bitter fight at that. One where the most horrible things that can be said, will be said. Insults will abound, like unicorns freed from a long winters nap into sun dappled fields. Communities will break up, and hatred will linger for years.
It’s all kind of silly if you ask me. It’s just a damn tv show, for Christ’s sake.
Still, if you spend any amount of time watching anime, much less talking about it the way I do, then you will be aware of the sharp divide in opinions where this show is concerned. Those who dislike it do so with the fury of the heat death of the universe. Those who like it, tend to do so very quietly, since the ones who hate it out number them greatly.
There has never been a show so polarizing in anime before, which is what makes it such a wonderful thing to look at it when you start wanting to examine the anime fan community. Because the two camps are so clearly defined, while a third, very tiny group, does exist, but is too busy eating popcorn while watching the other two go to war with each other to be bothered chiming in.
I’m actually in that third camp, and we are the ones who are well aware the show is terrible, but enjoy watching it anyway. Not in an ironic manner, even. Because, hey, you guys, that’s totally an option. Just figured I’d throw that out there.
No, I don’t mean in a turn your brain off way, either.
Before I get into everything wrong with Sword Art Online, or SAO as it’s called, and why none of it actually, really matters, much less talk about the shows good points, let me take a minute to indulge my non-anime educated readers as to just what SAO is about. I’ll be brief, then we can get to the stuff everyone is going to sneer at me for saying. Promise.
SAO revolves around a teenager who enters the worlds first full dive virtual MMO under the gamer tag Kirito. He’s one of 10,000 people who were able to get into the game on the first day of release, which actually makes him incredibly unlucky, as they all soon discover that there is no way to log out of Sword Art Online. For reasons that are never explained, the games creator has trapped all these players within his world.
Dying in the game causes the VR helmet to emit a microwave burst that will kill the player wearing it, as will any attempt to disconnect from the game, or remove the helmet. The only way out is to beat the game, at which point, everyone will be set free.
On paper, that’s a hell of an idea. Execution matters, however, so let’s get into some of the ways this went horribly wrong. It isn’t going to be a comprehensive list, by any means, as there have been thousands of words written on this subject already. Tons of blogs and videos detail all the ways SAO is bad, and while some of the points raised are overblown in their importance, it’s fair to say that there is ample evidence this was a poorly written story.
For those who already know SAO, I’m going to focus largely on the Aincrad arc, as it set the stage, and established all the bad rules that followed into other story arcs.
Let’s start with the protagonist, Kirito.
Probably the biggest problem with him is that he is overpowered to the point of absurdity. A big deal is made out of Kirito being a solo player, yet he’s higher level than almost anyone in the game. Speaking as someone who frequently solos MMO’s, that’s not really a thing that happens. Mostly because groups of players can take on more serious threats with a better chance of wining, but also because in most MMO’s, monsters tend to scale for party play, so a solo player has to grind for a long time to get anywhere. Kirito being as powerful as he is, just isn’t very believable.
The bigger issue is with the abilities Kirito possess. For the most part, he can do whatever the plot requires him to do. In one episode, he faces a group of PKer’s, and thanks to his high battle regeneration skill, the entire group of them is unable to actually reduce his health. This ability is never seen or mentioned again, and would have pretty well killed any tension for the dramatic battle scenes that take place later in the story.
Later, he suddenly gains a two handed sword fighting technique. He’s the only person in the game world to have it, again, for no other reason than because he’s the protagonist. It isn’t even actually relevant to the plot in any meaningful way. It’s just to drive home the point that Kirito is way more special and awesome than everyone else.
Yeah, he’s a Gary Stu. Pretty much the textbook example of it, really. Well, he does have more going for him, and going on with him, but we’ll get to that later.
Another thing the story does a lot, is have girls fall in love with him. Pretty much every girl he meets, actually. While the harem cliche is hardly new in the anime and manga worlds, having every single girl he meets get doe eyed at his awesomeness is a bit much. Kirito, of course, only has eyes for one girl, and never notices the flock of giggling girls that follow him with hopes senpai will notice them someday.
