3 9 of SAO had pretty much everything I would have thought I’d want from this series after the excellent premiere. Some entertaining and well-animated action (possibly the best of the series), some Klein, a dash of Aincrad politics, the reality of character death, and even some romance. Most importantly the mythos of SAO – which is the most interesting part of the series for me – was ever-present in the narrative, much the way I imagine it would be if this terrible scenario played out in real-life. When this started I was quite certain that was the whole point of the exercise, though the intervening run of episodes had me wondering at times.
Truth be told, I still have some problems with the way Asuna is being depicted. Her portrayal is inconsistent – sometimes she’s recklessly brave, but much of the time she falls a little too quickly into the damsel-in-distress role for someone supposedly formidable – hiding behind Kirito, screaming in terror, breaking down in tears. I’d hoped she would be a little more battle-hardened, someone portrayed more as Kirito’s equal than his adoring (if tsundere) maiden. Be that as it may, it’s clear that her relationship with Kirito has to form the emotional core of the show, and at least we’re seeing signs of progress on that score. Of her real life we know very little, but we can infer that there might be some overlap with that of Kirito – loneliness, isolation, even – and that the mutual attraction between them might be as much a desire for companionship (reluctantly perhaps) as attraction, at least initially.
In this way, it’s possible that we might be touching on one of the important themes of the series – what if life is actually better inside SAO than outside? Both Kirito and Asuna have expressed a desire to return to their physical bodies, but I wonder how strong that resolve would be if it ever came to pass that the only way they could be together was in Aincrad. For the moment, at least, Kirito seems to have accepted that he’s going to be partnering with her for a while. After their reconnaissance of Gleam Eyes – who appears to be quite formidable – and strategic retreat they run into Klein and his band. I’ve enjoyed all of Klein’s appearances so far, as he’s refreshingly free of maudlin emotion and makes a nice antidote to Kirito’s brooding hero-in-black persona (I would have guessed he was older than 24, though). Kirito’s reaction to Klein’s self-introduction to Asuna suggests the beginning of possessive feelings for her on his part, though Klein certainly meant no harm.
Of more immediate importance to the plot is the appearance of the Aincrad Liberation Army, headed by Corbatz (Inada Tetsu). He claims they’re a guild seeking the fastest liberation for all players through mutual cooperation, but it’s clear immediately that the stupid stick has been busy here, and that they plan to ignore Kirito’s warnings not to take on Gleam Eyes after he’s kind enough to provide them with maps of the floor for free. This is the MacGuffin for the episode, as it’s the results of their fools-rush-in charge that provide all the exposition. We have several interesting wrinkles: another boss room where teleport doesn’t work, the way Kirito, Asuna and Klein react to the situation, and the very unusual skill Kirito is eventually forced to employ to survive (barely) – one he refused to disclose to Asuna earlier, despite her insistent urging.
I’m starting to get the feeling that perhaps the rules that appear to be hard and fast in Aincrad might not be so rigid. Not even Kirito knows the source of the two-handed sword technique “Star Burst Stream” that mysteriously appeared in his inventory six months earlier – the reason he doesn’t carry a shield, and why he doesn’t use the sword Lizbeth forged for him by default – but it suggests intent, that he’s been targeted for a specific purpose in this enterprise by Kayaba-san. As to the psychology of the moment, it’s actually Asuna (in one of her non d-in-d moments) who rushes in first, seemingly enraged at the notion of seeing men die in front of her, though it’s my belief that Kirito for certain and probably Klein would have stepped in if she hadn’t rather than see Corbatz’ men massacred. As is, Corbatz himself and two of his troops are killed, and Kirito puts on a display the likes of which we haven’t seen so far in the series. His battle with Gleam Eyes is quite the visual feast, and nearly kills him in spite of his special ability, leaving him down to a sliver of health and unconscious on the battlefield after he finished the demon off. What’s really interesting is that when he wakes up, it isn’t Asuna that Kirito sees initially, but the deceased Sachi from the Black Cats of the Full Moon.
In the aftermath of all this Asuna decides to take a leave of absence from the Knights of the Blood to pair up with Kirito – the sense I get is that she’s tired of the weight she’s bearing with the group and wants some “me” time to refresh her body and soul – but the commander of the guild, Heathcliffe (the unmistakable Ohkawa Touru) doesn’t take kindly to the notion of losing her. He challenges Kirito to a duel, with his own participation in the guild staked against Asuna’s freedom from it (two duels for Asuna’s honor in two episodes, eh?). Kirito is also dealing with unwanted celebrity as the skill he worked so hard to keep secret has become public knowledge – obviously someone who was in the boss room with Gleam Eyes spilled the beans. With as many unscrupulous players in Aincrad as there seem to be, Kirito is likely going to have to deal with far worse than information brokers and celebrity hounds.