Proving that more is not always better.
There be spoilers below.
I remember back when Sword Art Online had just begun. I remember the first episode of the Aincrad arc and just how quickly it seemed to pass by and how heavily the bombshell at the end of that episode fell. I remember rapidly skipping to the next episode (it came out before I could stream things as they aired but that meant I could binge) and I remember just how absorbed I became with the characters and the story and just how much fun the whole viewing experience was.
Admittedly, the entertainment of the very first series from 2012 shouldn’t really have all that much to do with whether or not this story arc from 2018-2019 is actually any good, nor should I compare them and expect that to be the same. Kirito has grown as a character since then, the technology has moved on, and almost all the other characters we spend any length of time with in Alicization are completely new. It is its own experience but not stand-alone. The events in the real world do require pre-existing knowledge of the franchise to make sense so even if I wanted to give Alicization a clean break from the seasons of SAO past, it wouldn’t really be doable.
Could someone totally new to the franchise start with Alicization?
Sure. They’d miss some context for things but mostly I doubt that would change the overall viewing experience. Except perhaps that a new viewer would go in without any expectations of Sword Art Online and so some of the disappointment I faced while watching Aliciation wouldn’t have played a factor. Maybe a new audience member could just enjoy a romp in the new world with the new cast and not wonder what happened to the cool and reckless Kirito before he ‘grew up’ and became the boring, moralising and largely passive protagonist we encounter here.
I know. I just called Kirito boring. I didn’t think I’d ever do that. Lots of other people did even back in Aincrad but I always really liked Kirito as a character. Alicization was the killing blow though.
Part of this is because Kirito spends a large part of Alicization seemingly mentoring Eugeo. Being pushed into a mentor or teacher role means that he does need to explain and sermonise and take the high ground in order to lead by example. It also means standing back at times and taking the background role to let the student grow. And honestly, given the context of Alicization, which I’ll get to in a bit, Kirito moving into that role makes perfect sense, but it isn’t interesting.
The sacrifice of Kirito’s spirit and character, though a significant blow to my enjoyment of the franchise, possibly could have been rationalised as Eugeo is actually an interesting character to watch grow. While never as interesting or dynamic as Aincrad’s Kirito, he wasn’t a bad substitute. However, Eugeo’s character arc comes to an abrupt and fairly pointless and ridiculous end by the end of this half of Alicization. So ultimately I watched Kirito help another character grow at the expense of being entertaining in his own right and then that character isn’t going to do anything because they are already finished. Or at least, finished enough as I don’t doubt SAO’s ability to come up with rubbish reasons for this not to be the end.
This isn’t the first time Kirito has had someone he’s mentored and helped has died. The Moonlit Black Cats, particularly Sachi, were a large part of his character growth in Aincrad and Sachi’s death left emotional scars that Kirito had to work really hard to overcome.
The problem is that Eugeo’s character had pretty much 20 something episodes of mentoring and then before he surpassed his master he died and his death hasn’t seemed to amount to anything, though perhaps they’ll capitalise on it in the next half. All I know is that it left an incredible taste of dissatisfaction in my mouth.
For all that I’ve just attacked the characters, I’m now going to back up a bit and actually look at the fundamental problems in Alicization as a series. Keep in mind, there are some really great moments throughout the 24 episodes. Sequences where one character or another really rises up and does something cool and dramatic and for a moment you can just get swept away. So I am not saying there’s nothing good about Alicization.
However, what really hurts Alicization, other than the time difference between events in the real world and the events in underworld which results in Asuna and the others getting bare minimum screen time and an absolute lack of audience buy in to the event in the real world…
Okay, the time thing probably needs its own section because it was a really unnecessary contrivance that really hurt the pacing of the real world events. With the large gaps of time between when we even saw characters in the real world and how little progress that plot made over the course of a whole season, because events in Underworld move fast, it just isn’t a very effective way to tell a story, particularly in a season spread over more than six months. Perhaps binge watching would alleviate some of this issue but honestly, at times I all but forgot what Asuna and the others were even doing so the dramatic final for them really had next to no impact.
