Sword Art Online – 07

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It’s definitely “Here there be dragons” week for Kawahara adaptations, not the first time there’s been a coincidental connection between SAO and Accel World.

As usual, this week’s SAO has me feeling very conflicted about the direction of the series.  Usually – though not always (I wasn’t too crazy about 06) – the individual episodes are solidly entertaining in their own right.  But I’m getting to the point where I’m ready for some of the pieces to start to fit together.  It sounds odd for me to say that, because quite possibly the most interesting thing about the series so far is the “life goes on” aspect of it.  I enjoy the mood created by the aspect of players going about their daily lives because, well… they have no choice.  They earn a living and go on dates and eat and sleep, because even in Aincrad, they’re alive and they feel alive.  Kirito even touches on this in his final conversation with Lizbeth (Takagaki Ayahi), under the bridge.

So why then, especially after a perfectly good episode like this, feel so restless about where Sword Art Online is going?  I’m not sure I like the pattern that’s emerged here.  For the most part, the story has basically followed a movie-of-the-week format, and each one has contained a new moe girl for Kirito to protect (and in this case, to fall for him).  It’s pretty early in the game for a series to rely so heavily on side stories – SAO might have been better served to conceptualize things for a few episodes before heading in that direction, as I think that would make these episodes feel a little weightier.  Each of these mini-arcs is telling us little details of SAO that we need to know, but really, we’re being asked to invest ourselves in the substance of the arcs themselves – and unless they’re really, really good it’s hard to keep doing that week after week.

In short (too late for that, I know) I may be getting burned out on stand-alone stories, and I want the larger experience of SAO – and the larger quest of escaping it – to get some focus.  I’m also getting burned out on the character template, because I really don’t think this is a particular strength of Kawahara as a writer.  Liz is certainly cute, and Takagaki-san is extremely winning (as she almost always is – she’s damn good).  I know that Liz is going to have a larger role in the story than the previous girl-of-the-week contestants, but for now she never really broke free of the damsel in distress trap.  She acted tough, she got in trouble, Kirito saved her repeatedly, she fell in love with him.  It’s not exactly groundbreaking stuff, but perhaps if it leads to a real love triangle with Asuna (though that would hardly be groundbreaking either – and I don’t see it happening in any case) her role in the series may bring a bit more drama.

Full points to Liz for this, though – I’ve never heard anyone confess in quite that way.  “I want to be your private blacksmith”?  That’s kinky – and in case Kirito didn’t get the message, she added “Let me do daily maintenance on your equipment.”  Again, it all goes back to that life goes on theme which is at the heart of SAO so far – these are still teenagers, and their hormones (and pheromones) seem no less potent inside SAO as out.  It’s a bit of an anime cliché that Lizbeth would give up so easily, given that neither Kirito nor Asuna would admit to a real relationship – if Liz truly felt as if she loved Kirito, it would be more realistic to see a little more fight.  But SAO isn’t guilty of anything the vast majority of other anime with relationships prominent in the narrative have done – her surrender was pretty much par for the course.

The constant that’s run through all these mini-arcs is Kirito himself, obviously.  Has he established himself as a compelling main character?  Not yet for me.  He’s certainly not a detriment to the series – he’s kind-hearted (maybe too much), competent (again, maybe…) with enough social awkwardness to make him somewhat interesting.  As the show needs to develop the spine of the story more, I think it needs to focus in the core of Kirito’s character too – go into more detail about why he is how he is and why he does what he does, rather than simply show him in action and have the guest stars react to him.  The MC as an avatar is a concept as old as anime, of course, and in one about a MMO it’s certainly not surprising to see.  But – and I’ve said this before – an anime is not an MMO.  Nor is it a LN, or a VN, or a manga.  To fully succeed an anime has to adapt to the format, and that means a main character who has three dimensions and an exploration of what makes them who they are.  I’d argue that we really haven’t seen that so far, and while there’s still plenty of time, Sword Art Online would be better served to see it happen sooner than later.

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  1. A

    Don't worry too much. If I remember right we've pretty much ended all the we've run out of side stories (except for one but that comes later–inside the main story line), in the novels so the real story line should start next week unless they want to do anime only stories.

