This is the hardest piece of work that I’ve ever written. I’m saying that after the fact, having just finished writing this article. I began this feature by detailing the good in Sword Art Online, and in part two I mainly talked about what made it a bad show. Here I’ve written about what makes it not only offensively bad, but just plain offensive. It’s thoroughly unpleasant. If you’re OK with that, read on. If not, then maybe don’t. The choice is yours. This all hinges on the problems with how the show treats relationships so I’m going to start with the comparatively minor stuff and work up from there.
Marry Me Maybe
In part one I mentioned the abrupt development of Kirito and Asuna’s relationship. It’s an arc that takes place over a couple of episodes at most, and it seems nothing more than a buildup to a boyfriend/girlfriend deal. That is, until the moment comes, and instead of “we should go out” it’s “let’s get married”. Just like that.
The interesting thing to me is that Sword Art Online is not exactly an outlier in this strange idea of friend-to-fiancee romantic buildup. In my SAO recovery period, I ended up watching two other anime series, Toradora and Durarara. Despite their similar names, they’re two completely different shows, and yet both feature a romantic relationship that essentially begins with a proposal. I could write another full article on Toradora’s awful ending, and just one of its problems is this baffling way of handling romance. The moment the show ends on is the main character saying “I love you” for the first time – which would be fine had he not proposed in the previous episode. Maybe there’s some sort of cultural precedent for this kind of behaviour that I haven’t heard of. Frankly, I don’t care, because it’s weird. It’s super weird!
My Wife, Whats-her-name
Speaking of weird, let’s examine the otherwise touching conclusion to the good half of the show. There are a few lines here that make things retroactively questionable in more ways than one. Upon their victory, Kirito and Asuna watch from above as the virtual world slowly crumbles. Then Asuna asks Kirito what his real name is. Well just hold on a second here and add a comic record scratching sound effect – they’re married and they don’t know each other’s actual names!? Then the response; “I’m Kazuto Kirigaya. I think I turned sixteen last month”. Record scratch again – SIXTEEN? Also, the very important subject of AGE never came up in this relationship? Do the writers themselves even have a handle on what marriage actually IS? Now, as I said part one, the genuinely compelling question of what a marriage actually means in this virtual world is addressed in some of the most heartwarming scenes in the show. Here’s the thing though: it is made clear that both parties take the union completely seriously. Heck, they temporarily withdraw from the front lines to go live together in a lakeside log cabin! But now we learn that not only are they both underage (Asuna reveals that her username is her real name, and that she’s seventeen), but they didn’t know some of the most basic and fundamental facts about each other? Treating this relationship exactly the same as a real world marriage on the one hand and lower than acquaintance level on the other does not come off as remotely feasible. It’s just inconsistent, and creepy to boot.
The Littlest Harem Lord
Unfortunately, we’ve barely scratched the creepy surface. One creepy theme that intensifies as the show goes on is simply this: Every girl falls in love with Kirito/Kazuto. I’ve created a checklist of every significant female role in the show and the rule goes like this: If they have more than a couple of lines and they are not otherwise involved, they will become romantically interested in Kirito. In the entire show I can think of four characters that break this rule: one is a child that Kirito and Asuna adopt as their daughter (Oh yeah, they take it THAT seriously), one is a one-off villain, one is a woman who looks after the children that got trapped in the game, and one isKazuto’s mother. How many does that leave? Eight. In a twenty-five episode show there are eight separate crushes on the same dude. A couple of them take place in the early episodes where we can surmise that Kirito is even younger than sixteen. Yup, it’s creepy, and it gradually transforms Kirito into a walking wish-fulfillment fantasy. Most of these girls don’t stick around past the episode they’re introduced in. In almost every case, there is no romantic reciprocation onKirito’s part. When combat situations crop up, the woman invariably needs to stayout of the way so that manly Kirito can protect her. Their affection, and indeed their existence as characters, seems to be crafted towards one goal: To make the male protagonist look as cool as possible. It’s childish. It’s lazy. It’s insidious.
