Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Sword Art Online: Alicization
BR Limited Edition
Kirito has taken on a special job testing a new VR environment based on the idea of evolving AIs, which binds him to secrecy, even from girlfriend Asuna and his family. It proves to be something of a godsend, however, when he's attacked and rendered braindead by an old foe from his SAO days, and the experimental (and ethically questionable) nature of his job turns out to be the only thing that can save him. As Asuna searches for answers, Kirito lives an entirely different life in a fantasy world, where he befriends a young man named Eugeo and the two set off to rescue Eugeo's lost friend Alice, who was taken away for breaking the Taboo Index, laws governing the virtual world…that were created by the AIs themselves. Are there unforeseen consequences for the project, codenamed A.L.I.C.E., that Kirito's government contact is spearheading? And how will the entry of a memory-damaged Kirito affect things?
There's always been a slightly nagging sense that Sword Art Online bit off a bit more than it could chew. While it was present in the original series (both anime and light novels), it's grown over the course of the franchise, and now in this season, Sword Art Online: Alicization, it's starting to look as if it might come back to bite us. Not in the sense that the story is doing itself any damage, but rather that it's skating on increasingly thin ice as far as its feasibility even in science fiction terms, sort of like how Vivian Vande Velde's original 1990 trapped-in-a-VR-game novel User Unfriendly was hampered by the technology of the time. The issues here revolve around the ethics of the piece – Kikuoka, the JSDF contact who has been hanging around since the SAO incident, is involved in a project to create artificial intelligences that can not only think for themselves, but also ignore the rules set for them. He's trying to create actual digital life, in essence, but without actually thinking about the fact that if he and his team pull this off, the people in the virtual realm will be, for lack of a better term, real people, and thus merit human rights.
On one level, Kikuoka is aware of the danger of what he's doing – the name of the project is Alicization, which references the fact that they're going down a major rabbit hole. He's also aware that the potential to weaponize the project exists, and all of this may very well get more treatment in the second season. But here it feels like something that the show is basically ignoring, although we could make the argument that the relationship between Kirito and Eugeo explores the ethics of the project by living through them.
There's definitely something to be said for that. Eugeo is a resident of the VR world, one born of AI parents who has no idea that he isn't a “real” person inhabiting a realm meant for play. He and Kirito initially met when Kirito was playtesting for Kikuoka; after Kirito's accident, Kikuoka pulls strings to have Kirito transported to the turtle-shaped artificial island (a mock turtle, like in Lewis Carroll's Alice novels) so that the advanced system can regenerate Kirito's brain while he lives in the game world. Due to the speed at which time moves inside the game, years have passed and the boys have forgotten each other, although they once again form a firm friendship when Kirito returns. Kirito comes to represent human will while Eugeo is someone bound by the rules of his world, and a large part of his development as a character relies upon him learning to have free will of his own. At first he simply follows as Kirito guides him off his predestined path, but by the end of these twenty-four episodes, Eugeo has learned to stand up for himself and what he believes in, arguably making him both the best-developed character (to the point where at times Kirito feels like the NPC) and a lesson in the consequences of freedom – there's no safety net when you are in charge of your own choices.
This is rather a mixed bag in terms of storytelling and presentation. The scene where Eugeo (who has several times experienced “glitches” when he's at risk of going off course per the Taboo Index) comes into his own is an example of sexual brutality, and it is important to note that the BR version is uncensored. That makes it incredibly difficult to watch, and while the idea behind it – that corrupt nobles can exploit the Taboo Index without breaking it while Eugeo and Kirito can't stop them because their actions would break the Index – is sound, the execution feels like it takes things several steps too far. While it could be argued that the brutality was necessary in order to drive Eugeo to break the rules, the fact of the matter is that he's come close to doing so several times before, which means that this could have been accomplished with less sexual violence. As it stands, it renders two female characters as props for Eugeo's awakening, and while other seasons haven't been above using the threat of rape as a motivating factor (see Fairy Dance), it's hardly the mark of good or nuanced writing. It also lays bare the fact that this is not a franchise that has done hugely well by its female characters; even Alice is largely reduced (in this season) to the motivation for Eugeo's journey rather than being a character in her own right.
Of course, it looks by the end of this set of episodes as if that's going to be flipped, with Eugeo becoming the reason for Alice's change, so do bear in mind that this is not a statement on the entirety of the Alicization arc. The two abusers in Eugeo's pivotal scene are also indicative of some of the issues with Kikuoka's scheme, as they, like Administrator, the ostensible big bad of the season, have learned to warp the system for their own benefit. All of this goes back to the ethical dilemmas present in the entire plan to create human-like AIS – namely, what their rights are and if Kikuoka and his team are violating them in using them to fulfill their goals. After all, if animals have rights, shouldn't autonomous beings who can think for themselves have them as well? And isn't this a case of a military organization co-opting and corrupting human souls?
This isn't necessarily a question that this season is interested in, or capable of, answering, and the fact that there's a second one largely excuses that fact, although it can be a distracting piece of the overall puzzle. Other issues include a very slow start and some wonky pacing in general, the fact that Eugeo's name sounds like Yu-Gi-Oh! in the English dub, and some very tired tropes, among them a spider named Charlotte (who “dies” when her job is done) and a status window being Kirito's indication that he's in a game world, which perhaps is just more of a sign that this story predates a phase of the isekai boom. Both vocal casts do a very good job with what they have to work with, although the extras are a little thin for the exorbitant price of the set – a booklet, a soundtrack CD, Japanese audio commentary, and web trailers. Even with twenty-four episodes, that doesn't quite feel like enough, although the box the whole thing comes in is beautiful.
At the end of the day, Sword Art Online: Alicization doesn't quite use its premise or story as well as it could. It has its high points, but largely dodges the bigger issues and doesn't always treat its characters well. While it's still good enough to watch if you're a franchise fan, if you were beginning to sour on it, this might be the moment where you decide that maybe it's not quite worthwhile after all.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B-
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Nice art and music, Eugeo's character evolution is interesting and works within the story. Bonus points for relatively obscure Lewis Carroll references.
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