  2. Thanks – but am I the only one who wonders if it was a mistake to string them all together at the beginning like this?

  3. A

    By the title of next week's episode, we should see some great action and progress in the main story. I actually do like the animator's approach in placing the stories in chronological order. Not a fan of the Suzuharu scrambled approach.

  4. A

    @GE I agree, the stories could have done with a rewrite to make them connect more. I heard Kawahara's part of the project so it would have been more than easy to do so but they didn't. I couldn't for the life of me figure out why.

  5. A

    I was about to say the same thing, we'll finally be getting on with the main story beginning with the next episode

  6. A

    No, you're not the only one. Personally I think it was a terrible idea since most of them are written under the assumption that you're already invested in Kirito. As you've noted, they're all basically "girl of the week reacts to Kirito". This may not have been entirely clear, but they're literally written from the perspective of the girl. Kirito has always been the mysterious stranger who suddenly enters their lives, and we're not privy to his inner thoughts. Which becomes a problem when he's the only thing tying all the stories together.

  7. J

    Woops, I disagree. I'm loving the fact they placed the side-stories here and not after going into some plot. This way, you don't fill like you're being forced into character introductions and filler side-quests.

    It reminds me of how TTGL went with the side-stories – they were all put at the beginning. Looking back, I'd be really pissed if after Kamina died, they all decided to put aside the defeat of Lord Genome to go to a spa, or just then they'd meet Kittan and sisters: I would disregard them as annoying filler guys (more so than what they were); I'd want my main quest back on stage. Hell, that beach episode was fun because by then, you already knew well each character, their interests and fears, etc.

    I'm usully the jaded, negative guy – and I must say Enzo, if you're not enjoying too much these episodes, I find it hard to believe you'll enjoy what's to come. I haven't read the novels, but if you're not interested in this cast by now, what makes you feel you'll sympathize with Kirito or any other once plot kicks in?

    I don't want to sound any harsher, but you said you wanted SAO to focus more in Kirito's character, they reasons for why he is how he is. Personally, I think we've seen enough of that for the moment – plenty of death right in front of this teen isn't enough to justify why he loses his cool, or panicks, when a someone's in danger? He also had a grandfather who beat him up as a kid. Are these original narrative-wise? No, but they serve their purposes. SAO isn't a drama queen thankfully, so it's not like they want to make these tragedies deeper than what they are.

    I think many teens (mostly male) will think of SAO as the best series ever. Older people won't be as invested in it as the younger audience, maybe they'll see SAO as just a colorful anime with cool beans in it.

    Sorry for the long comment Enzo. I hope SAO gives you what you need so that you can enjoy it more.

    On a lighter note, my God was the moe strong in this ep. They leave most of the budget to human faces and movements. I like it that they never focus too much on the action sequences. I feel they have their own smart way to make those still-shots work, rather than invest in long frame-by-frame sequences. Maybe it's the music and sound effects? If SAO can keep future episodes as colorful and smooth as this one was, picture me impressed.

  8. J

    tl;dr? Sorry for the long comment ^^'

  9. How can I know how I'll feel when the plot kicks in if it hasn't kicked in yet?

  10. J

    You certainly can't know, but I feel like whatever happens next, your expectations may bring it down a bit altogether. I may be dead wrong, of course :)

  11. Well honestly, my expectations aren't all that high at the moment. I expect something fairly entertaining that isn't too good at character development, with a consistently interesting MMO setting. If I get that I'll be satisfied, and anything more I'll be thrilled. I still think there's untapped potential when the series turns to the main storyline – for me, they've undercut themselves by not establishing any real momentum in the first seven episodes.

    Someone suggested that Kawahara might be better at designing VRMMOs than writing about them, and based on what I've seen of SAO and AW (which is not enough to make a final decision, especially as they aren't in his original medium) it certainly seems possible.

  12. C

    I haven't read the LN but as soon as Liz appeared on screen I KNEW she was going to fall for Kirito. Soooo predictable. ¬¬

  13. A

    Am I the only one who thought "Inoriiiiiiiii" every time Liz was shown from behind?