That may have come off sounding snarky, but it is pretty much how the women are written, with a single exception. Sort of.
The second big problem with SAO is, obviously, how it treats the female cast members. All lusting after Kirito for no reason other than he’s Kirito. The only one who really doesn’t, at least, as obviously, is the female lead, Asuna. From the get go, Asuna is depicted as being Kirito’s equal in every way. Insanely overpowered, she’s likely the only person in the game world who would stand a chance of defeating him.
If she wasn’t suddenly turning into a weak kneed girl every time the story needs Kirito to be brave, heroic, and manly. It recurs often enough as to be insulting, really. Asuna goes from being a total badass, to standing back in awe as Kirito single highhandedly defeats boss monsters. He frequently has to save her, as well, and at one point, overcomes the effects of paralysis to do so. With love, or something.
Maybe it’s because he’s Batman.
The problems don’t end with the characters, however. That’s just where they start. The plot is… disjointed.
First off, we’re told the players spent three years or so trapped in the game world, but the actual story of their time there only covers 14 episodes. There’s a lot of time skips, making it difficult to get attached, much less invested, in the central cast. Secondary characters change professions between episodes sometimes, and it’s only vaguely even addressed.
Now and then, the story gets confused as to what it’s even about. Two entire episodes are dedicated to solving a murder mystery, for example. People are killed in safe zones, and no one knows how, creating a panic that you could be PKed in your sleep. Even though it had already been established that could happen anyway. What’s worse is that the resolution to the mystery makes no sense, as the graphics involved with death and teleportation don’t work the way they are used in the mystery.
There’s a ton of other examples, but I’m sure you get the picture. Plot wise, the story jumps around a lot, takes weird side trips, and devotes multiple episodes to things that have no real bearing on the actual plot. Such as Kirito and Asuna’s honeymoon fishing trip.
Yes, they get married at one point. And go on a honeymoon, which involves a giant fish, that obviously, only Kirito can catch. It’s very weird. As is their out of the blue adopted daughter who is actually a computer program that was drawn to them cause they are just so awesome and cool and stuff.
One thing I won’t diss SAO on, though, is the quality of the animation or music. The big fight scenes are genuinely epic, and the music is amazing. It’s everything else that’s terrible, more or less. There’s tons more that could be said to illustrate the point, but I’m sure you get the picture by now, so let’s move on to the actual reason why it’s so bad.
Oh, yes, there’s an actual reason SAO is so poorly written, and surprisingly, it’s not cause the creator is a terrible writer. He’s actually a pretty good writer.
You see, nobody ever expected SAO to become so popular. That’s where things really went wrong.
SAO was originally conceived and written by Reki Kawahara back in 2002 as an entry into the annual ASCII Media Works Dengeki Novel Prize competition. He ended up not submitting it because he’d gone over the page limit, not to mention the entire thing had been somewhat rushed, so he was never able to really sort out all the finer points of the story. He decided to stick a pseudonym on it, Fumio Kunori, and toss it up on the internet, where it sat, pretty much unnoticed, for the next six years.
Now and then, he’d add a random chapter or short story, as something hit him that seemed fun to write. To say he wasn’t taking SAO very seriously at that point is fair, because he’d been working on something else for a while. A little title called Accel World, which in 2008 he entered in the same competition he’d planned to submit SAO to.
He took the Grand Prize for it, by the way, so yeah, Kawahara is not a shitty writer. He may not be the best that ever lived, but he’s far from bad.
As part of the Grand Prize, he got a publishing deal for Accel World from ASCII, which naturally, he took. I mean, c’mon. What writer wouldn’t? As is natural for any publishing company, they wanted to know what else he had, and he told them about SAO. As part of his contract, they wanted that, too, so SAO exited the web and got published as well.
Where it promptly exploded into popularity for reasons that appear to baffle even Kawahara.
It’s widely admitted that Accel World is a much better crafted story, with a clear plot line, well crafted characters, and that it makes sense. Something SAO could never claim, because Kawahara hadn’t taken the setting seriously for years. Regardless, SAO surpassed Accel World in popularity like a runner lapping the competition, leading to ASCII wanting more of it.
