Monday Anime: Sword Art Online Alicization

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Hey, it’s the first Monday Anime of the new year, and I’m reviewing the new season of Sword Art Online, where I will say nice things about it, the characters, the author, and the studio behind it.

Why, you ask?

Because I’m an asshole, and I love to make people who hate SAO miserable by saying nice things about it. It’s what passes for joy in my life these days.

Okay, look, probably most of you know, I’ve more or less reviewed every season of SAO in the past. I’ve always tried to be fair, and even handed about it, too. While I think the overarching story and character work is actually really good, I’ve also pointed out places I think the story was weak, and even criticized it where it was just plain bad.

Like, with how it handles villains. Every single one of them, so far, has been so over the top evil, it’s impossible to take them seriously, as any sort of functioning member of society. SAO bad guys tend to be the cackling mad man variety, that literally drink the tears of their enemies.

That’s not good. That’s really kinda dumb. Just dumb and… stupid dumb. So dumb.

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A cave full of dumb.

However, that doesn’t make the whole of SAO dumb. It’s actually done a lot of really good stuff, and made a lot of very smart choices over the years. As fiction, and thus, allegorical story telling, SAO is actually one of the more interesting things happening in anime in many ways.

It certainly isn’t the worst thing to ever happen to anime, and if you doubt me, go watch Gyo.

Seriously. Do not even come in here and start bashing SAO as the worst thing ever, if you have not watched Gyo. Go watch it, then try to make a defense that it is in any way better. Cause it’s not.

Sorry. I get agitated by that absurd argument. Naruto was obviously the worst anime series ever made.

I’m joking! Naruto only ranks as maybe the third worst.

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Take a breath. It was a joke.

Yeah, I like to poke beehives. I’m a terrible person.

Anyway, here we are, with a new season of SAO, and I’m gonna tell ya what I thought of it. Feel free to be outraged when I don’t claim Log Horizon was better. Cause that sucked, too.

Okay, I’ll stop now, and just do the review.

Log Horizon was shit.

I may be a liar.

Sword Art Online: Alicization, the third season of the Sword Art Online anime series, is a 13 episode, 2018 series, that wrapped up pretty much the other day, from studio A-1 Pictures, one of my favorite studios, cause they brought us other awesome stuff like Black Butler, Fairy Tail, Working!!, Fractale, Anohana, Your Lie in April, Erased, Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash, and Tsuritama, just to name a few.

Sure, they’ve also made some really shitty stuff, but overall, I think they produce more good shows than they do bad. Even with the crappy stuff, they are a studio, and they gotta keep the lights on somehow, so I can be okay with not everything they put of being awesome, all the time.

Manglobe tried that, and look how they ended up. Bankrupt.

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Still not over it.

Point being, overall A-1 Pictures does a lot of good work. I don’t think the bad should outshine that, at all.

Sword Art Online is, of course, based on the light novels by Reki Kawahara, who continues to be baffled by the success of his own property, as even he doesn’t really get why people love it. Probably because SAO is a massive fluke to start with, but Kawahara is no idiot, and doesn’t shit where he lives. Thus, we get more SAO, making many people happy, and anime critics furious.

Which makes me happy, cause I enjoy watching critics be impotently angry.

Once again, I remind you, dear reader, that I’m an asshole.

The story picks up after the Gun Gale and Mother’s Rosario arcs, as the whole gang joins Sinon in GGO, trying to track down a mysterious band of PKer’s who seem to be in it just for the lulz, killing, then not looting, people. The weirdos slip away, and the gang is left with no answers. Still, having everyone together gets Sinon thinking it’d be nice to run the BoB again with Kirito, and this time, thinks to invite Asuna along, as having her in the mix is sure to keep Kirito from doing too much stupid shit.

She clearly hasn’t seen the first season of SAO. Kirito only does stupid shit.

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He kind of nailed you there, dude.

After a meet up in the real world, Kirito is walking Asuna home, as they discuss the future, and Kirito’s plans to move to the States, so he can continue his VR research where the biggest breakthroughs are happening, nearly destroying the immersion of the story, cause ain’t shit of interest happening here in the States, except the President making an ass of himself on a daily basis.

Suddenly, from the shadows, the SAO required over the top bad guy appears. The third member of the Death Gun team, and fellow SAO survivor, from the Laughing Coffin PK guild, Johnny Black. He even has a syringe of poison, and figures catching Kirito in the real world gives him a good chance of killing him.

