First Impressions – Sword Art Online

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In any season, the buildup and expectation for SAO would make it an important series to watch.  In this one, it looms over the competition like a colossus.

It isn’t all that often that a series is so clearly “the” show, as Sword Art Online is for Summer 2012.  Really, nothing else on the schedule even comes close to it in terms of build-up and fan interest.  This is one that seems to draw the attention of otaku and casual fans, LN readers and anime-only viewers alike.  And I’m happy to report that at least from my perspective, the premiere was everything I was expecting it to be – and I was expecting it to be good – and even a little bit more.

SAO comes to us from the pen (keyboard) of Kawahara Reki, author of Accel World.  I like Accel World, but it’s clear literally from the first moment of the anime that SAO is a different sort of animal altogether – we’re talking about a featherweight vs. a heavyweight here.  A-1 Pictures has brought in Ito Tomohiko to direct, and he manages to convey a sense of gravity and heft right from the opening frames.  Ito-san’s only directorial effort is Seikimatsu Occult Gakuin, and while that series had its flaws I quite liked it – Ito showed a real sense of visual style and creativity and delivered more than a few knockout scenes.  It’s clear immediately that SAO is a series that’s going to have an interesting look to it, both in terms of grand imagery and interior moments.  A-1 is generally reliable in terms of fluid animation and detailed backgrounds, and SAO is clearly a priority for them – it looks expensive, and the integration of CGI into the drawn animation is almost seamless.  In fact if the premiere reminds me of anything it’s not AW but Fate/Zero, with its grand ambition, smooth CG and stirring, moody music (as always) from Kajiura Yuki.

None of that matters so much as story and character, of course, and happily SAO sets the table there as well as it does with the technical side of things.  The best endorsement I can give is that I was swept up in the events on-screen right from the beginning, and was left looking forward to next week by the end.  There’s not a lot of time spend setting the table in RL, but enough for us to get the gist.  It’s 2022 and the MC is Kirito (Matsuoka Yoshitsugu), a boy in his mid-teens who lives with his mother and sister.  It’s clear from the way Ito-sensei shoots Kirito than he’s isolated in RL, probably lonely and at the least a solo traveler through life, in sharp contrast with his athletic and genki younger sister.  It’s only in VR that Kirito feels alive, and fortunately (heh) for him the first truly immersive VR experience has just hit the market, Sword Art Online.

Now make no mistake, this has been done before, in many media.  There are elements of .hack (especially SIGN) in the premise, and I was also put in mind of Tad Williams’ superb novel series Otherland.  But there’s nothing wrong with a new spin on an old premise, and this is a natural playground for anime.  Kawahara-sensei has created something interesting here: a world where players use the latest immersive technology “Nerve Gear” to obtain the full VR experience.  SAO has just hit the market, like Nerve Gear the product of genius innovator Kayaba Akihiko (the man, the myth, the legend that is Yamadera Kouichi) but Kirito was one of the beta testers, so he knows his way around the setting already.  This brings him to the attention of Klein (Hirata Hiroaki) a noob who’s smart enough to spot the experience user and beg Kirito to show him the ropes of SAO.  And it’s quite a place – a fairly standard but well-executed anime take on a VR wonderland, a roughly medieval fantasy world of villages, wild boars and snarling wolves – and pterodactyls, too

Though it’s very basic stuff, I loved the simple scenes of Kirito showing Klein the basics of SAO.  Hirata-san may not have a huge range, but he’s mastered the lovable everyman like no seiyuu before him.  He acts like most of us would act in a similar situation (which seems to be a Hirata specialty).  The hook that drives the story is that Kayaba Akihiko is apparent a psychotic mad scientist, as he appears in spectre-like form to tell the players he’s rigged SAO so that no one can log out (there’s literally no button to do so).  If their Nerve Gear is removed in RL, they die.  If they die in SAO, they die.  The only way to escape is to clear the game – which means clearing 100 floors and beating the top boss.  Why is Kayaba doing this?  That’s TBD, as we’re given no clues in the premiere.  But it quite naturally sets off a flood of panic among the players, especially when Kayaba tells them that 213 have already died when someone attempted to remove their Nerve Gear.  Kirito immediately seizes on the necessary next step to survive, using his experience – escape to the next village before all the desperate noobs hunt the neighboring woods to nothing looking for easy experience points.  But Klein reluctantly declines to join him, not wanting to leave his RL friends behind.

