Sunday, August 26, 2012

Sword Art Online - 08

[HorribleSubs] Sword Art Online - 08 [720p].mkv_snapshot_09.09_[2012.08.25_13.02.59] [HorribleSubs] Sword Art Online - 08 [720p].mkv_snapshot_12.18_[2012.08.25_13.06.09] [HorribleSubs] Sword Art Online - 08 [720p].mkv_snapshot_21.54_[2012.08.25_13.16.16]

A very good episode of SAO for the most part, but my dominant feeling at the moment is relief that the series I thought I was getting has actually started.


[HorribleSubs] Sword Art Online - 08 [720p].mkv_snapshot_00.49_[2012.08.25_12.55.44]It says something about the nature of the first seven episodes that the name “Kayaba Akihiko” hasn’t even been mentioned for six weeks (or if it has, I can’t remember) and that two full years have passed in Aincrad already.  I’m having a bit of a tussle getting my mind around that, because there’s an implication that the events of those of two years are unimportant enough to have been summed up in six episodes that were mostly about personal stories only tangentially related to the main plot.  But be that as it may, this is what’s really interested me all along – the details of SAO, and the struggle to survive it.

[HorribleSubs] Sword Art Online - 08 [720p].mkv_snapshot_01.29_[2012.08.25_12.56.24]Once again I’m struck by the impression that Kawahara Reki is a very good writer when it comes to generating big ideas, not so good when it comes to the small details.  I think he gets what’s fundamentally interesting about this scenario – a scenario he dreamed up to begin with – better than he gets the idea of populating it with interesting characters.  For the first time in a while (maybe since the premiere) I’m blown away by what a fascinating dilemma SAO represents.  In a way, it’s like a giant social experiment, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Kayaba Akihiko (whose I’ll wager is more interesting than any character in the series, if given the focus) had exactly that in mind.  What happens if you take a large group of predominantly young people, with a disproportionately large percentage of socially awkward individuals, and throw them together in a VRMMO where cooperation is literally essential to survival? 

[HorribleSubs] Sword Art Online - 08 [720p].mkv_snapshot_03.33_[2012.08.25_12.57.24]That’s the series I thought I was getting with Sword Art Online, and the one I want to watch.  The details of the world continue to amaze me, from the “immortal object” popups to the interior design of the living quarters to the daily essentials of survival.  When Asuna started cooking the “ragout rabbit” and chopped everything up merely be touching her knife to it, I thought “Wow – where the joy in that?  Cooking isn’t that boring!”  And a few seconds later Asuna gave exactly the same response.  That’s exactly the sort of thing that tells me that Kawahara really understands what’s compelling about this premise he’s created – the way this world differs from our own, and how our minds will react to the different kind of stimulation it provides and the notion that we may never be able to escape it.

[HorribleSubs] Sword Art Online - 08 [720p].mkv_snapshot_04.25_[2012.08.25_12.58.15]It was interesting to hear Kirito and Asuna discussing their difficulties in staying connected to their old life, because I think that’s one of the most fascinating issues at play here.  Asuna says she still longs to go back do what she hasn’t had a chance to do ( we don’t know enough about her yet to know why) and Kirito claims he wants to as well, though we know he was unhappy and is having trouble remembering that world.  But what of those for whom Aincrad is better than RL?  If their bodies are lying in a hospital somewhere hooked up to feeding tubes and catheters, well, so what?  Maybe some of them came to SAO because they wanted to escape that world – maybe all of them did, and it’s just a question of degree.  This isn’t such a problem in RL now, where VR isn’t so “R” as to provide a convincing second life – but what if it was?  Why should those people be so desperate to go back, when they’re living out a fantasy in Aincrad?  Just be careful and don’t get yourself killed, and let someone else worry about the big stuff.  It’s not that surprising, really, that only 500 people are actively trying to beat the game and free everyone inside it.

