Sword Art Online is not a bad anime, guys. You just don’t like it when male protagonists express their feelings.

Sword Art Online is truly a cursed series. Not because it’s bad – but because it’s cursed to be constantly crapped all over just for having been super popular in 2012. It’s like the Nickelback of anime: nobody knows why they hate it; most people haven’t even watched past the first series; but everybody else says it sucks. And so, it became conventional wisdom that Sword Art Online was a bad anime.

But was it?

I’m a born again weeb so I wasn’t kicking around the anime scene in 2012. Therefore, I hope that I can experience Sword Art Online the way that the weebs of yore did – free from expectation or prejudice.

What about Sword Art Online gets people so mad?

What is an isekai?

Popular isekai from left to right: No Game No Life (2014), The Saga of Tanya the Evil (2019), Sword Art Online (2012), Rising of the Shield Hero (2019) and Re:Zero (2016)

Firstly, a bit of history. An isekai is an oddly specific sub-genre of anime/manga in which the protagonists are transported into a parralel universe or virtual/fantasy world. Usually, this involves being trapped inside a videogame, or at least an alternate dimension that behaves exactly like a videogame.

Nowadays, the isekai genre (and yes, I do mean genre, because there are so damn many of these things) is considered too generic and conceited to be taken seriously, but back in 2012, anime like Sword Art Online were a novel concept. I won’t go as far as to say that Sword Art Online was the first ever isekai – technically that title belongs to Studio Ghibli’s ‘Spirited Away’ – but it was, and still is, one of the most influential.

Season 1 kicks off with an amazing premise and the first 14 episodes are exemplary

Season 1 of Sword Art Online comes at us with an amazing premise absolutely brimming with potential. The story starts off in the year 2022 with Kirigaya “Kirito” Kazuto logging into the latest virtual reality MMO, Sword Art Online, taking place in the VR world of Aincrad, only to find out soon after logging in that Sword Art Online is a “Death Game” – it is impossible to log out until each of Aincrad’s 100 levels are cleared, and dying in the game means also dying in real life.

Try as I might, I just can’t fault the first 14 episodes of Season 1. I absolutely love the Aincrad arc, and it’s one of my favourite arcs in anime. This arc shows us how Aincrad’s 10,000 inhabitants reacted to their new lives trapped within SAO; figuring out how the controls worked; finding out what the game rules are; exploring Aincrad; improving their gear, levels and skills; forming guilds; working together to clear the levels.

The story clips along at an impressive pace – in fact, one of my only criticisms of Season 1 is that it felt a little bit rushed at time, with the entire Season 1 arc, from Kirito’s arrival in Aincrad to the mid-season finale all playing out in the space of only 14 episodes. They could have easily stretched out this arc into 1 or maybe even 2 standalone seasons – I wonder why they chose not to?

And, of course, the Aincrad arc is where Kirito meets Asuna and a legendary OTP is born…

Kirito and Asuna’s romance is the beating heart of SAO

Watching Kirito and Asuna fall madly in love during their time together in Aincrad and beyond was an absolute high-point for me. They’re such a wholesome couple; it’s a joy to see them grow up and mature together as the seasons go on. As one twitter user eloquently said, “they are trust and loyalty personified”. They brought out the best in one another throughout the show, which is what true love is all about.

The intensity and gravity of Kirito and Asuna’s relationship isn’t something you usually see from characters of their age – for slightly older viewers, it might remind you of your first love and all the wonderful but bittersweet memories you might have of that time. That was certainly the case for me. It made me feel very nostalgic for the first time I fell in love, which is probably by SAO left such an impression on me.

Young love is the purest type of love, free from the distractions and complications of adulthood. That’s what makes it so powerful and unique. SAO takes this one step further by allowing Kirito and Asuna to explore their relationship free from the constraints of the physical world as well. It’s hard to imagine two 14-year-olds falling in love, getting married and buying a house together in our world – but in the virtual world, anything is possible. Existing in a world where you can go/do/be whatever you want, yet choosing to spend that time just being with someone you love? It doesn’t get more romantic than that.

