The Lovers’ Journey: Sword Art Online was the best anime love story of 2012 (Was: Despite his Chuunibyou, Reki Kawahara Still Wants To Fall In Love!)

I love music but I never had the urge to be one of those bloggers who used song lyrics; maybe it’s because when I try I end up with a bunch of words from the same Kinks album that no one reading this has heard. But, it’s probably appropriate since the record is about being trapped in a game of death (the recording industry).

At any rate… it’s time to take comfort in the reassuring heft of your pitchforks.

I have Good Things To Say About Sword Art Online.

horiguchi_yukiko

by Horiguchi Yukiko

A point for even bothering to try

And you think you need no one to guide you
But you’re still a long way from home.

The Kinks, “A Long Way From Home”


It’s safe to say a large number of works in the shounen demographic focus on wish fulfillment. Power fantasies, gaggles of fawning girls, and realities where your useless skills like video gaming are suddenly necessary to save the world: SAO, of course, has them all.

But for all the concessions to supposed “romance” that we get, these mostly samey stories pretty much stop once the hero “gets the girl.” I’d liken it to IKnight’s treatise on panties, this gist of which is:

The pantyshot claims to feed the 12-year-old another piece of that seemingly-eternal puzzle, ‘What are girls like?’, while actually telling him very little.

This is the same. A confession is such a far-flung feat that it’s a goal in itself, never mind the kissing-snuggling-fucking-marrying that Kirito and Asuna manage to get done in the space of one episode — with whose mechanics even SAO’s author is famously and hilariously unfamiliar.

Action anime are often structured as a hero’s journey, which is a great template. SAO opts for a different plot machine that’s well-oiled elsewhere but rarely seen in anime, what I’d like to call the “Lover’s Journey.” That is to say: boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. A classic that any love-starved chuuni in SAO‘s core demographic should be able to get behind.

The power of lurve

Hush little mammy don’t you cry
Gonna see what it’s like on the world outside
Gotta get out of this life some how
Got to be free, we gotta be free now

The Kinks, “The Contenders”


First, there’s the fabled meeting. They’re impressed with each others’ skills, but not much else comes of it. Gradually though, over the course of the game, they come to interact more. And for all their Mary Sue qualities, these are two characters who interact on an equal footing. That’s refreshing in itself. And when they get together, they find their strength inverted into a strange weakness. The fearlessness of clearing monsters as a loner — or even a pair of loners — is replaced by fear for the other half. Asuna admits to being scared for the first time in episode 10, and it’s not fear of her own death, but that of being stranded alone if Kirito were the one to die.

Baby, let’s play house

Till peace we find tell you what I’ll do
All the things I own I will share with you

The Kinks, “Strangers”


The marriage is an interesting thing: on the surface, it’s boring to watch two attractive people fall in love and enjoy it and never fight about anything. In fact, I expected their return to the front lines to be the result of their mutual boredom with sitting around and fishing and making sexytimes all day. But no, they never did. Of course, it was only two weeks, and it was probably the first time either had truly relaxed since the game began (two years of anxiety flowing endlessly).

But the reality is, the honeymoon was not about a young married couple beginning a future together. It was two teenagers playing house in a virtual world, not worrying about the future because they likely had none. Yes that’s heavy with pathos, but there’s a quiet and sad beauty in the image that transcends the simple wish-fulfillment of the over-arching story.

A non-reunion

You call him names and he sits and grins
’Cos everybody else is just a sucker to him.

The Kinks, “Powerman”


Finding that Asuna didn’t wake up may have been the most heartbreaking part of the story, and it was far less annoying than the typical “failure snatched from the jaws of victory” twist. It sets up a strong emotional foundation for the second half using plot rather than character, because Kirito isn’t compelling enough on his own to generate those emotions. You work with what you have, I guess.

Unfortunately, this is the first case of Fairy Dance’s tendency to pile on rather than leaving well enough alone. There are plenty of potential reasons to find Asuna still trapped in the game, but “rapey guy wants to marry her comatose body because post-SAO Japan apparently doesn’t have laws anymore” isn’t the first one I’d reach for.