[HorribleSubs] Sword Art Online - 08 [720p].mkv_snapshot_05.18_[2012.08.25_12.59.08]I’m going to have to accept that this is a show that I watch for the plot and the big concepts and not the character interaction, I guess.  Although that’s not my natural inclination when it comes to anime, I think I can enjoy SAO a lot on those terms – and to be honest, the character interaction still feels awkward and stiff to me.  All of the characters we’ve met so far (with the exception of Kayaba and, ironically, Klein) feel much more like archetypes than real people.  Surely the irony of that is obvious, given that this is an anime of a LN depicting an MMO – these “player-characters” feel very much like player-characters.  But in an anime, that leaves something to be desired.  Asuna is about as classic a tsundere as can be imagined, and while she’s a lovely character design and Tomatsu-san is doing her usual yeoman’s work to give her depth, scenes like the silly accidental breast-groping-followed-by-beat-down just feel incredibly tired and played-out.  Kirito’s limitations as a character have been the topic in this space already and more than once, so I won’t harp on them – but he seems as trapped in the avatar cage as Asuna (and most of the other supporting players) are in their trope one.

[HorribleSubs] Sword Art Online - 08 [720p].mkv_snapshot_06.22_[2012.08.25_13.00.12]As to the specifics of this week’s plot, it’s a pretty good one – though Kuradeel (the great Yusa Kouji – the character deficiencies here are definitely not the fault of the excellent cast) comes off as more of a device than a character.  The scenario surrounding Kirito’s S-class snack and Kuradeel’s jealousy (and chauvinism) works well not so much for itself, but for the way it allows the series to reflect on those larger questions of the mindset of the players two years in, and to get Kirito and Asuna together and give them a reason to seek more such opportunities (though whether that means taking on Floor Boss “Gleam Eyes” remains to be seen).  I’d like to say they have great chemistry and make a winning couple, but for me at least that’s not the case so far.  We have enough time left for that to change, though my experience with Kawahara as a writer doesn’t make me optimistic that it will.  I am optimistic, though, that he’s got what it takes to spin a very interesting story around the ingenious premise he’s crafted here – and that the series has finally decided to cast aside the distractions and go about doing just that.

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[HorribleSubs] Sword Art Online - 08 [720p].mkv_snapshot_14.31_[2012.08.25_13.08.34] [HorribleSubs] Sword Art Online - 08 [720p].mkv_snapshot_14.44_[2012.08.25_13.08.47] [HorribleSubs] Sword Art Online - 08 [720p].mkv_snapshot_15.29_[2012.08.25_13.09.31]
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[HorribleSubs] Sword Art Online - 08 [720p].mkv_snapshot_18.45_[2012.08.25_13.12.47] [HorribleSubs] Sword Art Online - 08 [720p].mkv_snapshot_20.06_[2012.08.25_13.14.28] [HorribleSubs] Sword Art Online - 08 [720p].mkv_snapshot_20.36_[2012.08.25_13.14.58]
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26 comments:

  1. I agree that the author's strengths lie in his worldbuilding and social themes much more than his characters. I think the show works best when you think of Kirito as mostly a vehicle to explore Aincrad and its citizens. ...Aincrad's the name of the game's setting, but I can't remember if that was ever mentioned in the anime. Anyway, most of the people he meets are merely archetypes because, well, that's all they were ever meant to be. Silica was the young girl gamer dealing with unwanted attention from male players, Lisbeth was the craftsman maintaining a careful distance from the people on the front lines, etc etc. They're not really supposed to have much more depth than that, because they serve more to represent people rather than be people.

    Or something like that. Well, he's probably just bad at writing characters. It certainly doesn't bode well when most of the female character end up crushing on the male lead. And the accidental groping scene was facepalm-worthy.

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  2. I'm honestly glad we're finally getting on to the main story.

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  3. WOW

    For once I am glad they got most of the terminologies out of the way with the side stories, cause this episode is going blow for blow identical to the LN now (save for a few spots).

    Speaking of easy cooking, that pot of tea is mysterious....entire flowers?

