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Interview: The Staff of Sword Art Online Alicization

by Jacob Chapman,

It was a big weekend for Sword Art Online at Anime Expo this year, with guests in attendance from the production of both the lighthearted Gun Gale Online spinoff and the main series' upcoming mega-arc: Sword Art Online: Alicization. While it was still too early to preview the show set to premiere this fall, you could definitely feel the nervous energy of series producer Shinichiro Kashiwada and voice actors Yoshitsugu Matsuoka (Kirito) and Ai Kayano (Alice), as they wrestled with the tender balance of hyping up the new series without spoiling any of the twists and turns that give this arc its reputation.

For my part, I had never before held an interview where the tension between wanting to spill everything and yet say nothing was so heavy in the room. The guests seemed to be holding back strong feelings about the material at all times, and there were multiple breaks in the interview where answers were cut short for fear of getting in trouble, as their excitement over the new series could barely be contained. (And while there are no major spoilers in this interview, some minor details about Alicization's completely different setting and plot did slip through, so read at your own risk.) I came into the interview knowing next to nothing about Alicization, but thanks to the uniquely passionate energy of the room, I left with great anticipation for whatever this next unusual chapter of SAO would bring.

So there's a new design aesthetic for Alicization because it's new Full Dive software and a new fantasy world. What was the process like designing all of the new assets for the story?

Kashiwada: The new visuals have a much heavier fantasy bias, and there are many more new characters, so it's very different. For this process, the principal character designer is still Shingo Adachi, but there are two more for a total of three character designers. And we have gone through design changes for past game systems such as Gun Gale Online, but we'll still have the consistency of the Sword Art Online game style informing these changes, so it's a look that we can all expect and enjoy.

What was the reasoning behind having three character designers? Is there an art-style shift within the story?

Kashiwada: Including Alice and the enemy, there are many more new characters, and we also have a new director for the show. There has been a gradual shift in staff toward new talent that need to get incorporated. The other two character designers, Tomoya Nishiguchi and Gou Suzuki, worked very well in the last feature. So they deserve their promotion.

Well, congratulations to them. So does this arc present any new acting challenges for Mr. Matsuoka as Kazuto? You've been playing the character for so long, what about this story was new for you as an actor?

Matsuoka: In fact, the first challenge came right in episode one. I hope we're allowed to talk about this, but right away, Kirito, Eugeo, and Alice all show up as eleven-year-olds. When I looked at the visual of the characters, they looked much younger than eleven to me.

Kashiwada: Complain to Adachi on that one!

Matsuoka: Ms. Kayano could get by okay, but Nobunaga Shimazaki as Eugeo and myself as Kirito were in constant fear of performing in episode one, as if we were going to get fired. They're supposed to be eleven, but they look like eight-year-old characters. I didn't expect to have to do a young boy's voice.

Kayano: If it's an eleven-year-old boy, the part is usually performed by a female voice actor.

This arc has some major twists, like the one you mentioned in the very first episode. Do you read ahead when you're preparing to play the character, or do you like to go in blind?

Matsuoka: It really depends on the show. If I know too much about what's going to happen, it's going to rob me of the freshness of my acting. But if it's a complicated story and I don't know what's going on, then I may get things wrong, and Alicization is a very complicated story arc, so I think I did need to read everything ahead of time for this arc.

Kayano: For me, it also really depends on the title. I think I'm a similar type of performer as Mr. Matsuoka. For the Alicization arc, I'm actually reading the novel as we record. But the story is very intricate, and it takes time to digest, so each time I receive my next script, I go to the novel and read through the same place in preparation.

What was Ms. Kayano's familiarity with Sword Art Online before being cast, and what was your reaction when you get the titular role in such a big project?

Kayano: I knew about Sword Art Online, but I didn't have too many opportunities to get to know the show in detail. I debuted as a voice actor around the same time as Mr. Matsuoka, so I had the chance to hear about what he got to do as a cast member of SAO, such as going on stage overseas. I didn't think that I would get to have the same chance, so that part of the experience has been wonderful. When I got the role on SAO, I was very quick to let Matsuoka know that I would be his co-star.

Sword Art Online has many heroines. What makes Alice stand out most to you compared to the others?

Kayano: Alice is a mystery. Just like her namesake inspiration, she introduces you to a world full of wonder, and there are already surprises starting in episode one if you've been a long-time viewer of SAO. And if you haven't read the novels, you will really be surprised at what's going on throughout the story. But that's something to wait for, to enjoy the wonderful surprises.

I have not read ahead, so I'm certainly waiting to be surprised by the anime.

Kashiwada: We can guarantee that you will at times be wondering if this really is Sword Art Online.

While I have not read ahead, everyone I know who has says that this is the best part of Sword Art Online so far. Do you feel similarly? Why do you think this arc is so beloved?

Matsuoka: It's difficult to answer, because anything we said would be a spoiler.

(As if predicting his own mistake, Matsuoka then made a remark that had to be hastily hushed up by the Aniplex representatives in the room. Kashiwada elected to handle the question from there.)

Kashiwada: I can probably say that once again Kirito will be staking his life to resolve a conflict within the context of a game, but just as Matsuoka said, this time it's different because there's a life and death matter taking place in the real world. Also, in previous incarnations of the game, we didn't have game characters starting to become sentient on their own. So there are those heavier themes involved, and perhaps that will make it easier to sympathize with a wide range of characters.

Alright, I'm really excited now. So without spoiling anything, what moment are you most excited for fans to see animated?

Kayano: SAO has many iconic heroines, but I think Alice will be the one that you really can't your eyes off of, because Alice changes the most throughout the story, and that's something that I'm looking forward to portraying as a voice actress myself. Although we haven't gotten to the place where she undergoes her greatest change yet in recording, she will go through a lot that I want viewers to experience.

Kashiwada: If I were to give you one keyword as a hint, keep notice of the blue rose.

Matsuoka: What? I don't even know what he means by that!

Kayano: Yes, that's even cryptic to us. There will be a lot of fascinating weapons as well throughout the show, so that's something to look forward to.

(Perhaps uneasy after his slip-up earlier, Matsuoka struggled with answering this question before Kayano intervened.)

Kayano: Matsuoka, you're friends with Nobunaga, so what about Kirito's friendship with Eugeo?

Matsuoka: Yes, there is a development in their relationship that's going to be heart-clutching.

(Matsuoka tried to find the words to elaborate on this, but the tension was too great, and the room broke down into teasing and laughter.)

I feel like I've accidentally caused a small scuffle here.

Matsuoka: I still don't even know what Kashiwada was talking about with that "blue rose" hint.

Well it sounds like there is a lot to look forward to.

Thanks to Anime Expo and Aniplex for the opportunity.

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