Here, too, is where a lot of people get twitchy because of Asuna’s reduced agency and power as a character. That equal footing that defined her and Kirito’s relationship early on as fighting partners is reduced to hero and damsel at the peak of their love, with her literally locked in a gilded cage. Symbolic? I’d love to think so, but I don’t see much other evidence of that kind of meta-commentary. To her credit, Asuna never lays down and gives up or acts pathetic, and at one point she does (however unsuccessfully) take matters into her own hands. But it’s a tough sell and casts doubt on her portrayal in the first half.

Fortunately, at least until the somewhat loathsome endgame, SAO plays it less as a helpless girl’s rescue than a lovers’ reunion over great distance.

A challenger appears

Girls will be boys and boys will be girls
It’s a mixed up muddled up shook up world except for Lola

The Kinks, “Lola”


The ultimate test of love is temptation during separation. It would be pretty natural to include that in the story of Asuna’s rescue. It would be further natural to have that usurper be someone Kirito knew in the real world because probability be damned, it makes a good story. SAO gets both right, but screws up twice as well: first, Kirito is just too damn pure and flawless to really be tempted, and second… Suguha. Why complicate a perfectly serviceable plot element with an incestuous and busty little sister, if not to blatantly attempt to cement yourself as a popular light novel franchise?

History could look fondly upon SAO as a well-animated fantasy with a love story that goes beyond the first hand-hold, but I’m afraid the Sugu Situation will relegate it to that brief footnote in anime history when everyone was into little sisters trying to bone their onii-chans.

While the inevitable reveal (how did you go without saying Asuna for so long??) was a tightly executed scene, the subsequent real-world monologue was childish, selfish, and despicable, even for a middle schooler. Unfortunately, though I still think the introduction of  a challenger was the right move, the opportunity for Kirito’s love to be tested was mostly a missed one.

Net(game)orare

Come and love me, be my ape man girl
And we’ll be so happy in my ape man world

The Kinks, “Apeman”


Kirito finally relying on someone else to help him was a pretty minimal concession to character development, but his triumphant climb up the world tree was a decent moment considering how many anime fail much harder at provoking a fist-pump reaction.

I can’t find much of anything to like about his in-game defeat of Sugou or the scene leading up to it. The beauty of the love story, for a large part of the 24th episode, fell away leaving only the juvenile fantasy at the core of SAO. And that fantasy revealed its most puerile side with the removal of Asuna’s clothes and more or less netorare scenario. I’m most disappointed in this scene, as it’s the final removal of a once-strong character’s agency. Did it likely do the trick for a lot of viewers? I’m sure.

Reunion

Hush little baby don’t you cry
Soon the sun is going to shine
We’re going to be free like the birds and the bees
Running wild in the big country

The Kinks, “Got To Be Free”


The epilogue of SAO was too long and gobbled up more goodwill than the series had ever generated, plus the idea that the SAO alumni would voluntarily jump into the open-source Kayaba code was laughable. But the hospital-room reunion was an understated, incredibly welcome moment that came with just about the right amount of tension.

Some people take issue with the Sugou parking lot fight. My issue was that it produced yet another potential avenue of unexplored thought: what psychological effects did Kirito suffer in the game? Maybe that was too close to the “do video games cause violence?” debate that could easily be the focus of SAO if it really was the smartest anime in years (ok, covered the second necessary meme, done). Maybe it’s just not where the author wanted to go with the story, although frankly it’s where I’d want to go. [UPDATE: Tim, who wrote an interesting piece on food and enjoying life in SAO tells me that this is explored in later volumes]

For me, it was mostly a distraction from what I wanted to see: the reunion of (barring perhaps Yuuta and Rikka) the only real anime couple of the year. And even if they’re stupid enough to jump back into VR games, I was more than happy to join them on the first journey. Maybe I’m just sappy enough to see beyond the series’ laundry list of flaws, but I see beyond numerous anime’s list of flaws every season, and at least I found something to love with this one.

