Sword Art Online: Beyond the Legacy, Beyond the Reputation

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.

My thoughts on the Aincrad Arc.

My thoughts on the Fairy Dance Arc.

SAO Season 1

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.

Demon Slayer and MHA
And you can bet your bottom dollar the current anime darlings My Hero Academia and Demon Slayer will get this backlash as well.

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.

SAO Merch
The level of merchandise and product a show like SAO has cranked out is impressive.

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.

9 thoughts on “Sword Art Online: Beyond the Legacy, Beyond the Reputation

  1. I think we’re seeing a lot of backlash against MHA and Demon Slayer now. For the latter, it seemed to start (at least based on what I saw) when episode 19 trended so high on Twitter.

    Thanks for adding the South Park and Crossing Field clips.

    I’m glad you were able to enjoy the series. I’m really looking forward to what you think of Sword Art Online II. It’s probably my favorite of the franchise, largely because I really like Shino/Sinon.

    “I have tried very hard to be fair and balanced.”

    From what I read, it was as much as you were simply being honest about how you reacted to the show. Maybe that’s saying the same thing, but I’ve read some reviewers just go off about how terrible the show is — and they had nothing to back it up. I’d rather they just come out and say they hated it because it took attention away from another show they thought was more deserving — then tell me why the other show was so interesting.

    You’re absolutely right that “negativity sells, and being overly analytic is rewarded.” But that’s only in the short term. Building a large audience of people who enjoy your work takes longer, but it’s more rewarding. I mean, you can only feed a negative rush for so long before it collapses. But inspiring people’s imaginations is not only something that has a long-term potential, it’s self-rewarding because positivity feeds on positivity. Plus, it’s rejuvenating.

    Now I’m off track. Looking forward to your next SAO reviews!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I feel like there’s already a backlash against BNHA, cause it felt like when this latest season was airing everybody was shit-talking it >_< Am I the only one who thought it was really good? Anyways…

    I think you're right about the SAO backlash being caused in part by overexposure, and how much other shows copied it. I started out liking the show, but it started to lose me after the first arc, and I think that might be the case for others as well. It felt like after the cool set-up and the novelty was gone, the flaws became more apparent. The thing that did it for me was that there are so many cool female characters with fantastic designs, but it feels like they're just there for fanservice and to be in love with Kirito. It comes off as sexist and is just poor writing. Honestly I'm willing to overlook most of the other issues I have with the show, if it weren't for that one aspect I'd probably like it a lot more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There is little, if any fanservice in the first season of SAO, and only one genuine “harem” moment. I can’t speak for the next two seasons and the film yet, but I can tell you that “sexist and fanservice” doesn’t really define what SAO is, at least in season 1.

      I’ve watched too many harem anime to count, and what SAO has makes it look like a christian youth group.

      But hey, that’s my takeaway, people might have others and again, I can’t speak to season 2 and onwards.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I think you may have missed what I was trying to say a bit. I don’t think fanservice is bad in and of itself. In some situations it can be empowering (and hey, gay girls get thirsty too sometimes lol). The problem I have is when it feels like a character is just there for fanservice or a romantic subplot and has no personality, drive or motivation of their own.

        Maybe this is a weird comparison but hear me out. Kill la Kill has way more gratuitous fanservice than SAO, especially with its main character Ryuko. But at no point did I feel like she was there solely for T&A. She has a strong personality and her goals, motivations, and backstory are completely her own. She doesn’t have any interest in the male characters romantically; the main romantic tension is between her and Mako (canon yuri ships ftw!)

        Compare this to someone like Lisbeth in SAO. What do we know about her? What’s her personality like? What does she even do in the story, besides make Kirito a cool sword one time and love him from afar? She’s a superfluous character. She’s just there so Kirito can have another girl unsuccessfully chase him. Maybe it’s not fair to compare the main protagonist to a side character here, but I feel like I could say the same thing about Leafa, the dragon tamer girl, or hell, even Asuna in the second arc. She could be replaced with the million-dollar briefcase from Pulp Fiction and it wouldn’t change the story at all.

        And like, I get that whenever you talk about sexism in media, it tends to get toxic and unproductive very quickly. I try not to get on my soapbox like this too much cause I know that not everyone is going to feel the same way. But I’m female and I can only talk about my perspective. And the idea that female characters only exist for the male characters’ development is an insidious trope that shows up in a lot of media, good and bad. It just hurt for me to watch SAO because I loved Asuna early on, and watching her basically reduced to a plot device in the second arc was just depressing (though not surprising.) I don’t hate SAO, but sometimes I think that with a better writing team it could be so much better than it is.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Like I said in my post, I would absolutely agree with the Asuna argument, if, IF that was the last piece of the SAO story, it isn’t, and Asuna clearly has more to say and do, which is great, bring it on. Because I watched this so late, I get to know that, something I think viewers back then didn’t. What happens to her is unsettling and sad, exactly what it’s suppose to make you feel.

        Asuna in my mind, just wants to be free to live her own life and make her own choices. Those choices end up wanting to be Kirito’s girlfriend and have a life with him. There is nothing wrong with that, if she’s happy, if that is a choice SHE makes of her own will, then go for it. Asuna, like so many anime female characters have nothing to prove to me, they don’t have to constantly justify their existence. I know she’s a badass, I don’t need to be told that every five minutes. But that of course is just MY perspective, you have a different one, which is valid and I acknowledge it.

        Yes Asuna ‘takes the bench’ in ALO, but it’s for a reason. It allows Suguha to step forward and have the B-story of the arc be completely focused on her. If she had to share the spotlight with Asuna, then the show would end up being that harem people claim it is, with Asuna and Suguha fighting over Kirito every chance they got.The story is a very basic “boy saves girl” plot, and yeah that might rub people the wrong way, but Asuna in my mind isn’t made any weaker by the events of this arc, because I know there are two more season and a movie left. I might change my tune after I watch those though, so who knows.

        I also agree that the supporting cast of season 1 is quite weak. Lisbeth and the other girl (really memorable right?) honestly do feel like filler, but they aren’t throwing themselves at Kirito, and as someone who has watched many harem anime, I don’t see it. Hell Lisbeth pretty much gets over Kirito in a single episode and it is never brought up again (because she’s never around in the rest of season 1)

        Really, SAO is as I said, a B+ story. It’s not perfect, and I could armchair author the work to death, (as many have), but it is no where near as bad as people have claimed it is, Not by a LONG shot.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. I quite agree. IMO barring the Alfheim Arc I found really nothing bad to say about SAO as a whole. It definitely has its fair share of ups and downs, and yeah all the backlash was just a matter of “They hate us cause they ain’t us” mentality popping in.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. “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.”

    Not just the dominance of the blockbuster – but also the dominance of the *franchise*. Certainly, there had been sequels before, but Star Wars changed how they were approached and treated. That’s even more obvious over on the print SF/Fantasy side of the house.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Which is why I used it for the analogy. No SAO isn’t the first Isekai, put it was the first ‘modern isekai’ that put the genre on the map, and Kirito the character design that so, SO many series would try to ape. I can understand some anime fans hating the series because of that.

      Liked by 1 person

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