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Understanding Sword Art Online

by Kim Morrissy,

Love it or hate it, Sword Art Online is arguably the most important light novel franchise of this decade.  Over 19 million copies have been sold worldwide as of 2016, 6.5 million of those in translation, making it one of the bestselling light novel series of all time. And if that wasn't enough, SAO hashelped popularize the “trapped in a video game world” subgenre for the light novel generation. Not bad for a series that originated from a web novel the author wrote as a hobby!

As a flagship title of an oversaturated genre, SAO has become an easy target for criticism, and while this is very understandable, I also think it's a bit of a shame. SAO was Reki Kawahara's first novel and also his least mature work. He could never have foreseen that it would become his representative work almost a decade after his authorial debut. Sword Art Online is undoubtedly an important work for Kawahara, but it's easier to appreciate it for all its flaws when you regard it within the broader context of his career.

In many ways, Kawahara's trajectory as a light novel author is similar to that of many young LN authors today. He began writing Sword Art Online in 2001 and started serializing it on his website in 2002 under the penname Fumio Kunori. He was eventually approached by Dengeki Bunko to have the series published in physical book form, a move which quickly propelled him into fame.

But Kawahara differed from the typical web-novel-author-turned-light-novel-author in two respects. Firstly, he made his debut in his thirties, much later than the typical young LN author who debuts in their early twenties. (In an interview, he jokes about how his writing feels so old-fashioned compared to the other authors.) And secondly, his debut series with Dengeki Bunko was not Sword Art Online but Accel World, a new story he submitted for the annual Dengeki Bunko Prize. In fact, it was because Accel World won the Grand Prize at the 2008 Dengeki Bunko Prize that Kawahara was approached with the suggestion to publish more of his works.

To put things in perspective, the entirety of the Sword Art Online storyline up to the end of the Alicization arc (volume 18) was written before the first volume of Accel World was published in 2009. This makes tracking Kawahara's growth as a writer a bit confusing, because the published SAO books are more or less the same as the web novel version, warts and all. He did write new short stories and make some extensive revisions to the web novel version of the story from the Phantom Bullet arc (volumes 5-6) onward, but it was an impossible task to smooth over the structural flaws in the story. Nobody knew that better than Kawahara himself.

Kawahara has always regretted in particular that the Aincrad storyline—the one where SAO gets its entire “stuck in a death game” premise from—is resolved in only one volume. He originally wrote the first volume of SAO to submit to the Dengeki Bunko Prize but couldn't make it fit the strict page limit. Although he never submitted it to the competition, the first volume was still written as a standalone work. It was only when Kawahara's readers on his website clamored for a sequel that Kawahara began writing new adventures for Kirito and his friends.

Kawahara's writing steadily improved over the course of the SAO storyline, but there were certainly mishaps along the way. Asuna's abrupt transformation from a strong female heroine to a damsel in distress in the Fairy Dance arc (volumes 3-4) proved controversial among viewers of the anime, who saw it as a regressive move for her character. Even Kawahara regretted the way he handled Asuna's character, which was why he wrote the standalone Mother's Rosario story (volume 7), where Asuna finally becomes the heroine of her own story. But does one volume of Asuna's adventures make up for all the occasions she's been conspicuously absent from the action? That's for readers to decide.

Kawahara has also been ambivalent about Kirito, the notoriously overpowered protagonist of Sword Art Online. Contrary to what his detractors often claim, Kawahara doesn't particularly favor Kirito over the other characters. If anything, Kawahara has always been drawn to characters with overt weaknesses. The hero of Accel World, for instance, is an overweight boy who wears his deep insecurities on his sleeve. Between 2004 and 2009, Kawahara also wrote a web novel called The Isolator, which revolves around a loner boy who shows depression-like symptoms. Kirito, on the other hand, is “very close to being perfect,” making him tricky to write. To Kawahara, Kirito's character represents more of a challenge than an ideal, and the most creative SAO plots have involved high stakes and tension even as they stay true to Kirito's essential nature.

Kawahara began to make huge leaps as an author after he made his debut with Accel World and started working with Kazuma Miki, the Dengeki Bunko editor notorious for never backing down when he wanted a change. A fundamentally shy and sensitive man, Kawahara initially had trouble reconciling creative differences, but he quickly flourished under Miki's guidance. Accel World became a critical and popular success in Japan, praised for its creative worldbuilding and interesting themes about virtual reality.

Although Accel World never became as popular as Sword Art Online, the experience Kawahara gained as a professional author allowed him to revisit SAO with a more clear-eyed perspective years later, when he was asked to write an extra story for the TV anime adaptation. This inspired him to begin publishing a reboot of the Aincrad arc in 2012 under the title Sword Art Online: Progressive. This new series, which only receives a new volume once a year, takes the reader through each floor of Aincrad from the beginning,and the storytelling and prose were noticeably smoother and more refined this time around. The original Aincrad story always excelled with its worldbuilding, but it was only in Progressive that the characters emerged as distinct and likable personalities in their own rights.

But Sword Art Online is more than just the Aincrad arc, which was first conceived over fifteen years ago. Although Kawahara does not consider his own works science fiction, he has displayed an uncanny ability to predict the trends of future technology and theorize about how young people would use them across the entire series. For the Ordinal Scale movie, Kawahara created a new game, which uses Augmented Reality technology not unlike Pokémon Go. That the SAO franchise can continue to excite and compel its audiences long after Aincrad's death game has ended is proof that the appeal of SAO lies in more than just its interesting original premise. Kawahara's portrayal of a virtual world that is inherently neither better nor worse than the physical world resonates with many readers, myself included.

Where will Sword Art Online go from here? The final volume of the Alicization arc was published last year, which was intended to be the original ending of the web novel version. But no doubt thanks to its huge success, the light novel series will continue. Although the latest volume (volume 19) is just a side story from the Alicization arc, it is expected that Kawahara will begin a new arc this year. It will be a completely original new story, and not based on anything written in the web novel.

That's right. After almost ten years of working as a professional author, Kawahara will finally continue the story he concluded in 2008. Not even the most hardcore Kawahara fan knows what will happen next in the Sword Art Online story. What will Kawahara bring to the table in light of all his experiences? I'm excited to find out.

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