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    1. There are teas like that (I used to be in the coffee/tea biz). Osmanthus, jasmine...

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  4. I could see someone wanting to stay in the VR if they were handicapped in RL and were able to be normal in the VR world.

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    1. I can definitely see that (though "normal" is not the word I would choose to use here) but I think plenty of non-disabled people might also see this as a better alternative, if their real-life were unhappy enough.

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    2. This was one of the major plot points in .hack//SIGN Tsubaru was that kind of character. On a side note is pretty interesting people often point out that both stories, SAO and .hack, are the same but I can't remember anyone saying that this:

      But share the same setting and one excels in what the other one lacks.
      SAO: World building - Action
      .hack//SIGN : Believable character - Character development.

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  5. Indeed, the characters just seem like flat anime characters rather than game characters. I think it would be interesting if SAO had explored more accurately how game characters function.

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  6. More Kirito/Asuna screen-time bundled with more plot is definitely a win in my books.

    I'm curious as to what happens to you (in SAO) if your body dies in the real world.

    I lol'ed at the rabbit's "oh crap" face when it saw Kirito. I'm also glad Asuna called out the oversimplification of cooking in SAO. If only it were that easy IRL.

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  7. As for your commentary about people who are sick/handicapped in real life, I think there is a LN in the series that deals a bit with this topic.

    Otherwise, I agree with your commentary on characters. I've begun to read the fan translations of the first novel (can't read japanese), and it is true that the first draw to the story is the setting. But as a consequence, I feel it was a wise choice to add the side stories in chronological order to flesh out a bit Kirito.
    As I'm finally reading the english LN of Haruhi Suzumiya (they don't exist here in France), I think I would enjoy to have a character like Kyon in SAO. But still, SAO and Kirito as they are, though not perfect, make a good entertainment for my saturday evenings. That's already a good thing.

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  8. I'll admit, I didn't think that Asuna's decline into Kirito's housewife wouldn't happen this early o.

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    1. Actually, it should have happened episode 2. That way, we would be trying to figure out what kind of person Asuna is without having to realize that she's a tsundere.

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  9. Wow I was blown away by the visuals this week. But instead of feeling awed, I can't help but feel incredibly pissed by it. WHY THE FUCK IS THIS EPISODE 8?? I was sitting in shock during the cold open, yelling at my computer screen, "Where the HELL have you been?! OMG this is where all the budget went!" We saw how gorgeous this world could be, and we never really seen anything this vibrant until today.

    What people don't seem to realize, GE, is that Reki created this gem that was Sword Art Online volume 1, and since then has failed to recreate a similar success. He takes this incredible well built world and tries to inject characters into an already finished story and never really makes it work.

    And it's such a shame too, because by adding more into an otherwise finished product, he tampered with the established characters. Kirito is now a Gary Stu and Asuna is now a tsundere. You do need to realize that none of this happened in volume 1. These characters felt real, at least much more than they do now. These thoughts and philosophies Kirito has on virtual reality and life should have been present since episode 2. Shame on the production team that took the easy way out in adapting materials verbatim without rewriting the stories for cohesion. Or you can say, shame on Reki for giving us these mundane side stories that lack proper narrative cohesion.

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  10. I'd say that Kawahara Reki is an author that improves with every LN Volume. Indeed, I don't think it is fair to say that he can't write compelling characters- Accel World's Sky Raker is a good example of when Reki is on form. However, I'd argue that the characterization problems that plague SAO is more of a result of Kawahara's relative inexperience as an author.

    If you really want to see Kawahara at his best, read SAO's 7th Volume, Mother's Rosario from beginning to end. I'd dare say that by that stage, he managed to overcome some of the more salient issues that plague his earlier writings- which we are going through right now.

    Another huge problem with this anime Reki relied more heavily on the internal monologus in his stories, taking you to the minds of the characters itself. Something, alas, the anime can't capture- and because we aren't privy to that rich thought processes of Reik's characters (he conveys his characters via their internal thoughts, on-top of what they say outloud), we only see a partial picture of these characters in this anime. Since we only hear their dialogue, which was only one part of Reki's characterizations in the LN.

