Wow. I have to give full credit to Kirito, he certainly doesn’t waste time – I know the passage of narrative time in SAO is pretty blinding (2 years in 10 episodes) but he went from “Hey, Asuna – it’s been a while” to “Let’s get married!” in what surely has to come close to record time for anime. There can certainly be no doubt that we’re solidly entrenched in the main part of the story now, as this episode contained what felt like three separate and substantial canon storylines all shoehorned into 22 minutes. I wouldn’t have minded seeing things slow down a little bit, maybe ending the episode after the incident with Kuradeel and devoting the first half of #11 to courtship, before dropping the bomb in the second – but if nothing else there was never a dull moment.
The duel between Kirito and Heathcliff itself could have been the major focus of an episode, I would have thought, and I was actually a little shocked at how quickly it ended. It’s not as though Asuna didn’t warn the audience that her Commander had very special skills, but I’ll confess – for this anime viewer, it was never exactly clear just what he did to win the fight. It was shaping up as a very interesting clash of styles between what was affectively a variation on a twin-kodachi technique (like Rurouni Kenshin’s Aoshi) vs. Heathcliff’s more traditionally Western sword and shield technique (which would make sense given the names of the combatants). It’s a good matchup because the styles are so different, and I would have liked to have seen it go on for a while – but it lasted about two minutes and as far as I could tell, Heathcliff won by somehow managing to stop time. Or was that a visual effect, to demonstrate that his movements were faster than Kirito could follow? Either way, the effect for me was that it felt as if Heathcliff had effectively won the duel by cheating.
However it played out a deal is a deal, and so Kirito has to join the Knights of the Blood Oath – and being in the guild seems to fit him as poorly as the ugly white cloak he’s forced to wear. I actually liked the first part of his floor-clearing expedition with Godfrey (Ebara Masashi, a fabulous seiyuu I wish had stuck around longer) because it did a great job of showing how uncomfortable it was for lone wolf Kirito to have to take orders. And take orders from a well-meaning man who was clearly his equal neither in skill or intelligence. Kirito’s discomfort was palpable – you could really see him chafing when Godfrey told him to give up his crystals, for example – and I thought we might be headed towards an interesting exploration of Kirito trying to adjust to military discipline with its inherent frustrations.
But no – before the spectacular finish that’s where the episode went off the rails for a bit, and it all basically involved Kuradeel. I didn’t care for Kuradeel as a character the first time he appeared, and I like him even less here. I dislike the character for exactly the same reasons I dislike Noumi in Accel World – he’s a cartoon villain, a Scooby Doo placed in the story to perform a function. Both of them act like total douchebags and are completely over the top in their dastardly ways, needing only a mustache to twirl to complete the effect. Kuradeel’s antics feel like plot convenience and they drag the dignity of the episode down every moment he’s onscreen – at least give the guy some style and taste, make him someone it’s fun to hate.
Kuradeel is intrinsic to the other problem I had with the ep, which is this: why is it that Kirito seemed to feel absolutely no remorse over killing him? No question he’s a right bastard – he’d just killed Godfrey in cold blood, almost killed Kirito himself, and was trying to kill Asuna (Really, Asuna? You fell for that old trick?). So I can see Kirito being really pissed off, maybe even so much that he actually kills Kuradeel (though I’m dubious as to even that) but Kirito isn’t a killer, at least as far as I know. He certainly hasn’t killed anyone in the anime, and seems to hold life as something sacred. So even if he’d lost it and killed Kuradeel, wouldn’t he feel terrible remorse over it almost immediately, no matter how cartoonishly evil Kuradeel was? His reaction seemed very odd and out of character to me, kind of an “I’m going to Disney World!” moment – the boy has just become a murderer, so he takes his girl in his arms and kisses her?
All right, I’ve said my piece, and the final act of the episode is obviously what sold the tickets – and it certainly doesn’t disappoint. I was actually disappointed Kirito and Asuna didn’t kiss earlier, when she was comforting him after he lost the duel (she sure thought about it). Asuna is still too prone to cliché tsundere nonsense and to damsel-in-distress weeping (she has a tsundere relationship with being independent, too) but she’s undeniably adorable and this was the really the first time I felt the chemistry with Kirito, as fast as things moved. She asked about his past, finally, and got him to open up. She pledged to protect him. She seemed to finally see him for what he really is (a lonely kid, like her) and while none of this development was exactly subtle, it was quite winning. So when the two of them kissed after the murder it wasn’t the kiss that seemed unnatural to me, but the timing – if anything, it should have come sooner.
As for that last scene, well… I cringed at Kirito’s “I just wanted to cuddle!” reaction when Asuna undressed in front of him – seriously, Boy? In a VR world you’re still going to pull that lame male MC trope out? But from the looks of things, Kirito did man up – I can’t be sure but it seems as if Asuna was naked in that bed, and there was a tone to their conversation that suggested drowsy post-coital bliss (could this have been where the legendary “insert” chapter of the LN would have been?). There was also an element in their words of what I mentioned here last week – what if life inside SAO were actually better than life outside? It’s not such a stretch, if you’re young and in love, and there would be obstacles to that love in RL that don’t exist in Aincrad. The marriage proposal was certainly sudden, but not entirely surprising – and I think that was a product of the freedom that being in a virtual environment provides, no matter how real it feels. What I wonder now is if these two, young and just having tasted the joys of physical love for the first time (presumably) and newly settled into married life together might lose their motivation to spend their days clearing dungeons and fighting floor bosses. If life in SAO is so good, why risk your life to try and bring that existence to a quicker end? We’ve seen evidence that others inside SAO – perhaps even most – have already made that calculation, and left it to others to finish the job of beating the game. I’m sure Asuna and Kirito’s sense of responsibility is strong enough to keep them serving the community, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see them stray from the path for a bit.