If you were a big fan of this episode, you should probably avoid going anywhere near that “Read more” link.
I know this will come as a shock to long-time readers of the blog, but simply presenting an endless panorama of moemoe lolis mugging for the camera does not, in itself, recommend an episode as far as I’m concerned. And it’s certainly no sea change for Sword Art Online to default to a “cute girl of the week” format for its story arcs. Still – even taking those things into account, I’m hard-pressed to think of a single anime episode that was more insultingly saccharine, sloppily sentimental and crassly manipulative than this one. Admittedly that’s probably because I avoid series that rely solely on that sort of crap like the plague, but even so, it’s so ingrained in the anime mainstream that you can’t help but encounter it in otherwise good series pretty often. But this one was the topper – I can only imagine it induced diabetic comas the way Pokemon once induced seizures.
I don’t want to dwell on all that, because it should be pretty obvious what I’m referring to. All I can say is, when Asuna said “We’ll be together forever” I might’ve thrown up in my mouth a little. Fortunately I was pretty confident the episode wouldn’t pass up the opportunity for an overwrought sappy ending, and that could only be delivered with a tearful goodbye – though Kirito managing to heroically save Yui’s “heart” was the icing on the sickeningly sweet cake. I’ve been pretty happy with SAO over the last few episode and in fact overall, but if Yui had become a permanent cast member I think it’s likely I would have summarily dropped it. If clearing the game means bringing her back, I hope SAO goes on forever and ever.
Here again, for me it comes down to a case of Kawahara being much better at crafting the setting than the characters who inhabit it – and the ways they interact with other. While not new, the notion of a sentient A.I. within the game (which always seemed like the likeliest explanation for Yui) is both interesting and vital for this sort of premise – see Gally from Tad Williams’ Otherland (which has been optioned for a film version) for an example of how this character can succeed through subtlety and skilled writing. For me Yui’s situation was robbed of any emotional impact by the combination of pandering and heavy-handed “CRY NOW” moments that made up most of her arc. But that doesn’t mean she’s not an important element of the story, and didn’t shed some light on SAO itself. That’s the contradiction of Kawahara’s writing, plainly apparent both in SAO and Accel World, but never more painfully than in this arc.
As for what Yui reveals, it’s interesting enough. An autonomous software system called Cardinal is responsible for monitoring and controlling all aspects of SAO, and Yui herself was created to monitor the emotions of the players and intervene if necessary – except Cardinal forbade her from doing so, which is the area that interest me. Why forbid her from doing what she was created to do? There are a lot of holes in her background story and I find it pretty darn silly that Kirito and Asuna would be so unique among the thousands of players inside the game that they drew her like a moth to a flame – there are surely lots of real-life couples in there, and some of the players we’ve met certainly seem happy enough – but it serves well enough as a vehicle for exposition, even if it fails in terms of character development. As for Yuniel and Thinker, their thread was pretty much a disposable one, used strictly to push the Yui arc to its conclusion.
I don’t suppose this arc really changes my view of SAO one way or the other, as it didn’t exactly introduce anything new – just the most egregious example of what the show’s known trip wires are and how badly it needs to avoid them. At least we got a sliver of a look at what’s behind the curtain, and I desperately crave more of that – it’s the mystery behind the mythology and the mindset of Kayaba Akihiko that most interests me, and we’ve seen surprisingly little of it considering the show (or more likely the first season) is almost half over. I certainly have no problems with Kirito and Asuna as a couple (although their romantic development was extremely simplistic and rushed) and I’m perfectly content to see more development there – but hopefully without resorting to the cheap emotional stunts used in this arc.