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    1. Again, all I can judge by here is what the characters are like in the anime (and to some extent in AW). It may be as you say, but for now that's academic. As to Sky Raker I agree that was a good episode, but I personally didn't find her that believable - a bit too much of a halo about her for that.

      I do agree that sometimes LN characters aren't done justice to in anime adaptations for the very reasons you describe - so much of what gives them complexity comes from internal monologues a lot of the time, and they usually don't get translated into the anime. I think we saw this problem in F/Z as well, especially with Kiritsugu and Kirei. Yet, even so, the characters in F/Z still came across as real people in F/Z the anime, even though they (well, many of them) were quite literally archetypes in that case. So - it can be done, if the originals are well-written enough.

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  11. @guardian enzo actully lizbeth will be part of the main story and with the main charachters later so she is not just a side character.

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  12. @guardian enzo also i think The side stories were necessary to prolong Kirito's 'SAO-life' experience, so to not make it look like yesterday the game started, and today he's already about to get married. There's no fun in that, no anticipation, and nearly no development between him and Asuna. Novels and film/animated adaptations are always different in a way that they feel much shorter due to having to skip the elaborate descriptions of the hero's surroundings, feelings and thoughts.

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  13. Yeah, I'd have integrated vol 2's stories in differently, but keep in mind that if they'd stuck with the "main story" of vol 1, it'd be over in about 4 eps, since after this episode, we're around 30% through vol 1. And it's not like it gets a lot denser or complex (IMO).

    I also agree with Transient Muse that the character writing markedly improved as the novels progressed; in fact, I was relieved to read those side stories in vol 2 because until then, I was having a really hard time making it through, just stuck with Kirito and Asuna.

    I mean, Asuna may be a tsundere now, but vol 1 Asuna always seemed to me like just the dere... So by contrast, she's well-rounded as it stands.

    Still, if only cooking could be just like that, I might do it more myself. Oh, and with respect to us not being at that point with MMOs, keep in mind the (admittedly relatively few) cases where people say, neglected their baby until it died because they couldn't tear themselves away from their games; or the fun story about the guy who killed his roommate (iirc) over an MMO... So it's not as far off as you might think.

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    1. Yeah, that's why I say not "such" a problem now - because there are isolated cases of gamers starving to death, and less isolated cases of them becoming completely isolated socially. But imagine how much more common it would be if MMOs were that realistic.

      Sadly, I can't go by what Asuna or anyone else is like in the LN - only by what I see in the anime.

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  14. Wow, was that the first episode of season 2 or just the second episode of SAO. It feels like I've watched a whole season of SAO and yet this episode was about just as good as the first. Like never mind the episodes in between. But thanks to those episodes I think, I'm immersed with the SAO concept. So I'm ready for the main plot.

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  15. I'm starting to realize that most of the people complaining about the way this story has been told, and the order the shows have been presented, would complain no matter what. Personally, I think it's been fine: the 'side stories' that were presented helped to flesh the world and Kirito out, and do it in a way that didn't have to distract from the overall storyline, nor have us bored with the generally tedious process of leveling up in an RPG. They gave the impression of time passing, things happening, alliances being formed and tensions building, and allowed us time to think about the world before being thrown into the more difficult parts.

    If we hadn't had those episodes already, we'd either need to take time away from the story going forward in small amounts to explain more of the world, or be left in the dark which would make this world a lot less interesting. Also, if we hadn't had those episodes already, they'd have been put in later. When? Likely in the middle of the story, where people complain that they break up the flow (Kuroyukihime in Okinawa, anyone?), or at the end, where people complain that there's no point to watching the show because the main story is over. As it is, I feel they helped to build a larger foundation for the story that we're going to get moving forward.

