Interview: Sword Art Online Director Manabu Ono and Character Designer Shingo Adachi

by Richard Eisenbeis,

2018's Sword Art Online: Alicization began an arc of hit anime Sword Art Online that is set to finally conclude later this year. I got a chance to sit down with Sword Art Online: Alicization director Manabu Ono and Sword Art Online series character designer Shingo Adachi and we talked all about the changes made to Alicization's story, its most infamous scene, and the evolution of the character designs across all the Sword Art Online series.

Sword Art Online: Alicization is in an interesting spot as an anime—largely thanks to the existence of the 2017 film Sword Art Online: Ordinal Scale. Alicization is adapted from a series of novels. Ordinal Scale, however, is a completely original film. And while the movie was written after Alicization, it actually takes place a few days before Alicization begins. This means that if the Alicization anime were to follow the books exactly, it would ignore Ordinal Scale—and its ramifications—entirely. 

However, it was decided that the Alicization anime would take the more difficult route and change the story to include a fair share of subtle callbacks to Ordinal Scale. Director Ono explained how this came to pass.

“At the production meeting, the original author, Reki Kawahara, mentioned since the Alicization anime would be made after Ordinal Scale, there would be a discrepancy in the continuity compared to the novel,” Ono began. “So it was decided that the anime would be set in continuity with Ordinal Scale and that the discrepancy [between the Alicization anime and the novels] would become something [for viewers] to look forward to.”

Of course, these are not the only changes between the novels and the anime: The entire Zakkaria Sword Arts Tournament chapter of the series (about a sixth of a book) appears as only a 20-second montage. 

When asked how this and other such cuts were decided upon, Ono responded: “This also goes back to the production meeting that included Reki Kawahara. Since the novels contain so much information, there would be necessary omissions to adapt it for television—and also sublimations that would be required for the anime. And this was decided at that meeting.”

Another major change apparent in Alicization was how it looks visually. Compared to previous interactions in the franchise, Alicization appears much more vibrant in its colors. Ono explained why. “The basis [for this change] is that the Underworld needs to look different from the real world. So we started with an artboard. We had the [various] color schemes and we placed the character designs on top of them to come up with the color choices.” He then added, “And if it looks different from previous [series], then I think we have been successful with our intent." 

Moving on, we talked a bit about Alicization's most infamous scene. In episode 10, villains Raios and Humbert are preparing to get revenge on Eugeo and Kirito by sexually assaulting their apprentices Ronye and Tiese—something that is abhorrent but technically allowed by various loopholes in the laws of Underworld. What results is by far the most disturbing and violent scene in the entirety of Sword Art Online—especially once Eugeo and Kirito arrive on the scene and lash out, rules be damned.

I asked Ono about his thought process in adapting this scene to TV. “Episode 10 does have a whole lot of cruelty and that is a dramatic necessity. You see Eugeo and Kirito actually hurt someone—which results in the depicted scene.” Ono went on to explain why the scene was so graphic. “This cannot just be a scene of ordinary violence. It has to be something that is justified—something that the viewers can justify from following the characters. Specifically, the characters that get hurt are Raios and Humbert and so they needed to be depicted as evilly as possible.” 

This made me wonder if Ono believed he had succeeded in eliciting the reaction he hoped for from the audience. “Well, the reaction that I intended was that I did not want to have a simple scene of catharsis where a villain would be slain. The characters Raios and Humbert had their own convictions and weren't just simply evil. It would be a severe clash of beliefs,” he replied. “And since there was a lot of debate that went on following this, I think I was successful in that intent.” 

At this point, the focus of the interview switched to character designer Shingo Adachi who had been scribbling away on a drawing of Asuna while listening to Ono speaks. Adachi has been the character designer for all Sword Art Online anime so far. So I asked him what had changed in his designs of these characters over the past seven years of drawing them.  

“The biggest difference would be that in the first season, I don't think I was that skilled as an artist,” he joked. “I think that since having worked on SAO, I worked on other shows such as Wagnaria!! and Galilei Donna and I think that has really increased the repertoire of characters that I can bring to life. And I think that has really enhanced [my designs in] Alicization.”

“Within the context of SAO, Kirito goes from a 14-year-old to 17 [by the time of Alicization],” he added. “So If I have been successful, the passage of time and the character growth has been slowly, gradually introduced into [the character designs] in the SAO series.” Looking back, he noted, “If it were the me that drew the first season, I don't think he would have been capable of differentiating a 14-year-old Kirito from a 17-year-old Kirito back then.” 

It's then that I asked him about an Easter egg in the first episode of Alicization, a scene original to the anime where all the characters play a bit of Gun Gale Online. “For existing characters with Gun Gale Online costumes such as Sinon and Kirito, we already had designs,” Adachi stated, “but others like Lizbeth, Silica, and Klein were done as a one-off and were made just for that.”

Clearly proud of his work, Adachi continued, lamenting their all-too-brief appearance, “As it is right now, [those designs] are really a one-time use—just in episode one—and will get buried [among all the other designs], so I really would hope that some original spin-off [that uses them] would be possible.” 

Sadly though, for the moment, that looks to be nothing more than a dream.

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