I’m sorry, I sort of skipped a very important detail. Kazuto has a sister. Her name is Suguha, or Sugu for short. You may notice that I did not list her as an exception, but I would be inaccurate in stating that she has a crush on Kazuto. No, she actually has two crushes on Kazuto: one in real life and one in Alfheim Online. Wow, huh? Yeah, wow. Here’s the mind-boggling thing: It gets the most attention of any relationship in the show, more even than Kirito and Asuna. No, REALLY! The romanic arc of Kirito and Asuna is contained entirely in episodes seven though fourteen, and takes a back seat from there. That’s eight episodes. From Sugu’s introduction in episode fifteen until the very last scene of the show, this mess of a relationship is continuously and mercilessly forced down the viewers throat. I. AM. NOT. KIDDING. After eleven episodes of repeatedly jamming a square peg in a round hole, the very last scene of the show is still centered on Sugu’s incest-crush on Kazuto!
Oh, I’m sorry, did I say incest? Well, haha, you see, it’s not reeeeally incest by Japanese law. Because, silly, they’re actually cousins! Kazuto’s parents died when he was young and he was adopted into his aunt’s family! It doesn’t matter that they grew up as brother and sister and still refer to each other as such BLEEEEEEEUGGHKJHKJADPLSHH oh WHOOPS couldn’t keep that up. That right there is the very essence of trying to have your cake and eat it too. It’s the absolute worst kind of excuse-making farce. On the rare occasion the whole cousin thing pops up, it’s in a desperate attempt to remind the audience that they shouldn’t be creeped out because it’s technically legal. It’s really quite hard to think of anything clever to say about this. It’s just sick. It starts off disgusting, becomes disgusting and annoying, and finishes at disgusting and infuriating. It thoroughly qualifies for one of the top categories on my JAPAN meter, “Paper thin Incest justification”. No seriously, it’s a thing.
Is this all played for fanservice? Well, yes (I literally just shuddered as I typed that), in fact fanservice in general is cranked up for part two and most of it seems to center on Sugu and her online counterpart, Leafa. But this bizarre love rhombus of Sugu, Leafa, Kazuto and Asuna is also supposed to be dramatic. They introduce it at the first opportunity upon Kirito’s entry into Alfheim. To get him and Leafa in the same place, the writer has Kirito fall through what I can only assume is a literal plot hole, since how and why it appears is never explained. Of course, the first order of business is for him to save her from the bad guys by being really good at swords. Just like that, they’re a team, although he doesn’t tell her what his actual goal is until much later, thereby making the love rhombus possible. Through intermittent forays into the real world, we learn that Sugu’s in love with Kazuto and she’s feeling all conflicted and stuff, and once we learn it there’s no stopping the relentless reminders via glimpes into her inner thoughts: He’s in love with another girl, yadda yadda yadda, I keep calling him “brother” even in my head but I’m actually his cousin did you forget, I’m going to mope now, et cetera.
When she finally gives up on the idea of acting on her feelings for Kazuto (ha ha NOT FOR LONG) she rebound-crushes on Kirito, the virtual stranger she’s known for a day or two that looks a lot like her brother with spiky hair and pointy ears. Um… Sword Art Online reduced the “stranger on the internet” factor big-time by transforming all of the user’s avatars into perfect representations of their real selves at the end of episode one. There was even a “you’re not a girl?” gag thrown in for good measure. Alfheim Online clearly doesn’t have an equivalent. What if you’re falling in love with a fourty-year-old, Sugu? Wouldn’t that makes things incredibly awkward? Well, the actual scenario is just as bad. They get to the final-dungeon-equivalent and Leafa finally learns that Kirito’s on a mission to save Asuna.Wait, hang on… DRAMA. DRAMA!!! The next eternity consists of the viewer’s head being repeated slammed into the wall of DRAMA by the writer while he screams, “YOU CARE ABOUT THIS!”
I didn’t even know that an apathy could be felt with such intensity. Isn’t that kind of against the nature of that emotion? Bravo, Sword Art Online. By all means, continue. Have Sugu finally confess. Don’t have Kazuto let her down gently, or at all. Heck, why don’t you have him give her a bit of false hope in one scene? Haha, no I’m sorry that last one was too far even for a joke. Wait, what do you mean, that happens? What, are you going to make the last about Kirito and Leafa slowdancing in the sky until Asuna shows up as an afterthought? …YES?!
