Reviewby Theron Martin,
Sword Art Online II
Blu-Ray 2 - Phantom Bullet Part 2 [Limited Edition]
Kirito is still rattled by the appearance of a former Laughing Coffin member, but the Bullet of Bullet tournament isn't going to wait. Despite a terse conversation before the event starts, Kirito and Sinon wind up together in the tournament, too, and once Sinon sees how fearsome opponent the ragged-cloaked figure is, she agrees to work with Kirito. Their hunt for him gets turned on its tail when they discover that his next target is apparently none other than Sinon, and a connection he seems to have to her past shakes her to the core as well. As Kirito's ALO group also start to figure out what's going on, he and Sinon have to figure out how Death Gun is pulling off the killings, but even once they do, he is still a formidable opponent. And even scarier than the in-game threat he poses is the one he poses in the real world.
Episodes 8-14 comprise the second half of the Phantom Bullet story arc. It is arguably the better half, as all of the sometimes-tedious set-up is done, allowing the story to concentrate on the real meat of the plot. That it ends with the strongest and one of the most satisfying episodes of the franchise to that point also doesn't hurt. That does not, unfortunately, mean that it is entirely devoid of the problems that have plagued both the franchise in general and this storyline in particular, but in this case the pay-off at the end is well worth putting up with a few flaws.
One of the primary complaints about the whole Phantom Bullet arc is that Kazuto/Kirito's anxiety over the people he killed in Aincrad seems more like an afterthought than an integral part of who he is. Despite a lot of effort being devoted to proving otherwise, the second half is largely ineffective at portraying Kazuto as a deeply wounded soul; it is just too contrary to Kirito's heroic persona for it to take hold. That is, indeed, this arc's biggest flaw. Those irritated by Kirito's seeming-Gary Stu nature will also find more fodder here, especially as he comes to the rescue of yet another female character on more than one occasion. However, he does also require critical help from Shino/Sinon to defeat one foe who has him at a disadvantage and is more helping Shino against another foe than the other way around. This set's rare flash of humor – and really, one of the franchise's funniest moments, period – is also provided by Kirito taking advantage of his girly look in GGO rather than his Alpha Male status.
Contrarily, the writing does a far better job with Shino/Sinon's PTSD. The way she falls apart even in her Sinon persona when faced with a particular stressor is quite credible, as is the way she struggles to cope with her crushing fear; she is desperately afraid to die, but even more afraid of living with the fear. That her breaking points finally comes when she has people who genuinely help her live with her past actions, whereas before she had been toughing it out on her own, almost seems like a deliberate message is being sent to the audience, and the way she finally finds her resolve and fights back when her life is in serious jeopardy is heartening. That sets up an emotional epilogue to the arc in which she is finally convinced that she has obsessed so long on the negatives of having killed the robber (no doubt contributed to by an unsupportive mother) that she has failed to consider the positives, even beyond just protecting her own life. The franchise has never had a whole lot of use for symbolism, but in this case its implementation is masterful.
Aside from the key characterizations, the quality of these episodes is up and down. It definitely offers some thrilling action sequences (especially one sequence involving minor character Pale Rider), elaborate exploration of game mechanics and settings, and plenty of detail for weapon enthusiasts, and the chemistry between Kirito and Sinon is pretty good. The plotting also spends a little too much time talking things through, however; at one point the bulk of two consecutive episodes is taken up with this. Granted, the topics being discussed at that time are things that needed to be discussed, and the scenes do not needlessly draw out the emotional reactions, but it still feels like a disruption to the flow of the series. The solution Kirito comes up with for how Death Gun is doing the killings is a bit clever but also really the only feasible explanation which does not involve supernatural powers. The philosophizing in the aftermath brings the series back to what Kirito was talking with Asuna about in the park at the beginning and further expands the discussion on the mixing of the virtual and real worlds, but beyond the final episode Asuna and the rest of the gang are left with very little to do except be supportive of Kirito.
And this block of episodes cannot be talked about without at least mentioning one certain ugly scene which plays out over the last few minutes of episode 13 and the first few minutes of episode 14 and serves as the second of the arc's two climaxes. The franchise does not have a good track record with this kind of content, so trepidation about how it is handled is certainly understandable. However, the way the scene plays out this time seems to demonstrate a conscious effort by Tomohiko Ito and staff not to repeat the mistakes of the past. And that makes a big difference.
On the technical side, this block of episodes looks and sounds good throughout. While it still uses a few too many still shots, its animation is dynamic in key scenes (especially in the aforementioned scene) and good enough elsewhere and the background shots of the fantastic GGO city and post-apocalyptic settings surrounding it is still a marvel. And yes, the propensity to use fan servicey shots of Sinon continues, although it is still pretty mild fare. The music is exactly on-target, too, with the meaning of the lyrics for the opener and closer being all the more relevant. (In one interesting touch, a scene where Shino has a conversation with Sinon inside her head uses a color scheme nearly identical to the closer's.)
No major new characters are introduced in this arc, so the English dub quality remains at least consistent with that of the first half of the arc, if not actually improving a little. Michelle Ruff handles Shino's more difficult scenes especially well, as does the actor for an affiliate of Death Gun, whose performance is genuinely disturbing; arguably it tops the solid original performance in that regard. The script never changes anything enough to change the meaning.
Extras included in this set are extensive, though I still hesitate to say that they are even close to enough to justify Aniplex's asking price. Physical items include an SAO II-themed Weis Schwartz card, postcards depicting Kazuto and Shino separately and together, and a booklet containing an extensive story summary, character profiles, and a background art collection. Between the two main disks are the Next Episode previews only originally available separately online, a clean version of the closer, installments 3-5 of Sword Art Offline 2 (always funny enough to be worth a look), and subtitled Japanese episode commentaries for episodes 8, 12, and 13. All three are hosted by Kirito's seiyuu Yoshitsugu Matsuoka and include Miyuki Sawashiro (the voice of Sinon), but the only one which proves to be particularly insightful is episode 8's, where the guests are original author Reki Kawahara and Keiichi Sigsawa, who is probably better-known as the original creator of Allison & Lillia and Kino's Journey but who here served as the “gun consultant” for the series. (He is a self-professed “gun nut.”) According to the commentary, the biggest change resulting from one of Sigsawa's suggestions was having Sinon use a Glock as a back-up in the anime because the MP-7 she used in the novel would have been impractical, including interfering with the fan service (i.e., shots of Sinon's butt). Also include in a separate case is a CD which contains two sessions of Sword Art Online Radio USA, which total 67 minutes and feature Bryce Papenbrook (Kirito) with two of Cherami Leigh (Asuna), Michelle Ruff, and Ben Diskin (Death Gun) responding to fan questions, going over fan episode rankings, and generally messing around. Both cases have bonus interior art and come in a sturdy artbox.
With this release the franchise's foray into settings other than fantasy draws to a close – at least for now, anyway. The next arc will be back to fantasy themes and more involvement by other established characters, but this did fulfill Kawahara's original intent to do something a bit different on the gaming front, at least attempted to expand Kirito's characterization, and introduced some new potential applications for full-dive technology. (The use of it as a potential psychological treatment would be further expanded on in Aldnoah.Zero, which began as this arc concluded.) It had enough good parts to balance out the warts, and thus comes off as a success overall.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Episode 14, plentiful Extras, strong English voice acting.
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