The second half of Season 1 continues with more drama, more heartbreak and more videogames

Anybody who has played MMOs seriously for any length of time knows that nobody ever truly quits MMOs. Seemingly, the same is true for Kirito because he’s straight back into another VRMMO called Alfheim Online in the second half of Season 1.

A lot of people really, really dislike the ‘Fairy Dance’ arc. I have my own theories as to why that might be, but it’s definitely not because the show itself or the writing dips in quality. In actual fact, I think the story actually becomes a little more complex and nuanced in the Fairy Dance arc, with the focus shifting further away from hack n’ slash action and more onto characters’ interpersonal relationships. I can imagine this might have been disappointing for viewers for whom action and fantasy are what attracted them to SAO in the first place.

I also think it has something to do with the fact that boys and young men feel that there’s something inherently unmanly about fairies, and we can’t be having that, can we?

Season 2 starts to drift astray

Season 2 is quite a drastic change of pace from Season 1. It’s split into two distinct arcs – “Phantom Bullet” and “Mother’s Rosario” – which are as different as chalk and cheese.

I think that Season 2’s Phantom Bullet arc has the weakest concept, but this is mostly a matter of taste. Season 2 takes place, at least from Kirito’s perspective, in another VRMMO called Gun Gale Online, which trades the fantasy and whimsy of Alfheim for a futuristic post-apocalyptic wasteland. I’m more of a swords and sorcery kind of girl, so Gun Gale Online failed to connect with me like Aincrad or Alfheim did. Gunplay and dystopia is a turn-off for me.

Also… I just can’t get over Kirito’s avatar being a girl in Gun Gale Online. That was a strange design decision.

Kirito does eventually return to Alfheim in the “Mother’s Rosario” arc, but the true focus of the arc is on Asuna and her new guild the ‘Sleeping Knights’ in which the members are all terminally ill. I think this arc will resonate a lot with people who’ve made friends online, and then sadly lost them for whatever reason. I lot of people, especially young people, can attest first-hand to the fact that the people we meet online world can influence us just as strongly as our friends in the real world. When they disappear, something real is still lost – intangible is not the same as inconsequential.

It seems that a concerted effort was made by the writers to develop Kirito and Asuna’s characters independently of one another in Season 2 – they spend the majority of the season apart. This isn’t a bad thing per say, but it does mean that (what I feel are) SAO’s principle selling points take a back seat in this season.

Alicization and Alicization: War of Underworld is a mixed bag

This is the point in the show where I think fans of sci-fi will start to get into their stride. Alicization’s story is essentially one long thought experiment as to what would happen if you set thousands of fully sentient AI loose in a virtual world and left them to run their own society for thousands of years – and then introduced non-AI to come and mess it all up. There are some elements of the narrative which, even coming from someone who is trying to defend the series, are blatantly ridiculous, but overall, I thought the writers took the initial premise in a really interesting direction.

Once again, the romance themes take a backseat in this season, with Eugeo taking Asuna’s place as Kirito’s right hand man. Eugeo is a very likable character, so there’s no complaints there, but it was very unsatisfying to see Asuna wandering around the material world without very much to do, whilst Kirito and Eugeo are doing their thing in the virtual world. She does eventually rejoin Kirito in War of Underworld though.

Kirito gets himself yet another boo in the form of Alice, who joins Kirito’s ever-expanding harem because no harem is complete without a tsundere. Arguably, by the time the final season, War of Underworld comes around, the story isn’t even about Kirito anymore, with Alice arguably dethroning him as the true protagonist.

Speaking of War of Underworld, I know I’ve made excuses for SAO’s ‘farfetched’ (which is putting it kindly) storytelling, the last season takes it to a new level. The premise of War of Underworld is absolutely ridiculous and I can’t really defend it – I won’t go into spoilers, but as soon as you start trying to tie in international cyber-warfare and the goddamn CIA with virtual reality MMOs, you know you’re stretching just a bit too far. They just wanted an excuse to get all the characters from previous seasons together in one place.

