Please note, this review contains season spoilers.
Sword Art Online II’s first story-arc is coming to a close, with only the “debriefing” episode (14.5) remaining before the second half begins. As such, I thought it would be a good time to discuss this sequel, and where it’s headed.
Unlike traditional anime series, Sword Art Online doesn’t appear to be going forward with seasons, per se. For those who have watched it from the start, Kirito’s time in both Sword Art Online (Aincrad) and Alfheim Online were all part of the same season.
Instead of going with Sword Art Online: Season 2, the show’s creators have chosen to follow gaming protocols, and labelled this new season “Sword Art Online II”. This seems fitting, if in fact it was done on purpose, as the hook for this series is that a large portion of the anime takes place inside of a virtual massively multiplayer online role playing game (VMMORPG).
SAO2 takes place in Gun Gale Online (GGO), and encompasses the 5th and 6th light novels “Phantom Bullet”. I’ve not read them, and so cannot speak to their translation/adaptation to the anime.
While several people told me to stay away from this sequel, I chose to watch it regardless, much like the second half of the first season which many told me to avoid. Here’s the thing about SAO, and while it is only an opinion, it is one shared by many; for all of the absolutely amazing things SAO does right, there are scenes that are so horrific and poorly handled that they border on ruining the series… in fact, some would argue that they have in fact ruined the series for them.
The first season of SAO started very strongly, avoided a bunch of cliches, introduced strong female characters, and yet despite all that, it then switched gears and spent countless episodes glorifying the woman in the refrigerator trope, inserting incestuous undertones (who are we kidding, undertones implies they may have been subtle), sexual assault, threats of rape, and a level of sleaziness that is quite honestly, hard to put into words.
You would think this would be enough to keep most fans of the series away, however as I mentioned before, SAO does everything else so bloody well. For many fans, the rational is that because the creators didn’t cross the line to a full-blown rape, we are willing to give the series another chance, hoping it can avoid such terrible story-telling in the future.
Spoiler warning: nope.
Not only did they objectify what could have been an insanely powerful female character, Shino Asada/Sinon (real name/in-game character name), by constantly focusing on her crass ass crack; but they eventually turned her into a feeble character whom Kazuto Kirigaya/Kirito has to rescue before she is raped by her would-be friend turned killer.
Some would argue that in the end, she overcame her fear and rescued Kazuto in return; however the fact remains that had he now shown up, she would have been raped… hence she was saved.
What’s disturbing is how easily this series turns to rape as its motivation for so many of their villains. What’s more disturbing is the insanity which we have to bear witness to as a character plunges into this darkness before they are about to assault various female lead characters.
The scenes are never about the horrific reality of rape. They’re used as cheap, sleazy tools only; and I would go so far as to say the creators are even trying to titillate their audiences with this madness… and this, more than anything, is what bothers me the most.
Here we have a female character with so much potential, who eventually becomes nothing more than yet another girl for Kirito to save. Look at everything she accomplishes in the season thus far though. Having had to murder a man at a young age to defend herself and her mother (as well as countless people in a post office), she joins a VMMO based on guns, in order to try to cure herself by way of immersion therapy. She becomes one of the most dangerous players in the game, gaining the respect of many of the other gamers (male and female), to the point of earning a target on her back from this season’s villain, Death Gun.
In real life, she has to overcome her insecurities, especially as it pertains to three bullies at her school, as well as deal with the stress of how all of this has affected her family life (which is near non-existent).
We wanted to see her rise to the challenge in the story-arc’s finale. We wanted to see her defend herself against her attacker and realize the strength which she possesses inside (both in-game, as well as in her real life).
Sadly, the show’s creators decided this was not to be the case.
So the question remains: would I recommend this season? The answer is yes, though with a warning. When I do recommend it to people, as I no doubt will, I will say that they should be prepared for a sexual assault in the form of an attempted rape. I don’t care if this spoils the, and I hate to use this word, climax of the story-arc. The viewer, in my opinion, deserves to know. I will even tell them which episode to avoid.
You may be wondering why then would I recommend it. The answer, as stated earlier, is that the series does a lot of other things right.
While some folks had a problem with the new First Person Shooter (FPS) setting, I quite liked it. I play a variety of games, including FPS titles, and so was happy to see SAO straying from the fantasy genre. Also, the concept of a VMMOFPS appeals to me… a lot.
As of late, Vince and I have been playing a pseudo MMOFPS (I say pseudo, as it barely qualifies as an MMO), and absolutely loving it, despite its flaws. The concept of diving into a virtual FPS sounds like an absolute blast (pardon the pun).
Some folks may take issue with the obvious Star Wars look and feel of GGO, including the iconic lightsabers; however Star Wars was hardly the first to develop energy swords. True, the energy swords in GGO are almost identical to lightsabers, and the game as a whole has the look and feel of Star Wars: The Old Republic (Korriban, and Dromund Kaas to be exact), but I’m ok with that.
SAO, in and of itself, is not an original concept. Being trapped in a game has been done before. So borrowing from various games and movies in order to tell a good story is an acceptable compromise, so long as the creators branch off enough to make it their own.
Finally, there’s Kirito’s new, effeminate avatar in GGO… which I love (as a plot device). It would have been too dangerous, especially considering how immaturely the creators handle other such issues, to have Kirito play a female avatar. He’d have spent most of his time fondling himself in an empty bathroom stall, if the story-arc’s finale is any indication.
However by making him very effeminate, the creators played with the notion of male gamers playing female avatars. This is something that comes up regularly in gaming conversations, and for every male player who insists you have to be a sexual deviant to play a female avatar as a male gamer, there are plenty of male gamers who answer “meh… what’s the big deal.”
I fall into the latter category. I play female characters and see nothing wrong with doing so. I don’t do it because I like watching a female ass run in front of me while I play, but rather because I personally feel that different race/gender combinations feel more natural in terms of the game’s lore. And it’s not because I feel female characters should be spellcasters (typically seen as less masculine), while melee classes should be men.
Going back to Destiny, my hunter, a guns and knives reliant class, is a kick-ass female; while my warlock, a guns and caster class, is a male. It just fits for me. And I feel that the moment you start drawing a line in the code that states it’s wrong for male players to play female avatars, you have helped all the male assholes continue to fight against female lead characters in games.
Going back to SAO, Kirito used his avatar’s appearance to his advantage a few times, and this is also a reality in games. I’m embarrassed to say, in the first year World of Warcraft came out, I may have failed to correct a male gamer who initiated a conversation with my female warlock, under the pretense that I was a woman.
I may have continued to work this angle until I’d received a sexy pair of new gloves from said player. In my defence, I was on a new realm, flat broke, and well, morally bankrupt. To be fair though, there are male gamers who have done far… far worse. And I know this, which is why I joke when I discuss my ill-begotten gloves. Which is why I enjoyed the few scenes where Kirito played up the avatar’s advantage. It was harmless, and when the moment came for him to stand up and admit he is a male gamer, he did.
Sword Art Online II had, much like its predecessor, the possibility of being one of the best anime currently playing; however much like its predecessor, it failed due to terrible choices made by the creators. Like many other fans of the series, I keep wishing for what could be, believing that Sword Art Online, as a whole, could be the best anime ever created. Sadly, that will never happen.
Still, it is definitely worth watching.