The Anime Pulse #2 – How Sword Art Online Created a Love/Hate Fanbase

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Hello everyone and welcome to another edition of The Anime Pulse.   This week I’m going to be taking a look at something that has divided anime fans into a love/hate war and why it has done so.  That something is the anime Sword Art Online, and subsequently its sequel, Sword Art Online II.

Before we can talk about Sword Art Online, we have to talk about the boom in popularity of MMORPG video games.  In the twilight of this genre we had successful games such as Ultima Online and EverQuest with the latter being heralded as the greatest video game created in the late 90’s early 2000’s.  In 2004, the popularity of those games inspired Blizzard Entertainment to produce the widely popular World of Warcraft which is celebrating 10 years in November of 2014 alongside the release of their fifth expansion, Warlords of Draenor.

World of Warcraft, however, caused many companies to try and capitalize on its popularity by offering clones and trying to disguise them as something completely different.  Games such as Aion, Rift, and Tera were created with promises of bringing something new to the forefront, only to be played by many and were discovered to be simple World of Warcraft clones with little to no substance.  Some other companies tried as well with Star Wars The Old Rebublic, Vanguard, etc, but they, too, fell at the feet of World of Warcraft which continues to reign at the top of the mountain of MMORPG games.

Since the game industry is pumping out game after game in this seemingly golden era of MMOs, Japan decided to try and capitalize on some of that popularity by green-lighting adaptations of light novels and manga based on worlds in which ordinary people are trapped inside of a game world…. hence.. Sword Art Online has come to fruition. I should point out that SAO is not the first time an anime has been released with this kind of story or setting.  .hack//sign came out back in 2002, but sadly, it wasn’t widely as popular nor was it hyped as much as SAO because it came out during the anime crash of the early 2000’s (that and the show wasn’t really all THAT great to begin with).  Back then, companies were snagging up licenses left and right without rhyme or reason in order to make sure that the competition didn’t get their hands on it.  What happened was the market got flooded with a myriad of poor anime that lead to disgruntled consumers losing faith in the anime industry.  This also gave rise to fansub groups and piracy because people didn’t want to take any more chances sinking money into series and run the risk of the series becoming complete and total garbage. If this scenario sounds familiar, it should!  The video game industry went through the same thing in the 1970s!

Today, however, the anime market is much more stable… companies are wisely choosing to adapt popular manga and light novels into shows and in 2012, three years after the light novel had began publication, Sword Art Online was chosen to be adapted into an anime and fans of the light novel series alongside fans of MMORPG games were overjoyed that an anime that could be catered to their interests was being developed.  I fell into this category as well so I too was excited to check out the adaptation. Oh ho ho… little did I know what I was in for.

Trolls will always be trolls, but something about Sword Art Online went beyond the standard troll trying to get attention.  There seemed to be genuine hatred towards this show.  Many people cited that A-1 Pictures did a horrible job of adapting the light novel because they decided to tell the story in chronological order.  In the light novel series, the arcs involving Lizbeth and Silica were told as flashbacks as the main core story was being progressed.  The anime put everything in the right order and it made it seem like there was filler right in the beginning of the show as early as episode three, which wasn’t really the case, but the other problem is that it was adapted in such a way where the canon really DID feel like filler.  The world was being subject to torture, death was a reality, but hey, let’s go save this chick’s pet, let’s go build a sword, and most importantly.. LET’S GO FISHING! Also, A-1 was, essentially, crushing down two years worth of time into a 14 episode arc… something that probably shouldn’t have happened, but they were going to adapt the ALO arc as well and needed the back half of that season to do so.

Sword Art Online II is doing the same exact thing by covering the Gun Gale Online arc in the first half while reserving the latter portion of it for the Excalibur and Mother Rosario arcs of the light novel.  I have to say that I’ve mildly enjoyed the series, but I will admit that it’s not THE BEST series out there.  Having read the light novels myself, I can say that A-1 did do a lackluster job adapting the show, but I don’t see any reason to flat out hate the show.  There are worse adaptations out there *COUGHTOKYOGHOULCOUGH*.

I’ve seen people say it’s because the writing is borderline fan faction and it doesn’t do the series justice.  The writing to me was a tad cliché, yes, but I wouldn’t exactly call it fan fiction.. if it were truly fan fiction, then certain things would have happened that we would have had to wait for the Blu-Ray release to see it in its uncensored glory… and it probably would have ended up in a 3am time slot.

Others disliked the harem situation with Kirito basically getting the attention of every female character he comes across.  This one does seem to bother me a bit because in the SAO and ALO arcs, his main interest was Asuna.  He loved her, she loved him, and the two of them would do anything for each other.  Part two comes along with the GGO arc and all attention is now focused on Sinon. Kirito doesn’t even say that he has a girlfriend and when they meet in real life, Kirito and Sinon seem to openly flirt with each other and Asuna just sits there smiling as if it’s completely fine.  In fact, if you were watching Sword Art Online II by itself, you wouldn’t even know that Kirito and Asuna were dating.  I hope I’m not the only one who found that kind of odd.

