Why Alicization is the Best Sword Art Online Arcby Kim Morrissy,
Let's make one thing clear going into this: I love Sword Art Online, warts and all. I still remember the chills I felt when I saw the very first episode of the TV anime back in 2012. I've read and enjoyed a lot of light novels since then, but SAO is something I keep coming back to, partly because it's comfort food at this point, but also because every story arc presents something distinctly different from what came before. That can be both a good and bad thing, because the quality of the storytelling can be very inconsistent between arcs, but it also means that Sword Art Online is a constantly evolving series.
Among all the arcs adapted into anime so far, Alicization is easily the most ambitious.
It begins, after all, with the most baffling of cold openings. Kirito, a character we've grown familiar with over the course of eight books (or around 50 TV anime episodes), is suddenly reintroduced as a kid from "Rulid Village" in a high fantasy world. Wasn't Kirito supposed to be a Japanese gamer in his late teens? Why does he seem to have no recollection of his girlfriend Asuna or anyone else we've seen from the series so far? Eventually, the pieces start to fall into place, but the story goes through several more paradigm shifts before it reaches its climactic end.
In spite of the compelling premise and concepts, the storytelling in Alicization is far from perfect. The pacing, especially in the anime, can be haphazard; some story beats are dragged out or given undue significance while other scenes are either cut short or removed entirely. Also, a number of Sword Art Online's recurring problems are still here: the villains (other than the Administrator) are poorly developed and generally uninteresting, and sexual assault is still used as a cheap plot device on multiple occasions.
At the end of the day, though, Alicization offers enough truly interesting and compelling elements that I consider it my favorite Sword Art Online arc to date. Here are the reasons why I consider it the best:
It's More Than Just Kirito's Story
Up to this point, Sword Art Online has mostly centered on Kirito's adventures. I don't consider this a problem, exactly; I think he's a better protagonist than some viewers are willing to give him credit for. He had his 14-year-old edgeboy phase and eventually grew out of it to become a chill and laid-back guy. I like him. But he's definitely more interesting when he's surrounded by other characters with fleshed-out personalities that can't just be reduced to the status of "love interest."
On the whole, the side characters in Alicization are a lot stronger than the original extended cast of Sword Art Online. I have to laugh whenever Klein shows up in some token role these days because that guy was only ever relevant in the first episode of season 1. The characters introduced in the Underworld, on the other hand, all have distinct roles to play in the narrative, from the friends Kirito meets at the academy to the Integrity Knights and even the minor antagonists in the Dark Territory.
Furthermore, the Alicization arc is definitive proof that Sword Art Online can function perfectly well without Kirito's presence at all. The Mother's Rosario story from Sword Art Online II also showed a glimpse of a Kirito-less world, but I consider it more of a side story than a full-fledged arc. In Alicization, Kirito spends over an entire season entirely out of commission while the other characters go to war without him. Now that's a flex. You won't find many authors who are willing to do this to their main character, especially since Kirito was not only the strongest character who constantly got opportunities to show off his skills, but also the point-of-view character for so long.
A large reason why the extended cast of Alicization works so well is because they're given a lot more time to develop and bounce off each other. Alicization is the longest arc in the series by far, and while that does result in some drawn-out storytelling, I think that SAO's worlds need this time to breathe. With almost every arc, the series introduces an entirely new virtual world setting. Juggling the worldbuilding with the development of minor characters is a tough ask when you're trying to keep the story short and concise. With Alicization, author Reki Kawahara finally allows his characters to take the fore.
And that brings me to...
Yes, Eugeo gets a whole subheading to himself. I fricken love Eugeo.
Kirito's bromance with Eugeo was one of the defining elements of the first half of Alicization. It was the first time Kirito got to spend an extended amount of time with another male character (no, Klein does not count), and it brought out new sides to him that you'd never see him show to the female characters he normally hangs out with.
My favorite part of Alicization is the first half, where Kirito and Eugeo go journeying together in a quest to reunite with Alice. I love that part where they scale the tower and have cool one-on-one fights with the Integrity Knights along the way. This part of the plot does not warrant the amount of time it got in the overall scheme of the story, but I feel like this was when Sword Art Online really started to channel the appeal of a Shonen Jump battle manga. Interesting battles, quirky opponents, sentimental male friendship... I could have watched an entire series of Kirito and Eugeo kicking ass together.
I also appreciate how the pathos in Eugeo's character adds a dimension of emotional complexity to the relationships in this series. His entire motivation is to reunite with his childhood friend, but Alice has lost her memories and become a new person. In the academy, he had the opportunity to pursue a life with a different girl instead of chasing after ghosts. He is torn by the honeyed words of the Administrator, who brings out all of his insecurities. It would be strange if Kirito went through this kind of emotional turmoil in Alicization due to his devotion to Asuna, but little does he know that he also has a connection with Eugeo and Alice that he does not remember. The web of relationships in this series has never been this fraught or complicated, and it makes for some truly gut-wrenching moments along the way.