Overall, I think Alicization is actually a pretty strong season, but War of Underworld bites off more than it can chew. I loved the concept of the first series, but I don’t think there was quite enough scope to make another three seasons following on from it without getting ridiculous – War of Underworld is the result of the writers trying to milk the IP for as many seasons as they can, even if the story has already come to a natural end, which I feel it did all the way back in Season 1. Unfortunately, I don’t see this problem going away since War of Underworlds left on a cliff-hanger which is clearly setting up a fifth season.

The problem with Kirito…?

When I hear people hate on Sword Art Online, a lot of the time their gripes aren’t with the show itself, but rather with its protagonist, Kirito. Kirito has a reputation for being a boring, flavourless character. A lot of people feel that he is consistently overpowered throughout the show, he excels at everything he does with seemingly no effort, and he seems to know everything ahead of time.

I have to admit that, at least in part, they’re absolutely right. In Season 1, Kirito is presented as being so powerful that he can solo dungeons and bosses (which would be absolutely impossible in an MMO) and there are multiple scenes where other players’ attacks phase right through him because his level is so high.

Overpowered characters can destroy the narrative stake. Any sense of consequence or suspense in a show is removed if the audience is already certain that the protagonist will always win. However, personally, although I can acknowledge that Kirito is overpowered, it didn’t really affect my enjoyment of him as a character. A lot of Kirito’s character development is less about his physical strength and more coping emotionally with the things he goes through and dealing with trauma, which has nothing to do with how powerful he is.

In fact, Kirito displays moments of vulnerability throughout the show, especially with regards to his feelings for Asuna, which are quite unusual for young male protagonists in anime, who are more likely to become angry when something bad happens than allow themselves to be sad. Perhaps this is part of what turns young male viewers off of Kirito. He is a sensitive character that wears his heart on his sleeve and isn’t afraid to cry when he’s sad – the antithesis of what our society says a hero should be.

Besides, I would like to say that Kirito is pretty much nerfed by the time that the Aincrad arc is over in Season 1. By the time Alicization roles around, Kirito is definitely needing to rely on others to help him out in battle rather than one-shotting everything like he did in Season 1.

In defence of Kirito, there are at least some logical explanations for his crazy abilities in Season 1. Having been a beta-tester for Sword Art Online and a long time MMO player, Kirito is naturally very skilled in SAO and is privy to lots of information that normal players wouldn’t have. Additionally, virtual reality is a world free from physical or anatomical limitations, so there’s no reason why his size and physicality should hold him back in-game.

SAO is a romance anime dressed up to look like a shounen

I feel like SAO’s problem is that it refuses to sit nicely within a single genre. It can’t seem to decide what it wants to be. Is it really a romance anime? Is it an sci-fi isekai first and foremost? Whose to say? SAO is a Jack of All Trades, but Master of None, which can leave the show feeling disjointed. Sometimes it felt like each season was trying to take the show in a completely new direction and it was difficult to keep up.

Whilst that might be true, it still doesn’t come close to explaining the disdain the anime community has for SAO. From where I’m looking at it, SAO is not a bad anime by any means – it’s a heart-warming story about young love and online gaming. Its storytelling may be corny and ridiculous, but if that was enough to turn a whole generation of viewers off of a show, then anime as a genre would cease to exist. The real problem is harder to pin down.

I feel like a lot of the hate SAO gets is from people who don’t really understand what SAO is all about. At it’s core, SAO is a romance anime, with action/fantasy elements thrown in to pad out the story and widen its appeal. Once you understand this, it’s easy to see why some people found SAO so frustrating.

Romance anime are already something that you either love or you hate – having romance in a shounen anime (traditionally marketed towards teenage boys and young men) is problematic because there’s not a lot of crossover between the two target audiences.

Of all the shounen anime I’ve watched, SAO is the most unapologetic is exploring romantic themes. There’s usually some light flirting or crushing that goes on in shounen anime, but it’s very rare to see two young characters fall in love, buy a house, get married and adopt a child together. I can’t imagine anything that would make a teenage boy or young man more uncomfortable than that. Ewwww, feelings. And that is the problem with SAO.

Then again, maybe I just have terrible taste in anime. Roll credits!

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