Right, so what really hurts Alicization, other than all that stuff, is the way they execute the story. The idea behind Alicization is actually really interesting with souls being digitalised and raised within a virtual world. The pseudo-science techno-babble explanations of the how and the why don’t really help here but the concept is cool. The problems within that world where those in control of the command codes are corrupt and others are forced through the Taboo Index to essentially obey those of higher standing within the world.
I mean, it isn’t terrible original if we put it in the context of a dystopian kind of story, but it works and there’s a lot of potential ideas for exploration and so many potential paths for the story to take.
And while Alicization does take some interesting paths and does explore some of the concepts, it does it in an incredibly poorly conceived manner. Where large chunks of information are given to us through forced exposition in the form of incredibly long and artificial sounding dialogue exchanges between characters, and a lot of that information is either repetitive of previous bits of information, or just so abstract that it will make no difference whether the audience has it explained or not, it just doesn’t make for interesting viewing.
Imagine you were watching some kind of fast paced sporting tournament and every now and then the competitors stopped, poured out some cups of teas, and sat around discussing their motives, training methods, and the history of their coach. Then they just get up and start competing again.
Alright, Alicization wasn’t that bad, but the analogy is kind of apt in terms of the enjoyment in viewing.
When you throw in the fact that Kirito and Eugeo set out from Eugeo’s home town to find Alice and end up enrolling in a school and just happily training for a few years (happily may be an exaggeration) and it doesn’t seem like they are in any kind of hurry to achieve their goal, the pace of this story seems all over the shop and goals that drive characters seem to do so selectively. Even once they get to the tower and begin facing off against Integrity Knights, it is very hard to care about these characters as antagonists and their motives for fighting, or not fighting, are really hard to swallow sometimes. As is Alice’s rapid decision to work with Kirito when they were hanging outside of the tower.
What it comes down to is you’d get a moment of excitement or interesting interaction and then Alicization would hit the breaks to explain something to you and just when things got going again it would do the same. With the narrative pacing off the characters really needed to step up to sell some of these exchanges only they didn’t. Outside of Kirito and Eugeo, barely anyone got any screen time and the few who did didn’t really draw me into the story so much as just existed within it.
The music is workable but doesn’t give anywhere near the sense of excitement that I found in the score in the original series. Visuals work fine and the various attacks are pretty cool to watch. Eugeo really wins out here with his sword being exceptionally beautiful and its attack leads to some really interesting effects. Kirito is less lucky and because he gets limited time to go crazy with his sword there are far less moments where he just looks super cool on screen in Alicization. However, overall, Alicization is kind of average to look at. Character designs work as do settings but very little of it is stand out or amazing.
I really did want to like this latest Sword Art Online. I was excited about the return of the franchise and to be honest, my love of the original has meant that subsequent iterations get a lot of leeway. However, Sword Art Online Alicization is not just not good, it is openly obnoxious at times as it drags the audience along and through unnecessarily long sequences and seems to care little about making any character actually more than just another plot point to be resolved. The end results is I didn’t have much fun watching it and realistically, if it hadn’t had the SAO connection, I’d have dropped it after the first cour rather than persevering through all 24 episodes. What’s worse than holding on 24 episodes? Watching 24 episodes for the thing to end on a cliff-hanger.
Honestly, I can’t recommend this. For those newer anime fans, I still think trying the original SAO is worth it despite the online hate factory for it, but Alicization is a lesser show in almost every way imaginable and while there were many readers of the light novels proclaiming that Alicization would fix the narrative issues with SAO, I think Alicization the anime just found new and improved ways to annoy an audience.
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- Images from: Sword Art Online Alicization. Dir. M Ono. A-1 Pictures. 2018.