There are quite a few signs that SAO has the wit and edginess necessary to make a familiar premise compelling. I loved the fact that Kayaba (somewhat sadistically, it seems) shatters everyone’s anonymity by replacing their chosen avatar with their RL forms – and it’s pretty hilarious watching the players react to everyone’s true identity.  Klein’s “You’re awfully cute – just my type” to Kirito on their parting was unexpected and adds an interesting layer to their interactions.  Some obvious questions spring to mind – what happens to the bodies of the players in RL, for example?  Presumably their families will have been warned not to try and disconnect them, and I suppose they’ll be treated like coma patients – but what of those who live alone, like Klein (maybe they’re among the 2000 that died in the first month)?

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OP: “crossing field” By LiSA

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30 comments

  1. l

    Klein's not dead yet. (I feel like there's a Monty Python joke in that sentence.) Besides the fact that Klein appears in the ED (future OP), there's also your screen shot of the game players' death tally. Look at column 5, at the last two names in that column at the very, very bottom. "Klei" followed by what appears to be "Klein" which is not struck out. So I expect we'll see Klein again. I'm hoping so anyway. He made a good side-character.

    I was struck by the scenery visuals too. I'm a sucker for gorgeous scenery visuals. (Scenery porn?? LOL) SAO could fail in so many categories, and I'd still watch it just for the gorgeous scenery. Happily SAO ep 1 succeeded in so many categories that the whole show was a joy to watch.

    SAO exceeded my expectations. I hope the rest of the series continues doing that.

  2. A

    I could hardly have hoped for a better introductory episode.

    I liked how they didn't show Kirito's real-life face until the in-game reveal.

  3. I

    Dear Mr Kawahara

    If you could make something this great in the first place why bother with AW?

    Sincerely
    The world

    SAO is the show of the season, nothing can come close or will for that matter. Glad A-1 is doing it rather than Sunrise, seeing as how Sunrise don't seem to be all that good at LNs. Might drop AW again as SAO is so much better even without most of the characters introduced.

    I can just see my dropped list eating my watching one on MAL because of how high SAO has raised the level for this season.

  4. A

    I don't know about other LN adaptations by Sunrise, but Horizon is awfully good given the challenge of the source material.

  5. j

    Ishruns, perhaps you should say that SAO is more to your taste?

  6. I

    @ Anon Only a fool would eat a pie rounder than his stomach.

    I think Sunrise were brave in trying to adapt Horizon, but in my opinion it failed because for almost all of the show the pacing was too fast, the plot made no sense at times, too many characters to remember, the fanservice was distracting in a show with virtually no time to spare and there was so much going on that it would be better just to read the book than watch the anime.

    @ jebnemo I wouldn't sat SAO is more to my taste, just that the grandeur of the setting, the amiableness of the characters and the more straight forward plot is much better than AW. I expect AW to only get better at this point as more battles begin to take place and to find some faults with SAO at some point, but right now SAO is simply better in every way.

  7. I

    Also it makes me want to play Skyrim and Runescape (how many years has it been). The Elder Scrolls VI better be an MMORPG.

  8. j

    The first episode of Sword Art Online was quite good, and I have no reason to think it will turn out to be less than excellent in all respects. But it is a leap to declare that nothing this season can or will come close to it. All other things being equal, I might consider Natsuyuki Rendezvous or Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita to be as good, if not better. Or Accel World, because it is a matter of preference.

  9. A

    Dear The world,

    I wrote Sword Art Online back in 2002 as a web novel because I did not have the courage to submit my work in an official magazine. It got a large readership that before I knew it, 6 years has already passed and I had written sequels and side stories for it.
    I then tried to submit my work to Dengeki but as I couldn't trim down the content to fit the page requirements, it got rejected.
    I then wrote another story called Accel World which then won an award. I then showed SAO to my editor again and it got accepted as well. That is why I am now writing Accel World and Sword Art Online in Dengeki.

    Yours truly,
    You-Know-Who

    ^More or less gotten from SAO vol 1 afterwords, paraphrased a bit 😛
    So yeah.

  10. Reminded me more of F/Z than AW.

  11. Agree with you there. Though at first I didn't feel like it but after that last scene, I felt it.

  12. S

    I think those are wyverns not pterodactyls. At least, they look more like the flying serpent types.

    I did like how they pointed out there's no healers in an RPG before the World Story hit. With no healers, you have to be very, very, very slow about things.

    I really liked it. This should be good. You can hand-wave around the real-world stuff since they're going to spend their time almost completely in the Sword Art world. I look forward to… is this a 2 cours show? Well, I look forward to however many episodes we get.

  13. A

    Yes, I believe it was confirmed as 2 cours, though I do not know if it's continuous or split. I tend to assume it will be continuous, but I haven't seen any direct confirmation of that.

    And I think all they really said was there was no resurrection/raise-type spell or item. Unless you're referring to the comment about no magic? In that case, yes there are no healers.

