The elephant in the room with Log Horizon isn’t just Sword Art Online. It’s also the many other variations on this theme that have come before, inside of anime and out (the best of which is Tad Williams fantasy trilogy Otherland). Still, SAO is the most relevant not just because the memories are so fresh, but because it’s stunning financial success raises the spectre of cashing in for any series of a similar vein that follows it. Fair or not, Log Horizon and any other series attempting to do what it does will have to live with that for the foreseeable future.
The most fundamental question for me is whether Log Horizon has anything new to offer in what’s a very played-out arena. And based on the premiere, it’s not easy to say. It certainly scores points with me for including a Triffid, and in general the tone of Log Horizon is lighter than most of the series that have walked this path (it certainly lacks the florid self-seriousness of SAO). If anything the feel of the show is more reminiscent of some incarnations of .hack or, even more, Fairy Tail – the latter not entirely surprising given that it shares the same director, Ishihara Shinji.
To a certain extent there’s also a commonality with Outbreak Company and shows like it, in that Log Horizon is clearly presenting itself as partly a satire of this successful genre. But as with O.C., merely making light of those clichés doesn’t mean you’re free of them yourself – in fact, it can be a bit of a crutch to try and excuse away a lack of originality in the writing. And if I have a major problem with the premiere of LH it’s that all of the characters feel extremely generic. The seeming main character, Shiroe (Terashima Takuma) is a nerdy otaku-type whose weapon is his brain. Naotsugu (Maeno Tomoaki) is a classic ecchi doofus with big muscles and a big mouth. Akatsuki (Emiri Katou) fills the GAR-moe pandering slot with aplomb, even adding in maid cafe vocal affectations. There’s a guild seemingly built around the worship of kawaii, and even a nauseatingly cute little sister type, Serara (Kuno Misaki) who needs rescuing. We also catch glimpses of two children (brother and sister?) who appear to be recruited to one of the guilds (or something worse), but no explanation as to their role).
Will Log Horizon go the all-out satire route here, or try and play it both ways as a lighter take on the SAO/.hack template? Too early to say, but I will say this – as much of a disappointment as SAO turned out to be, its premiere was certainly more engaging than this one. There’s a very good reason for that, apart from the simple fact that the art and animation was clearly superior – Kawahari Reki may be terrible at writing characters but he’s great at creating interesting alternative worlds, and that obviously lends itself to a strong opening for a series. Alas SAO was pretty much a straight downhill arc from there, so maybe Log Horizon will go the other way. There’s no denying that it seems refreshingly free of the ponderous gravity of SAO, and the MC seems to be more of a regular guy that an infallible Marty Stu.
In the end, though, while “not SAO” is a nice start, it’s not enough to make Log Horizon a must-see show. The world here doesn’t seem especially inventive or striking, the humor is spotty at best and the characters don’t make much of an impression – perhaps that will change, especially the latter. The details, to the extent they matter, seem pretty familiar – 30,000 Japanese and “hundreds of thousands” worldwide mysteriously stuck inside the MMORPG “Elder Tale”. What we don’t know is what happens if you die in the game – happily, the characters do show the common sense not to put that to the test – but if in fact death in Elder Tale means RW death that would certainly be in contrast to the overall tone of the series. There’s other evidence this world isn’t as advanced of comprehensive as some online realities – the food and water has no taste, for example – and perhaps there’s interest to be mined in Elder Tale being not quite a true alternative reality, but instead a sort of purgatory of the senses. There’s enough here to keep me coming back for a few episodes, assuming the pandering doesn’t get out of hand, but so far at least Log Horizon doesn’t seem to offer much that’s compelling.