In Defense of Sword Art Online

Really, Martin posed the question first:

Sword Art Online is not a terrible anime.

Sometimes, especially in the first thirteen episodes, it is actually quite good: there are stretches of sincere, even romantic dialogue, a basic grasp of suspense and pacing, all set to a soaring soundtrack that, admittedly, may be better than it deserves. Initially the stakes are high, death feels final, and there is a sense of urgency to the story. Kirito and Asuna are a likable couple much of the time, because their feelings are actually mutual and not bathed in the slapstick denial of most budding anime pairings. Even the siscon pandering later could have been not only far worse but just as popular anyway. (See: Mahouka and Oreimo, especially its ending.)

Thematically, while lacking the depth of worldbuilding of a Log Horizon, SAO actually tries to examine the relationship between the virtual and real worlds and deal with the consequences of people being trapped in the game. It does so in a heavy-handed manner, to be sure, but it tries: Kirito and others require months of physical therapy after they recover and have lost years of their lives. Many are lost forever. Plotwise, while the quest structure gives it a shape and direction, there are obvious holes and the endings of arcs tend toward handwaving and cheating in order to achieve the happy ending.

SAO, in other words, is a fairly average anime series. Argubly, it may be slightly above average. (Yuki Kajiura music can cover some, though not all, narrative sins.) Yet it has inspired gales of mockery and even hate through many quarters. Having not watched the original series when it aired and thus missing the hatewatching, I admitted recently to being puzzled as to why:

and now after watching all of the first season, the extra movie, and half of the current season, I’m still puzzled. SAO is far from great, and is only sometimes good. But it hardly seemed like an abomination. So this article is actually a genuine question to the show’s detractors: why is SAO such a bad anime? Aside from its narrative flaws, which I’ve already somewhat covered above, I have my own theories:

WHY YOU NO LIKE ME
WHY YOU NO LIKE ME

Is it its overwhelming popularity?

There is no doubt that SAO is a commercial success. I have seen legions of fans at conventions excited about the series, chanting its name during the second season premiere at Anime Expo, cosplaying as Kirito and Asuna, and naming characters in various Japanese character polls. The hatred seems to be confined to the aniblogosphere and review circles. Is it a sense that the show does not deserve its popularity, which is to the point where it almost becomes an ambassador for the anime medium the way DBZ, Attack on Titan, and other titles have sometimes served? Is hating it, in turn, almost seen as a marker of more refined taste? As Alan Zabaro said in our conversation about it:

Is it the portrayal of female characters?

I’ve heard this criticism before, that both Asuna and Suguha are poorly developed cheerleaders for Gary Stu Kirito and his awesomeness. The Suguha plot in particular is yet another example of a not-blood-related-sister falling in love with her onii-chan. The thing is: all this is true, and yet is more tempered in SAO than in other parallel anime. Both Haruka Tomatsu (Asuna) and Ayana Taketatsu (Suguha) both have well-acted emotional passages that reveal flashes of genuine character development, and the love Asuna has for Kirito actually feels genuine sometimes. There isn’t enough of it, to be sure, but both characters do actually change over time somewhat, which is more than can be said of many anime series. (Compare this to Miyuki in Mahouka, or even Kirino in Oreimo, who are one trait and nothing more.) These are fairly stock anime heroines, and one can certainly say that those stock conventions are problematic. But more problematic than lots of other shows and extra worthy of condemnation?

Ok, there was no real defense for the movie. And this is the tame part...
Ok, there was no real defense for the movie. And this is the tame part…

Note: I did cringe heavily at the villain and his dastardly schemes in the second half of the first season. Besides his overwrought scenery chewing, I agree with the critics who say that the threat of sexual violence against the main heroine is a cheap plot turn and should be used sparingly if at all. Nonetheless, this is hardly new, and not just in anime.

Is it the mismatch between how it’s sold and its actual quality?

From its inception, SAO was accompanied by a large level of hype. The full might of the Aniplex marketing machine went behind it.  I was present at the Lisa concert where the trailer was played and she sang the first OP. From hiring Kajiura to do the soundtrack, to getting top flight seiyuu, and animation from the well-regarded A-1 Pictures studio, this was meant to be a Quality Anime. Perhaps not the sort of title that would play in the Noitamina block, but a prestige title nevertheless. SAO is not that series, sadly, but it sometimes presents itself otherwise. (Mahouka, by contrast, has no such pretensions.) The music does not help in this regard: perhaps it is the disappointment of hearing epic battle choirs paired with minor battles and gorgeous, delicate melodies paired with a sister declaring her love for her brother. The chasm between what it could have been and what it is is sometimes wide. A soundtrack better than the show is an observation I’ve had about Kanno and Kajiura-scored shows for a long time though. How is this one worse?

