I spoke at an anime convention not long ago about Virtual Reality, specifically in reference to how close we were to the technology of Sword Art Online. Most of the people in the audience were fans of the show. You could tell, especially with the cosplayers dressed as Asuna, Kirito, and others. I made a few jokes about the show / light novels, wondering if I’d earn the ire of the fans. Surprisingly, they rolled their eyes and laughed along with me.
The fans know. It’s popular to bash the show because it’s so popular. On top of that, many of its flaws are pretty glaring, so it’s an easy target. The fans–and I consider myself one–are not ignorant of its faults. If anything, they understand the flaws better than many of the detractors. But they enjoy the series in spite of this.
After finally watching the show a few years back, I took my first foray into English translations of Japanese Light Novels by reading the first two SAO novels–the Aincrad arc. I had hoped the Light Novels would shine a bit more light on what felt like a strong premise but a sometimes weak execution. I wasn’t too impressed. Later, I discovered these stories were largely written early in the author’s career, the core arc was intended for a particular contest (which he didn’t qualify for because it was too long), and… well, there were a lot of reasons why it wasn’t so good. Somehow, Reki Kawahara stumbled onto the right combination of concept, and his vision of the VR death game resonated in spite of its flaws.
It was such a strong concept that this is what SAO become known for, even though that story arc ended up being only half of one season. Yes, it impacts everything that follows, but (most of) the survivors escape the game of death after two years in only 14 episodes. Many of those episodes are taken from short stories written later. And yeah, what came later is better written. Many people complain about the story being so disjointed with huge time gaps between episodes of the anime, but that’s due to the nature of the source material.
While addressing the gap for the purpose of the anime, Kawahara wrote a much longer story that became episode 2–the battle against the boss of the first floor, which happens a month after the game goes live. He wrote far more than they could be adapted into a single episode. At that point, he and his publishers hit on the idea of revisiting Aincrad and truly fleshing out all that happened during that two-year period. Sword Art Online: Progressive is the result, a spin-off series that revisits Aincrad on a floor-by-floor basis, with the idea of each book covering a floor. At 75 floors, that’s a lot of books. Especially now that the story is expanding and floors 6 and 7 are taking two books each.
Happily, these later books are better-written, the characters better fleshed-out, and the world more strongly built than the initial Aincrad foray. Yes, there are some retcons (most of them pretty “soft”), but the series is intended to be a massive expansion rather than a reboot. Aincrad is getting lots of detail. Kirito’s and Asuna’s early relationship is getting explored (which, IIRC, didn’t actually exist originally). The larger plot and world elements from later arcs now have roots in the original death game. These aren’t masterpieces by any stretch, but they are fun. And while they are still Kirito-centric, we do get to see some other points of view.
Last year, the first… er, second…? Ah, whatever… an anime adaptation of the first book in the series came out as a feature-length film in the theaters: Sword Art Online Progressive: Aria of a Starless Night. I was really, really looking forward to this film, and happily, it did not disappoint, although it did surprise. It really did not adapt much more of the novel than the 2nd episode of the anime. Instead, they created a new story centering around Asuna, and her experience as a fairly casual gamer finding herself trapped in a game with fatal consequences for failure. The story takes us through the early days of the game through an expanded version of the events of episode 2, culminating in the heroes finally reaching the second floor of the 100-floor game world.
Fans of the anime and the books will find cameos of favorite characters throughout, including significant events involving monsters that nearly ended Kirito’s life only a day into the game. Personally, I find Asuna a far more interesting character than Kirito. At least with the later books, Kirito has become a more complete character rather than the self-insert character as he first appeared. Delightfully, you get a bit of his deeper character in this film–and as a starting point as a socially inept kid trying to look cool but also trying to do the right thing.
The movie introduces a brand-new character, Mito, a classmate and close friend of Asuna. The similarities and contrasts between these three principle characters–Asuna, Mito, and Kirito–bring out their personalities in sharp relief. At least as a starting point. Asuna goes through the most growth and faces the most dramatic changes this first month, which makes her a great focal point for the film. She still has a long way to go throughout the series, but you can see the seeds of her transformation here. And she goes from being a hopeless newb to a front-line badass, which is fun.
Like the rest of the series, there are plenty of flaws here, too. I had trouble buying Asuna’s relationship with Mito at the start of the film, other than it being an act of rebellion against the very strict expectations imposed against Asuna by her society and family. It probably needed more time to truly gel before their world goes to hell, but it was just not possible in the feature film format. I was annoyed that Argo was only given a cameo appearance, when she is a major secondary character in the books and in a particular part of the story. Again, a feature-length film can’t have everything.
The decision to start over from the beginning from Asuna’s perspective, starting in the days and hours before the official launch of the game, opens things up to a new generation of fans unfamiliar with the series. Honestly, I think this film makes a far better starting point for anime fans than the first season of the TV series. Since so much of this film is a new story, there’s plenty for existing fans to enjoy as well.
All-in-all, I think it’s a competent addition to the SAO franchise, and a stronger entry overall than the other SAO feature film, Ordinal Scale. They have announced another feature film for this year, based on the events on the fifth floor (in book 4). I can’t say I’m too thrilled with the jump, unless this is bookmarking a new, unannounced TV series that will fill in the rest. However, if they can pull off the next film as well as this one, I’m looking forward to it.