Anime of Tomorrow
Alfheim Online (review)
Fall 2012 (11 episodes) (SAO Review)
After waking up from the gorgeous nightmare of Sword Art Online, Kazuto’s first action is not to attend to his own atrophied body, but to immediately begin to seek out Asuna, his in-game wife who he promised to find after they escaped. He finds her, but there’s a problem. Despite clearing the game and majority of players having returned to the real world, Asuna remains trapped in her NerveGear. Filled with the pain of helplessness for being unable to save her, Kazuto attempts to return to his old life displaced by over two years while remaining by her side for support.
But when a friend from Aincrad (the world of SAO) shows him a screenshot of Asuna trapped in a birdcage, he dons his own NerveGear once again and dives into the world of Alfhiem Online to rescue her from the new prison she’s found herself in. But he has to hurry because within a week, Asuna is going to be ushered into an arranged marriage with one of her father’s business partners.
The second half of SAO is brimming with terrible plot direction. Marrying somebody without her consent? What age and country does the writer think this anime is set in—the backwards cultures that treated women as property that flourished a couple hundred years ago? Kirito also inadvertently teams up with his sister/cousin, adding a distracting love triangle to the seriously devoted relationship between hero and heroine that had already been established in the first half.
As weird as it sounds saying this, going the direction of two people in love sticking with each other and then following their relationship as it continues to grow after marriage is rarely done in anime (Clannad being the single exception I can think of). So it’s all the more frustrating when what could have been an exceptional romance story about a monogamous couple devolves into harem territory as every woman Kirito helps comes onto him.
But what really makes Suguha’s poorly constructed brother complex feel so dumb, is that it could have been done correctly if it had been taking its cues from either Yosuga no Sora or Game of Thrones—series that actually understand how incestuous relationships can sometimes develop. And even if we take into account that in anime many incestuous relationships get a free pass, people in modern Japan don’t think it’s acceptable to fall in love with a cousin. The fact that neither of them recognized the other’s voice despite being so supposedly close to each other immediately also reveals how shallow the writing in the second half becomes.
All this was bad, bad, bad. But there were several factors right in the concept for ALO that doomed it from the start. Fairies are not cool. They just have very childish, fairy-tale (yes, I went there) connotations that don’t flow naturally into a story about rescuing your lover from a psychopath. They’re fine as annoying NPCs or as tag-along assistants, but not as a playable race—or in this case, ten races.
And that’s another key difference between the two games. SAO was very much about bringing people together to team up and grow stronger through camaraderie. However, ALO with all of its competition and rivalry serves to make sure that the players DON’T work towards accomplishing anything, which is counter-intuitive to moving a plot forward to say the least. Lastly, while I’m no feminist, I do love strong women and taking away Asuna’s willful character and turning her into a victim not only left an unpleasant taste in my mouth, but also wasted all of her potential and replaced her with someone shallow and almost impossible to empathize with.
Putting up with that vastly subpar story of unrequited love and the shackles imposed on Asuna’s strong character in ALO was torturous after being treated to the satisfyingly deep philosophical conundrums found in Akihiko Kayaba’s original vision. And then having to accept the new, cartoonishly evil villain that was Sugou pushed the series into an empty pit, devoid of any purposeful direction. If the second half of this anime simply didn’t exist or if the world of Aincrad had been given the entire 25 episode run to not feel quite so rushed, SAO would have been a much more interesting series. Despite airing in opposite order, it’s very clear that Sword Art Online is Reki Kawahara’s older, more amateurish work when compared to his newer, much more tightly written Accel World.
To wrap things up, why did I break this review up into two halves? Call me petty if you want, but there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to acknowledge that ALO ever happened. You see, I really LOVED Sword Art Online and to have to admit that this series was longer than 14 episodes doesn’t sit well with me. Anyone who is capable of being honest with themselves has to admit that starting with episode 15, this anime ceased to be the name in its title and changed into a completely different show. Overall I’d give SAO taken in its entirety a 5/10 because while the second half wasn’t unwatchable, it certainly made a mess of itself after an absolutely stellar beginning.