Which it does, cause in the real world, Kirito is just a dude, not a super powerful bad ass. Thus, our long running protagonist gets a cocktail of deadly poison shoved into him, and dies.

For a bit.

Doctors manage to save his life, but warn Asuna, Sugu, and Mama Kirito that his brain was deprived of oxygen for too long, meaning he may suffer severe brain damage, provided he ever even wakes up from his coma. Asuna is sad, critics rejoice, and we are all wondering just what the hell the franchise will do without the main character.

I mean, they could always go full Lost, but nobody wants that.

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More lightsabers, yes. Lost, no.

Enter Kikouka, the super sketchy government man who debriefed the gang after the Aincrad incident, and got Kirito involved in the whole Death Gun mess to start with. He promises that he can get Kirito the best help available, then spirits him away to parts unknown, vanishes himself, and leaves Asuna and the gang trying to figure out what the fuck just happened.

Naturally, cause Asuna is a bad ass, she don’t take this shit lying down, and manages to track Kirito down, with the help of Rinko Koujiro, who was Akihiko “I Made SAO A Death Game For Reasons I Don’t Remember” Kayaba’s girlfriend. Turns out, Kikouka has been trying to recruit Koujiro for some super secret project for a while now. She agrees to help Asuna, and bullshits her way through things, getting Asuna right in front of Kikouka.

Thus, does the truth come out, and the opening episode, which was a bit baffling, gets explained.

Kirito has been working with Kikouka, via a company called Rath, to test out a new kind of VR Dive gear, called the Soul Translator. Rather than give you a virtual environment, it gives you a life experience, by way of totally made up science, having to do with somehow accessing a person’s soul, and allowing it to experience a life inside a fully realized simulated world.

It’s complicated and wonky bullshit science, but this is SAO, so whatever, you know?

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Is that… logic? Pretty!

Anyway, Kikouka actually is helping Kirito, as the Soul Translator can repair the damage to his brain. However, he’s had to put Kirito into the artificial world they’ve created, where Kirito is experiencing time passing at a much greater great, and thus, is living out a whole life, not entirely sure what the hell is going on.

Kikouka wants to create true AI, for military purposes, or something, but who cares, cause we all know Kirito is gonna stop him, probably after Asuna has already ripped his balls off for being a shady asshat.

Anyway, for Kirito, he wakes up inside a world, meets a kid named Eugeo, and together, they do some cool shit, then set out to find Eugeo’s child hood friend, Alice, who was taken years ago for violating the laws of the world, called the Taboo Index. They go to the capitol, get into sword school, and Kirito does well, but not too good, and with Eugeo, begins to unravel the mysteries of this strange new world he’s stuck in, from his perspective, for many years.

Lots of stuff happens, like sword fights, case this is SAO, though this particular series diverges from the tried and true style of SAO in a lot of ways that are really interesting, and show a great deal of promise for the future of the franchise.

One of the first ways things are different is that Kirito, while still the main character, isn’t exactly the protagonist of this story. Or rather, he shares the stage with his new male BFF, Eugeo, who gets as much time in the lime light as Kirito does. In fact, half this story is Eugeo’s, and from what we are told, he’s not even a real person, but an AI who is unaware he’s an AI.

Basically, Eugeo is just going about his life, unaware he’s not even a real person. This creates some very interesting moments. I’ll get to those in a minute.

First, let’s go back to Kirito for a minute.

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It’s called being the center of the world, bud.

During the first episode, we watch a child version of Kirito live a life with Eugeo and Alice, as well as participate in the events that lead to Alice being taken away. Little more than her finger tips touching an area outside the human realm, her punishment, we are told, will be an execution, as the Taboo Index has a zero tolerance approach. However, when he leaves the virtual environment, he retains no memories of what happened with in it, no more than he knows who he is while he is inside it, living as if he had always been part of that community.

It is only after he returns with brain damage, not that we can tell cause Kirito has always been kinda brain damaged, that he is aware of who he really is, though he still has no memories of his previous experiences, any more than anyone with in the simulated world knows who he is. Except, there are moments when both Kirito, and others, briefly recall their previous experiences.

While Kirito is aware this is not a real world, and accepts easily enough that his own memories of this place are faulty by design, he still struggles to understand how he got there, why he’s there, and if he will ever leave. He worries about seeing his family and friends again, and there are times he despairs. He tries to remain hopeful, but because of his experiences in Aincrad, he knows there is a possibility he may live and die in this world, and never see anyone he knew again.