Fuck these (36) Comments.

  1. fencedude says:

    Man, I wish this were the show I’d actually watched.

    I can definitely see where you are coming from in regards to the relationship, but it just didn’t work for me.

    Not to mention that much of what you talk about was done much better with the various couples in Kyoukai Senjou no Horizon.

    • otou-san says:

      I haven’t really watched horizon and I must admit the insanely complicated world and the enormous cans have both turned me off. Though if you’re talking “various couples” then I suppose you could argue it’s better in some ways but ultimately apples and oranges to the focus on a single pair.

  2. ToastCrust says:

    The part that SAO did best at inciting rage out of me throughout was doubtless the constant reminder that the story was often only a few tweaks between really decent or even good as a shounen adventure and the stinging bundle of lazy writing we actually got.

    I can’t help but label the show as pretty awful nonetheless with Kirito getting deus ex machina solutions to even tiny problems (was it really necessary for him to ass pull the power to turn into a giant monster to deal with unnamed jobbers? a power never used again? lol) and a variety of other flaws (in both parts but ALO’s definitely the worst offender). But the only reason I stuck it out and got worked up about how awful the awful things would get is because the flaws were always ruining something that could’ve been something or good (rather than more poop piled on top of poop).

    Like, I totally could’ve bought the whole surrogate child Yui crap but then they pulled the INTELLIGENT AI thing and then also ass pulled I TURNED HER INTO AN ITEM thing and wow I literally cried from pain at how a perfectly viable plot hook was perverted so thoroughly.

    • otou-san says:

      Yeah, Yui’s another good example; I only mention Suguha in the post because she’s probably the most egregious offense (well, and Sugou…). I do agree that it adds up over time. With a marathon I think I was able to focus on it less, but what I really think writing this post did for me was make me realize that the author was maintaining a (somewhat) laserlike focus on the love story angle at the expense of just about everything else. It’s like the idea he had was much smaller than what the scope of SAO became. That’s all conjecture, of course, and the word of the year of 2012 is “chuunibyou” which is obviously the driving force of both SAO and Accel World. But the result, to me, was that I could find a core. Maybe not a strongly written core, but one with some measure of heart.

  3. Click says:

    Interesting read and I easily concede that the romance between Kirito and Asuna was up and by far the strongest part of SAO, however as a guy who personally reads and writes a lot of hero’s journey bullshit, I wouldn’t separate the Lover’s Journey from the hero’s journey just yet. The Lover’s journey is but another one of the hero’s journey signature 12 hero archetypes.

    The Lover hero is actually just another face in the 12 hero archetypes of the hero’s journey construed by Carol Pearson. And even then, I would argue that Kirito doesn’t begin as the Lover (although he does most certainly become one), but rather as the Orphan hero: his ultimate goal is to regain safety and he greatest fears are exploitation and powerlessness. The Orphan’s journey is about doing away with callousness, cynicism, and solitude and eventually developing interdependence with others. It’s through Kirito’s journey as the Orphan that he looses himself from loneliness and learns from scratch how to develop intimacy with others, namely Asuna.

    It isn’t until the second half that Kirito’s journey switches to the Lover archetype, where he learns to make commitments to his Eros or passions (Asuna and surprisingly enough, videogames) when placed under tremendous pressure and numerous obstacles. Although the Orphan hero’s journey in the first half sets up the groundwork and relationship between Kirito and Asuna, it isn’t until the second half where he actually switches to the Lover hero archetype.

    Now this isn’t to say SAO isn’t a love story in the first half, because, fuck man, every story is a love story (especially this one). I just wouldn’t make a complete separation between the Lover’s Journey and hero’s journey because the former is just another fold inside the latter.