    One other note: If we didn't already know that Asuna is a more persistent character and love interest for Kirito, how would this episode have been considered any different from the last 4 that we had? He has dinner with a girl that he meets who is in a big guild, and finds some of the people in that guild to be jerks. So then they party up together. Basically, the storytelling was the same. I know we can't just erase the memory of Asuna like that, but as far as 'advancing the overall plot of getting out of Aincrad', this episode didn't do any more for that than Lizbeth's or Yolko's stories. I liked all of them and think they all need to be taken as part of the whole, not discarded as 'filler' or diversions.

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    1. I don't know how to respond to that "Would complain no matter what" charge,, as I can only react to what A-1 chose to air. And it really didn't work for me in terms of plot progression.

      The fact is, Kawahara himself apparently didn't see these stories as essential, since he didn't include them in his original timeline. And that's how they play to me - side stories, extras. They don't feel necessary or urgent or even relevant, at times. Some of them are better than others, but to lump them all together and effectively defer the start of the show by 7 episodes just doesn't add up for me.

      As for the last episode, first of all, as you said, we can't un-know what we know so I'm not sure it's even a valid question. But even at that, this episode dealt with the main storyline quite a bit more than most of the side story episodes did.

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    2. But did it really deal with the main storyline any more than the conversations that Asuna and Kirito had while investigating the in-town murders? I really don't think so. If you are considering the main storyline to be Kirito x Asuna, then yes, but storytelling-wise it was about the same.

      And I think the difference in medium between books and television makes that direct comparison difficult. He didn't need to put these stories in early on in the books, because it's far easier to do world-building in text, during the service of the story, because readers will tolerate it more. But I personally feel the world is now far more robust having been shown that there are people who create specious justifications for PK'ing or just do it for asocial kicks, that there are people who fear their own mortality so much that they are almost paralyzed by it, and that there are people who have dedicated their existence to support of the people on the front lines. I think knowing those different aspects of the world lets us observe the story going forward in a way that's not just 'everyone seems to be a hero'.

      I dunno, the way they did it appeals to the engineer in me, that in constructing the building, they've taken the time to excavate and construct the foundation, the things that aren't usually seen, but add robustness to the final building. Yeah it looks like nothing's happening, but in reality it's making the whole story stronger. Jumping right into the story, and then tacking these things on later as they came up would seem more like just starting on the visible part of the building, and then having to go do retrofits on the bottom as it became unsuitable for where the story is now.

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    3. I'm not an engineer, but to me it's like they spent the first day laying down the foundation and then said, "before we move on to the rest of the house, let's build a detached garage and pool - on the next block"...

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    4. Ah, I see Kirito's attitudes towards living in the now, personal interactions, and the proper way to 'play' or live in Aincrad as something that will hopefully be supportive of the rest of the show, rather than completely unrelated traits that can be ignored.

      Maybe it's that a lot of the importance of those things that I think I learned in these past episodes will either be revealed or reviled as we move through the remainder of the story. If he sticks to those principles, and uses them as guiding support for his future actions and decisions, then I think it will have been a worthwhile pursuit. It's possible, though, that the writers could (in my opinion) botch it up, and make him make decisions based on completely different things, like current expediency or who he likes more at the time. I hope that they don't do that, because then I would agree that these episodes have been wasted (and I will be very disappointed, plus look stupid for placing faith in the writers). But if they continue to use them as guiding principles, I think it's time well-enough spent.

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  16. A thought: when Asuna landed on Kirito and he ended up accidentally grabbing her chest, she cleaned his clock pretty hard. Shouldn't the act of attacking another player have marked her as orange, i.e. a criminal? Granted, they were in town, but it's not like the attack didn't affect him--he went flying, after all, and his impact caused an "immortal object" indicator to appear. Would that not suggest that the game interpreted the force of his colliding with it (i.e. the force of Asuna's tsundere-slap) as an attack? Kayaba must be pretty genre-savvy if he knew how to code tsundere-counterbalancing protocols into his game's combat system.

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