Because they are a publisher. If you have something selling like hotcakes, you ask for more of it. That’s how publishing works.
The problem was that Kawahara hadn’t really ever thought anything out with SAO. The story was rife with plot holes, and made very little sense in any respect. Adding to it wasn’t something he was sure how to approach, and take matters worse, publishers really don’t like it when you mess with a winning formula, so what they really wanted was more of exactly what SAO already was. A hot mess.
Kawahara did as they asked, producing the even worse Fairy Dance arc, which further diminishes Asuna’s character, and makes Kirito even more of an absurd badass for no real reason. This also was wildly popular, trapping Kawahara into a life long cycle of having to write terrible fiction, because the broken, disjointed world he had created without any real forethought had suddenly become a multi-million dollar franchise.
So you know, it’s frowned on to try and fix a multi-million dollar franchise. If it’s successful at being a broken hot mess, keep it a broken hot mess. Don’t try to have it make sense, or fix the plot holes. Just keep churning out the logic defying, plot hole laden disaster for as long as it keeps making money. This is also something publishers do, as does Hollywood, and yes, the Japanese markets are just as guilty of it as the ones in the States.
The thing is, SAO could have been great. If an editor at ASCII had looked at it and thought, “We can fix this up really nice”, SAO would be a very different property right now. Would it be as successful? Who knows. Probably not. The epic disaster of it all seems to be part of what makes it popular. It’s really hard to get a handle on just why it went over so well, to be honest. It did, and that’s the thing that matters here.
It wasn’t Kawahara, or even ASCII that made SAO a runaway mega hit. It was consumers. The same ones who now routinely bitch about how terrible SAO is.
Well, Western audiences probably didn’t contribute as much, but they do still share some of the blame. The SAO light novels and manga were adapted into English in 2014, the same year the anime came out. It was consumed by Western audiences as well, because Yen Press is still releasing the newest chapters. Lack of a profit tends to kill those kinds of things, so there is a profit being made.
Now, one last thing I do want to say. In pretty much every interview I’ve ever seen with Kawahara, he seems baffled by the popularity of SAO, and frequently struggles to explain it. He is well aware that he didn’t put a lot of thought into it, and can’t quite seem to figure out why everyone thinks it’s so great. Of course, he’s now able to make his living as a writer, so he’s not complaining, but he doesn’t really seem to get it.
To be perfectly honest, as a writer myself, if my worst project ended up becoming a big deal, I’d run with it, too. So the continuation of SAO in all it’s forms is something I can’t and won’t fault Kawahara for. He’s not stupid, and even if he doesn’t get why, he knows where his gravy is coming from. This isn’t about artistic integrity, as that’s something for people who are already financially secure. This is about not shitting where he sleeps, literally.
Considering the massive success of SAO, he’d be an idiot to piss on it, and the fans of it. He knows that, and keeps it going, because that’s just the smart move to make as a professional writer. At least until he can put out something even more popular than SAO. After that, he can say whatever he wants about it.
Keep livin the dream, Kawahara. Don’t let anybody get ya down. I get it.
Okay, so with how and why SAO is terrible out of the way, let’s take a minute to talk about why it doesn’t matter.
First off, it’s an insanely popular franchise. No matter how poorly written it is, it doesn’t matter. The damn thing is successful, and that’s all that counts. Yeah, sure, you could make a case about how that says terrible things about consumers, but that’s also not fair, because SAO has a lot going for it that makes it fun to watch. There is a reason it’s successful, after all.
Probably the biggest reason SAO is successful is the same reason it’s terrible. Namely, Kirito.
When we first meet Kirito, as he is preparing to log in to SAO, we also learn that he recently discovered his parents and sister aren’t actually his parents and sister. His parents died when he was too young to remember, and he was taken in by his aunt and uncle. His sister is actually his cousin.
