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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

PCB TV Review: Sword Art Online

If you've ever played any kind of MMORPG game, you'll appreciate Sword Art Online, now available on Hulu. But even if you aren't familiar, Sword Art Online has something for you, if you can get past having to read subtitles and a Japanese flavor of soap opera anime.

I came across Sword Art Online while looking for something new on Hulu+. I do this from time to time, and have been quite impressed by shows like Misfits and Green Wing (both of which I highly recommend). This series is nothing like either of those, but I'm glad to see Hulu making some interesting suggestions.

There are many characters is this epic.
I'm not a big anime fan, although I've watched my share - Ghost in the Shell, Akira, My Neighbor Totoro, etc. Hulu now has quite a few anime series, but none of them really caught my eye until SAO. Maybe it's my love of Ghost in the Shell, or maybe I'm just drawn to stories about the blurring between technology, AI, and virtual reality. I also liked Caprica and Dollhouse, to give you some perspective.

The game designer lets the players
in on his little secret.
SAO is the story of Kirigaya Kazuto, who was a beta tester for the virtual reality massively multiplayer role playing game (VRMMORPG) Sword Art Online (SAO), and also a bit of a cheater. His online persona is Kirito. After the beta is complete, the game goes live to over 10,000 players, who are distressed to discover that the designer of the game, Kabaya Akihiko, has set things up in such a way that the players not only can't log out, but if they die in the game, their VR systems, called Nerve Gear, will send a microwave shock into their brains, effectively killing them. The challenge, then, is to beat the game in order to escape. Of course, nobody can remove the VR gear, as the first couple who have that happen die immediately upon the attempt.

Love blossoms in a VR world.
Kazuto, being a beta tester and a cheater (a beater, as he's later dubbed), has some advantages over all of the other players, and becomes crucial to their survival. He makes a lot of mistakes along the way, but is redeemed when he finds love with Asuna, real name Yuuki Asuna, one of the few players who uses their real world name for their player character. She too is quite powerful, and their love helps them through their trials in the virtual world.

It's really quite lovely, this VR world
of death.
There are some slight flaws in the story, one of which being how after years of being in the game, the players remain alive without eating. There is a quick explanation that addresses it somewhat, but it still bothered me that supposedly every player was put in a hospital and fed intravenously. Overall, though, the story plays well, and wisely skips time fairly often, although there may be other stories that could be told during the time jumps between episodes.

Would you know this was your sister?
Only the first two story arcs (Hulu calls them one season) are currently available. They lead to some interesting issues, not the least of which is Kirito's sister/cousin Kirigaya Suguha, or Leafa from the VR world. See, she ends up falling for Kirito, not knowing he is her brother/cousin. Talk about an avatar!

Another world from this epic tale.
Another interesting aspect of this series is its origin. I'm not familiar with ASCII Media Works, but apparently they hold a contest periodically, and this light novel, as it's called, was intended to be an entry. But the work was too long for the competition, so the author, Reki Kawahara, didn't submit it, and instead made it available for free under the pseudonym Fumio Kunori. He later won ASCII's contest with another work, Accel World, and now ASCII publishes it plus four volumes of SAO and some short stories. They are no longer available for free online.

It's weird that the only sexy images
are of Kazuto's sister/cousin.
There are a few other things which make watching a challenge besides the subtitles, which are done fairly well. First, in the anime style, there are a lot of weird over-reactions, and one wonders if the translations miss the mark, or if it's just a cultural difference. Speaking of that, there is definitely a cultural difference in the way the characters handle the social implications of this world. It's hard to tell, but it seems like Kazuto would be fine with dating his sister/cousin (who is actually his mother's sister's daughter - making them first cousins). Not sure if this is normal in Japanese culture, or if I'm misinterpreting the translation, but it does seem like they at least consider getting together.

Seriously, no other character is
presented like this in the series.
Maybe the author is working
out some inner demons?
There are two more volumes of the series written, but they have not been made into an anime series, and the producers don't appear to have plans to make them. Which is a shame, because the anime definitely is engrossing.

If you like anime, MMORPGs, or video games in general, and have access to Hulu, I recommend you take a look at Sword Art Online. I ripped through it in about a week, and really would watch more if there was any more to watch.

Sword Art Online - Vol.1 (DVD+CD+BOOKLET+NOVEL+BOX) [Japan LTD DVD] ANZB-6601

$45, Amazon.com (Japanese import; requires Region 2 playing ability)
Also available on Hulu+

6 out of 10 swords, for being subtitled and outside my cultural experience.



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