Reviewby Theron Martin,
Sword Art Online II
Blu-Ray 1 - Phantom Bullet Part 1 [Limited Edition]
A year has now passed since the end of Sword Art Online, and Kirito and Asuna are enjoying their time together. That peace is about to get temporarily disrupted, though, when Kirito gets asked to investigate a disturbing incident in a post-apocalyptic VR shooter called Gun Gale Online. There someone named Death Gun is claiming the ability to kill people in real life by shooting them in the game – a surely impossible feat, but there have been a couple of actual deaths of people online in the game. To that end, Kirito temporarily transfers his character to GGO, where he encounters a potential new ally but also a horrifying reminder of one of the darkest aspects of his time in SAO, which may have everything to do with Death Gun.
Meanwhile, Shino Asada is a high school girl who is still haunted by the fact that, four years earlier, she shot a robber to death during a post office hold-up, to the point that she becomes physically ill over the sight of anything that even resembles a real gun. In an attempt to cope she started playing GGO under the avatar Sinon, and has risen to be the game's top sniper. Her efforts to transfer her in-game strength into real life have so far been for naught, but her encounters with a certain girly-looking sword specialist and their entry into the upcoming Bullet of Bullets tournament could change that.
Like it or hate it (and my, did it evoke passionate responses both ways!), the first Sword Art Online anime series was a major hit on both sides of the Pacific. Between that and a wealth of already-existing additional material to adapt, a TV series sequel was inevitable, and in the Summer 2014 we got that sequel in Japan, with an American broadcast to follow on Cartoon Network's Toonami block only a few months after its conclusion. Because its story consists of three distinct, thinly-connected story arcs – Phantom Bullet, Calibur, and Mother's Rosario – Aniplex of America has wisely decided to release it by story arc rather than by a set number of episodes. That means that the Phantom Bullet arc, the first and longest at 14 episodes, is getting released in two seven episode segments. Hence this first volume covers up through episode 7.
Phantom Bullet adapts the fifth and sixth original novels (with a small excerpt from the first novel) and focuses primarily on the events going on in and concerning new setting Gun Gale Online. To the disappointment of Asuna fans, the female co-lead is instead new character Sinon/Shino. Asuna once again getting relegated to a minor supporting role does allow a window of opportunity for developing this strong new character, however, and returning director Tomohiko Ito does not miss this opportunity. In fact, through the first seven episodes she is better-developed and more fully-explored than Asuna was in the entirety of the first series. (Asuna will eventually get her turn in this series, too, but that is well beyond the scope of this release.)
Granted, Shino has the big advantage of having a considerably greater percentage of the time as the viewpoint character (in fact, she is the focal point of episode 2 to the exclusion of Kirito), but she is also the first recurring female character in the anime side of the franchise who is not defined primarily by her connection to Kirito. Instead she is defined by an incident from her past which she cannot escape no matter how hard she tries, one which has inflicted her with the rough equivalent of PTSD. Her newest attempt to get over it is to use VR technology as a kind of therapy, a fascinating extension of the base technology which is also explored a bit in Aldnoah.Zero but from an entirely different angle. Ironically, the unreality of a game designed to give the feel of reality allows her to become the person she wants to be in real life: strong, independent, unafraid of guns, and capable, the ace of all of the game's snipers due in part to using a rare anti-materiel weapon as a sniper rifle. She desperately wants to learn how to transfer that strength into her real-world self, and her quest to do so forms one of the core themes of the Phantom Bullet arc.
On the other side of the fence, things are going well for Kazuto, which of course means that Something Nasty has to happen to shake up the status quo. And that “nasty” is the specter of some of the darkest chapters in his Aincard experiences coming back to haunt him. Unlike the source novel, the anime adaptation of the Aincard arc barely touched at all on how the assassin's guild Laughing Coffin was ultimately dealt with, but that omission is filled in here at the most appropriate time and used to bring up Kazuto's own buried feelings of guilt over having been forced to take the lives of other players on a couple of occasions. Complaints that this was shoehorned in just to give Kazuto a way to relate to Shino have some merit, as the utter lack of any hint of this before suggests a gimmicky play, but emotional responses to traumatic events being triggered months or even years later by the right kind of stimuli are hardly rare in the real world, so its suspicious convenience does not entirely destroy its credibility. Establishing a possible Death Gun/Laughing Coffin connection also allows the story to further the philosophizing Kazuto does in the first episode about the breaking down of barriers between the real and virtual worlds; look for this theme to be explored more fully in the second half of this arc and again in the Mother's Rosario arc as well.
All of the other major players from the first series and the movie Extra Edition are back as well. Those who have ached for more screen time for Silica/Keiko, Lisbeth/Rika, Klein/Ryotaro, and Leafa/Suguha and were not satisfied with the movie will get rewarded here, albeit only in token doses; expect them to be much more prominent in the Calibur arc. Kikuoka from Extra Edition is also back to have a substantial appearance in the first episode. Amongst new characters, the villain Death Gun mostly comes off as corny at this point, although that starts to shift when the Laughing Coffin connection is introduced, while Shino's friend Kyouji comes off as the loyal friend who's maybe a little too loyal for comfort and the nurse who monitors Kirito while he dives into GGO shows that she can be playful or sympathetic as the situation allows.
