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.
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.
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.
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.
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.