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Sword Art Online The Movie: Ordinal Scale's Hollywood Premiere

by Jacob Chapman & Kim Morrissy,

An excited crowd of SAO fans piled into Grauman's Egyptian Theater in Hollywood this Wednesday to enjoy the premiere of the Ordinal Scale movie, alongside an impressive slate of guests from all aspects of the franchise for a night on the red carpet. Creator Reki Kawahara and illustrator abec joined the producers and directors from the SAO anime and the bulk of the English dub cast for the screening, and we got to ask the Japanese staff a series of questions before the main event! Here's what they had to say:

Kim Morrissy, ANN: For Reki Kawahara, you wrote a couple episodes of the TV series which were original screenplays, and you also wrote this film, an original story. What's the biggest difference between writing a screenplay and writing a novel?

Reki Kawahara, author, Sword Art Online: One difference with a screenplay is, you don't get to depict what's going on inside the character's heads. So I found that to be somewhat of a challenge.
However, in a screenplay, you get to play with very concrete events. That was a challenge that was fun to pursue.

For Shingo Adachi, how many cuts did you directly supervise on this film and did you have time to animate any cuts yourself?

Shingo Adachi, Chief Animation Director, Sword Art Online the Movie: Ordinal Scale:
I don't have a specific count, but I would say I supervised up to 2/3rds of the cuts. For trailers, commercials and promotional videos, I handled them pretty much all myself, I supervised them all and handled key animation as well.

I did work directly on a whole lot of retakes, and especially because of that I had very little involvement in any key animation from scratch on the film itself. Except for the very end of the film where [REDACTED – spoilers!]  For that part, the director specifically requested me to draw that. But also for posters and stills, for this film, I supervised pretty much all of them and I saw the serial numbers go up into the 90s, so if I include all the numbered ones I probably supervised at least 100 posters and stills.

I tend to think the bulk of my real work is to come up with all the promotional material. No matter how good the film is, if there's no one at the theater then there's no one there to appreciate it. So I tend to think my real work is coming up with those promotional stills.

For Tomohiko Ito, your last TV series was ERASED, which aired in Winter 2016. Were you working on this film and ERASED at the same time? If so, what was your schedule like – and are you OK?

Tomohiko Ito, Director, Sword Art Online the Movie: Ordinal Scale: The production of Ordinal Scale was completely parallel to the development work on ERASED. To give you a timeline, Mr. Kawahara was working on the script for Ordinal Scale and came up with a plot draft around February 2015 – the first draft was completed around September 2015. As soon as the screenplay was finalized, that's when the storyboards started. It was another director working on the action scenes for this film – and he was also working on ERASED. So we were both in parallel production.

For Kazuma Miki, you wrote a book – Omoshirokereba Nandemo Ari (“If It's Interesting, The Sky's the Limit”), – in that book you talk a lot about how important it is to cross-promote light novels across television, film, videogames and whatever else, and I was wondering what in your professional opinion is the most important for the longevity of the franchise?

Kazuma Miki, editor, Sword Art Online:
There's a definite answer for that, to me – the original novels. Mr. Kawahara writes the novels and it's our job to make sure the novels are the best-known in the world.
Multimedia development works – if we animate Sword Art Online, it'll reach anime watchers all over the world who might not have access to the light novel. It all makes sense.

Our full review from ANN's regular Sword Art Online reviewer Theron Martin will be available next week, once the film opens in theaters nationwide. In the meantime, here are some spoiler-free film impressions from Anime News Network Associate Editor Jacob Chapman:

Given that this movie is all-new material both conceived and fully scripted by SAO's original author, meant to lead directly into more SAO TV series material, I'm not gonna bother pretending that fans are waiting on any recommendation for this one. Good, bad, or mediocre, you're going to watch this movie if you're an SAO diehard (or probably even a casual like me), so I figure the best thing I can do is give you just enough spoiler-free information to help set your expectations down in a comfortable place for what this movie will actually deliver relative to the hype after a two-year wait.

In terms of spectacle, Ordinal Scale is an exercise in extremes. The battle scenes are bigger, louder, and more tactile than they've ever been before, since the gang is taking on foes in augmented reality where not even Kirito can pull off outlandish magical acrobatics. Limiting the cast to physical actions that can be performed by your average nerd could absolutely have backfired, so changing the focus to giant group-based strategies against enormous monsters rather than PvP shows of overpowered stunts was a good call, and it's refreshing to see Kirito forced to compete against people who are far more physically coordinated than him for a change. Pretty much all the action is skirmishes against bosses from Aincrad, following a plot that's deeply entrenched in nostalgia for the first cour of the series specifically. (It's no exaggeration to say that nostalgia for this first arc is basically the theme of the whole movie, but that's all I can say on that note without spoilers. Characters and easter eggs from every arc in the show's first two seasons will make an appearance at some point, but the plot is totally centered around tying up loose ends and thematic threads from where it all began.) In terms of combat spectacle, SAO has never been more ambitious and grandiose than what you see in Ordinal Scale.

Unfortunately, on the other end of the spectrum from these jaw-dropping, mega-scale battles, the rest of the movie is surprisingly uncinematic in both direction and animation. There's a surprising amount of bland, flat shot framing and janky minimal drawing in any scene that isn't a giant fight, at least for a movie version of a TV show that usually had stronger direction and animation. (To be fair, there are many giant fights in the movie, but certainly not enough to fill up a two-hour runtime that's mostly based around Kirito solving a mystery, most similar to the Laughing Coffin story in Aincrad or the entire GGO arc.) To be perfectly frank, all the exposition and fanservice outside of the big action beats (most of the second act) is pretty dull - not an adjective I normally associate with this series. That's not to say the movie is boring to sit through most of the time, but SAO has set a pretty high bar for rapid pacing and ostentatious entertainment value by light novel anime standards, so just consider Ordinal Scale beneath the standards of compelling propulsion set by the TV show. Long story short, the fights are hot and the sleuthing is not.

Of course, pacing is in the eye of the beholder, and I've always been a bigger fan of SAO's aesthetic than its less developed characters, so maybe I'm just less amused by them spending so much time wandering around Tokyo compared to the show's VR worlds. So while casual fans may need to measure their expectations for the movie's pacing, more ardent fans will probably be happy just to spend more time with these characters. The real element that fans of all stripes should manage their expectations for is the story itself. It's at best divisive on an emotional front, you'll either love or hate its overwhelming focus on sentimentalism and nostalgia, but in terms of simply counting plotholes and whether the conspiracy at its center adds up, Ordinal Scale is the least amount of sense that an SAO anime story has yet made. The reason for that seems to largely be the reliance on its real-world setting, since Kawahara's past mysteries have largely relied on VR worlds where the author makes up all the rules and their exceptions. Switching the action over entirely to the real world reveals some deficits in Kawahara's understanding of how various technologies and corporations work, which means the plot only holds together if you're braced to accept a lot of contrivances. The stakes are also pretty low by SAO standards, so if you weren't already enjoying SAO in a "turn your brain off" kinda way, I'd definitely advise taking that approach with this movie.

So while every SAO fan is bound to check this movie out (and probably should given its important connections to the upcoming TV series), it's probably best to expect a starry-eyed commemoration of Aincrad driven by a ton of nostalgia, fanservice, and big battles over new content that will really blow fans' hair back. It's not a bad time by any means, but it's far from the best that SAO has to offer in terms of entertainment value.

You can get tickets for the release of Sword Art Online The Movie: Ordinal Scale and find a list of theaters at the film's official site. The movie opens in a limited engagement Thursday, March 9th.

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