  14. Where there actual counts on how many people were trap in the game?

  15. Didn't it say 10K Nerve Gear sets were sold? That might imply only 10K are capable of fully immersing in SAO.

  16. I see.
    Less than 10k then. 🙂

  17. A

    I think the assumption was that all 10 thousand were logged on. Since it's a rare game, The kinds of people who'd line up to buy it are also the kinds of people who'd want to try it out immediately, and since they can't log out the numbers would steadily climb up until they hit exactly 10k. It's also possible that the event was triggered by everyone logging on. I mean, dramatically speaking it'd be kind of weird to be the guy who shows up late to see everyone panicking (and for hypothetical purposes missed the news reports too).

    Narratively, the point of telling us how many people have died at any given point is basically to show a "countdown" until they're all dead. I don't think the show is quite dark enough to have everyone die but the main characters, but it's certainly trying to keep the threat looming over our heads.

  18. >Event triggered after hitting 10k
    -Good point 🙂

  19. A

    Yeah I thought they clearly made a point of saying that only 10k copies were available and how quick they sold online and IRL stores. Klein was all like "I'm so lucky to have got one…but not as lucky as you 1000 beta testers"

  20. A

    Plot Contrivances: The Animation.
    Bad characters. Terrible dialogue. Contrivances everywhere, nothing was organic. Hacky writing if I ever saw one.
    The full extent of the awfulness will become clear once the female characters appear. This specific author could not write something that does not work into his masturbatory fantasies if his life depended on it.

  21. A

    You know, in fairness, I tend to agree about the wish fulfillment aspects of the novels. Especially as a female reader, I found parts of it extremely creepy.

    But that said, the anime did a nice job with the source material for ep 1, which is all we have to judge *the anime* by. And even in the novels, I really liked his friendship with Klein, so I had no complaints there.

  22. K

    I definitely enjoyed the 1st ep (although perhaps not as much as some people I've seen) but if I see badly written female characters I will be dropping this so fast…sadly it's something that plagues a lot of media (and not just anime).

    I did like what I saw of what I suppose the main female character is in the opening. Her relationship with the main character looked like it could have potential.

  23. l

    (assuming they follow the novels): I'm going to be entertained when the anime shut up every complain about females on this anime.

  24. If you take male wish fulfillment out of anime, you're not going to have much left…

  25. J

    So yeah, after so much build-up, I had to give this one a try…And boy was I glad I did.

    It did everything I wanted and more. I was expecting a typical premiere with flashy action scenes and the heroine in all her moe-y cuteness. But they actually took the more mature approach – slowly introducing us to this world, focusing on the drama and despair the consequences of dying in this 'game' have (the heroine wasn't even introduced! Aside from that brief black n white cameo she had during the Akihiko-conspiracy-revealed, along with cameos of the future party members too). Thank you.

    So yeah, I'll be expecting a moe fantasy with character drama and lessons to be taught. Just the way I like it. Don't dissapoint me, SAO…

  26. U

    Perfect premiere. 10 out of 10. Totally justified the hype.

    If it continues to be this good, no other anime this year will come close to it.

    Not even light novel fans, which are one of the most nit-picky people in the internet, second only to cinephiles, could complain about it. It was that amazing.

    However, i am uncomfortable with the pic on SAO's anime page on MAL. I see a loli. Accel World's loli (Yuniko) totally ruined the anime for me. I really, really hope she isn't as annoying. Also, what is Inori (Guilty Crown) doing below Cline?

  27. K

    I agree with the others.. awesome premiere i loved it.

    Completely hooked me into the MMO-World again. Played WoW on and off for the last 5~6 years, but nothing since Ragnarok Online (played it from 02~06) has kept my interest completely. (Played RO Continuously until 06). And somehow, someway, this show completely brought back all that nostalgia from RO. Whether ir ranged from the idea of soloing, to the advanced knowledge from beta testing or simply the importance of friend lists/friends to play with.

    Plus the sky-view of that first city instantly made me think "PRONTERA!" and all those nostalgic feelings gushed.. its prob the reason why i loved the GI Arc in HxH XD

    Anyways, glad it lived up to your expectations GE, I can't wait to see where the story goes! 😀

  28. B

    Great premier, not a lot to say that hasn't already been said, but when they did the zoom out shot of the main city that everyone was in I got serious flashbacks to Ragnarok Online, it looked an awful lot like Prontera.

  29. A

    Glad I wasn't the only one who thought that it looked like Prontera. Ah the nostalgia…

  30. d

    Ohhh! I wanna give Suguha a hug.
    Did anyone notice the brief appearance of the blacksmith, animal tamer during the mass panic just after the announcement? Didnt see the moon guild girl

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