#oneaday Day 981: Sword Art Online

So, I guess it’s finally happened — much to the delight of my dear friend Lynette, I might add — I appear to have “got into” anime. So much so that this post is the first ever use of my all new “anime” topic category, although I will probably go back and add that post about Haiyore! Nyaruko-san if I remember.

I’ve already talked about Haiyore! Nyaruko-san in that post I just linked so I won’t say too much more about that for now, save for the fact that discussing it with a hardcore fan of H.P. Lovecraft allows you to have an even greater appreciation of how clever that show is despite its utterly barmy, chaotic exterior. Check out this blog (spoilers to the fucking MAX) for even further indisputable evidence that the creators of that show both 1) know and 2) love H.P. Lovecraft and the authors who followed him.

Anyway. Enough of the Crawling Chaos; what I really wanted to talk about today is the show I started watching after I finished all of the currently-available episodes of Haiyore! Nyaruko-san — Sword Art Online.

I’d come across the name Sword Art Online in much the same way as I heard about Haiyore! Nyaruko-san: through Peter Payne of J-List. Sword Art Online is, it seems, rather popular right now, so there’s a lot of merchandise surrounding it. I’m not normally one to go for things that are popular right now, but I figured I’d give it a try as 1) the premise sounded intriguing and 2) the female lead is an attractive redhead. (Well, technically she’s ginger, I guess. Still counts. Do not underestimate the power of an attractive redhead when trying to get me to do something.)

For those unfamiliar and/or curious, Sword Art Online’s basic concept is thus. It is The Near Future, and computer gaming has evolved enough to have full-sensory virtual reality experiences. The latest title to get everyone excited is the brand new massively-multiplayer online role-playing game Sword Art Online. Prospective players queued around the block to get their hands on a copy, but only 10,000 units were available in the first run. On the game’s launch day, said 10,000 players all logged in and began to immerse themselves in the virtual reality world, only to discover that there was no means to log out. The creator of the game, mad with power, had decided to “lock” everyone in the game until someone cleared the whole thing. Not only that, but he’d rigged it so that if someone’s character in the game died, the VR equipment would kill them in reality. Not only that, but if someone forcibly removed the VR equipment from the player, that would also kill them.

Thus begins an intriguing tale that is partly conventional fantasy, but with a layer of high-tech sci-fi atop it. The blend works extremely well. The challenges the characters face are “real” so far as they are concerned — their lives are on the line, after all — but at the same time, the fact that it is a game regularly shows itself with players popping up menus to change items, levelling up and using crafting skills simply by whacking things with the relevant tools. What’s impressive is how straight the show plays all this, and how seamlessly it switches back and forth between these two disparate elements — one moment it’s all a bit Highlander, the next there’s a cast member cooking “S-class ingredients” by tapping them once with a knife, causing them to explode in a shower of data fragments. In this way, it’ll attract two different — though admittedly somewhat overlapping — demographics and provide plenty to make them both smile and cheer.

I have to confess, I’ve always had something of a soft spot for the whole “fusion” thing between high-tech sci-fi and low-tech fantasy or historical stuff. It’s for this reason I’m quite surprised the Assassin’s Creed series hasn’t really grabbed me over the years. I did really like the concept of the old .hack games on PS2, though, even though I never finished them — though hopefully I’ll be rectifying that soon. There’s something about the whole concept of “MMO gone mad” in particular that I really like, though — .hack had a wonderfully palpable sense of menace about it, for example, and Sword Art Online certainly lives up to that. Perhaps it’s nothing more than the fact that you can literally see how close characters are to death when they’re in a pinch. I don’t know. I like it, whatever it is.

Getting back on topic, Sword Art Online has some great characters, too, and the structure of the series means that we get to explore them in detail. While the majority of the game’s overarching plot surrounds protagonist Kirito and his relationship with aforementioned cute redhead Asuna, many episodes throw the spotlight on a seemingly incidental character and their own personal issues. I shan’t spoil any specifics here, but through these episodes we gain a deep understanding of both the character in question and also learn some more about Kirito and Asuna — the way they respond to situations, the things they are capable of (and the things they are not) and the nature of their feelings for one another. The fact that there is often conflict between the persona they want to portray in the world and the real life they are struggling to get back to also helps make for some intriguing, complex characters whom I would like to see more of.

I’m about ten episodes in to the series so far and I believe it’s still airing so I don’t know how (or if) it ends as yet. I’m well and truly hooked, though. If you’ve been looking for something new to watch, then be sure to give Sword Art Online a shot.

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Pete Davison

Southampton-based music teacher, writer and enthusiast of Japanese popular culture.

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