The Genre-mashing Setting
I'm not gonna say SAO was the pioneer of the VRMMORPG anime genre or anything, but it was so massively popular that it directly influenced a generation of light novel authors. At this point, the story of Alicization is actually quite old (it was first completed in 2008, as I detailed in this earlier editorial), but seeing the story adapted into an anime 10 years later, it surprises me how fresh its blend of science fiction and high fantasy still feels.
What makes the world of Alicization interesting is that it's not really referred to as a "game" anymore. These days, it's not particularly novel to set an anime in a game or a game-like world, but while the Underworld in Alicization uses The Seed program shared by the other game worlds in the series, it's actually the backdrop of a grand experiment in artificial intelligence. The game setting isn't just being used because that's what's convenient for the story; there is genuine thought applied to how that would interact with the real world. Very specifically, this arc addresses how governments and military organizations would have attempted to use such technology.
There's been a consistent theme in SAO that the virtual world is an extension of reality rather than an escape from it, and Alicization represents a culmination of those themes. It quickly becomes evident that the people living in the Underworld are just as human as the people who live outside it. To them, the world they live in is reality, and when Kirito lived there without his memories of the outside, his outlook was the same. In War of Underworld, the two worlds begin to coalesce, and an all-out war breaks out. SAO's long list of imitators have never shown this level of creativity in their worlds and conflicts, even as they play with similar themes.
The Evolving Aesthetic
The final point I want to address is that the Alicization anime is the best that SAO has ever looked. The most obvious difference from a visual perspective is in the color scheme and compositing; it's the clear influence of compositing director Kentarō Waki, who joined the series from Sword Art Online the Movie: Ordinal Scale. I adore Waki's work; he has single-handedly added so much flavor to the world and provided the anime with a consistent, polished sheen. That awesome Bercouli vs Vecta fight in War of Underworld? He was responsible for the pronounced outlines on the character art and the digital effects in that scene.
SAO WoU 14話のベルクーリvsベクタ戦では「線に強弱を加える処理」を撮影で追加していました。総作監の豪さん・アクション作監の菅野さんの力も合わさって、迫力ある画面になっていると嬉しい...。 pic.twitter.com/P0InXNtTZU— Kentaro_Waki / 脇顯太朗 (@HiconManiacs) July 18, 2020
I like the evolving character designs as well. Shingo Adachi has remarked on the difficulty of portraying the subtle aging of characters over time, and while I think that his work on the current designs are indeed a testament to his evolving skill as an artist, Alicization was also improved by having Gou Suzuki and Tomoya Nishiguchi working on the designs as well (plus Yumiko Yamamoto on War of Underworld). The designs for the returning characters are still grounded in the familiar designs from the previous seasons while looking more mature, and the new characters fit right in with them.
There are some things that I miss about the old SAO. The previous series director Tomohiko Ito was a fantastic storyboard artist, and some of the most iconic shots from the first two seasons can be attributed directly to him. I haven't seen that kind of finesse from Manabu Ono. Ito was also a competent screenwriter, who consistently made smarter adaptation decisions than the Alicization team has done.
But SAO has shown a lot of growth when it comes to its action animation and direction. The animation in the first half of Alicization could be a bit rough at times, but scenes like Kirito's fight against the goblins were fantastic. The animator of that scene, Yoshihiro Kanno, has been an action animation director throughout Alicization (except for the tower-climbing part, due to a scheduling conflict), and I think his presence has elevated the show, especially when it comes to manipulating the POV of a shot and making use of 3D space. Even standout action scenes from previous seasons like the Asuna vs Yuuki fight seemed somewhat clumsy at implementing these aspects when compared to Alicization's big moments. You can partly pin this down to the evolving mindset of modern action animators in the wake of new technologies and approaches, but also... Kanno is amazing.
There are plenty of Sword Art Online novel readers who will tell you that the ideal way of experiencing the story is through the books and that the anime adaptation is such a poor adaptation that it's not worth your time. But while it's true that the novels tell the most complete version of the story, I do think that the core strengths of the narrative do come through in the anime, and it's a damn fine show to look at as well. For me, Alicization is the best SAO has ever been as a TV anime, and it's also the best arc in the story so far (at least until we get a resolution for the ongoing Unital Ring arc in the novels). If you dropped the series in its earlier seasons, do give Alicization a shot, because who knows? You might gain a whole new appreciation for SAO.
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