When you think about it, it's all one big chuunibyou fantasy
When you think about it, it’s all one big chuunibyou fantasy

Or, simply, is it really just the story?

As mentioned above, plot holes abound. Characters do not grow enough and sometimes act in contrived ways in order to fit the plot. There is brocon. The fantasy worlds/games in question are not very original or deep. All this is true. But so are the majority of anime released every season.

So is it any of those, a combination, or some other factors? For all its clumsiness, I found SAO surprisingly engrossing. I wanted to know what happened next enough that I am only a few episodes from being completely current, and that can’t just be because of sheer boredom with everything else in my life. Yes, the revision of Psycho Pass is smarter, Terror in Resonance is much better directed, and Monthly Girls Nozaki-kun is cleverer. But SAO is fun too. Or maybe I’ve just succumbed. I think that knocking on the door is from the taste police. Excuse me while I turn in my critic badge…

11 thoughts on “In Defense of Sword Art Online”

  1. It’s probably all of those factors, and any other weaknesses that the person in question notices. For instance, how far it deviates from it’s “best” material in the first 13 episodes, once those are over. This is compounded by the fact that it’s hardly the only anime about MMOs, ranging from the old (.hack/sign) and the new (Log Horizon), most of which demonstrate a better grasp of all the things SAO is weak at. So what’s left to appreciate in SAO for it compete with the others?

    1. I think this is all true and I suppose, being high profile, it becomes the poster child for The Cancers That Are Killing Anime, or some such phenomenon. I just didn’t think it was the worst example and felt that the level of criticism was out of proportion to its lack of virtues. Everyone’s mileage may vary.

  2. I wonder if it’s the fact that SAO was originally a light novel. While some light novel adaptations are good (I think Flame of Recca was one), the most popular ones these days seem to be ones with notorious reputations (Oreimo & Mahouka especially).

    I also hear light novels are even easier to understand than reading manga as well, as evident to their growing popularity in Asia. “Easy to understand” might mean “dumbed down” to a huge degree.

    1. I don’t think it has much to do with the light novel as a medium. Not reading Japanese, I’m not qualified to speak on their literary quality, though the ones I’ve sample in translation do seem to be very light on the descriptions, prose stylings, and are heavily dialogue driven. But great things have come out too as you said–I would say Haruhi Suzumiya has a great deal of intelligence for instance, and the Full Metal Panic franchise is another solid contender.

      Rather, it may have more to do with the fact that the light novel is now the preferred medium for the “trope-ification” of anime/manga/LN otaku culture, which according to some is the real issue with shows like SAO. The speed at which light novels can be written and published also perhaps produces more quantity, and therefore more “junk” work…manga still has to be drawn.

  3. I have noticed that how a person watches an anime can hugely influence how that person responds to that anime.

    When watching anime weekly the viewer has more time to think about and dissect a show then someone who marathons it and that hurts pretty much all anime other than the exceptionally good anime series (for those exceptionally good series – it helps). Marathoning an anime allows people to easily miss an anime’s faults because there’s no time for reflection before the next episode starts. For instance, I just wrote a post about SAO being annoying bad and the two items I added on the bottom were things that came to me in the days after watching episode 11.

    This coupled with turning a more critical eye towards anime – so that they find something to write about – is why I think anibloggers are much more likely to dislike SAO then the typical anime fan. Some reviewers might have a problem with it being a male power fantasy series, I don’t. My problem is that it’s such a shoddily created male power fantasy series.

    One of my big problems with SAO is that everything that happens and everybody has to be tied to the main character in some fashion. The female characters only ever show up when Kirito is interacting with them or they’re thinking about him. None of the side characters ever grow without the MC’s input and help. In Log Horizon, even with the ridiculously overpowered main character, girls can fall for people other than the MC and do things without the MC’s help and characters can grow even when away from the MC.

    Another problem that irks people I think is how the series wants to be taken seriously and to do so it attempts to obscure how overpowered Kirito is and all that does is cause so many of the plot holes and the whole show comes off as a pretentious fake drama. I’m been finding Mahouka a much better show than SAO of late because they’ve dropped all pretense that the MC is not a godlike being able to do anything he wants.

