Reviewby Theron Martin,
Sword Art Online the Movie: Ordinal Scale
Limited Edition Blu-ray
It's April 2026, less than a month after the events of the Mother's Rosario arc, and Kirito remains unimpressed by Ordinal Scale, an augmented-reality game that's become a hit by overlapping reality with virtual imagery, allowing a broad range of functionality for users to exercise and shop as well as play games. Asuna, Keiko, Rika, and Klein and his guild are all into Ordinal Scale, and Kirito gets further enticed into its world when a rumor spreads that old SAO floor bosses are showing up around town as special events. However, something else more dastardly seems to be afoot, as SAO survivors who participate sometimes pass out and experience memory loss. When Asuna and Klein become afflicted by this, Kirito must get to the bottom of a mystery involving both Ordinal Scale's top-ranked player and its virtual idol.
Unlike most previous SAO anime, the story for Ordinal Scale was original material written specifically for the movie, retrofitted into the timeline between the end of Mother's Rosario and the beginning of the Alicization arc. Comments made by both original creator Reki Kawahara and director Tomohiko Ito suggest that the movie was planned to be accessible to franchise newcomers, although I wouldn't call it as a feasible entry point myself. This movie works primarily for those already familiar with the franchise, and anyone who hasn't seen both seasons of the TV series will miss the importance and impact of many scenes.
The actual story is typical for the franchise: advanced gaming technology is being exploited to evil purposes by a man with ulterior motives, and Kirito must figure out what's going on and put a stop to it when people's lives are put in danger. The motives of the chief villain in this case are more relatable than usual, but that doesn't much ameliorate his dastardly methods; it's a classic case of love being used to justify villainy. Apart from this mastermind, a younger man becomes the more active foil for Kirito as an SAO survivor who has come into his own through Ordinal Scale and carries a grudge against the few SAO survivors who were remembered out of many more victims. Kirito spends much of the movie coming into conflict with these two as he tries to get to the bottom of what's happening, with an underlying theme being whether or not a person may be better off forgetting an unpleasant experience.
The story also involves the fascinating fantastical technology of the Augma gear, which allows virtual reality to overlap with our world rather than replace it, allowing a user to be aware of their surroundings while using it, blending in elements like advertising and vocaloid-style concerts. (Kawahara admits in the audio commentary that he chose this approach to allow him to set his story in the real world this time.) Just as importantly, the movie also provides a substantial expansion on Kirito and Asuna's romance, which was a major element of the TV series but arguably under-explored. Romance has never been a strong suit of the franchise, but this is one of the few places where the effort to develop that material can really be felt. All of the other SAO regulars are also present, just in much more limited capacities, and many more minor characters at least get short cameos.
While the movie has many moments of light humor, the emphasis remains much more on its serious or action-heavy sequences. The greater time and budget afforded by a film shows most in these scenes, which are at least as dynamic as anything in the TV series and usually outshine it. The climactic boss battle in particular, where almost everyone gets involved, is one of the greatest spectacles of last year in anime, successfully keeping its huge cast involved in a frenetically-paced battle while remaining easy to follow. Few anime battles I've seen can rival it for the smooth flow the scene maintains in keeping the perspective on the action. It also features one brief cameo that will be very special for fans of the Mother's Rosario arc.
Beyond the action sequences, the technical merits in general aren't flawless but remain a distinct upgrade from the TV series, a contrast that becomes clearer during a few flashbacks to TV series footage. The movie features beautifully detailed renditions of several locales around Tokyo, an imaginative recreation of Aincard's 100th floor (supposedly based on Augsburg Castle in Germany), and even a cameo to the restaurant Wagnaria from Aniplex's series of the same name. The movie also offers more attention to detail in body language and character animation than before, as well as all manner of inventive boss designs; character designer and animation director Shingo Adachi reportedly had to make more than 20 new boss designs for the movie. All established characters get new street outfits, with Asuna getting the star treatment in new clothing and hair design, in addition to new battle gear for Ordinal Scale.
On the musical front, Yuki Kajiura returns to mix some of the TV series' core themes with dramatic new sounds that are nonetheless still in the same mold; this is very much the classic Kajiura sound, even if some numbers are more subdued than usual for her style, and the soundtrack is every bit as effective as it was in the TV series. Seiyuu and singer Sayaka Kanda adds some great insert songs as the voice of Yuna, while singer LiSA provides a quality closing theme.
The English dub for the movie brings back the entire cast from the TV series and makes appropriate choices for the small number of new roles, so anyone who liked the dub before should still enjoy it here. Other features included on the Blu-ray release are a collection of promo videos, a movie edition of the Sword Art Offline SD skit, and an audio commentary hosted by director Tomohiko Ito and the seiyuu for Asuna and Kirito, with various guests popping in as the movie progresses. This is definitely worth checking out, as it provides a lot of insight into the design process, the intent of certain scenes, and some hidden details. (A beer can Eiji is shown drinking from at one point was borrowed from ERASED, for instance.) The commentary also makes it clear that the staff is well aware of overseas reactions to the movie. And yes, this version of the film does remove that most infamous shampoo bottle to allow a brief but much-ballyhooed shot of Asuna's nipples.
The Limited Edition version of this release also includes a bonus disk of character songs and a 61-page glossy booklet, all housed in an artbox. The booklet includes standard features like concept art, a bonus art gallery, recaps of previous story arcs, and character profiles for both Yuna and Professor Shigemura, but it also provides extensive additional details about the Ordinal Scale game and the history of Aincrad that goes well beyond what's been revealed in the anime so far, some only even touched on in the Progressive novels. The booklet also shares some details on Rath, the company behind the Alicization story arc, presumably meant as a preview for the upcoming TV adaptation of that arc.
Overall, Ordinal Scale is not a movie that you want to think too deeply about, as numerous plot holes and practical issues become evident. Those who have found Kirito's egregious displays of awesomeness annoying in the past will find no reprieve here, either. However, the movie does fully deliver on the elements that have made the franchise so popular in glorious fashion. In the end, that's what really matters to longtime fans of Sword Art Online.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ Stellar final boss fight, pleasing character interactions, quality audio commentary, lots of bonuses for franchise fans
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