Our look at Sword Art Online continues! While I have said my piece on both parts of the second season, I knew I couldn’t leave without giving my final thoughts on the entire season in general. Let’s not waste anytime, and get into my thought on Sword Art Online II after the cut!
Too often many sequels to films and the like have often touted their next chapter as “The Empire Strikes Back” part of their story. That is a understandable claim to make. Regardless of how you feel about the Star Wars movies, The Empire Strikes Back is considered by and large the perfect example of how to do a sequel right. The story is more personal, the heroes get dirt kicked in their faces, and there is a somber and bleak tone that ends up setting the stage for the grand finale. I bring this up, because as I watched the entire second season of Sword Art Online, I very much felt I was watching an ‘Empire Strikes Back’ sort of sequel.
While I was a big fan of the first season of the series, Sword Art Online does take its time to find its footing. As much as I enjoyed it, the first half of the Aincrad arc often feels too high concept, too much of a macro view of the world. It does at times feel like you are watching a more modern take on the old .HACK series, and aside from the plot of ‘being trapped in the game, there isn’t any real meat on the bones. It is only about halfway through when Kirito and Asuna get together that the series really starts to find its footing, that it starts to be about something: the characters and their relationships. Kawahara seems to seize on this idea and carries it over into Fairy Dance. While disliked by many, I do believe that Fairy Dance is the first season of SAO at its best. The plot is smaller, the stakes are personal, and the enjoyment comes from seeing the characters react inside the game, not about the game itself. Instead of Kayaba and his never fully realized potential, we have Kirito struggling to rescue and protect the woman he loves, and everything that has made him a better person.
Sword Art Online’s second season continues that trend, and it where Reki Kawahara finally ‘arrives’ as both a writer and a storyteller. Leaving the high-concept ideas of Aincrad in the past, Kawahara seizes on his greatest strength and uses that to tell his stories. Both Phantom Bullet and Mother’s Rosario build upon the great groundwork laid in the latter half of Aincrad and Fairy Dance to tell compelling, personal and deeply effective stories of young men and women trying to overcome hardship. Each of the main characters, Kirito, Asuna, Sinon and Yuuki all have a story arc that reflects what I think is the main theme of the season: What you take with you, and what you leave behind.
Kirito, despite having saved Asuna and freed himself from SAO, realizes that he didn’t just take his success from the game with him, he also took his guilt. The bad actions he tried to pave over with his triumphs comes roaring back, and Kirito realizes he will carry those sins for the rest of his life, but that he must move forward regardless.
Sinon, the young girl who murdered a man in self defense. A woman haunted by PTSD takes her trauma and fear into the world of Gun Gale Online. Her struggles to move past personal horrors, to find a sense of closure haunt her footsteps both in the game and out of it. Only when told that she saved lives through her actions is she able to take those footsteps.
Yuuki, a girl whose family and own body have been destroyed by AIDS. With no chance at a normal life, she takes into ALO the struggle to secure a legacy for herself and guild mates who soon will face death. A woman who wants to know that she truly honestly lived, and ends up meeting her end with the knowledge that she meant something.
And Asuna, who fled into a virtual world to escape the fate thrust upon her by her mother and society. Her struggles to channel her bravery and independence from her days in SAO result in her boldly and proudly choosing her own fate, regardless of what people may think of her.
Each of these stories, told throughout the second season reflect a more personal and humane approach to Sword Art Online by Kawahara. His strengths as a writer lay not in his worlds, or high-minded villains, but instead in the personal struggles of young teenagers. Sinon’s panic attacks, Kirito’s breakdown, Yuki’s death, and Asuna’s struggles are all handled with a mastery and grace that is seen in only a handful of anime series, and they endear the characters to the viewer like nothing has before. No longer is Sword Art Online a generic isekai show with stock archetypes that some viewers arrogantly claim it is. Instead Kawahara and the animators have crafted personal stories about how situations and events can shape the minds and lives of people, in good ways and in bad. Stories about what you take out of those events, and what you bring into them, even if those events are in a massively multiplayer virtual role-playing game.
Yet, in interest of fairness, the second season is not perfect. Calibur is a weak arc that feels much like filler (though never truly bad), Phantom Bullet villain Shinkawa is very effective, but his reveal as the antagonist feels like it comes too late in the arc, and Kawahara’s seemingly inability to tell a story with more than a two character focus means the secondary cast is woefully underused. However these are all minor gripes when you compare to how much the second season gets right, and how Kawahara and Sword Art Online in general has been able to push itself forward to greater and greater heights.
The second season of Sword Art Online is one of the best examples of a sequel done right. Building upon the excellent character work and storytelling done in Fairy Dance. The story, the characters and Kawahara itself establish themselves fully, confident in what they are about and confident in what kind of stories they want to tell. While I have a lot of love for the first season, this second outing does everything I wanted it to do and more. I have said before that I struggled to see ‘the worst anime ever’ that so many people have claimed SAO was, but after this second season, and with half of the anime now under my belt. I have to wonder of those people are being honest with themselves. Regardless, this season is a triumph, a masterwork of a writer stepping up to the plate and improving on the potential and promise shown before. With that said and done, and before we head into the next chapter there is only one thing left to do.
Take us out Ignite