Sword Art Online II Episodes 1-14: The Phantom Bullet Arc

Our look at Sword Art Online, one of the most divisive anime series ever made continues. If you are just joining us, I’m taking a long awaited look into a series that has been either the boon or bane of many an anime fans in the last decade. Unbiased, without any stake in one side or the other, I’ve given my thoughts on the first two arcs of Season 1, and the ‘film‘ that served as a lead up to today. Now we have reached the second season and it’s time to once again dig in. Join me after the cut as I dive into the third arc of Sword Art Online, the first of its second season: The Phantom Bullet Arc.

Phantom Bullet
PTSD and Fabio Hair

If there is one thing that you can take away from the previous Aincrad and Fairy Dance arcs of SAO, it is that they are high-concept. Stuck in a fantasy game with no way out, author Reki Kawahara spends much of the first season having the characters react to their situation and how it affects them. Whether that worked or not is up to the viewer, but it is clear that Kawahara felt that the high-concept ideas from Aincrad couldn’t carry the entire story, which is why Fairy Dance opts for smaller more personal stakes. This feeling continues with Phantom Bullet, and it pays off in spades. One year after the events of Fairy Dance, we rejoin Kirito and Asuna who are settled into a comfortable high school life together. While still playing ALO, they have seemingly put the past behind them and are moving to a new future together. However when Kirito asked by a government official to investigate a series of murders in intensely competitive Gun Gale Online (GGO), both the viewers and Kirito learn that not all things can simply be left in the past.

GGO
Gun Gale Online is a fresh take on the MMO world, pulling the series away from the traditional routes of what a fantasy mmo is.

At this point in the season, while I have good idea of what the central theme of this second outing will be, I am not ready to discuss that yet. However over the course of Bullet, it was clear to me what the underlying story was about: trauma, how it affects you and the burdens people carry. It pleased me greatly that SAO was not going to follow the footsteps of other anime and simply pretend the events of the previous season didn’t have any impact. Yes Kirito may have saved the day, he may have rescued Asuna and made peace with Suguha, but he didn’t leave SAO without his scars, and Bullet makes those scars a central theme of the story. The killings he committed during the first arc, while in self defense were still that: killing, and when Kirito realizes that the villainous Death Gun is like him, an SAO survivor. The reality of what he did to survive comes back in a chilling way. For all the criticism lobbied at Kirito as a character, I struggled very much to see any of that in Phantom Bullet. Yes Kirito is quite skilled a video games, but he is not some all-powerful super god that so many viewers have made him out to be. His growth from the first episode of season 1 to now has been a real journey. No longer is he the blank slate he was the first half of Aincrad. Instead this is a man with wants, fears, desires and demons he has to own up to. The breakdown he has with the nurse before the climax of the arc, the realization that he has to live with what he’s done endears him more to the me than ever. The gary-stu that so many people claim he is wouldn’t have been like that. An author interested in a male power fantasy isekai story wouldn’t have had the courage to write that.

Kirito breakdown Phantom Bullet
Kirito didn’t just walk away with good things after SAO, and Bullet forces him to confront the bad things he tried to forget.

Yet Kirito’s own struggles are only a pretext to the real B-story of the arc: Sinon’s journey.

Like with Suguha in Fairy Dance. Sinon’s character, motivations and story are both Phantom Bullet and Sword Art Online at their absolute best. While Reki Kawahara isn’t the best author in the world, the man is exceptionally gifted at creating personal character stories, and Sinon’s right now is the best of the bunch. Her backstory of killing someone in self-defense, the trauma that came from it, her struggles to move on and how it haunts her wherever she goes is hauntingly real, and dreadfully effective. Kawahara and the animators handle each scene with grace and respect, running the gambit of emotions like denial, anger, despair and eventually acceptance. Her attempts at holding a real gun,  the way she throws herself into GGO in attempt to cope, the desperate need to lean against someone, but the hesitation to get close. All of it is the writers, and animators stepping up to the plate in the best possible way. When that story reaches its moment of closure, as Sinon realizes her actions saved lives as well as took them, it is a genuine heartfelt triumph that is rarely, if ever handled well. I’ve watched many difficult things in anime in my time, and aside from two single moments, I’ve been able to ‘keep it together,’ and while I did the same thing for Sinon, I can’t deny the strong emotional reaction I have so many times during her journey, and it remains probably the best character work Kawahara has done yet.

Sinon Closure Phantom Bullet
Sinon’s B-story pulls Sword Art Online into the big leagues and is proof that the series is capable of handling ‘deeper things’ with superb results.

