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Sword Art Online at Aniplex Online Fest

by Lynzee Loveridge,

Our VRMMO-tripping hero Kirito has been left in a lurch while invaders descend on the Ocean Turtle in the real world and forces move in to capture Alice in the virtual one. Fans too, have been waiting to find out the conclusion of Kirito's latest crisis as the Alicization arc heads towards it show-stopping conclusion.

Aniplex Online Fest gathered series director Manabu Ono, and Alice's voice actress Ai Kayano for a Sword Art Online-focused panel on Saturday. Ono and Kayano flanked three 1:1-scale swords from the anime series as they answered questions and commented on some of the most memorable moments from the anime, led by MC and comedian Tenshin Mukai. Before the panel got into the swing of things, Mukai commented that Ono has incredibly good posture reminiscent of newscaster Christel Takigawa. Kayano commented that Ono is actually very tall. Ono revealed he's 187cm (approximately 6ft 1in) and staff had to make table adjustments for him.

Despite their different roles in the series, Ono and Kayano do have one similarity. Both are Sword Art Online "newbies" insomuch as Kayano's character Alice joined the series cast for the aptly named Alicization arc and Ono took over directing duties after Tomohiko Ito exited following the release of Sword Art Online the Movie: Ordinal Scale. Kayano first voiced Alice in Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization video game, two years prior to the character's anime debut. Initially, Kayano hoped but was unsure if she would get return to voice the character in the anime. Several fellow voice actors, including Nobunaga Shimazaki (Eugeo) and Yoshitsugu Matsuoka (Kirito), reassured her that they were excited to continue working with her and director Ito also approved her for the role.

Kayano found Alice to be complicated as a character. "She's very difficult to understand, like trying to grab onto a cloud. But I thought if Alice doesn't know herself, how could I possibly know her?" Kayano struggled to understand Alice until the scene where she climbs Central Cathedral with Kirito. The characters discuss rediscovering who they are and in that moment Kayano settled on Alice also being unsure of herself.

"Like Alice in Wonderland, she will always be uncertain of herself." The character has multiple expressions and identities over the course of the Alicization arc and each is different from the one seen previously, whether it's child Alice or Alice Synthesis Thirty.

Ono's impression of Alice is she's very cute as a child, very different as a knight. He described Alice's later personality as "mature, dignified, conscientious, earnest, basically a prototypical knight." It's Kirito that brings out the more human side of the character.

Kayano stated that in the studio, she doesn't get too much direction directly from Ono and original creator Reki Kawahara also visits often. Ono elaborated on his role as a director and stated that he works closely with Kawahara and the series' sound director Yoshikazu Iwanami. The actors usually don't discuss their scenes with Ono; instead Iwanami is the go-between and sometimes delivers notes on behalf of Ono. Kayano commented that she usually just sees Ono on the other side of glass screen in the booth and sitting next to him now was a bit nerve-wracking.

Kayano recalled one interaction with Kawahara where he apologized for the difficult terminology in the series. It turns out that saying "Alice Synthesis 30" and "Central Cathedral" is much more difficult than writing it. Kayano spent considerable time at home practicing her diction to sound authoritative.

Directorial styles can vary, of course. Ono usually participates in script meetings for the series where the team figures out how to adapt Kawahara's novels into individual episodes and whether they need to rearrange events, cut scenes for time constraints, or explore scenes in different ways. Ono also referenced the significant time gap between the novels' publication and the anime and how the team may adjust or change scenes due to "shifts in social climate." The comment seemed to be in reference to Kawahara's own statement about scenes of sexual violence in the story.

He also checks in Kawahara on how to animate the individual sword skills. Ono noted that Kawahara knows how many strikes there are for each attack and which way the weapons should swing in succession. Ono will check with the novelist to make sure he has a firm grasp how each attack will look.

Ono's other duties include overseeing the storyboards, which he sometimes draws himself or delegates to other staff members. After he checks and corrects storyboards, the team then moves to actual animation. Sword Art Online has a large team of animators that handle the sakuga, all supervised by the animation director. Ono then looks over the animation to see if anything needs changed and pops into other departments to check their work as well.

"I try to reflect my personal vision in the work," Ono said.

The freedom to express his artistic vision was important to Ono. He had heard rumors among the industry that Ito would be leaving the director's chair for the Sword Art Online franchise. He was then approached directly by Aniplex to see if he was interested in filling the vacancy, but he didn't accept immediately. Ono said he'd like to hear more about it. He knew the series had until that point reflected Ito's vision, but Aniplex assured him that Alicization's tone would be different from previous seasons and new characters would appear, leaving Ono room to explore.

Once production began, Ono was in for a heavy workload. Alicization was heavy both in terms of material and sheer amount of work, but Ono didn't want fans to worry about him.

The panel switched up to watching some of the highlights from the anime's last season and revealing some tidbits about the creative staff. During Lisbeth's heartfelt speech from episode 11, Kayano revealed that the blacksmith is actually Matsuoka's favorite character. Ono mentioned that Ayahi Takagaki's masterful performance carried the scene and much of the animation was based on how she delivered her lines.

The anime's final episode was also decided quite late into production. The staff had tried to decide whether to end the season with Sinon's descent onto the battlefield or the episode that came after, but finally committed at the last minute. Ono thought ending at the moment that Sinon and Asuka reunite felt more impactful.

Sword Art Online: Alicization - War of Underworld Part 2 will premiere on July 11. The season is marketed as the arc's "final season" and will stream on Crunchyroll, HIDIVE, Funimation, and Hulu. Toonami began airing the Sword Art Online: Alicization - War of Underworld anime on January 18.

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