    Either way, as someone said above they've run out of side stories. One advice I have for people in general, though — lower your expectations about SAO. Many of the anime's current fans are going to facepalm when the second cour starts. (This isn't a spoiler… Is it?)

  14. A

    I actually refer Liz as "Inori" when I first saw her on the promo lol.

  15. A

    Except the fact that Liz has actually has a character, cliche or not.

  16. V

    I actually like these individual character episodes. It gives the important characters enough space to move freely without someone overshadowing them when its their time. And now their roles and personalities are defined, it'd be more fun to watch them interact with Kirito under various conditions in future episodes.

    I, for one, totally enjoyed watching Liz go through a wave of emotions. She's spontaneous and she's more forward than any other female we've seen so far.

    Also, I'd say that Kirito is no slacker, if you consider how others view him as. He's reckless, he's all heart (sometimes annoyingly so), he's keeping his cool considering the circumstances and he's also analytical. He also blushed the first time when he almost figured out what Liz was saying when she was trying to confess. I suspect he knows but is unable to answer her.

  17. g

    I like this comment!

  18. A

    I don't think it was out of character for Lisbeth to let Kirito go. She's best friends with Asuna, and she clearly saw what they're still too dense (or young) to recognize yet. For her to have pursued him further would have been both cruel to her friend and potentially masochistic to herself. I thought it was admirable, honestly.

    Anyway, yeah, we've run out of the pre-Vol 1 side stories (should be one more, but it will slot in either during the next portion or in some other way).

    I do agree though about the MMO vs anime comment, and was just thinking this myself. When I think about this first part as a series of kinda sorta slice of life, they make sense, but more so from an MMO perspective where the main character IS the story (there doesn't need to be a larger narrative). But that really doesn't work so well in this format. It isn't that it can't, but for SAO, it just doesn't.

    I realize a lot of people apparently love the LNs for the characterization, but again frankly, I just don't see it. They've always struck me–in vol 1 specifically–as about as 2D as you can get. I liked the vol 2 side stories because they were a) better written and b) better fleshed out from a character perspective. But… They don't work so well just lumped in together at the start before we've had ANY narrative advancement whatsoever…

    So yes, I think that though they had important contributions to explaining key points in the world, either connecting them more effectively through writing, as someone above mentioned, or working them into the story itself would have been better; at least two of them would have worked perfectly easily that way–Red Nosed Reindeer was made to fit in later, and Silica's story could have happened almost any time.

  19. J

    Haha, I agree with you on the novels. At least the baka tsuki english translations, they were as fanfiction as they could get. Maybe in their original language it's a whole other story, but when I started reading the novels…God, I couldn't finish the second chapter. I'm digging the fact that the anime doesn't show these characters as mediocre as they sounded like in the novel 😛

  20. A

    I just love this series. Its fun to watch and especially as a RPGer from way back to see it fleshed out in an anime. Some folks are way too hyper critical of animes.

  21. H

    Yeah, Liz did go from cool to hot really fast, and then cooled off pretty quick again in her feelings toward Kirito. But I'm willing to chalk a lot of that up to his showing her a different and exciting time: fighting a dragon, sleeping closer to someone than she's ever been before, talking to someone for a longer time than before, and then fighting a dragon again! She's swept off her feet and is overwhelmed by the experience.

    I am surprised she stood aside for Asuna, tho, but I think she also recognizes that Kirito and Asuna are much more compatible.

  22. S

    This episode is pretty good, it's entertaining. I love Lisbeth character, she's my favorite female character other than Asuna. And I think the reason that liz gave up so easily is because Asuna is her best friend and she would felt guilty If she stole Kirito from Asuna.

    And I think although the decision to show the side stories at the beginning have some pros, It certainly was not a good decision

    I hope the main story will do better in portraying the characters feelings and of course in telling the plots. I don't want them to waste the potential that SAO has

  23. J

    Did anyone see the endcard? I loved it! Just a sweet image that hints how Liz and Asuna got to meet. Much better than the standard, freakishly moe lolis with big eyes looking at you.

  24. K

    >I really don’t think this is a particular strength of Kawahara as a writer.