This is a pretty heavy thing, and much as in the Gun Gale arc, we get to see Kirito struggle with this. To me, this makes him a much better character, as it adds depth and nuance to him. While he was always a fairly interesting character, the more time we spend with him, and the more things he goes through, the more interesting he becomes, and the deeper the attachment we can build with him.

While the road taken with Kirito has been long, the time we spend with Eugeo is much shorter, and this is where we really get to see how far Kawahara, and SAO, have come, as in the brief time we spend with Eugeo, the attachment builds very quickly. He’s a much more well rounded character from the start, and a deeply interesting one.

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Wait… doesn’t that mean I have to crush on Kirito?

He regrets constantly that while Alice was taken, he did nothing, even though there was nothing he could do. Even trying forced a error on his programming, more or less causing him to be all but paralyzed. Still, as an AI that thinks it’s a real person, he regrets that he did nothing.

When a friend is kidnapped by Goblins, and Kirito, being the heroic figure he is, rushes in to save the day, Eugeo goes along, wanting to help, but terrified of dying. Still, he finds the strength, and fights, nearly dying in the process.

This event creates two things that the rest of the story builds on. One, Kirito comes face to face with pain in a way he never has before, and damn near gets killed himself. Two, Eugeo takes the first steps towards coming to terms with his regret, and doing something about it.

Both of these character arcs matter a great deal as the story progresses, because without each other, neither would get far, and while this is hardly a new thing in SAO, we get to spend a lot of quality time with Eugeo as he progresses down his character arc, something that has sometimes been lacking in the past.

Klein. I’m talking about Klein.

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I prefer token male character, thanks.

Much of this comes to head in a way that is both masterful, and still one of the big flaws in SAO. I am, of course, talking about a confrontation with the now predictable over the top bad guys. In this case, two nobles Kirito and Eugeo find themselves at odds with while attending a sword training school, in the second half of the season.

While at first, the two come off as just petulant assholes, and bullies, they do step things up rather dramatically, to full on attempted rape. While at the sword school, Eugeo and Kirito both do well, and advance, gaining first year students as pages, to whom they act as mentors. The two girls get tangled up in one of the nobles being overly forward with a friend of theirs, and after some attempts to get them to lay off, try to take matters into their own hands.

Now, as this is a virtual world, and built on a middle ages system, between the Taboo Index, and noble standing, these two guys can actually rape these girls, and not have broken any laws. Any attempts to stop them would actually be considered illegal, and punishable by death. If this seems like a massive flaw in the structure of this world, that’s cause it really is. It is not a flaw of the writing, however, as this is the very thing Kirito has been critical of, and Eugeo is beginning to understand is morally wrong.

That part doesn’t bother me, because it leads to a great moment for Eugeo. What bothered me about it was the binker bonker way the two acted. It was full on Sugo drinking Asuna’s tears levels of crazy. I had hoped SAO would have moved on from this sort of thing by now, but I guess not.

Eugeo’s reaction, fighting against this because he knows it is wrong, and even straining so hard to stand against it, the error warning that appears in his eye causes his eye to rupture, is a powerful scene. I think it would have carried more weight had the two bad guys not been so absurdly evil, but for Eugeo’s arc, it works, as he literally sacrifices an eye to stand up against laws that say raping two women is okay.

As I said, half the story is Eugeo’s, with Kirito sometimes taking a back seat, allowing a different person to be the star. This is kind of a big change up from how SAO usually works, though I think it’s kind of been coming for a while. After all, Sinon’s character was just as important as Kirito’s in Gun Gale, and Mother’s Rosario was pretty much entirely Asuna and Yuki’s story. So, Kirito has been stepping back from being the star a lot. While I like Kirito, as a character, I think the ever growing scope of the world requires this at times.

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And maybe some quests for cream. Not that kind. Pervert.

Now, obviously, I’m just kind of skimming the surface here. Alicization brings a ton of new stuff to the SAO franchise. Not just in terms of how old characters evolve, but in the form of new characters arriving on the scene, and making a rather large mark on the face of the story.

So, let me briefly state a couple things.

I like the new approach to the evolution of the VR technology, even if the science behind it is pretty make believe. The idea that you can scan a human soul is a bit much, but the fact remains, the very idea of it is rather terrifying, and this new arc does not shy away of addressing that fact. It’s rather bold in stating that some things should just never be done.

