Over the last two weeks, I’ve shared my thoughts regarding the first season of the hit anime Sword Art Online. With zero bias, no expectations and no real stake in the fandom, I sat down, watched the entire first season and wrote down what I felt. Now that that is all done, and before we move on to the next chapter in the franchise, I wanted to take this time to give you my final thoughts on what I’ve seen so far, and discuss, what I think, are the reasons SAO is such a divisive series. Join me after the cut.
With the first season done, and having plenty of time to collect my thoughts and opinions. I once again find myself going back to this clip from South Park.
I don’t think there has been an anime series, ever, that has gotten such a massive backlash than Sword Art Online. I count myself lucky that I have watched this series so far removed from it’s prominence in the spotlight. Yet I do confess a bit of regret that I wasn’t able to watch it during that time as well, because I wonder if my feelings would have been different. Regardless, I’ve been thinking a lot about why so many people dislike this show, who have seem to have made it their life’s goal to dismiss and overly criticize what something that, in my mind, is a B+ anime at best. After all this time, I think I have been able to narrow it down to two ideas.
1. Sword Art Online got too popular, too fast.
2. The ‘Star Wars’ effect.
The first one is a bit easier to discuss, so we’ll do that first. Simply put, Sword Art Online is a show whose rise to the top of anime popularity is frankly astronomical. It is very rare for any anime outside of a shonen to reach the heights of adoration and name recognition that SAO did. In the eight years since the first anime was released, SAO has completely dominated the industry, selling more light novels, more merchandise, and more just..stuff, than probably a lot of the series that have come out combined. Where some shows like Dragon Ball, Naruto, Gundam and One Piece took years, even decades to build up their loyal fanbases, SAO was able to do all of that in a frighteningly short amount of time.
The level of praise and adoration that SAO has been given, (much earned, but just as much overblown) has, as it always done, led to a certain amount of fan backlash that is common in series like this. In this era of the internet, where any real passion is seen as being ‘fake’ or ‘blind’, where negativity sells, and being overly analytic is rewarded. It is no surprise that some anime fans have turned on the show, to say that it is overpraised, to hyper-focus on its flaws and try to make them bigger than should be. As if they believe it is some cosmic balancing act that must be maintained. I think many of the SAO haters believe that the show doesn’t deserve the accolades it has gotten, that something that THEY see as flawed, shallow and unworthy shouldn’t be praised to the extent that it has been and on one level I agree with them. When all is said and done, Sword Art Online is just a really good B+ anime series. It’s strengths are evident, its flaws are there, but they don’t raise it to the level of greatness, nor do they bring it down to the level of garbage. Like what Date A Live is to the harem genre, SAO gives you a solid story, solid characters and solid action, that could be better, but could also be far, FAR worse.
The second reason, the so called ‘Star Wars’ effect is more about SAO in the realm of the anime world itself. The ‘Star Wars’ effect can be pretty much summed up as, that while many movie-goers and cinephiles adore Star Wars as a film, they absolutely hate what it did to the industry. The dominance of the blockbuster can be directly connected to the success of Star Wars, and that single film is probably more responsible for re-shaping the entire landscape of Hollywood and movie making than anything before. While SAO is not on that level, it has in my mind, echoed the legacy of Star Wars.
The Isekai boom that dominated the entire last decade of anime can be almost completely (though not fully) linked to the massive success of SAO. If you go out and read any of the Isekai stories that have come out, from things like Another World with my Smartphone, Death March to the Parallel World, Master of Ragnarok, Cautious Hero, Gundam Build Divers, and more, all of them can trace their origins back to Sword Art Online. Even shows like Konosuba, Tanya the Evil, ReZero and Overlord, all of whom have pushed the Isekai in new directions, owe their success in some regards to Sword Art Online. The character of Kirito has basically become a blueprint for so many different leads, both in and out of the Isekai genre, with many other series pretty much lifting his design and putting it in their own stories. I mean look at these.
And once again, I can understand why some people have disliked SAO because of that. I am sure it was the same feeling many had when Dragon Ball forever changed the shonen genre, and many, MANY new series came out to try and ape the success. There have been just as many trashy, boring ass Isekai shows as there have been good ones, and it is easy to fault SAO for starting a trend that has had a complete stranglehold on the industry for eight years (and counting). If your sick to death of Isekai and looking for something to blame, then SAO is an easy target.
Yet taking into account both of those reasons, which I think are in some regards valid. I still absolutely loved my time with the first season of Sword Art Online.
Despite all of what I have said, Sword Art Online remains a fun and entertaining show, one that has good characters, great action, solid animation and a story that, when it is focused on the main cast, never stops being entertaining, and never once bored me. I have my nitpicks of course, I wish the secondary cast had been given more spotlight, some scenes and moments (Sachi in particular) should have been given more weight, and the villain of Aincrad just doesn’t work. I do not think Sword Art Online is as great some of its fans have claimed it to be, but it is no way the cinematic travesty that so many people have said it was. If Fairy Dance, an arc that I absolutely loved, is the series at its worst, then I cannot wait to see the SAO at its best.
Over the course of my look at the first season. I have tried very hard to be fair and balanced. To look at what Sword Art Online IS, not what people WANTED it to be. To separate it from its legacy, the good AND the bad. I am lucky to have had no bias or horse in the race, and I 100% stand by everything I have said in my reviews of both arcs. This is a good show, and sometimes it is even a great show. It gave me moments of genuine emotion, and moments of heart pounding triumph. It had its moments of sorrow, moments of humor and moments of quiet contemplation. For someone like me, whose bar to be entertained is set almost comically low, I view the first season of Sword Art Online to be a smashing success, and i look forward to see what happens next in the weeks ahead.
So with that, takes us out. Crossing Field.