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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!