For reasons unknown to science, I watched all fifty episodes of Sword Art Online. The show had been sold to me as, among other things, “The Smartest Anime I’ve Seen In Years,” and “not entirely a waste of time, I guess.”
It is, instead, the worst thing I’ve seen with my eyes.
Allow me, for a few hundred words, to get Mad Online about why.
This is Kirito. He likes video games, and is a bit of a loner, on account of being just too good for everyone else. He is the worst parts of every bad shonen protagonist combined, with not a shred of personality to compensate. When he is on screen, he destroys every possible ember of dramatic tension and renders the entire premise inert, which is a problem seeing as he is the main character.
What is that premise? Well, it’s nothing original, there’s at least two other shows with pretty much the same one: you die in the game, you die for real. Sword Art Online is the story of the titular MMO, which a bunch of players log into and discover that their souls are now trapped inside the virtual world until the dungeon is cleared! Dun dun dun!!!
It’s fine. There’s even a little bit of propulsion and tension after the first episode when Kirito runs off to begin his quest, a tiny glimmer of hope that this just might be something worth watching. Immediately, everything falls apart.
The first season functions as a series of vignettes, twelve episodes taking us on a two-year journey of the life of the players inside SAO. It’s a strange approach, in that any momentum built up in a single episode dissipates on contact with air, but not inherently flawed. The idea of compressing time in order to show the evolution of a society is not one without merit, what is without merit is what they do with that.
Sword Art Online may have some ideas about virtual experiences as legitimate expressions of self, but all fall by the wayside of the show’s only true goal: making you think that Kirito is the best. human. ever.
This scenario happens at least four times:
- Kirito enters a new town.
- Kirito saves a woman from another man with nefarious aims
- Said woman falls in love with Kirito
- Kirito leaves and breaks their heart
Leaving beside the show’s gender politics for a second (oh, we’ll get to them, believe me), it’s just tragically bad writing. There’s no attempt to invest in Kirito as a character, because he achieves everything immediately, everybody loves him the second they meet him, and he will overcome every obstacle through simply being the best. It’s more sad than it is frustrating, because the show is so concerned with selling its power fantasy that it fails to connect emotionally on any level.
Storytelling is an intimate act, we fall in love with stories, we laugh and cry and form bonds with people who never existed. And intimacy requires vulnerability. Sword Art Online is the tragedy of masculinity writ large, so terrified of ever appearing weak that it prevents anyone from ever forming a true connection.
But the show’s terror runs so deep that you cannot even feel sorry for it, as that terror expresses itself hatefully towards everyone who isn’t Kirito. Every other woman is instantly in love with Kirito, due to his skill and strength, and every other man is a vulgar sexual harasser. The worldview is made clear, to Sword Art Online you are either prize or his competition, and the distinction is drawn across gendered lines.
Sword Art Online is nothing unique, merely another in a long line of fantasies, serving up a worldview that is as toxic as it is boring. Not to say there is nothing worthwhile here, one arc telling the story of Asuna and Yuuki is touching and kind, because without the need for its hero to appear strong, the show doesn’t need to be afraid anymore.
Those moments of potential only serve to highlight the failures surrounding them. As with many stories of this type, it isn’t like they’re incapable of caring, it’s merely that they don’t want to.