((WARNING: Spoilers ahead!))
Before I start, let me say that I do not dislike Sword Art Online. The show has a lot of great moments and I enjoyed Arcs I and III especially. But it’s naïve to say that the show does not come with a tonne of problems.
1. Real Life Ties
Sword Art Online presents lots of ideas and then doesn’t deliver. One would expect that if people were stuck inside a game, they would develop some psychological problems (perhaps by rejecting the real world, developing some form of Stockholm’s syndrome towards ALO). This seems to be where the series is headed in the first few episodes, what with it being mentioned that several players took their own lives, but the series never delves much deeper.
Kirito and Nishida (Source)
The creators sort of play into the idea of entrapment. In episode 11, Kirito and Asuna run away from the challenges ALO presents and decide to buy a house together. Whilst there, they “play house”, adopt Yui, and have small adventures with friendly fishermen. It seems like they’re growing very detached from life, until they are asked back to the front lines… and then they give up their beloved home without any real fuss.
It would have been really interesting if the creators had carried on the whole playing-house aspect of the show, if it had been harder for Kirito and Asuna to leave their home, and if they had shown more of a longing to live alongside characters like Nishida, who try to lead normal lives within ALO. The psychology of yearning is fascinating and complex, so it is a shame it does not last long.
Agil’s bar (source)
Nishida was an interesting character because he had completely given up on fighting in ALO – he was just living. It’s the same reason why characters like Lisbeth and Agil are appealing. Not only do they work towards freeing the people of ALO, they also have shops. It makes you wonder if these shops are crutches for them – similar to Asuna’s love of cooking. It is revealed that Agil actually owns a bar in the real world, so it would not be a stretch to believe he owns a shop in-game in order to hold on to an element of his life IRL. It would be interesting to find out if Lisbeth’s situation is similar – perhaps her parents own a shop, for example? But sadly, this concept is never explored.
2. Love and Relationships
Another problem is that it really is laughable how every female character falls for Kirito. Unless it’s Yui (who is his adopted daughter, which would be a tad too incestuous even for SAO‘s standards). But still, every human girl falls for him. That’s lazy writing and shows a lack of depth as every female is revealed to have the exact same taste in men. It makes you wonder if it’s possible not to fall in love with Kirito.
The Moonlit Black Cats (source)
Even Sachi falls for Kirito. And why? Because he’s kind? So are the other members of the Moonlit Black Cats, all of whom she has known far longer. Because he saves her? Her party had existed for a long time, and Sachi is clearly the weakest member. You can’t expect the viewer to believe she has never been saved by one of them before. So why can’t she fall for anyone else? You’d expect her to have a crush on one of the Cats, not Kirito.
Sachi and the message record crystal (source)
Can you imagine the possibilities if Sachi had feelings for Keita and had left a recorded message for him, instead of Kirito? If Keita’s character had been fleshed out, or if Sachi’s message could have swayed him not to commit suicide, Keita could have become a secondary character. He could have become a rival for Kirito and served as a constant reminder that Kirito was unable to save Sachi, Sasmura, Ducker, and Tetsuo (so the whole guilt aspect of the show would not be lost). In the end, the two could have perhaps worked together towards some sort of understanding. I think this would have enriched the story.
The whole part where Suguha falls for Kirito is weird. Okay, they’re cousins. But she grew up believing they were siblings for 15 years, so why would she suddenly fall desperately in love with him? Especially when the flashbacks show that they weren’t actually all that close. The way Suguha talks about their childhoods shows that Kirito wasn’t all that nice to her, and for the most part ignored her. Kirito even worries that Suguha has a long-lasting grudge against him. So why does she fall for him?
Suguha from the scene where she confesses her feelings for Kirito (source)
I do actually like Suguha – I feel very sorry for her. She goes out of her way to try and fall in love with someone else so she can push back her feelings for her brother, only to find out that her new crush is also her brother.
But the thing is, if she’s so desperately in love with her brother, why wouldn’t she realise he was Kirito? They have the same voice. And besides, “Kirito” is a breakdown of his real name. I find it very hard to believe that she would never have asked Kazuto what his in-game name was. And wouldn’t Kirito have found it difficult to answer to “Kazuto” (his birth name) after not being called that name in two years? You’d expect a conversation like this to have gone down at some point:
SUGUHA: Kazuto. (Pause) Hey, Kazuto?
KAZUTO: Huh? Me?
SUGUHA: Who else is called Kazuto?
KAZUTO: Oh, sorry. I’ve been responding to “Kirito” for two years.
If my in-game name was Lamzy (which is a breakdown of my 1st and 2nd name), and if I’d been called that for two years, I’d find it very difficult to go back to my birth name all of a sudden. My full name is Isabelle, but my friends, family, and teachers call me Izzy. When I do occasionally get referred to as Isabelle (by a doctor, for example), I get confused as to who they mean. So surely Kazuto would too?
4. Lack of Threat
None of the main characters die. None of the secondary characters die either. The only people who die, die in the episode they are introduced in. At no point was I worried about Lisbeth or Klein or Silica dying. So the whole threat that a character could die in-game (i.e. the premise of the show!) is undermined.
Alive and happy with no threat of death (source)
The problem is that the way the anime is set up, it makes you believe that a character you like could die, but the more you get into the series, the more you realise that this simply won’t happen. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t wish death on any characters, but it would thicken the plot.