    1. That is a fascinating aspect that slipped my mind—the differences between watching it episodically vs as a marathon. I marathoned SAO and perhaps that tends to gloss over the flaws because what matters is the pacing and the overall story. It’s as if there isn’t enough time to think about it for too long.

      The question then becomes: which is the better way to watch and enjoy an anime? I have noticed that some series are really benefiting from lengthier or more marathon-like pacing—Psycho Pass, to use a recent example, seems to feel massively improved. Madoka, on the other hand, did not imo benefit from the movie treatment, because its individual episodes were crafted in such a way to match the rhythm of a 20 minute running time.

      The other aspects you bring up are all good ones and there is no doubt that SAO as a boy’s power fantasy, combined with its pretensions to be a Quality Anime, can be annoying to some. While Mahouka lacks the pretension, I actually find it much more noxious, especially with even shoddier storytelling and its political aspects growing more and more prominent. But everyone’s mileage may vary. It just simply surprised me how unremarkable SAO was in its flaws; I was expecting, from the hate, something truly unappetizing. I just think it’s average.

  4. Back when SAO came out, I also didn’t understand all the hate against it. Eventually I think I came up with the reasons for it, which are pretty much what you described here. Anything that’s popular is bound to get a lot of hate from a certain group of fans, so there’s that first of all. Then there’s the fact that it seems to cater to fanboy MMORPG addicts, and people who think they’re “above” such pandering are gonna hate it. And then we have the pedigree of its music, voice cast, and animation which, again, the more connoisseur anime viewers are going to think is wasted on a series with such a mediocre story and characters, fueling their hate more. But like you, I didn’t think SAO was great or anything, but it had genuinely good things in it; I loved how it made the RPG world, the themes it brought up, especially at the end, about the relationship between the virtual and real world, and I also thought Kirito and Asuna had a solid romance going on despite them being rather bland individually. The second half with Suguha was definitely the worse of the two, but again, it wasn’t that bad.

    I’m liking the second season too and I think Shion is an interesting character. So yeah, SAO is the type of anime you’ll like if you leave nitpicking and critical analysis aside and just enjoy it for what it wants to do.

    1. More or less my thoughts exactly, Yumeka. I think in a way I’ve come out on the other side of critic jadedness: I’ve seen so much bad stuff, truly noxious stuff, that something that is only mildly bad like SAO fails to shock or faze me into critical rage. And I can even recognize some of its virtues, such as they are.

      I’m caught up on the 2nd season now. Sinon is a more balanced character I think than either Asuna (who has been reduced, sadly, to a bit part ever since the second arc of the 1st season) or Suguha. The arc seems a bit dragged out but it feels a bit more focused at least. It’s still full of logic holes as well as unnecessary melodrama but, hey, it’s anime…I’ve learned I have to be forgiving of those if I want to enjoy things. :)

  5. It’s probably the fact you missed that infamous chapter in the novel (was it 16.5?). It was the butt/bad joke of the day (“a year’s worth of semen” pffffffffffft). Also, I couldn’t stand more than the first 5-6 eps. Kirito’s actions were quite inconsistent just within those and then the tentacles with the loli came and made me decide it’s not worth my time.

    I don’t hate it, mind you. I can understand that it’s liked for various reasons. But when someone comes and tells me it was the greatest anime of that year, I can’t but get a chuckle. (Well, I’m not fond of ratings, much more deciding the best among miscellaneous genres, but this was the same year Shinsekai Yori and Psychopass aired)

    Also, just because there are worse, it doesn’t say a thing about that particular title. I don’t like the logic “teacher, but they did it, too”.

    I’m not an MMORPG fan but if they asked me for a very good rec of such a concept I’d pinpoint Hunter x Huner’s Greed Island arc.

    1. You know, I completely forgot about the loli tentacles…guess I’ve become desensitized after all these years of watching anime! And maybe that’s it, I just can’t summon the hatred necessary for SAO when in reality I see it as an average, occasionally decent show compared to the piles of utter dreck out there. I think one key is that very claim you mention–that some people are calling it “greatest anime of the year.” It’s easy to get irritated by such hyperbole, especially when better shows are out there.

      Shizuka told me about that infamous novel chapter (she’s a huge fan of the show) and how Kawahara refuses to talk about it, going so far as to walk out on interviews when it’s mentioned. One guesses that he regrets writing it. I should hunt it down somewhere, it sounds like it would be a good laugh!

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