It says something about the nature of the first seven episodes that the name “Kayaba Akihiko” hasn’t even been mentioned for six weeks (or if it has, I can’t remember) and that two full years have passed in Aincrad already. I’m having a bit of a tussle getting my mind around that, because there’s an implication that the events of those of two years are unimportant enough to have been summed up in six episodes that were mostly about personal stories only tangentially related to the main plot. But be that as it may, this is what’s really interested me all along – the details of SAO, and the struggle to survive it.
Once again I’m struck by the impression that Kawahara Reki is a very good writer when it comes to generating big ideas, not so good when it comes to the small details. I think he gets what’s fundamentally interesting about this scenario – a scenario he dreamed up to begin with – better than he gets the idea of populating it with interesting characters. For the first time in a while (maybe since the premiere) I’m blown away by what a fascinating dilemma SAO represents. In a way, it’s like a giant social experiment, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Kayaba Akihiko (whose I’ll wager is more interesting than any character in the series, if given the focus) had exactly that in mind. What happens if you take a large group of predominantly young people, with a disproportionately large percentage of socially awkward individuals, and throw them together in a VRMMO where cooperation is literally essential to survival?
That’s the series I thought I was getting with Sword Art Online, and the one I want to watch. The details of the world continue to amaze me, from the “immortal object” popups to the interior design of the living quarters to the daily essentials of survival. When Asuna started cooking the “ragout rabbit” and chopped everything up merely be touching her knife to it, I thought “Wow – where the joy in that? Cooking isn’t that boring!” And a few seconds later Asuna gave exactly the same response. That’s exactly the sort of thing that tells me that Kawahara really understands what’s compelling about this premise he’s created – the way this world differs from our own, and how our minds will react to the different kind of stimulation it provides and the notion that we may never be able to escape it.
It was interesting to hear Kirito and Asuna discussing their difficulties in staying connected to their old life, because I think that’s one of the most fascinating issues at play here. Asuna says she still longs to go back do what she hasn’t had a chance to do ( we don’t know enough about her yet to know why) and Kirito claims he wants to as well, though we know he was unhappy and is having trouble remembering that world. But what of those for whom Aincrad is better than RL? If their bodies are lying in a hospital somewhere hooked up to feeding tubes and catheters, well, so what? Maybe some of them came to SAO because they wanted to escape that world – maybe all of them did, and it’s just a question of degree. This isn’t such a problem in RL now, where VR isn’t so “R” as to provide a convincing second life – but what if it was? Why should those people be so desperate to go back, when they’re living out a fantasy in Aincrad? Just be careful and don’t get yourself killed, and let someone else worry about the big stuff. It’s not that surprising, really, that only 500 people are actively trying to beat the game and free everyone inside it.
I’m going to have to accept that this is a show that I watch for the plot and the big concepts and not the character interaction, I guess. Although that’s not my natural inclination when it comes to anime, I think I can enjoy SAO a lot on those terms – and to be honest, the character interaction still feels awkward and stiff to me. All of the characters we’ve met so far (with the exception of Kayaba and, ironically, Klein) feel much more like archetypes than real people. Surely the irony of that is obvious, given that this is an anime of a LN depicting an MMO – these “player-characters” feel very much like player-characters. But in an anime, that leaves something to be desired. Asuna is about as classic a tsundere as can be imagined, and while she’s a lovely character design and Tomatsu-san is doing her usual yeoman’s work to give her depth, scenes like the silly accidental breast-groping-followed-by-beat-down just feel incredibly tired and played-out. Kirito’s limitations as a character have been the topic in this space already and more than once, so I won’t harp on them – but he seems as trapped in the avatar cage as Asuna (and most of the other supporting players) are in their trope one.
As to the specifics of this week’s plot, it’s a pretty good one – though Kuradeel (the great Yusa Kouji – the character deficiencies here are definitely not the fault of the excellent cast) comes off as more of a device than a character. The scenario surrounding Kirito’s S-class snack and Kuradeel’s jealousy (and chauvinism) works well not so much for itself, but for the way it allows the series to reflect on those larger questions of the mindset of the players two years in, and to get Kirito and Asuna together and give them a reason to seek more such opportunities (though whether that means taking on Floor Boss “Gleam Eyes” remains to be seen). I’d like to say they have great chemistry and make a winning couple, but for me at least that’s not the case so far. We have enough time left for that to change, though my experience with Kawahara as a writer doesn’t make me optimistic that it will. I am optimistic, though, that he’s got what it takes to spin a very interesting story around the ingenious premise he’s crafted here – and that the series has finally decided to cast aside the distractions and go about doing just that.