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Why Sword Art Online isn't "Anime of the Year"


Sword Art Online. Every year there seems to be at least one series that splits its viewers right down the middle, and this year, SAO has fulfilled that role. Some would tell you that its amazing and apparently the "anime of the year". For others, its more of a perfect example of just how not to make an anime series. As you've probably guessed, I fall into the latter camp. So now I'm going to try and explain why Sword Art Online was objectively bad to its many fans.

Before I begin the assault though, I should say SAO does have its good parts. The soundtracks pretty solid, the action scenes well animated, the worlds of Aincrad and Alfheim beautifully realised, and the core premise of the SAO arc, ten thousand players in an unescapable survive-or-die" MMO, is genius.

Sadly though, this is where the compliments run dry. For each of those positives, SAO makes numerous mistakes which take what could've possibly been an anime of the year contender and run it face first into the ground. Starting with the characters, our two leads of Kirito and Asuna are pretty much cookie-cutter genri-protagonists, with little to make them stand out from the countless other male leads and female love interests of numerous other shows.

If we compare them to, for example, Accel World's leads of Haruyuki and Kuroyukihime (they are both by the same author afterall). The former is a short fat kid whom in the Second Life esque world of that series plays as... a short, fat pig... and the latter of whom has a track record of murdering her way to the top of the accelerated world. From the off both their physical and mental differences pulled you in and made the show more believable. You enjoyed watching them because they had interesting personalities, while our SAO duo were predictable to a fault. The only reason you root for them, and a lot of the rest of the cast, is the ever-present threat of death, rather than any particular interest in the characters themselves.

I can count the number of interesting characters in that shot on one hand.

Now, I could go on about the supporting cast, including Yui and Sugu, but liking or disliking a character is subjective, not objective. Besides, its distracting me from the main rant, and damnation, of SAO.

That'd be just how irrelevant the majority of the show is, and the knock on effect that has on the pacing of the entire production.

To demonstrate this, here's a diagram showing all 25 episodes.

Sidenote - Finding images to represent some of those episodes was hard.

Now lets run through the entire series. Spoilers ahoy, in case you're bothered, and I apologise in advance if I mix up an episode or two or forget something, its been a while and most of these were far from memorable...

1 & 2 – A solid opening, and the reason I started watching. These two did a great job of introducing most of the main cast and setting up the dynamics of the world. One could question why it took them so long to beat the first floor, but those were niggling faults. KEEP.

3 – An episode designed to emphasis that death means death and show why Kirito solos. While the events here do go on to haunt Kirito in later episodes, for the main, its pretty irrelevant, and certainly not something that needed a full episode. CUT.

4 – Silica's episode! Which teaches us about pets and player killing, the former being completely irrelevant, the latter not even needing an explanation. Considering this and the next few episodes are side-stories in the light novels (or so I'm told), it's hardly surprising they're skippable. This was OVA material at best, and had zero impact on the main plot. CUT.

5 & 6 – A two part murder mystery about killings occuring in a no-kill zone. Don't get me wrong, the reveal was neat, but how they dragged it out for 2 episodes is beyond me. You can skip these and you wouldn't even realise. CUT.

7 – Lizbeth's episode! Kirito gets a new sword ready for the upcoming Dual Wield reveal. Except its an MMO. I don't need to be told and shown the story of his new sword, I can guess he'd get one from a drop or a smith. A shame too in a way, as Lizbeth was one of the few characters I liked, mainly as she seemed to have her head screwed on. Regardless, CUT.

8 – Finally back to plot, and the beginning of Kirito and Asuna's relationship in earnest. Not much else happens here besides setting up one minor bad guy, you could probably condense it to 5 minutes or so. MERGE.

9 – The continuation and conquering of the 74th floor. Again, little happens besides the Dual Wield reveal and Asuna trying to be her own women, so you could merge this with the previous episode quite easily. MERGE.

[b]10 – Sets up that Heathcliff isn't all he seems, and the defeat of the minor bad from ep8 in the most painfully drawn out way possible. Again, you could condense this to half the size quite happily. MERGE.

11 & 12 – Yui's episodes! Personal disinterest with her character aside, the plot for these was fairly simplistic, so you could hack this story into one episode happily. MERGE.

13 – After you've removed the pointless fishing segment and halved this episodes runtime, maybe you could dedicate more time to Skull Reaper to make up for the next episodes misfire. In fairness though, this is a decent episode besides those first 10 minutes, so we'll KEEP it.

14 – In this one, Skull Reaper dies before the opening. After being portrayed as an unstoppable killing machine. I recall falling off my chair from laughter while the opening was playing. Were they fighting for the entire week between episode airings? Outside of skippable episodes, that single event was undoubtedly the worst act of pacing SAO did, and hell, one of the most stupid things I've ever seen in any anime I've watched. Once Crossing Field faded out though, the episode, Heathcliff's reveal, and the end of Aincrad, are fine. KEEP.

15 & 16 – Consequences. I really liked episode 15, thinking that it would set up a neat link between the SAO and ALO arcs as well as introducing Sugu. Instead they dragged it out over two episodes, along with introducing, and then making irrelevant, a new version of the Nerve Gear helmet. Combine these two and bump the ALO reveal to the next episode. MERGE.