I also like that the approach taken to building an AI is rather clever, even if it incredibly unethical. However, as Kikoura as been something of a shady character since he first appeared, this does play well to him being something of an antagonist, without being a bat shit crazy asshole. Nor is he entirely an antagonist, so much as he is someone doing what he thinks is right, even if it is unethical. That’s nice to see.

I am much less fond of the continued portrayal of bad guys as over the top. This is a bad habit in SAO, and while I get it from a narrative stance, allowing the heroic figures to be super heroic, it’s still kind of a bad rut the franchise is in, and sooner or later, I’d like to see it end.

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What the hell?

I’m also not really okay with the continued rape threats. There’s other ways to put characters in danger without resorting to that. It was something that I really didn’t like in Fairy Dance, and while from a narrative stance, it does make a lot more sense here, I feel like this is going back to the well a few times too many for a single franchise.

Note, I am not saying that this is a topic that should never come up. I think the more we address it as an evil, the better. People need to see it as a bad thing, especially the way it is presented here, as not being technically illegal, but being morally wrong. This is a not a bad way to present the subject at all, but I think the scene goes overboard more than a little, and for SAO, this is something that has been done, and I don’t think doing it again is a smart move.

Still, even with my reservations, I feel Kawahara has matured a lot as a writer in this scene. Rather than just putting a female character in danger of rape for the sake of it, as it was sort of done in Fairy Dance, here, we see it presented as a moral issue. A good person will sacrifice, and even face condemnation, for opposing a moral wrong. That makes a different statement, that I really do feel changes the nature of it.

I just don’t know that this was the smart choice, even if it was a solid one.

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We’re all wondering that.

One last thing I am not wild about in the new arc, is the central antagonist. While I agree that absolute power will corrupt absolutely, I think it gets taken a bit overboard here. Of course, that goes back to my issue with how villains are written in the franchise as a whole, so I’ve pretty well said what I think on that at this point. It still needs work.

On the other hand, I continue to be impressed with how previous story arcs influence current events. Fairy Dance was built on the Aincrad arc, with Gun Gale being heavily influenced by both. Mother’s Rosario was built on the world lore of the SAO universe, and now, Alicization incorporates all of the previous arcs, uses them as a basis, and builds on them all to continue the story. That is good writing.

I get really annoyed by any long running story, be it anime or anything else, that all but ignores the past story arcs when building the new ones. When a franchise builds on it’s own past, that is good work. I think that should acknowledged, and praised.

Of course, this season is subtitled Beginnings, so it’s hardly the entire arc. There should be another 12 or more episodes coming at some point in the very near future. Which makes this more of a mid season review, than a series review, but whatever.

My blog. I do what I want.

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Log Horizon sucked. I said Log Horizon sucked.

In general, despite my continued issues with how villains are written, Alicization is a good example of SAO doing what it does best, moving forward, expanding it’s own scope, horizons, and future possibilities.

As far as the animation goes, this is definitely an A-1 Pictures production, and easily one of the best looking entries in the SAO franchise. Very high quality animation, with new characters designs, for both old characters and new, that both maintain the classic look, but enhance it new, fun, and eye pleasing ways.

The action is also classic SAO. Fast, intense, gorgeous, and beautifully choreographed. The new visual bits for the sword skills is really pretty, as are the variety of styles and uses they now include. Naturally, Kirito is a badass still, but nowhere near his former level, restricted as he is in this new world.

The backdrops are the real star, however. Both in the outside world, and within the simulated one, they are gorgeous, and help create a real, breathing world for the characters to inhabit. The more advanced technology of the outside world is ever evolving in SAO, while the middle ages styling inside the simulated world give a sense of place, and purpose to the environment. The Dark Territory, what little we see of it, is just as beautifully realized as the human lands, while also drawing a sharp difference between the two.

As always, one of SAO’s strongest points is it’s visual style, and here, it’s even better than than it’s ever been.

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Stop hitting me, you little bastard!

The series is directed by Manabu Ono, taking over for Tomohiko Ito, who directed the first two seasons of the franchise. While at first, I was a little worried about this, Ono has definitely done a good job of making sure SAO still feels like SAO. Having previously directed shows like Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere, A-Channel, Dragonaut: The Resonance, and a ton of entries in the Saki franchise, Ono keeps SAO feeling like SAO, while also bringing a fresh feel to the direction, camera work, and fight choreography that adds something new.

