Get Your Head in the Game
Sword Art Online
A fantasy, action/adventure, based on a dramatic science fiction premise, Sword Art Online, lovingly known by fans as SAO, is a deeply character-driven narrative with a few well-choreographed fights and an intriguing romance.
The series has 25 episodes, split into two distinct seasons, the first having 14 segments and the second having 11.
The story begins with a commercial for Sword Art Online, a fictional video game that is this world’s first to incorporate Full Dive technology. Full Dive technology utilizes the brain to immerse a gamer into a virtual world through wearing a helmet plugged into an online console.
With this new massively multiplayer online role-play game (MMORPG) launched, the protagonist with the gamer moniker “Kirito,” finds himself (and 10,999 other players) trapped in Aincrad, a floating iron tower in the virtual world he loves so much.
SOA is a thickly-plotted narrative with a culmination of literary devices that create numerous pay-offs for the attentive viewer. It subverts expectations from both narrative and creative literary standpoints. Every plot twist or reveal are subtly foreshadowed or referenced in a previous episode without the proper context, making this a very re-watchable anime. Similarly, many themes are seeded in the first episode in understated ways.
These themes, moral dilemmas and psychological issues are the major sources of conflict in SOA, so characterization is deeply integral to the narrative with each episode entangled with multiple character arches.
In a typical episode, there are two character arches; one being Kirito’s while the other is the dual protagonist of that specific episode. Each dual protagonist’s character is fully realized by the end of the episode; consequently, when that dual protagonist has his or her opportunity for change, the viewer has ridden an emotional roller coaster with them. This helps viewers appreciate their perspective and its thematic implications.
SAO uses the elaborate scenario of being trapped in a videogame to spawn many philosophical discussions about an extensive list of topics including self-worth, the definition of living, death and its consequences, the implications of love, marriage’s relation to expectation, human behaviors in regards to integrity and morality and the effects that videogames have on society.
As an anime with a video game themed premise, SOA uses gamer language, but does it in a contextual way that makes the message clear without bogging the viewer with jargon.
The dialogue flows quite naturally from situation to situation, even when it is an interior monologue close to an episode. A few curse words weave their way into the dialogue, but are rare and placed in a way that does not detract from the narrative.
Most of the story is told within the realm of a virtual world, so it might be expected that the first few episodes would be weighed down with expositional video game logic. However, SAO subverts these expectations by having two characters gloss over the rules with video game commentary in the first episode. The characters are two experienced gamers: one experiencing Full Dive for the first time and the other a Beta tester for the original console.
This technique allows the rules to be explained through the actions and behaviors of the characters as situations come up. This is a chance for them to face the different limitations and permits afforded by this virtual reality. Not having to constantly explain the world lets the narrative take its time to set a pace for the action and character studies.
Pacing, a very important narrative aspect, applies to SAO in such an unconventional way that it is impressive how successful and coherent the narrative is. Each episode is plotted months apart, with Kirito carrying the story through the pinnacle points of this virtual entrapment.
Efficiently utilizing an occasion for story without relying on the initial premise, each episode centers around an event that contributes to Kirito’s experience; thus, he goes through a character arch nearly every episode. This provides the serialization of the narrative in a way that assures the viewer that they have not missed anything between episodes.
Later in the series, a two-year time jump furthers the narrative, bringing the remainder of the stories in two parts with little to no time in between. The episodes begin to layer into the overarching plot which helps the narrative to pick up the pace, instilling a sense of urgency in the viewer as the stakes and consequences become more tangible.
This also helps transition the first season into the second. Due to the intensely personal nature of the second season’s conflict for Kirito, this pace endures until the last few minutes of the final episode, allowing the intense emotional torment that Kirito goes through to become personal to the viewer as well.
SAO captures all the subtleties that an animated series can. The animation is simply gorgeous. All of the landscapes and environments are incredibly detailed with a color scheme that effectively adds to the thematic implications of the story.
This is especially true of the real versus reality motif. The real world has a duller and dreary color palette, especially when compared to the vibrant, lively palette of virtual reality.
The subtext of the animation provides an extension of the narrative’s thematic implications with nuanced maneuvers. For this reason, when each character has his or her thematic interior monologue or soliloquy, it does not detract from the narrative nor does it take the viewer out of the literary world.
With an interesting style of “camerawork,” SAO captures the perspective of Kirito playing the game the same way an omnipresent camera would. Seamlessly switching between the two perspectives, the viewer sees Aincrad through Kirito’s eyes without being taken out of the narrative.
Each scene is framed out to add the right amount of perspective, emotions and elements of the virtual world. The dramatic shifts in perspective add much to the fights and personal moments.
In episode 9, Kirito fights the level boss, Gleam Eyes. After the fight ends he has a smidge of HP, and the viewer switches to his perspective. While seeing his fight screen, the viewer has a close up on his HP gauge, and then zooms out as he falls on his back, passing out. This is done beautifully to engage the audience and provide the overwhelming sense of relief paralleled in Kirito, as he realizes that he survived the battle.
The music is also encapsulating with beautiful scores of piano, violin and complex orchestra pieces. There are a few J-pop songs interwoven into the backdrop, but not in a jarring way. The Gaelic undertones bring the music to a thematic cohesiveness, permitting a range and breadth of musical styles.
SAO’s soundtrack is the kind a viewer might expect of Japanese video games and anime. It pulls of the combination and juxtaposition of the two mediums very well.
The dubbing is well done, which is an important factor in any anime. All of the dubbing voice actors seem to enjoy their roles, which reflects in how straight they play each scene. The wording matches each character’s personality and the flaps, or mouthing/facial expressions of the animated character. Since there aren’t lot of talking heads, flaps are not a major issue.
Dubbed by ANIPLEX of America, none of the comedic and thematic implications are lost in translation. Usually partners with FUNIMATION for a number of bigger projects, ANIPLEX does an outstanding job of bringing this to a wider demographic in North America.
A drama-filled anime that provides as much literary depth as it does entertainment value, Sword Art Online contains well-developed, relatable characters and a thrilling ride through various genres within the fantastical science fiction premise.
Even with weird lapses in logic, the ending is very satisfying. I have high regards for SAO as an enjoyable and re-watchable anime, fairly accessible to anyone.
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By Kimberly Joy Ward