I used to be one of those people. I used to avoid anime. I would scroll through Netflix, see an anime title, and instantly reject it. Why? Because anime is weird. People told me to try it, they told me that it’s really good when you get used to it. This only leads me to judge those people harshly. “They’re weird, ” I thought to myself, “They can no longer be my friend” I decided. Over the past three days, my mind has been opened; anime is really weird, and yet it is also amazing.
The first I heard of Sword Art Online when my brother mentioned it to me a few years ago. He said the name in passing and my response was thus:
“Sounds like a video game.”
“Yes, it’s supposed to” he replied.
I forgot about this until earlier in 2015 when the exact same thing happened, this time in a shop. I later found it on Netflix and added it to my list. It was only a few days ago that I decided to take the plunge. I watched one episode and my reaction was to tweet the following.
And it is. I stand firmly behind this tweet. I watched all 25 episodes of Sword Art Online and you know what? Anime is weird – but sometimes it’s great. And it is greater than it is weird if that makes sense.
Sword Art Online is about a video game – an MMO in the year 2022 called Sword Art Online, hilariously enough. What’s exciting about this video game it that it is the first to use a new VR technology called ‘Nerve Gear’ which straps on to your head, and it’s basically like Avatar except better in every way. Your mind is transferred to this virtual world where you fight monsters and hang out with other players in a fantasy world. It’s amazing and everyone logs in on the launch day since it’s the first of its kind. Things go well until the players notice that there is no way to leave; the logout button is missing. They learn that if someone removes the Nerve Gear helmet in the real world, they’ll die. They also learn that if they die in the game, they die in real life. It’s Matrix rules without the convenient telephone situation or any other way of leaving. The only way they can leave is if the boss on the 100th level of this big old tower has been defeated (which means they have to beat the bosses of all the other 99 floors as well). So that kind of sucks and people get upset about it.
We follow the story of Kirito. Kirito is special in this world; he was a beta tester, which gives him a distinct advantage; there were only 200 beta testers (it’s worth clarifying here that the players could log out during the beta test). He’s also MLG pro-MVP god – like seriously, he’s so OP most of the time that’s it’s sort of ridiculous. There’s one point where about four other players attack him at the same time and his reaction is to tank it; his HP is so high at that point that, even with all four players attacking at the same time, he couldn’t be harmed. Kirito meets a girl named Asuna. Asuna is mysterious and at first, they don’t get along, but after time, they grow to love each other in an entirely predictable manner. I’ve no problems with this because it’s not that important – what is important is that they are head over heels for each other and damn well pleased about it. The plot then follows. I won’t spoil it for you, go watch it for yourself. Their love is cheesy, yet somehow it’s not cringy. I genuinely cared about their relationship because it’s not over the top, it’s almost subtle and you could call it realistic, depending on your expectations. I cared so deeply by the end for these two; any harm that came to either of them felt like it was harming me too. Okay – maybe not that extreme, but them sticking together felt, for some reason, really important to me.
It’s not all love and games in Sword Art Online, there are the other people as well, and more than that, the world of Sword Art Online is incredibly detailed – it almost feels real. The story is about this world and the people who live in it, and the writing really brings the world and its people to life. I mentioned that Kirito was a beta tester earlier. Well, that causes some friction early in the story and also throughout. You see, some people reckon that beta testers have an unfair advantage – a six-month unfair advantage to be precise. Worse, these beta testers, with their advanced knowledge about the game, generally decided not help new players out when the crisis began and just play solo, collecting all the good items before anyone else could get them. This, you’ll agree, is not very sporting and you could describe this kind of behaviour as cheating. Shocking – I know. These people are labelled ‘beaters’ – a combination of beta tester and cheater. I’m not sure what’s wrong with calling someone a cheater but whatever floats your boat. Beaters are not well liked in this world and some people say some right nasty things to them. Those things hurt. Beaters are discriminated against and treated with a certain level of suspicion. Because Kirito is a beater some choose not listen to him when he tells them something important – a move which seems really stupid considering that he probably knows what he’s talking about. It’s this kind of real world discrimination, brought into a fantasy world, which makes the people seem like people. A proper society emerges, with all sorts of social issues, there is a big army which keeps the peace between people, there are lawbreakers who steal from others and murders who murder each other, there’s common racism, there’re shops, there’s true complexity in the world.
I could go on. And I would if I could make it interesting. There’s so much that I want to write about – the people, the world, the story, the way the game makes sense and is generally really well thought out and so on. Honestly, it’s fantastic. I do however want to talk about anime in general and not just stick to how great Sword Art Online is. Anime is weird. Most of the time I’ve no issue with its weirdness. It really adds to the experience when something so predictably anime happens. It’s an inexplicable mix of cheesy and deadly serious, and a heap of melodrama mixed with genuine drama. It sounds like it can’t work, but it’s amazing. Just look at the opening credits for God’s sake!
The confusing translations also add to it. I’ve read those lyrics many times and I still don’t know what it’s on about. I have no issue with that. I think it’s great and can only amplify my enjoyment. Anime is anime. It’s weird, and I can’t even explain why. All I know is that there were several moments where my reaction was “yup, this is an anime.” Sometimes things happen which are so typically anime that I can’t help but feel exasperated. Women are all attractive people – far more than the men (although this may be just my heterosexual male viewpoint), and I don’t really know how I feel about it. They spend half their time being over emotional, and the other half being genuinely strong characters. I can’t think of a single woman in SAO who wasn’t up for a fight. The women are strong and feel necessary, so I don’t think I have an issue with them. Anime is weird. I can only explain why by showing you this (with the mildest of spoilers):
Sword Art Online is brilliant. Go watch it. I finished it yesterday and since then I’ve felt a familiar sense of emptiness I always get when something great ends. I got it with the Witcher 3, and I got it (not quite as much) from this. It’s an emotional ride which left me feeling warm and happy, but also sad that it was over. Yes, I know there is a series 2, but I don’t want to watch it in case it’s not as good. It doesn’t feel like something which should have a sequel or a potential film for that matter. I may try watching the next series, but I’m not interested in disappointment. Anime is weird – but most of the time, it’s great.