A lot of people claim Kirito should be grateful that they loved him, and that’s fair. It isn’t even that he felt unloved or unwanted that was the problem, however. It was that he suddenly had no idea who he was. His entire life was, in a real sense, a lie. When he logged into SAO, he was in a place of mental and emotional distress, uncertain as to who he was, where he fit in with the world, and no longer understood how to define himself.
That’s a pretty normal reaction. Especially considering we’re more or less told that Kirito already has trouble with social anxiety anyway. In SAO, he has the power to define himself, which is what makes it such a compelling place for him. Of course, once he realizes he’s trapped there, he instantly reverts to his closed off self, which is why he goes solo for so long. When he was forced to live in the world of SAO, he lost the ability to define himself on his own terms, and was just trapped in his real identity all over again, so it actually does make sense he’d retreat from making connections with other people. That was, basically, who he was from the beginning.
Over the course of the years he’s trapped in SAO, however, he’s basically stuck with a very small community of people, made ever smaller by people dying. As time passes, he begins to forge friendships, and even falls in love. He retakes that power to define himself, and within the world of SAO, creates his own sense of self, built in part by the relationships he has with the other players in the world.
If you want to know why people love SAO, that’s why. Sure, Kirito is overpowered as hell, but that isn’t the point. The point is that where ever you go, what ever the circumstances you find yourself in, you have the power to decide who you are. Your sense of identity is yours, and yours alone. When it comes to defining yourself, you too are overpowered.
Another point to the narrative of Kirito is the family issue. His family wasn’t who he thought they were, and that messed him pretty bad. While in SAO, he learned that family isn’t always who you expect, thanks to the friends he made that were always there for him, as well as his relationship with Asuna, a woman he had never actually met in the real world. When he escaped SAO, he had a new sense of appreciation for his family in the real world.
Kirito’s journey is one of healing, self reflection, acceptance, and self empowerment. That’s why people love the show, and love him. Wile the story is filled with plot holes, cliches, and logic failures, it has an emotional heart to it that speaks to a lot of people, because it makes them feel like they can take control of their own lives, no matter how scary and hard things get.
That’s important, too. Fiction isn’t about having the perfect pacing and flawless writing. It’s about that emotional heart. If a work of fiction speaks to a reader, then it has succeeded, no matter what else it failed at. Because that’s all fiction really has to do. Speak to the reader, or in the case of the anime, the viewer.
Sure, there’s a ton of cliches in SAO. Every girl falls for Kirito. Except, Kirito is actually a really nice person, who always treats them with respect, and never talks down to them, or tries to take advantage. He never assumes that every girl he meets want to sleep with him. That’s kind of a big deal, the whole treating women with respect part. It just emphasizes that doing so is more likely to earn your friends, and even the love of someone who will respect you in return. Shouldn’t that be the lesson we are glad to see a story teaching both boys, and young men?
Yes, Asuna gets sidelined frequently so Kirito can be the hero. She also frequently chews his ass out for pushing her to the sideline and dealing with things without even asking her permission, or letting her deal with it herself. At least, until the Fairy Dance arc, where her character gets terribly mistreated for no good reason. In the Aincrad arc, though, Asuna really was as badass as she was made out to be, and didn’t let Kirito get away with shit.
Yeah, ya know what? That’s a healthy, normally, functional relationship. Honestly, Asuna and Kirito have one of the most healthy and normal relationships I’ve ever seen in an anime. They get married, settle down, adopt a child, and live like responsible adults. What the hell is bad about that? How is that terrible? Cause, if you ask me, that’s a damn delight to see in anime.
More importantly, Asuna is treated with a great deal of respect for the entire Aincrad arc. From her first appearance, where she huddles in a cloak to hide her gender, speaking to the way many female gamers feel they have to play, to her steady growth into a powerhouse on par with the male lead, Asuna is always in charge of herself.
She is virtually never depicted in an overly sexualized way, either. She is respected, and given the dignity her character deserves, at almost every single step, something not all of the female characters get. Asuna stands out as special, and in the later part of the Aincrad arc, both acts like, and is respected for being a leader. Her gender is virtually never an issue, and that’s something pretty damn important.