I’m not sure why Ito is no longer directing. While I rather enjoyed his approach, at times, he could get a bit fan service happy with camera angles. I see a lot less of that in this season, so while I somewhat miss Ito’s style, I have to admit, Ono has matured the look of the show a good bit.

Of course, it’s also a lot more gory now, so I guess it depends on which you find the less of the evils. I’ll take a bit more gore over constant shots of every female characters ass.

I can’t seem to find who handled the writing on this series, though obviously Reki Kawahara wrote the novels, and apparently, the story follows them more or less faithfully. I found only one mention of an episode writer, but only for a single episode. It’s weird. Usually there’s a script supervisor, who oversees all the writing, but I just can’t seem to find who did it for this season.

That’s a bit odd, really. Dunno what to make of that.

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Or the loli cannon, for that matter.

Regardless, the writing is pretty solid. The characters continue to grow and evolve, the new characters fit in really nicely, and feel well fleshed out, the dialogue is pretty good, and the pacing pretty damn solid. The hour long first episode does not not feel an hour long at all. Whoever was responsible, did a good job.

The music continues to be done by Yuki Kajiura, our sacred goddess of anime music, having worked on the two prior seasons of SAO, and creating many of the highly memorable themes that are woven through out the franchise. She also composed for pretty much the entire .hack// franchise, El Cazador de la Brujah (one of my personal favorites of her work), a bunch of the Fate/ shows, Madoka Magica, Madlax (another personal favorite), Mai-HiME, Noir, Pandora Hearts, and pretty much the entire Tsubasa franchise, just to name a few of her more notable works. She has a ton more. Cause she’s crazy awesome.

I mean, it’s Yuki Kajiura. What else can I say? The music kicks tons of ass. It’s be weird if it didn’t, ya know?

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Yeah, it’s like that.

The OP is really pretty good, and somewhat reminiscent of the Aincrad arc in a lot of ways. It even pays a nod to the Ordinal Scale film, which is fitting, as Augma continues to be used within the new season. The theme is by Lisa, once again, continuing her long association with SAO, and it’s really good, as always. I always enjoy the OP’s for SAO, and this one was no different. It sets up the concepts of this season very nicely, and builds on the past even better. It’s fun, energetic, and has a few spoilers, like all SAO OP’s do.

The ED is also very good, and reminds me of the ED for the El Cazador, actually. It pays heavy attention to Eugeo, much as the Gun Gale ED focused on Sinon, and tells us a lot about Eugeo as a character. The lyrics are by Eir Aoi, who also did the Fairy Dance OP for the first season of SAO, so this season is definitely keeping everything in the family.

Overall, I’m really liking this new season of SAO. Watching Kirito deal with new situations is always fun for me, and finally seeing him be a bit depowered creates new dynamics, and excitement, as he has to rely on his wits, as much as his skill. Of course, seeing him experience pain in a virtual environment has also changed all the rules, keeping him from being his usual gung ho self, which is also a nice touch.

As with every new entry in the SAO franchise, things change, and gradually, things have been getting steadily better. I often say that Kawahara has no real interest in fixing SAO, as the broken hot mess it is has pretty much made him rich. However, this season, I’ve seen a lot more maturity, consideration, and planning involved, showing that he is guiding SAO into a much better future.

I’m glad I get to be along for the ride. It is, as ever, fun.

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Would you like to be a magical girl, Kirito?

4 thoughts on “Monday Anime: Sword Art Online Alicization

  1. I’d really love the characters to get back to doing something. The last two episodes of characters sitting around talking has set a scene but it’s been pretty dull viewing. SAO is always at its best when you give Kirito a sword and something to fight (anything, just point and set him at it). I have also really loved Eugeo’s character and he’s essentially been on the sidelines the last two episodes while Kirito has a chat and tea.
    I’m looking forward to where this goes next and hopefully we can move on from killing the audience with exposition.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, God, yes. A full episode and a half of just sitting, drinking tea, and chatting. That is yet another of Kawahara’s weak points as a writer. He sometimes spends way too much time on exposition heavy scenes, instead of breaking them up, and spreading them around. They just bring the whole narrative to a crashing halt.

      Granted, there’s not a lot of ways for Kirito to learn all this, but still, I think having had him be in contact with Cardinal off and on, and learning this story in between other events would have been a better approach.

      Thankfully, the next part of the story looks set to see Kirito hitting things with a sword. You are right in that being what this show does best.

      Another hundred floors to go, Kirito!

      Liked by 1 person

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