There are definitely times when I’m glad I don’t know the source material for an anime, and SAO is one of them. Just to reiterate, I’m watching this series completely unencumbered – I haven’t read the LNs or played the MMO, and all I know about SAO is what I’ve read in a the synopses. Still, with a series as big as this one, it’s hard to avoid the massive waves of reaction that follow each episode – for example, the massive shitstorm of dismay from SAO veterans that inundated my Twitter and the net as soon as this episode aired (that new 5-hour delay in simulcasting sucks, because I was able to watch the premiere effectively live and preempt all that). So now the challenge is to try and be as certain as I can that what I thought about the ep was really what I thought, and not a composite of everyone else’s reaction.
With that in mind, my general take is that this episode was not as strong as the first – but still solidly above-average for what it is. I don’t particularly care what was skipped over or what was missing – not my problem – but as to the question of whether things seemed “rushed”, perhaps just a little bit – but I didn’t expect SAO to be an exacting catalogue of daily life in an MMO. What the episode might have lacked a bit was the sense of wonder of the premiere – VR series are especially well-suited to the world-building phase, and SAO tool full advantage of that last week. Things felt a little more conventional this week, and the tone was a bit theatrical for my tastes. I also missed Klein quite a bit actually, both for Hirata-san’s performance and because he made an excellent audience avatar.
As consolation for losing him, though, we get anime’s great chameleon Tomatsu Haruka (the pleasure of listening to her act is matched by that of listening to her sing, in this case the ED) who turns up as Asuna Yuuki. She, like Kirito, is a bit of a loner – hiding her features inside a hooded cloak as she keeps to herself. It’s a month into the game and 2000 have already died (a pretty harrowing rate of attrition) and busybody Diabel gathers a group of survivors together to take on the top boss of level 1, “Illfang the Kobold Lord”. No one has been able to clear the level yet, but it seems to me that the turnout for Diabel’s town meeting is pretty sad, all things considered – perhaps reflecting a general sense of mistrust among the survivors.
Most of the episode concerns the dynamics of the surviving group, specifically as it relates to beta testers. Diabel is one himself, though he’s not letting anyone else know that – and of course, Kirito is too. There’s obviously a lot of hostility towards this group, especially the ones called “Beaters” – beta testers who use their knowledge to “cheat”. What’s interesting is that Kirito seems quite comfortable in isolationist mode, even encouraging the others to revile him as a Beater after he manages to defeat Illfang. It goes without saying that the survivors shouldn’t be turning on each other, considering the fix they’re in – but I think we’re also seeing a bit of commentary on the fact that some of the folks who would be drawn to SAO aren’t necessarily the most adept at RL social skills, and that carries over into the game.
In that sense, Asuna seems like a good pairing for Kirito, as she’s just as socially inept as he is (inside the game, anyway). In fact she’s never even been in a party before, not knowing any of the protocols or even that the other party members’ names appear next to their health gauge. Their initial alliance at Kirito’s suggestion is one of convenience, given that they were the only ones in Diabel’s audience who didn’t form up a party of six, but it’s obvious enough that Kirito is pretty lonely in SAO just as he was in RL. As for Asuna, we really don’t know much about her except that she’s highly skilled with a blade and quite cute underneath that cloak. As for the battle with Illfang itself, it’s quite well-animated and stylish – if anything, I found it reminiscent of something from TTGL. Ultimately I don’t think the sword battles are going to be the most interesting element here, but it’s obviously critical that they look good and feel authentic.
With the first floor cleared the quest continues, and the politics of SAO is clearly going to be a major component of the story. Despite Kirito’s attempts to isolate himself he and Asuna will obviously be pairing up, but the fault lines in the general populace are already clear – there are anti- beater hardliners such as Kibaou, and pragmatic moderates like Egil. It’ll be interesting to see if there’s any true effort made to organize the surviving players as a body, with true leaders emerging – the “herding cats” analogy springs to mind here, but given their situation it seems logical that someone will make the attempt. If you look at SAO as a twisted social experiment by Akihiko Kayaba, it’s these sort of questions that will be at the heart of the story – and ultimately, for me at least, I think they’d be more interesting than a straightforward depiction of the game itself.
ED: “Yume Sekai (ユメセカイ; Dream World)” by Haruka Tomatsu