Then comes the Fairy Dance arc, and it all really does go to shit. Even the most ardent fans of SAO admit it was a shit arc. We don’t speak of those dark times, for they were filled with cliches that made the Aincrad arc look like Shakespeare.
SAO has it’s problems. Lots of them, really. It’s totally fair to criticize it for them, too. It also has an emotional heart that speaks to a lot of people, and what isn’t fair is to criticize them for that. If they enjoy it, if it speaks to them, that doesn’t make them stupid, or bad fans of anime. It just means they are people, with an opinion different than yours. That they see something you don’t, because they are not exactly like you.
Guess what? That’s life. Nobody is exactly like anybody else, and that’s a good thing. The world would truly be a dull place if everybody liked exactly the same things.
I watched SAO, and I enjoyed it for what it was. I saw all the problems with it, and I decided to ignore them. Just because there were things I enjoyed about it more. Because that’s just how things work.
Yesterday, when talking about Barakamon, I said I thought Serial Experiments Lain was over rated. That is just my opinion. It doesn’t take anything away from anyone else, or negate any one else’s opinion. If you love it, and if it speaks to you, then that is what matters, not what I think.
No more than your opinion on SAO should overwrite another’s viewpoint when SAO speaks to them.
Anime, like music, writing, and every other artistic endeavor, is subjective. What one person likes, others will not. That’s how it’s suppose to be. So, for real, stop with the arguing and hate. Everyone can enjoy what they enjoy, and everyone can dislike what they dislike, all without resorting to name calling and flame wars.
Earlier this year, I was part of an online group dedicated to the love of anime. When the subject of Fairy Tail, an anime I really enjoy for reasons all my own, came up, many in the group were quick to start trashing everyone who said they liked it. They spent more time trashing the people than they did Fairy Tail, and many, myself included, left the group because of how toxic it became.
When I say toxic, I mean that anyone who had expressed a positive opinion of Fairy Tail would be attacked for commenting on anything else. “You like Fairy Trash, so you aren’t allowed an opinion in this group, you worthless fuck.” “Go fuck yourself and die, you FT loving waste of space.”
You get the picture.
SAO is like that as well. It isn’t enough to attack it, those who dislike it frequently attack the people who enjoy it. Most of the time, with suggestions they stop watching anime, because they are ruining it for everyone, and even more frequently, with the suggestion they kill themselves. It’s hardly uncommon.
To them, I’d like to say this: It’s a fucking tv show, asshat! One tv show! It isn’t going to ruin anime forever! Get over yourself and go enjoy what you enjoy. Love what you love, and revel in it. Be happy. Most of all, stop taking it so damn seriously. Anime may be a unique medium for storytelling, but it’s still just tv shows.
To those of you enjoy SAO, let me say this: That’s totally okay. Love it. Enjoy it. Be happy, and never mind what anyone else says. Only you get to decide what art speaks to you. It is completely okay for you to be a fan of SAO.
For the rest of us that know it’s a terrible show and enjoyed it anyway: It’s kinda like being home from school in summer, when we were kids, watching soap operas with our mom, isn’t it? SAO is just like that. A bit nostalgic, really.
Like many fandoms out there, the anime community is frequently very toxic and hateful. Which is why I chose to only talk about shows I like. I don’t do hate watches, or rip on things for the fun of it. If I didn’t enjoy a show, I just don’t talk about it. There’s not enough time in my life to spend on things that make me angry, or that bore me, or that I just don’t enjoy. Occasionally, I may express bafflement at a series concept and execution, but I try to keep it to just that. There was a reason I quit watching The Shannara Chronicles, ya know. I prefer to focus on the things that make me happy, that fulfill me, and move me.
Which is why I’m fine with saying I enjoyed SAO, because for all the flaws it has, the emotional core of the story did manage to move me, and make me happy.
The Fairy Dance arc was total shit, though. Won’t even argue that.
Now go on and watch something that you like. Even if it is that confusing and pointless mess of a series Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Yeah, I went there. Sucks when people do that, don’t it?