From Harem to Humanist – Anime Critique: Sword Art Online II

Sword_Art_Online_II_Promotional_PosterTitle: Sword Art Online II
Format: TV anime
Genre: sci-fi, fantasy, cyberpunk, action, drama, harem
Series Creator: Reki Kawahara
Series Director: Tomohiko Ito
Studio:  A-1 Pictures
Series length: 24 episodes
Original Airing dates: July 5 – December 20, 2014
Reviewed format: high def download with fan subs


Synopsis:

After putting an end to the SAO incident in 2024 and rescuing Asuna in Alfheim Online (ALO), Kazuto Kirigaya finally returned to the real world to resume a normal life with his friends once more. However, when a string of deaths begin occurring in connection to a virtual reality game called “Gun Gale Online” (GGO), Kikuoka Seijiro of the Ministry of Internal Affairs enlists Kazuto to once again don his character “Kirito” and enter the virtual world to investigate the cause of the deaths. While meeting new allies, Kirito may be faced with his most dangerous challenge yet—a player known only as “Death Gun” with the ability to kill a person in the real world by killing their virtual avatar.”


Critique:

After watching the 1st 14 episode story arc, I was really worried about the direction Sword Art Online was going with its 2nd much anticipated season. I was worried that it would be nothing but annoying fan service & further building of a harem around a twat (Kirito) to rebuff the slightly yandere women who flock around him in favour of the one whom he truly loves (Asuna). The 2nd (mini) arc didn’t improve my feelings about the series because it did nothing & went nowhere in the grand scheme of things but the 3rd arc was what truly changed my opinion on the season. Bringing to the fore the complex emotions that the 1st arc had struggled with between the cleavage & box shots.

In the lower centre-left we can see a typical Box Shot in full effect. One that may become a Camel Toe.
In the lower centre-left we can see a typical Box Shot in full effect. One that may become a Camel Toe.

I’ve always wavered with Sword Art Online -through its 1st season & the fan-translated Light Novels – because it so quickly goes from awesome action, exciting tension & emotional outcomes to kinda drab design, boring situations & infuriating levels of fan service. The 1st arc of this 2nd season pushed both of these extremes by trying to blend hyper-kinetic action with a sniper’s paitence & dealing with psychological issues like PTSD with very unsubtle use of the Male Gaze.

The 1st arc (episdoes 1-14), also known as the Death Gun Arc, truly is a mixed bag but one that ended with more of the cheap sweets than the party favourites for me.

The primary focus of the Death Gun arc is Kirito & new character Sinon coming to terms with taking human life -with Kirito having killed several people whilst trapped in Aincrad (1st season, 1st arc) & Sinon for shooting a bank robber with his own gun when she was a child, which has turned into an extreme form of Hoplophobia that her classmates use to bully her with.

Sinon looking both cute & like a potential disempowered victim.
Sinon looking both cute & like a potential disempowered victim.

Basically, if she sees a gun or a gun-like object (even people holding their fingers up like a gun) she has an extreme panic attack https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panic_attack to the point of almost collapsing. In order to overcome this trauma, her classmate Kyoji (who has an unrestrained boner for her), suggests that she joins up with the Virtual Reality MMORPG Gun Gail Online (GGO for short) which uses virtual representations of real world guns within it (instead of the fantasy weapons of other games).

This brings up a few issues for me right away. The 1st being that why would her fellow students bully her over her trauma if they knew it was linked to her actually killing someone? Surely if people knew that she gets panic attacks from even the sight of a fake weapon, they’d have been told why that is, surely? The stigma of murderer or even accidentally causing a death is heavy in countries like Japan, so rumours would’ve followed Sinon like a stench. So, surely if others got wind of it, they’d avoid her as much as possible out of fear she’d go & murder them.

The other issue I have comes from the ret-conning of Kirito to having killed more people & suffering psychological trauma from repressing those memories. My issue with this is that he was pretty willing to kill in the 1st season in order to save those whom he cared about (because if you died in SAO you died in real life) & was happy to slaughter the virtual constructs of real people in ALO (1st season, 2nd arc) yet entering GGO & being confronted by someone who might be a VR ghost from SAO (Death Gun), Kirito is suddenly shaken to his core over his past actions.

Now, I’m all for a protagonist actually suffering psychological effects from their previous actions but they still have to make sense in context. It’s pointless to throw them up so long after the character’s been established just to add a new layer. It reeks of laziness & trying to shift a new focus that could’ve easily been done before or with another character.