Women, am I right
Having fully established the controversial opinion that incest is gross, we shall now move on to hardcore misogyny. Well, that at least means we can stop talking about Leafa forever, and instead go over Asuna’s fate. In spite of the iffy “women are weak and need to be protected” motif, Asuna doesn’t immediately fall into that role. She gets her share of awesome moments and she even saves Kirito’s life on more than one occasion. And… then she gets trapped in Alfheim. She changes in status from a main character to a goal, just like that. She has almost no agency in the rest of the story. Other than one failed escape attempt, she does just about nothing. Her new character design serves as the perfect illustration of her newfound powerlessness and the sexual objectification of her situation. And really, that’s the thing that tips this over from annoying to disgusting. The sad fact is that Asuna’s change in role is perfectly consistent with the change in story, but the problem is not only that this is the story they’re going for the first place, but that it’s sickeningly fetishised. As the brief glimpses of Asuna’s side of the story continued, I couldn’t shake the horrifying thought that I was supposed to be enjoying her predicament. The scene that ultimately justified this suspicion was the one in which she makes her escape attempt. She makes it out of the cage into some sort of facility, and finds a map. In a move of questionable self-preservation she decides to go check out a laboratory, and within it she finds the quickly forgotten side-plot of mind control experiments. She tries to access a console and shut the experiments down, and then she’s caught by the scientists. Despite being representations of real-life people, they look like tentacle monsters.
Huh. That’s weird. Why on earth would they look like that? They’re the only people in the show that have non-humanoid avatars. This one instance opens up a cascade of questions; this technology allows you to essentially embody a creature that operates entirely differently from a human being? Then why settle for purple slugs? What practical advantage does that give over a human body or the infinite other possibilities this new rule opens up? Given what we see of these guys’ jobs, there’s barely even a physical element, so why? For appearances? That’s even more absurd; they’re in an area of the game that is designed to be unaccessable to outsiders, so why would they even need to look differently at all? Do they just want to look like monsters? Two copies of the exact same kind of monster? Or is this standard virtual scientist uniform? No, seriously, WHY?
[Be warned that from here on out, I am going to be pretty frank about some seriously unpleasant stuff.]
The questions pile up, but unfortunately the only answer you’re going to get is what becomes apparent in the ensuing scene; that someone REALLY wanted to show Asuna being sexually assaulted and nearly raped by a tentacle monster. Sure, this probably originated from the Light Novel. Maybe the author gave a really good reason for purple tentacle slug scientists. Whether or not this has roots in the source material, someone somewhere performed logical gymnastics for the sake of catering to the Hentai crowd (if you don’t know what that is… you’re lucky). There are those that would say that this kind of thing adds drama. Sure, in a way it does. When it’s handled like this, it’s the most lazy and hackneyed kind of drama there is. Remember when the characters in this story had spent two years stuck in a potentially lethal virtual world, and were beginning to struggle in recalling their former lives? Remember when that was the source of the drama? This crass, idiotic trivialisation of a sensitive issue, at the expense of the show’s only strong female character, for the sake of titillation – is this even a remotely acceptable substitute?
Give us the Woman! Give us the Rope!
Do you think I’m done? I’M NOT DONE. Because IT GETS WORSE. Do you want to know the climax of this damsel-in-distress plotline? Once Kirito gets his head out of his crevice and finally makes it to Asuna, he winds up in a final showdown with Sugou. Absurd in-game elf-fairy-whatever Sugou, that is. Sugou’s an Admin though, and he readily abuses his privileges, intensifying gravity so that Kirito can’t stand up, and turning down the feature that numbs physical pain. No, really, there’s a slider for that and everything. He chains up Asuna by her wrists, and – OK, this is going to be pretty hard for me to write. I did say I’d be frank… I won’t skirt around this, so here goes.
He starts tearing her clothes off while groping her and literally licking the tears off her face.
