Really, Martin posed the question first:
— Martin (@concretebadger) July 12, 2014
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:
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?
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?
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…
— くそむし だ (@illegenes) August 9, 2014