Other established characteristics from the first series are also back, for better or worse. Kirito sometimes came off as just a bit of a chauvinist in the first series, and unfortunately that attitude hasn't entirely gone away. (That does make him getting leered at by other players while using his girly GGO avatar into a bit of karmic justice, though.) Accusations of him being a Gary Stu character also will get more supporting fodder, although this arc does make at least a reasonable attempt to justify some of his stunts by basing them in his Aincard experience and suggesting that his unheard-of tactics are catching people off guard. On the plus side, Sinon's GGO battle in episode 2 is a wonder of dynamic moves and counter-moves couple with feature moments of big gun usage and the exploration of various game elements is always interesting. The beautifully-detailed virtual settings which have always been one of the franchise's strong points are also back and as glorious as ever, with GGO's setting using a mix of the classic Blade Runner aesthetic and a post-apocalyptic feel, while Yuki Kajiura's score is as varied and effective as ever.
Production work for the second series is still done by A-1 Pictures, with highlights being Kirito's feminine-leaning GGO avatar, Death Gun's intimidating appearance, and enough fine hardware detail to make gun fanatics salivate. The designs for Shino/Sinon are also interesting; Shino is actually allowed to be relatively plain, and her avatar Sinon gets a sleekly sexy vibe more from the way she dresses than from her build; the figure she shows when in underwear in one scene is actually very ordinary. Aside from that scene, overt fan service in this block of episodes is limited, although the camera does occasionally linger a little too long on a bust line (naturally, this happens in Suguha's one real-world appearance) or backside (more with Sinon) than is otherwise warranted. Animation support is good in feature scenes, so-so in CG moments, and more limited in less visually important scenes.
On the audio side, the sound effects for Kirito's Photon Sword sound like they were lifted directly from Star Wars light sabers. Opener “Ignite” is a bold, dramatic, and visually flashy number which makes an appropriate stage-setter for the series, but the more remarkable number is actually the gentler and less visually ambitious closer “Startear” by Luna Haruna. It may not seem like anything special until one sees the actual lyrics and realizes that the three versions of Shino shown during it – her as the girl who shot the robber, her at her current age, and her as Sinon – are not idly chosen; the song is virtually the anthem of her struggles. That gives it a poignancy that will only grow as Phantom Bullet progresses through its second half.
All English dub cast members whose roles continue from the earlier series and movie are back again for the second round. Performance levels are about the same as the first series, although Bryce Papenbrook struggles a little to make Kirito sound more girly. (In fairness, though, original seiyuu Yoshitsugu Matsuoka did not do much better.) Ben Diskin is suitably menacing with his electronically-altered voice as Death Gun, although he uses a smoother cadence than the more choppy-sounding original performance, and Michelle Ruff is a good fit, and gives a strong performance, as Shino/Sinon. The only other significant addition is Johnny Yong Bosch, who gives Kyoji just the right slightly creepy touch; his best work will come in the arc's second half, however. The English script varies a lot to accommodate a flow of euphemisms and attitude that suits the English delivery better, although it does not change any essential meaning.
Aniplex of America is releasing the series in DVD, Blu-Ray, and Limited Edition Blu-Ray versions. Whereas the DVD has only the clean opener for an on-disk Extra, both Blu-Ray versions also add web previews for episodes 2-8, (subtitled) Japanese audio commentaries for episodes 1 and 4, and two installments of the “Sword Art Offline II” bonus animation; if you have never watched any of the latter before, take the time to do so, as they are tremendously funny. The Limited Edition version adds to that a bunch of physical Extras: a pair of art cards; a Weis Schwartz game card featuring Kirito and Sinon which is somewhat of a spoiler for the second half of Phantom Bullet; a nice-looking glossy booklet which contains story summary, character/equipment profiles and concept art, and background art; a sturdy artbox for both cases; and volume 1 of the soundtrack CD, which contains 37 tracks totaling more than 70 minutes of playing time. These additional Extras up the base MSRP by $35, but sale prices for the LE typically run only $20 higher. If you're willing to pay the asking price for the base Blu-Ray release then the extra amount for the LE can be justified by the soundtrack alone (which is a very pleasing independent play), especially if you're a Kajiura fan. The base asking price is still much too high even for the quality being offered, though.
In all, the beginning of the second animated SAO series shows a small but marked increase in storytelling quality and a more smoothly (if also more slowly) progressing story. The highlight moments of the series, where it shows what it can achieve at its very best, do not come until later, but these seven episodes lay a solid foundation and get the second season off to a moderately good start.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Game scenery, strong female co-lead, Sword Art Offline bonus animation.
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