Kirito’s trauma exists for two reasons: the 1st is to bond with Sinon & get him to win her over as an ally, as well as have her overcome her own trauma; the 2nd is up the tension with the antagonist Death Gun -who, in my view, is frankly completely uninteresting.

The reason for this in my view is twofold: the 1st being that there is too much build up to Death Gun being a threat without actually showing you what kind of threat he represents. It’s the classic issue of “Telling not Showing”. We’re told that Death Gun’s presence is enough to shake the usually unflappable Kirito but because Death Gun hints at some connection to Laughing Coffin (the murder guild from SAO I) he’s shaken to his core because it reminds him that he killed 3 or 4 members of them out of self-defence (or the defence of others). There is no real hint of Death Gun having skills that can rival Kirito’s until the end of the arc & then it’s all technobabble & Pop-Psychology jargon. The 2nd reason is that I already knew who & what Death Gun was from reading the original Light Novel.

Which in & of itself is a problem. Not the foreknowledge but the fact that they didn’t attempt to twist it around. Even the twists & revelations as to who Death Gun is & how he could commit murders in real life comes with no real sense of threat or menace. It’s just built up & then partially enacted after Kirito & Asuna (who is watching the live feed of the GGO tournament Kirito & Sinon are in) figure out the real world connection to their 2 years trapped in SAO.

Death Guns’ basic motivation is being unable to readjust to the real world from the virtual -especially after they took part in so many real life murders from that virtual space- but shifts to being acknowledged by Kirito because their own existence was never truly recognised by anyone in the real world. The means & methods of their murders are interesting but lose utter impact when so casually deduced by Sinon & Kirito whilst they are still in game. Again, this all comes back to the issue of being Told & not Shown. We are TOLD throughout the arc that Death Gun is a serious threat, both within & without the virtual world but once the rules of their murders are established, all threat is gone. This is primarily because unlike the very 1st SAO arc, there is no threat to life until Death Guns’ criteria are met so any fear of them is left as a narrative conceit rather than a genuine danger.

As fearsome as Death Gun gets really.

This is an inherent problem when dealing with a series based around a virtual world where people’s consciousnesses are projected into a computer generated avatar. When you have a lack of threat to a physical body, the risk that a character incurs has no emotional impact upon the viewer because there is no consequence upon the character. SAO I addressed this fairly well by having that if your virtual self died, the Nerve Gear system that creates the virtual experience fries the users brain, killing their real body. The 2nd arc of SAO I as well as the 2nd series negate this threat by having everything only virtual but try to have Death Gun seem like a creditable threat to one’s own mortality. Yet his comes off as clumsy & al threat is diminished once Death Gun’s MO is established.

This lack of tension combined with the Pop Psych version of mental trauma really detracts from the positives of the 1st arc -which include incredibly well rendered action & beautiful animation- but what true destroyed it was the blatant fan service & my usual bugbear: hypersexualisation.

Behold: the butt cleavage of Sinon! Plus her other design parts.

Sinon is the typical victim of this, as she wears very tiny shorts that shows a lot of butt cleavage & the camera tends to linger in sicken Box Shots (my term of camera focussing on the female pubic mount -AKA the Box). This really destroys any attempt to build Sinon as a round character with a sense of power & agency of her own. It also doesn’t help that every time she tries takes a step forward towards self-empowerment she’s dragged back to being physically, emotionally & almost sexually dependent on Kirito to find her strength rather than develop her own sense of self, using her admiration for Kirito as something to build upon. It also doesn’t help that Kirito’s in game avatar is exceptionally pretty with long hair, so I confused for being a girl -especially by Sinon when they randomly encounter outside of the combat zone for the first time. The problem with that part of the arc is that instead of using it to address typical gender roles online, Kirito embraces some of the worst aspects men pretending to be women in games so he’ll be let off easily in a MMORPG that he’s entirely new to.

The only saving grace of this whole arc is the resolution of Sinon’s issues. After she discovers who Death Gun is in real life & is confronted by them, she resolves to make herself better. Kirito, Asuna & the others from the ALO guild help with this & Sinon is introduced to the woman she incidentally save when she killed the robber & the woman’s daughter, whom she was pregnant with at the time of the incident. Sinon realises that her actions had positive consequences & vows to forgive herself, moving on with her life bit by bit but also dealing with those who bully her by showing her resolve in facing them. That she no longer has to be saved, that she can stand on her own two feet to be strong.