    TL;DR Sword Art Online is better than CLANNAD

    • IKnight says:

      Your comment initially annoyed me because I think serious discussion of the Hero’s Journey should die a fiery fiery death in… a fire, but then I got to the end and realised that this is the comment this post needs and deserves.

      • otou-san says:

        I’m no scholar of literature or of fiery flames of fire; that A&V post was the first time I’d heard the hero’s journey referenced since high school english class. It wasn’t my intention to really talk much about the subject, I mostly needed a framework that was slightly sturdier than barely-contextual 70s rock lyrics — although I do appreciate the comment for those who are feeling less flame-deathy.

        then I got to the end and realised that this is the comment this post needs and deserves.

        It was almost the title.

        • IKnight says:

          I’m not particularly annoyed with your post. If we have a Lovers’ Journey and a Hero’s Journey, we have two restrictive templates rather than one, which is 100% better.

  4. Yo says:

    The only real anime couple of the year?

    Did we even watch the same series?

  5. processr says:

    SHUT UR MUTH CLANNAD DOSNT SUCK

    • Reiseng says:

      I only watched the first few episodes then stopped for some reason. Then I watched the marriage episode in the hopes of seeing Kirito deposit 2 years of sperm. Unfortunately, that didn’t seem to happen. :(

      After hearing how bad it was, I decided to watch 24 and I totally agree with your thoughts. It pretty much killed whatever strength Asuna had as a character and make Kirito suck even more.

      I am glad to see though that the scenes leading up to that had some good moments and that the romance was actually likable. I guess SAO was very popular for a good reason.

      what I’d like to call the “Lover’s Journey.” That is to say: boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back.

      I love this little description.

      • otou-san says:

        Picking and choosing is going to net you bad results in almost all cases. 24 is pretty bad, but 10 is strong. And for my take on the series to work, you kinda have to be in it for the haul. In fact, I’m guessing that my marathon produced noticeably better results than a week-to-week watch would. That’s partially because you end up absorbed in blogospheric/twitter reactions, but also because each dumb thing is elevated to a stronger status as you think about it for seven days, while the overall arc is less apparent.

  6. kadian1364 says:

    It strikes me now that the type of viewer who plays modern video games often might take much more offense to the frequent flagrant violations of common game behavior and design logic that saves Kirito’s butt so often. You shrug off inexplicable powerups as “that’s a thing that happened”, but so many of the criticisms myself and others have leveled at SAO involve frequent shattered suspensions of disbelief by them. Complaints such as “Players would never act this way” and “A game would never be designed like this” lie at the core of the ball of irate frustration we have with SAO.

    Of course, I’m presuming you don’t game much, since you don’t ever talk about it. Playing video games is so common in our nerd overculture that certain concrete beliefs and unwritten rules are assumed to be common knowledge. The perspective of the non-gamer is one I hadn’t considered before.

    • IKnight says:

      This is a pretty standard effect, though. Engineers can’t stand real robot shows, history-and-politics students are too busy nitpicking LoGH to get its large-scale achievement, and so on.

    • otou-san says:

      It’s true I haven’t gamed in ages and have never played an MMO but I think the complaints about Kirito fall as much on the side of basic logic as they do game mechanics. My reason for saying “welp, that’s a thing that happens” is precisely because you have to actively ignore some stuff in order to maintain your sanity.

      As I said to Rieseng, I think possibly the marathon watch method was beneficial in minimizing my focus on things like narrative inconsistencies and Kirito’s hax, sort of a forest for the trees kinda thing.

  7. thoughtcannon says:

    I’m more of a Something Else and The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society person myself.

    • otou-san says:

      It’s a better era for sure (Face to Face and Arthur as well). But Lola is one of the last great Kinks records, and the whole of “Strangers” worked well enough to shoehorn the rest in :3

  8. jennifu says:

    Fuckin’ hnnnngh.

