A Second Look at Sword Art Online and Where Will It Go from Here?
Note: Spoilers from SAO to SAO II of the anime
I know I don’t really show it but when Sword Art Online was first adapted into an anime from a series of light novels way back in 2012, I loved it, I really loved it. While the premise was something I had already seen (predominantly in .hack video game series), it was still an interesting premise as far as anime goes. Even while it aired, I loved it. All the thrills, excitement and anxiety were heartfelt. Sure enough, it has it fair share of problems. The sub-arcs in between the first arc-the Aincrad arc, which, timeline-wise in the novels, weren’t even supposed to be there makes the story and characterization at times disjointed. But overall, I think I can say without doubt I loved the SAO arc.
This will be a recurring point in this post, but one of the main problems with Sword Art Online as a franchise-it originally wasn’t supposed to be so long in the first place. I’m not sure where I read this before, but I saw from somewhere the novel was at first originally intended to be a one-shot. This is the reason why the first VRMMORPG was called “Sword Art Online”, the same name the franchise is called, while subsequent VRMMORPGs seem to derail itself away from the franchise’s name hilariously. The Aincrad arc also has a premise and setting which genuinely instills thrills-10,000 players were trapped inside a virtual game world, and the players’ real life counterparts die in conjunction with their characters’ deaths. There is a goal in the Aincrad arc-to escape from this virtual prison, and while achieving his goal, Kirito, who was originally a lone wolf, formed bonds. Relationships is also another focus in Sword Art Online and I would say Kirito’s was resolved by the first arc, even if developments, if any, were a bit rocky at best.
This is the problem. Because Sword Art Online as a franchise was originally intended to just be a one-shot, anything more just seems like a poor addition. After Aincrad arc ended, the Fairy Dance arc emerged from out of nowhere, and this is where everything goes wrong. Even the premise of Fairy Dance arc seems like a poor excuse to expand a story which was supposed to have ended-by having a portion of the SAO players not waking up from their coma, and having Kirito entering another new VRMMORPG called Alfheim Online. Although even with the introduction of a new VRMMORPG, there was less conflict and objective; players were no longer trapped and can log out anytime they want. Technically speaking, the Fairy Dance arc is paced slightly better, but there is just not much of a reason for it to exist. Just as soon as the first arc ended, everyone could had woken up from the coma, including Asuna and they could be happy ever after; there was no need to expand the story way beyond that.
Sword Art Online II, which started airing sometime last year featured the Phantom Bullet and other sub-arcs. The Phantom Bullet arc, which was, timeline-wise, the third major arc in the series, was where Kirito ended up in another VRMMORPG, the Gun Gale Online. While it was better than the Fairy Dance arc, there was once again, not much reason for it to exist. Everything can be traced back all the way from the first Aincrad arc-character relationships, story, developments, everything was resolved in that arc. As evidenced, in order to create the same thrilling experience, Phantom Bullet arc had to very blatantly relate some plot points back to SAO-apparently, Kirito had killed two Laughing Coffin members way back in the first arc, which I could had sworn was never mentioned once. Despite that, the Phantom Bullet arc definitely has better writing and direction than the first season, the only problem is the foundation of it’s premise. Maybe this is why most people don’t feel much strongly about this arc, despite it being objectively better than the previous season.
The Calibur arc after that is a major example of having an unfocused narrative. By far, it feels dull, bland, forgettable and most of all, unnecessary-an example, an embodiment of Sword Art Online’s flaws. Fortunately, it redeemed itself in Mother’s Rosario, which is definitely the better arc as far as SAO II’s sub-arcs go. Mother’s Rosario represents everything I would love to see. The length was just perfect and it had an actual focus-resulting in a satisfying, and much needed character development. Most important of all, it is a strong independent arc which doesn’t rely heavily on previous major arcs for developments. Additionally, staying away from Kirito’s perspective is a very helpful change of pace.
In order to create some sort of purpose on subsequent arcs, Reki Kawahara needs to relate it in some way to the very first arc. Otherwise, it will just simply be watching a more slice-of-life orientated anime with people playing MMORPGs, only, with virtual. If it’s just that, I believe Log Horizon even did a better job than Sword Art Online. The main issue with Sword Art Online as a franchise is that after the first arc ended, from then on, it had lost it’s main flair-the sense of conflict and dread from it’s promising premise. No matter how good the new story arcs are, it will still from one way or the other, drags itself back to the very first arc to recreate that atmosphere.
Furthermore, since relationships were already resolved, any new heroines who might seemingly be in Kirto’s harem, get the short end of the stick (get your mind out of the gutter, no sexual innuendo intended) since Kirito already has his canon girlfriend-Asuna. Yet, these heroines I assume will never develop any romantic interests for other male characters too. Poor Klein is poor.
However, Mother’s Rosario as aforementioned, is a rare exception that it was able to not stay overly dependent on SAO for plot progression and proved itself to be a worthwhile sub-arc. I haven’t read the light novels yet, but if future arcs were somewhat of this caliber, there may still be hope yet.
Sword Art Online is a concept-driven anime, and while I’m the type who concept alone is enough for me to like a series, Sword Art Online is a rare exception, especially since it derailed itself away from it’s own original concept, losing it’s focus in the process. All good things must come to an end, and Sword Art Online is a clear example of expanding unnecessarily beyond it’s original scope. Despite that, if it will ever has a third season, it will still be interesting to see where it will go from here, as proved by Mother’s Rosario.
What do you think of the Sword Art Online as a franchise so far?