    And you would be right. Excuse my extremely rude language, but SAO so far is a piece of shit except for episode 2. The actual SAO "main" story is relatively short, so they wanted to stick in the side stories to prolong it. While they're doing that, they only adapt the story without focusing on what's important to those characters, nor do they try to add to the setting which are some of the objectives for these side stories.

    I honestly don't know how you enjoy this series, and no I'm not one of those people that heavily compare the original to its adaptations. I'm merely commenting on the fact that SAO has abysmal production effort. Just look at this episode, 7 main key animator only (http://puu.sh/WAQL). Have you even seen a single episode with such low staff? Don't give me the excuse that it is just a side story, I challenge ANYONE who reads this to find episodes with less than this number. The 3D's ugly as sin (granted this is subjective) and Kirito's attack consists of two huge still frame pictures (not to mention the single picture of Liz holding Kirito was repeated 3x before this) with 0 choreography. Liz's nameplate (which says Lisbeth) and the store sign (Lizbeth) is also different, this tells me that they didn't even check the damn episode.

    A-1's back by Aniplex, and this is Dengeki's anniversary project (this means contrary to ignorant fanboys, SAO is not short on budget); plot aside, SAO's production effort is next to 0 compare to AW. To me, this feels like they know people will like this story like some mindless drone (much like Haganai), so they're just milking this with minimal effort.

    I apologize for the long whining post (I understand nobody likes to read these), but I have to say this somewhere where people seem more favorable toward the series without being over-zealous about defending it.

    PS: It's interesting that the sales place I lurk (http://jbbs.livedoor.jp/anime/9034/) thinks that the staff actually hates this series (yes, they read the LN before watching, so biased opinions).

  25. J

    Excuse my ignorance Kunagisa, but I'd love to know – are 7 main key animators that few? What's the standard for an average anime episode? Of course, this episode had some Inbetween animators, right? Or you really meant only 7 seven animated the whole thing?

    Seriously, thanks in advance if you answer.

  26. K

    I would say average is 20 +/- 5. You very rarely find any with less than 10 or more than 30. If you see 30, that's a lot of money/effort; if you see 10, then that means lack of budget (which clearly is not the case), or just staff thinks it's a filler so they don't care about it. In between animators only do touch ups, outsource jobs, or special scenes (this type will be specifically credited like in Dog Days). If you compare the past staff for SAO, you would understand how little they care for this episode.

    Seems to me A-1 doesn't really put much effort in this series because people will buy into it regardless. Little effort into promotion (mostly all done by Dengeki) pre-air, and now this.

  27. g

    Please, a little more patience Enzo!

    It's inevitable that if they want a series that makes sense, and doesn't jump around everywhere, it has to be in chronological order. Yes, it is kinda sucky to group a ton of side stories together but in the end it's so interesting to see them string together and become the bigger picture that is the actual SAO story. I already see the little hints of development of Kirito, and it's awesome.

    Don't get your criticism of Kirito get to you either! I think he's one time protagonist, and I really hope you see that. Patience ~

  28. I'm not going anywhere – just calling it as I see it…

  29. E

    Excuse me, how will these side stories string together and become the bigger picture that is SAO?
    These moe girls who fell in love with the main character will not appear anymore, until the end of the first arc.
    I hope this small information is not too much of a spoiler.

  30. B

    I like this series but I am more than ready for the main plot to kick in next week. Thank the FSM they have run out of side stories, I don't know how much more of this "Damsel-of-the-Week" format I could have taken before giving up on this show.

  31. S

    I didn't mind the side stories so far but this Lizbeth one was pretty bad.
    Liz was your typical damsel in distress who falls head over heels for the badass main character. Liz didn't contribute anything to the mission; actually it's her fault that they almost got killed because the little prick can't even obey a simple order…
    I also don't like how she went from disliking Kirito to wanting to polish his "black sword" in the space of 20 minutes.
    Even the Silica episode was better than this one; at least she was a competent warrior. Good thing we start the main plot next week.

  32. S

    Silica was competent against mooks. A dragon ain't no mook, sir.

    Though I more or less agree with everything else you said.

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