    Maybe it’s just because I don’t watch much sword-and-sorcery anime, but I guess I kind of attributed all the plot shit to the genre and was thus able to feel that the Kirito Asuna relationship was very refreshing and loveable. Yeah, maybe they don’t really go through enough relationship conflict, but considering that pretty much every type of such conflict is explored over and over and over again in much worse romance anime, it’s very nice to see them intimate without ridiculous drama.

    • otou-san says:

      considering that pretty much every type of such conflict is explored over and over and over again in much worse romance anime

      usually shoujo though. I think there must be a general perception in manga/anime that boys want to be pimps and have tons of girls hanging on them but have no interest in going past the “girl acquired” achievement. Thanks for reading, and I’m glad someone saw the same qualities in SAO.

    • joshspeagle says:

      Totally agree. The feeling of relief I got when I discovered there was absolutely no drama of that sort was ridiculous.

  9. blkmage says:

    This was actually a lot more positive than I was expecting. I also wasn’t expecting such a nice post on Kirito and Asuna considering how much hate there is for the characters. It’s nice to see some thought put into how their relationship fits into the entire thing, since, having not thought about it too hard, it verifies what my initial impressions of the series was.

    • otou-san says:

      I guess I can see why they’re hated. It’s the overpowered, over-perfect way they’re written, it’s just unrealistic to have people pretty much always do the right thing, and it can be frustrating to watch. I think maybe one takeaway I got from writing this post was that the “character” of them as a couple, if you will, was more enjoyable than either of their individual characters.

  10. Martin says:

    Oddly, I don’t have any hate for the characters. It was merely the disappointment that, rather than breaking from convention and ‘doing different’, the writers chose to do the predictable route instead. My irritation is aimed at them more than anyone else.

    Kirito being invincible, Asuna becoming another damsel in distress for fanboys to fawn over, the bad guy at the end being a cartoonish villain…deep down, we actually half-expected the wheels to fall off like that. We just hoped that they wouldn’t.

    Chaostangent’s article is the SAO post other than this one that outlines my own mixed feelings on the story. I was left with a lingering bitter taste of missed opportunities by the end, but when the first arc finished I actually felt better about the show and the post I would’ve written (which is currently in Draft Rewrite Hell and will probably never see the light of day now) had a similar tone to yours.

    For all its numerous and glaring flaws, SAO still had its moments. Heck, the two protagonists actually progress in their relationship after hooking up – how often does that happen in commercially successful, mainstream adventure anime shows? I suppose that’s what gave me false hopes, so when it reverted back to being fan fodder with all the cliches and lazy writing that it entails, I was brought back down to earth with a bump.

    I think an article like this needed to be done. We’ve gone over the minus points often enough, but it’s cool to be mindful of those while pointing out that certain elements of it didn’t suck after all.

    • otou-san says:

      It’s honestly hard not to be mindful of the things that sucked… there’s not much that can be done to turn the other way when they’re always there. You echo ToastCrust’s thoughts: Conceptually there was enough there that you just wished it would get explored sometimes, but instead the day gets saved easily and no one thinks too hard about whatever it was that might have intrigued you. And any potential good idea gets buried under terrible ones (see: what I said about Sugu).

      I learned from Wikipedia that SAO was actually written a while before Accel World, so perhaps you can chalk it all up to an inexperienced writer with a hyper-case of chuunibyou sneaking some good ideas in there in spite of himself, and we’ll see better things from him in the future.

  11. jpmeyer says:

    Man, my mini-rant about how Asuna is ~the perfect waifu~ is now totally incomplete! I now need to include as well:

    8) And becomes a damsel in distress for you to save (again, despite being the 2nd most powerful character in the game)
    9) Spends time maxing out a skill that basically only serves to please you
    10) And said skill (cooking) is only lionized now that it appears in the context of a masculine activity (vidya games) rather than a feminized one (the domestic sphere)

    • otou-san says:

      And said skill (cooking) is only lionized now that it appears in the context of a masculine activity (vidya games) rather than a feminized one (the domestic sphere)

      I didn’t really catch that vibe. Also I preferred Tim’s take of cooking being noted for being a quality-of-life skill, rather than a survival one, which actually adds a little perspective to the concept of being trapped in the game for as long as they were.