Naturally, she still wants Kirito’s cock, which puts her in mild conflict with the rest of the harem but this is basically resolved in the 2nd mini-arc.

To be honest, I’m not even really going to talk about the 2nd arc Excalibur (eps 15-17). It’s basically filler where the characters are stressed about something that only threatens their virtual worlds. There is no real world consequences or issues at hand. Just an excuse for action & some lame humour.

The 3rd arc (eps 18-24) is the saving grace of the entire season & marked an incredible turning point & maturity for the franchise as a whole.
asuna_yuuki
The arc -referred to as “Mother’s Rosario”- focuses primary on Asuna, who I find a bit more of an interesting character. Unfortunately in the 2nd arc of the first season, she was reduced to a basic Damsel In Distress who feel victim to some tentacles (which made me scream at the telly) but the 1st arc of that season really fleshed her out as a character. Talking about her background with all the stress & expectations that her rich family put on her as well as her inability to decompress herself -which is why she delved into the VR MMORPs.

The SAO II’s 3rd arc is a continuation of these; where Asuna is being pressured by her strict, over-achieving to leave the school she attends with the other SAO survivors who need to catch up on the 2 years that they missed with their education. Naturally Asuna is opposed to this because of her love of Kirito & wanting to do something for herself but she can’t say no to her forceful mother.

Lamenting the life they had lost in SAO, with the private house she owned with Kirito & lived in with their adopted computer program daughter Yui (long story), Asuna is told that a replica of that zone from SAO will be part of the next ALO update. Her guildmates vow to help her get her precious place back & once she has secured the house for herself, Kirito & Yui, she’s told by a guildmate about a mysterious player called Zekken (Absolute Sword) who is challenging other players to duels. Zekkan is supposedly so good that they defeated the previously undefeated Kirito. Asuna wonders if Zekkan could be another SAO survivor but Kirito dismisses this by saying if they were, they would’ve beaten the game, not him.
saoii19
To Asuna’s surprise, Zekkan is actually a young girl named Yuuki, who is looking for someone strong enough to help her guild -The Sleeping Knights- defeat a high level boss with only a few players (because boss raids typically require dozens of players to win) so they can leave their mark on the Player Monument & be remembered into the future.

Asuna proves her worth & joins The Sleeping Knights but, even though they are friendly, they keep her at arms length. She proves herself of them by helping them (with Kirito & guildmate Klein’s assistance) get past a large raid guild who used the info the Sleeping Knights acquired to try & defeat the boss themselves before anyone else can. After bonding in combat, Asuna is dismayed that she’s rejected by the others in the guild because they’ll be disbanding soon but isn’t told why. After accidentally calling her “onee-chan“) (sister), Yuuki freaks out & leaves the game before Asuna can do anything.

The reason for this distancing even though they had all become close during their time on the raid forms the emotional crux of the 3rd arc & of the entire franchise as a whole.

Each member of the Sleeping Knights suffer from various life threatening diseases -such as leukemia & other forms of cancer. They are set to disband because many fear that they won’t live past the coming Summer & want their last memories together to be joyous ones, where they leave their mark on the virtual world because they can no longer do the same with the physical one.

Yuuki has it worse of the entire, being in the late stages of an anti-viral resistant strain of HIV/AIDS  that she acquired in utero & has spent the past 3 years inside of a virtual reality machine in order to placate her increasing pain.

Yuuki's real world form, willing trapped in a machine as her life fades away.
Yuuki’s real world form, willing trapped in a machine as her life fades away.

She pushes Asuna away, thinking that she wouldn’t want to be with someone who’s dying as well as to spare her the pain of dealing with her inevitable death. Yet Asuna refuses to be cast aside from someone she grew found of (being an only child from an emotionally fractured family & all), so she helps Yuuki reach out to the outside world via a machine that Kirito was developing for Yui to use.

This allows Yuuki to return to school, even if she’s just a disembodied voice through a small camera lense, but quickly finds Asuna’s class (all SAO survivors) supportive of her, same with the teaching staff. Being on Asuna’s shoulder also allows Yuuki to find some closure in the real world, such as with her old family home which has become abandoned (the rest of her family all having died of AIDS related illnesses).