That last part merits repeating. Literally licking the tears off her face. This is the path that Sugou’s character went down. Whoever is responsible for this… hm. I’m trying to come up with a stark analogy here. How about… Whoever is responsible for this wouldn’t know nuance if it chained them up by the wrists and started tearing their clothes off, repeatedly groping them and licking the tears off their face. I mean, WOW. Is it even possible that the same writer is responsible for Sword Art Online’s first half – which, however you may think of it, inarguably had some element of depth? I’m genuinely struggling with the thought. How is it possible? It must take a great deal of effort to plumb these depths, to be this catastrophically flat-footed, to callously and carelessly use your former female lead as nothing more than an object – an object that showcases how bad Mr. Villain Man is, and gives Mr. Hero Man some pathos. Well, after Asuna is left only with Godiva hair and a torn skirt to cover what’s left of her dignity and Sugou’s ultimate villainy has been sufficiently established, Kirito has a vision of the digital ghost (?) of the creator of Sword Art Online – Kayaba Akihiko, part one’s antagonist – who, it turns out, wasn’t as bad as this new bad dude despite being the direct cause of thousands of deaths, because he played by the rules dagnabbit. After a brief justification of his sudden appearance – his digi-ghost is maybe the result of Kayaba’s apparently fatal off-screen attempt to upload his consciousness online(???) – He grants Kirito cheating powers of his own. Kirito then uses console commands to turn the gravity back to normal, get a sweet sword and turn the pain numbing slider all the way down, and he proceeds to rip Sugou to shreds in a way that should be awesome.
It really should be. Visually, it’s quite impressive. The animation is as good as it’s ever been. What’s more, the bad guy is finally getting his comeuppance. So why does it feel so soulless and empty? Maybe because it feels like the conclusion of a piece of wish-fulfillment fanfiction. In fact, wish-fulfillment fanfiction is a decent descriptor for the whole Alfheim arc. It takes these three characters down the most clichéd roads possible and remains unflinching in those courses until the very end. You know what would have gone a step or two towards redeeming that climax? Kirito using his new admin powers to appearify a shirt and a sword for Asuna, and letting her be the one that delivers the payback. But no, that would be deviating much too far from the power fantasy this show became.
THESE WOUNDS THEY WILL NOT HEEEAL
After finishing the final episode, I felt so horiffically empty. So hollow. But… there was still a sliver of hope. There’s still “Sword Art Online: Extra Edition”, listed in the Movies section of SAO’s Crunchyroll page… perhaps this will turn this all around.
It did not.
Rather than devote another few paragraphs to this feature-length facespitting session, I will instead close out this incredibly lengthy feature with a chatlog. The following is taken from a conversation with a friend, shortly after discussing the notes I had prepared for Part Two of this feature. Be warned: the Caps lock features quite heavily.
Jesse: THE “MOVIE”
Jesse: Hey, Kazuto’s talking to a psychologist now? They’re actually taking it the cool and interesting route again?
Jesse: HAHA NO SCREW YOU, SEE YOU PSYCHOLOGIST WOMAN, ENTER CLIP SHOW MAN
Sam: LET’S RE USE FOOTAGE FROM THE SHOW!!
Sam: NO WAIT
Sam: THIS IS A HAREM ANIME
Jesse: OH YEAH
Jesse: HERE IS SOME WOMEN PARTS
Jesse: IN SWIMSUITS
Sam: OH WAIT GUYS
Sam: THERE WAS THIS ONE EPISODE WE WANTED TO DO IN THE SHOW
Sam: WHERE EVERYONE WENT UNDERWATER
Sam: DO WE HAVE TIME TO DO THAT THING?
Jesse: NOT REALLY WE’LL CUT IT OFF
Sam: BUT CAN WE AT LEAST DO THE WHALE THING?
Sam: THAT’LL KEEP THE FANS HAPPY, RIGHT?
Sam: KIDS LOVE WHALES
Sam: LET’S HAVE KIRITO TAME A WHALE
Such in brief is that travesty, the final seal on Sword Art Online’s envelope. There was once been something worthwhile contained within. Then someone took a dump in it and set it on fire. Without the good, it would be a mess that could be considered funny from a distance. As it is, it’s a tragedy, and it stinks. Thanks for reading. It was a gruelling ride, but I’m glad I got it out of my system. Stay tuned for that thing I was going to write like two or three months ago. I think it was about Shakespeare?