      As for hax specifically developed to turn the 2nd most powerful character into a barely-clothed damsel in distress, I mean sure, I talked about that and it’s the worst thing about it. If I’d written SAO, I probably could have found 9000+ better ways to separate them and have them reunited that didn’t involve her literally in a cage, but I think I’m probably a better writer than Kawahara and I’m an aniblogger.

      • jpmeyer says:

        I supposed it makes more sense when you think about in comparison to how Liz is a blacksmith.

        • otou-san says:

          Not to sound overly defensive of SAO since what you’re saying at the core is basically true and Asuna is the ultimate fantasy/chuuni waifu (she’s the best at everything! Next to me of course!). But I think that’s apples and oranges as Liz didn’t seem to do much of anything else and was totally worthless in battle. Not sure if that’s even a thing that would really happen in an MMO but again, given the situation who would trust their swords to an NPC.

  12. ZabiLegacy says:

    I have to wonder about the use of the line only real anime. I can accept the premise of your argument that despite the shows many, many, many, many, flaws the bare bones of a good romance is properly laid. I’d even agree on a wider level that the general concept for the series is not a bad one.

    But to go so far as to say this is the best example of romance utilized in anime this year strikes me as a little….far fetched. This is a year lots of oddly serious attempts at romance were put into anime this year. We saw Mysterious Girlfriend X which provoked a mature discussion of social norms in relation to relationships with quirky and dynamic central couple. We saw the (by anime standards) oddly realistic approach to romance in Ano Natsu. Mainly, my paranoid infallibrile brain immediately started thinking about Aquarion EVOL.

    Yeah, this is another one of those posts jizzing about how great Aquarion is. The romances in that show were super special awesome. WHY U NO SHIP THE WAY I WANT YOU TO SHIP? FUUUUUUUUUUUU

    • otou-san says:

      Would you forgive me for two things:

      One, hyperbole is the blogger’s strongest weapon (Not sure if this statement is true or hyperbolic).

      Two, I guess I forgot about Mysterious Girlfriend X? My memory’s pretty short these days. I’d call them a real couple as well — even if they only uh “got together” sexually in the metaphorical sense, it was a heavily metaphorical anime and it counts. There was a weird dynamic between them, but it was a real relationship and it was interesting to watch.

      I didn’t see EVOL… I know, I know, gotta fix that. But if there were ships, I question whether it’s the same thing I’m talking about? I dunno. I still think it speaks to how tired we are (or at least I am) of the standard “finally get together in episode 50, ok show’s over now” scenario that SAO would provoke this reaction from me. In fact, it probably speaks more to that than to the perceived or real “quality” of SAO.

      • ZabiLegacy says:

        Alot of shows actually got it out of the way early. Ano natsu got it out the way early, Aquarion had at least one or two of the fifty million or so couples confess by midway through the series.

        And the shipping bit was a joke. I was making fun of the fact that I was essentially posting to say “uh uh, this couple is soooooooo much better then that couple” I assure you actual couples form with clear cut relationships within the cannon of Aquarion.

        Also, watch it immediately. >:{

  13. TheBigN says:

    Referencing your earlier comment on Liz, when reading the light novel, it’s shown that she can handle her own weight if need be. It’s just at the time she meets with Kirito, he’s so much more higher than she is in terms of level. I mean, part of the reason they were able to go on the quest in the first place according to Kirito was that the merchant had to be strong enough to handle themselves should things get rough (no, it’s not because I think you’re giving Liz a raw deal… okay I’m lying. :P).

    For me, the first half was much stronger than the second half (as most people have said) and a lot of it was both the desperate struggle for survival (typified by the trump card revealing battle) and the cohabitation of Asuna and Kirito. So when you shifted to a world where people who die aren’t really killed, and where at the end of it all, their relationship in reality apparently doesn’t hold the same significance as it did in the game is kinda :V