Her time with Yuuki & seeing how she faces her own fragile mortality gives Asuna the strength to finally talk to her mother, putting her own cases forward to why she should be allowed to make her own choices. Especially in regards to being put into an arranged married (the last one with an utter psycho who kept her trapped in the virtual world in SAO I’s 2nd arc) & going to a prestigious university simply because it will make her parents look good.

This can of growth seems more natural & fleshed out then simply having Asuna grow through violence. Her connection with & emotionally attachment to Yuuki is nuanced & exists upon multiple levels (despite what the hentai arts depict on various websites); showing genuine sisterly affection & connection between two people who thought that they would never be able to find a bond with anyone due to their respective lives. Whilst the arc is still action driven, it takes a comfortable backseat to the emotional journey of the characters. This driver is found to be much more satisfying then the emotional exploitation of trauma in the 1st arc because it acts as a catharsis for anyone who has suffered a linger loss. Whereas trauma is usual specific to the individual & hard to get across in a realistic fashion without being manipulative, grief & loss are universal, things that everyone experiences in their lives no matter who they are, where or how they live. Death is the only thing that truly unites all of humanity across the Gulf of Time & this is something that the “Mother’s Rosario” arc expresses truly well. In fact, I’m finding it difficult to write this part now, because I got the news today (21/01/2015) that a dear friend of mine died suddenly & I never got the chance to say farewell -such is the all-encompassing nature of grief.

The true emotional kick to it all comes with Yuuki’s final moment.

Seriously, it’s nigh impossible to make me cry -be it with stuff in real life or the manipulation of fiction- but I was genuinely fighting back the tears as I watched Yuuki’s end.

She had resolved to die alone but being able to touch Asuna’s hand gave her the courage to enter the virtual world one last time so they could say their farewells face to face. With her life fading, Yuuki is not only comfortable by Asuna but her friends from the Sleeping Nights, members of Asuna’s guild & a 1,000 representatives of all of the players in ALO who acknowledge that Yuuki was the strongest player who ever way & that she would always be remembered.

At Yuuki’s funeral, Asuna meets with one of the members of the Sleeping Knights, who’s friendship with & admiration for Yuuki helped her overcome her leukemia & strive to live her life to the fullest. A vow that Asuna also makes in order to achieve her own happiness & do all the things that Yuuki could not in her short but impactful life. This is because Yuuki always questioned why she was born if she was cursed from birth to die horrible from her disease. Yet she comes to see that the meaning of her life was to be able to make the connections that she did & live the life that she had, even if it was brief & almost entirely virtual, because being able to meet people such as Asuna give not only her own life meaning but brought meaning to those around her, who found the strength to carry on through just knowing Yuuki where they would otherwise have given up to their so-called fates.

The final twist of the series comes from the fact that the technology that prolonged Yuuki’s life & helped her find its meaning came from the same man who trapped hundreds of people in SAO for his own experiment -Akihiko Kayaba. This deepens the question as to what where his true intentions with the events within SAO for 2 years as well as the future of the virtual world (as well as leaving things open for the Underworld Arc in a few years time).

Ultimately, by ending the 2nd season with Asuna & Yuuki’s emotional journey together, the director & production team more than made up for all of their missteps during the 1st two arcs. It was great to see an anime treat someone suffering from such a terrible disease with true dignity & humanity -something which so many forms of media fail to do without going entirely po-faced or resorting to extreme emotional manipulation. The rarity of both the subject taken serious in any media as well as the respect for the characters suffering becomes entirely uplifting, even inspiring to a degree.

It was really a surprise from a season that started with the basis of harems & fan service to be able to soar so high & hit so hard with their last 6 episodes is truly fantastic. I hope it serves as an example to any future series that you can have a story that is both emotional & positive in its negative resolution because the subject is handled with dignity & compassion. I’m glad that I stuck with it all to the end & you will be too, even if you struggle with the early stages. The reward for seeing the season to its resolution goes beyond words; it’s just something that you have to experience for yourself. So I hope that you do.

Final moments filled with utterly love. Truly tear inspiring.
Final moments filled with utterly love. Truly tear inspiring.
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3 thoughts on “From Harem to Humanist – Anime Critique: Sword Art Online II

  1. The Otaku Judge 22/01/2015 / 5:17 AM

    Aside from the three part Excaliber filler I really enjoyed SAO 2. The first story arc won’t win over Sword Art naysayers, but the finale is touching stuff indeed. It’s also good seeing Asuna get the spotlight over Kirito.

    Like

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