17 through 22 – Kirito and Leafa's magical adventures through Alfheim! You could reasonably skip all of these episodes and go straight to the 23rd, and after a few minutes of confusion have put together almost everything that happened inbetween. Which shows how worthwhile and fun these were to watch on a weekly basis. Heck, you'd probably surprise yourself more with the reveals than the show when it attempts to. These episodes were like watching the first LotR movie. Walking. More walking. Occassionally action. Then more walking.

There's also so many ALO plotholes and misfires it hurts. Why did Kirito's race choice look exactly like his SAO self? Why did the creator and big bad of this arc, Sugou, not have a warning go off when somebody registered as Kirito? Why was Kirito still having Dual Wield meant to be a surprise when it was there on his skills list (censored out, I admit, but c'mon)? Why did Sugu randomly walk into the shower that one time? How did he and Leafa not realise who the other was numerous episodes prior? Why was that dispute resolved so pathetically? Was magic even relevant outside of a few gimmick uses? And most of all...

Episode 21. Just. Urgh. Why was Asuna the world's stupidest person when trying to escape? Running in plain site of baddies. Not being able to bend her finger and hit a button. After the long dragged out build up to her escape, she outdid herself with one of the most moronic and idiotic performances I've seen by any character in a single episode. And this is without questioning why the hell there needed to be tentacle rape.

Anyway, as skipping all of those episodes in an actual broadcast would probably upset some people and prove how ridiculously terrible the ALO arc was, and some of the plotpoints are relevant to the ALO finalι (like the Silph and Cait-Sith army setup), clever editing and much butchering of completely irrelevant content could knock these down to three, maybe even two episodes. MERGE.

23 – Action action everywhere. Seeing Recon was a surprise (and about the only one this arc had), the rest, painfully obvious and not needed to be dragged out over 20 minutes, even if the action was one of the ALO arc's highlights. Hack and merge this with the last episode. MERGE.

24 – The ending! With... an episode to spare... okay. So many problems here. Why was Asuna crying for Yui and not, say, her boyfriend. Why did they stand around instead of running. Why did Oberon allow an administrative account higher than his rank to exist. And how did Kirito just voice command log into it. And if pain level 3 or below actually hurts, didn't Kirito just kill a man, or severely mentally damage him. And how did Akihiko leave "a memory of consciouness" in a program.

Perhaps most amusingly of all, why did diehard SAO fans think I needed an episode to explain what Excalibur was. I'm not stupid. The big bad is trying to summon a sword called Excalibur, I can put the rest together in my head. And if they skipped content, finally, here, then why didn't they do that throughout the entirity of the damn series.

25 – The... epilogue, I guess? You can probably tell I wrote the rest of this before seeing this final episode, as it does answer, or attempt to answer at any rate, a few points I made. It neatly wrapped up the World Seed reveal in a way that wasn't setting up a second season, and show that Sugo (not to be confused with Sugu, why did half the cast have such similar names...) had gone through mental agony from being killed.

Still, you could have taken the first few minutes of this and merge them into the last episode and have a more satisfying ending. Instead, we're treated to a trip down memory lane including such memorable characters as "Thinker" and those cross-dressers from the first episode, an epxlanation of how VRMMOs survived (although not why the Nerve Gear was still allowed), some non-existent addressing of his and Sugu's relationship before dragging a (massively reduced in size, surely) Aincrad into Alfheim... somehow... and the characters wanting to return to that hellhole which probably mentally damaged people. While it was neat, as I said, you could easily pause after Kirito and Asuna's reunion and be done. MERGE.

So after a few minor edits here and there, lets see what SAO looks like now.

Yellow lines are merged episodes, although in some cases you only need a few minutes of content from them.

Down to 10 episodes from the original 25. More than halved. Admittedly, I've been brutal with my editing, but allowing for some padding or merging a few of the side-story episodes into one short stories episode, you've got a 12 or 13 episode show that could be done in a season.

But even with that, there's then the new problem of me burning through two worlds in a single season. Which would suggest that maybe the issue is more with the source content. Having not read the light novels (and based off how damn bad this show was, trust me, I have no intention to) I can't really comment. That's a subject for somebody else familiar with said source material.

So, to conclude. I've gone on longer than I expected, but the point still stands. In short, the SAO anime was a good idea, executed horrendously. The odd side-story or tangent is fine. But SAO took those and let them define itself, resulting in a series which never feels like its going anywhere. A show where you have to look for the plot. And a show which, in a weird way, I'll still miss. Moaning about and ripping apart each episode week by week with friends has been a laugh and accompaniment to the various other, better shows I'm watching like Magi and Shinsekai Yori. To be honest, the SAO bashing was the only reason I was still watching come the ALO arc.

Here's hoping I've cleared up some of the confusion on why SAO has its fair share of "haters". Its not any fundamental flaw with the concept persay, just numerous directorial errors destroying any viewability said concept had. Thanks for reading.
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About Slazoone of us since 10:55 AM on 09.07.2010

Games programmer, weeaboo and one of about five people to have kept watching the Pokιmon anime from start to finish, I'm Sean "Slazo" Hickman from the good old UK. I'll be using this blog from time to time to give my thoughts on various series or events in the anime world.