This is a problem a lot of anime have. There is a threat of war or death but no one you care about actually dies, so the “threat” is not actually all that threatening…
5. Fairy King Oberon
When it comes to the second Arc, I never understood why Sugou Nobuyuki wanted to marry Asuna. It’s like he thinks that if he marries her, he’ll get a bigger share in the company because her dad is the CEO of RECT Inc., and therefore he would gain more power over ALfheim. But why would that happen? This isn’t the medieval era – you can’t take over a kingdom by marrying into it. Also, Asuna’s dad states that Asuna would not be alive if it wasn’t for Sugou, so why wouldn’t he be given a big share anyway?
Asuna imprisoned by Sugou (source)
Why on earth does Asuna’s dad agree to let this guy marry his daughter? I’d be creeped out if I had a daughter and one of my employees wanted to marry her. Whilst she was only 16. And in a coma. And could not give consent. That’s not exactly legal.
So, okay. Why else? Well, Asuna is very pretty. But she has been in a coma for about two years – her body is no longer healthy. So why is he so obsessed with her?
If Asuna’s dad’s personality had been explored, if we were shown why he was so lenient towards Sugou, that would have been interesting. But you only see him once, and that’s so he can information-dump on Kirito.
The entirety of Sugou’s presence in the anime is laughable. When he’s in-game, he looks ridiculous and is hard to take seriously as a villain. His goals (to marry a pretty girl / to become powerful) are also very cliché and lack depth.
6. Spoilers in the Opening Sequence
The main problem I had with Arc III is the fact the season’s opening title sequence reveals one of the Death Gun’s identities. You get a shot of Kyouji, then some flames, then Death Gun. You don’t need to have taken a Film Studies course to put two-and-two together.
Kyouji becoming Death Gun, erasing all sense of mystery from Act III (source)
7. Kirito is an Obsession
No character is important unless they’re interacting with Kirito, or talking about Kirito.
As soon as a character stops journeying with Kirito, they become massively side-lined. What does Silica do with her life once Kirito’s helped revive Pina? Did she join another party? Or a guild? Did she go solo? What did she do?
One of the strengths of anime like Noragami, Attack on Titan, or Fullmetal Alchemist is that when a character is not interacting with the protagonist, they aren’t side-lined. None of the characters become unimportant because they all carry their own weight. But in Sword Art Online, the only time you see characters interact without Kirito around, is when they’re talking about him. Or when they’re waiting to be saved by him. It’s like no character has anything else going on in their lives.
8. Character Personalities
What would be more interesting is if any of the secondary characters had real personalities. Try and describe in detail, the depth of Silica’s personality. I came up with this:
– She’s caring and sweet
– She likes animals
– She wants to be independent but still relies heavily on others
What else can you really say about her? A lot of the characters are quite interchangeable. Sure, Lisbeth is more outspoken and brasher than Silica, but then, Sinon is outspoken and can be brash too. Simply put, there is little depth to most of SAO’s characters. And it’s not a case of “there are too many characters to flesh them out well” because there are tonnes of anime that have big casts (FMAB, One Piece, Naruto, Death Note, Attack of Titan), and their characters are much deeper than a short list of personality traits.
9. Character Development
When Kirito first meets Asuna, she seems very similar to Kirito. She hides in a cape and isolates herself from the crowd. She feels like an outsider and a solo player – but the next time we see her she’s one of the top commanders in a promising guild. How did she make this switch? Sadly, we’re never told.
Asuna in Ep1, donning the Cloak of Antisocialness (source)
It can be argued that Asuna only really develops in the sense that as the series goes on, her personality becomes more and more watered down. Mid-way through season 1, Asuna has become a fleshed out character. She has weaknesses and flaws, she is charming yet unforgiving, she is independent yet dependent. She feels rounded. But as soon as season 1 ends, she only exists as Kirito’s girlfriend.
Asuna praying for her husbando to return from the war (source)
With the exception of Sinon (whose character arc was actually quite well-written), Kirito seems to be the only character who develops logically. He starts off as a loner, then he gives into loneliness and he joins a party. When all the members of that party die, he regresses and become even more of a loner. It’s only through Asuna that he starts to trust himself around people, and eventually he becomes a regular party member.
This is really nice to see – but you only see Kirito develop. Silica, Klein, Agil, and Lisbeth stay virtually the same the whole way through the seasons, and Asuna stops developing after season 1. I understand that Kirito is the protagonist so his journey should be the most important, but there needs to be a stronger focus on secondary characters.
But it’s not all doom and gloom
Despite how negative this post is, as I stated in the introduction, there are moments where I do genuinely like Sword Art Online. The concept is entertaining and there are lots of genuinely well-written moments (Kirito saving Sinon from Kyouji, the fall of the Moonlit Black Cats, the playing-house scenes between Kirito and Asuna, Sinon’s past and her struggles with classmates).
The writers make sure the show is watchable for audience members who are less familar with gaming lingo, and they introduce subjects like MP gradually. There are also a lot of cool concepts that are brought in, like red players and Yui’s existence as a whole.
Also, as much as I rave on that Kirito is held up too high on a pedestal, I like the character a lot, and I want to see him succeed.
I also adore the colourful and expressive art style, and the backgrounds are always full of detail. The music scores are really good – I particularly like the first opening song (LiSA – Crossing Field) and many of the OSTs (particularly Gunland).
Sword Art Online promises but does not deliver. Most characters don’t develop. There are missed opportunities for episodes dealing with psychology and deeper meanings. Fairy King Oberon is laughable and 2D. Suguha’s love for Kirito is badly thought out. No character exists outside of Kirito’s limelight.
All being said, it’s by no means a terrible anime and I’d recommend it to anyone who is after easy entertainment.