The villain of the piece, Death Gun and Shinkawa are also an improvement on what has come before. At this point in my SAO watching adventure, I do believe that Kawahara is unable to create the high concept ‘deep’ villain that he attempted to do with Kayaba Akihiko, but he is very capable of creating the small scale, creepy villain. While there are moments where it feels under cooked, Shinkawa’s motivations and mannerisms to Sinon are disturbingly realistic. The way he carries a torch for Sinon, his obsession for her and the length he ends up going to try and be with her made my stomach turn. He is anime’s version of the ‘nice guy’ and any woman who has played online games or just been around the internet can tell you that a real thing. That shit happens and has happened, and again credit needs to be given to the author and staff for making it so effective, even if I do wish it hadn’t been shoved into the last episode or two of the arc.

Phantom Bullet baddie
Reki Kawahara knows how to write a creepy scumbag, and Shinkawa’s nice guy mannerism are frighteningly realistic.

The Phantom Bullet arc of Sword Art Online’s second season is a continuation of the improvements made in Fairy Dance. People have told me that with each new arc the writing improves and I fully believe them. The story is tighter, the characters are deeper, and the themes are more meaningful. I don’t see the isekai wish-fulfillment story that so many have claimed SAO to be. Instead I see an anime and series that has found its footing and more than willing to take a few chances, develop it’s cast and deal with interesting and compelling themes. This is exactly the direction I wanted Sword Art Online to go, acknowledging the past, but moving into new directions for its future. Phantom Bullet is an absolute triumph, and I enjoyed every moment with it.

Thank you for reading and I hope you join me next week as we look into the last half of the second season with the Calibur and Mother’s Rosario Arcs! Remember to follow me on twitter to get my daily thoughts I go through each of them!

Kirito bike
Kirito is a good character, he’s not the gary-sty people have decided he is. But I can’t get over the fucking motorbike. This is the burden I carry.

 

2 thoughts on “Sword Art Online II Episodes 1-14: The Phantom Bullet Arc

  1. This arc had me really torn. I think it had a lot of good ideas, but fell flat in the execution. When it started, I was excited. The gritty FPS setting was new for the series, and I’m a sucker for an old-school shonen tournament arc. I also liked that they were going for a darker, murder mystery type story this time around, with more character depth and a badass female lead. Also, I unironically love Kirito’s character design in this arc! (Maybe I just like long haired guys?)

    But I don’t know, there were so many things that just didn’t work for me. They explained Kirito’s PTSD via a flashback that wasn’t actually in Season 1, which made it feel like a jarring retcon. Asuna got the short shrift again, although at least she wasn’t a damsel in distress this time. Sinon was great at first, but I hated that she fell in love with Kirito and needed him to save her by the end. I wanted her to save herself, you know? And the whole scene with the creepy guy chasing her around the house was really triggering. I couldn’t watch most of it. A lot of the male characters in SAO act creepy and perverted and I think it kinda puts men in a bad light (saying this as a woman).

    To me, this arc had so much missed potential. It’s better than the Fairy Dance and Excalibur arcs, but not anywhere near as good as Mother’s Rosario. I guess you can gather I have complicated feelings about SAO. I don’t hate it, but I really want to like it more than I do lol

    Like

    • An interesting take, and a good different perspective.

      I do think that a lot of anime fans misinterpret affection between a male and female character almost instantly for romance. (A fault of the internet and shippers) and I do not think it was the case with Sinon. There is fondness, and maybe a little bit of teenage infatuation, but there isn’t any romantic tension that I can see. They both felt like war buddies, and Kirito seems to be there to act as a contrast to Shinkawa’s constant white-knighting and suffocating demeanor. He lets her freak out, break down, beg for help, but doesn’t try to wrap her up in a cloth and protect her. Mostly because he’s dealing with his own shit.

      I do think that in the end she saves herself, with Kirito acting only as a catalyst, an outside force to give her that last push she needed. In the end, her confrontation with the bullies, where she really finally breaks free of her fear of guns is done completely on her own, with no one there but herself.

      Shinkawa’s chasing of Sinon was indeed creepy and unsettling, but that I think was exactly what it was suppose to be. Just like with Fairy Dance, you aren’t suppose to feel nice about these baddies, especially Shinkawa because a lot of his mannerisms hit very close to home for a lot of people, women especially.

      You have an interesting take on the arc, which is always curious to see. I honestly felt that SAO II did everything I wanted to for a sequel, which I got into with my other posts, but I suppose not everyone views it the same. That’s life though.

      Liked by 1 person

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