One major glaring problem with Sword Art Online that does justify a lot of the hate is the fact that the characters are completely flat and boring. Even the main character, Kirito, is simply a wish-fulfillment type character.  He plays solo in a multiplayer game, is seemingly always stronger than everyone else, pulls off unbelievable abilities that even seem to make people question whether or not they are intended by the game’s systems, thus becoming every single male MMOs character’s wet dream: a highly powerful character that stands atop the world as the best while trivializing everything and anything about the game all at the same time….

….Okay.. I admit, I have those dreams and aspirations too when I play World of Warcraft, but still….

Oh and Kirito isn’t the only problem… Klein, Lizbeth, Silica, even Asuna, get little to zero character development other than the fact that they were involved with Kirito, fell in love with Kirito, and want to have Kirito’s babies.  This is also happens to his own cousin Suguha.  Yes… HIS OWN COUSIN IS IN LOVE WITH HIM.  Asuna was our one true hope for a secondary main character among the myriad of run of the mill female characters, but sadly, while she starts out as a legitimate power character as well as an avatar of strong female gamers everywhere, she slowly descends into a typical tsundere love interest, to a sweet and innocent girl character in the Aincrad arc and then completely degenerates into a useless Princess Toadstool in the ALO story arc.  If that’s not enough, she becomes a complete afterthought during the GGO arc and doesn’t get focused on again until the Mother Rosario arc which is the final story arc of SAO II. So yeah.. our supposed lead female character is awesome for two episodes and then walks off a random cliff for character development until the very end of the series some two years of real world time later.

While the character development in this series is complete and utter garbage, the story itself is actually pretty decent, but not really the best.  The problem is that the light novel has so many different arcs that it’s really hard to get attached to the show’s over arching story because there really is none.  In the Aincrad arc, the players cannot log out of the game and if they die in the game, they die in real life.  In the ALO arc, that’s not a problem, but Asuna is still trapped in the game world and we go on a rescue the princess style story which was decent at best and only served to grow the relationship between Kirito and Asuna all while pushing every single love interest away into the friend zone, but yet, they continue to swallow their pride and guilt and help Kirito anyway.  In Gun Gale Online, someone from the SAO world is seemingly murdering people in real life from within the game and it’s up to the god of gamers, Kirito, to solve the problem once again. Then, finally, they go on a quest for a sword and Asuna ends up in a duel.

The story, while has ties to all other arcs, seems to jump all over the place and other than the little predictable nod to the other story arcs which try and tie everything together, it’s a pretty generic story overall, BUT despite the fact that is pretty generic, it is still watchable, has pretty good action sequences, and a really good soundtrack to help back up a lot of the action and gorgeous artwork.  It was enough to hold my attention and when you’re not sitting down and trying rip apart this show frame by frame other than the fact to justify your existence on internet message boards, it can be rather enjoying if you let be that way.

So overall, Sword Art Online is not the God-tier Anime some fans make it out to be, but it is not the garbage show produced in the bowels of hell like others would like to have you believe.  I think this show got severely overhyped and as a result, it created a situation where there were only two kinds of fans of this show:  Those who praise it as the holy grail of anime while others condemn it for being the literal spawn of Satan himself.  While it does suffer from character development,  the story is fanservicy (is that even a word? If not, then I claim it to be so!) enough to satiate the hunger for fans of both MMORPG games and anime alike. Despite some of its glaring problems and less than perfect dialogue, I thoroughly enjoyed the show and don’t think it is deserving of all the hatred that it has gotten and continues to get.

I have heard people say that Log Horizon is a much better show, but I also tend to disagree there. I actually dropped that show half way through the first season because if you thought Sword Art Online left some things to be desired, I think Log Horizon did so at an even more alarming rate.  At least in SAO, the characters actually cared that they were trapped in a game world.  In Log Horizon, the characters just accepted it as if it were a normal, everyday occurrence and went on their merry way.  When it came time to travel, they just pulled out some gryphons to ride on because they apparently completed a quest and forgot they even had them. I, personally, would have liked to see the quest and how they got them rather than just have the gryphons end up as a timely plot device.

I don’t think I have yet to see a series truly nail down this genre.  Maybe one day, though.  I can dream, can’t I?

So I must task you all with the question(s) of the week.  What were your impressions of Sword Art Online?  Do you think the hatred for the show is unwarranted? Likewise with the praise it has gotten?  Do you think anime fans in general are becoming to finicky with shows?

Let me know your thoughts!  You can send them to JoshPiedra@theouterhaven.net  and I will include your questions, thoughts, and comments in a future column.   Also, feel free to follow me on Twitter if you feel so inclined @JoshuaJPiedra.

Until next time…

It’s one thing to be critical to like or dislike a show… it’s another to flat out be overbearing with your judgment to the point where you drive others away.  Just keep that in mind the next time you watch something similar to Sword Art Online. (I can just feel the Attack on Titan fans walking up my electronic sidewalk now, but at least those fans are just a tad tamer than the SAO ones, but not by much).

Nevertheless…

Ja ne!

About The Author

Josh Piedra

Josh (or J.J. as some have come to call him), is a long-time geek culture enthusiast with a deep passion for anime, manga and Japanese culture. Josh also has a Bachelor of Arts in Game Design and is a creative writer who has created original content for over 20 years! He is also the author of the original English light novel Final Hope.

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