Sword Art Online, being as popular as it is, has been a series that has received more than its fair share of criticism over the years. While some of it is fair and merited, most seems to be superficial and surface level. Yet while everyone is entitled to their own views on the series (you either like it or you don’t), and while much of the critiques over the series are addressed over time. There has been one accusation thrown at Sword Art Online that has stuck around more than all others.
The idea that Sword Art Online is a harem anime, that all the girls are in love with Kirito, and that they are just there to be part of said harem, it something that has been lobbied at the series time and again. Even in my short time among this fandom, I have seen the critique thrown out as some sort of ‘gotcha’ moment. Having watched many, MANY harem anime over the years, and having seen almost all of Sword Art Online, I today to examine that critique, where it comes from, and how yes, in some ways it exists, but how it is also not true. Let’s get into it after the cut.
((Spoilers for the ending of War of the Underworld up ahead. Anime only viewers, please be aware))
For those who may not be aware, in terms of anime. A harem is when there is a group of girls who have a romantic interest in a single male character. That male character in turn, whether paralyzed by indecision, stupidly unaware, or simply disinterested will not simply not pick one of the girls to be with, leaving things forever undecided. That idea is one of the bread and butter principles not just of it’s own genre, but of Isekai and many anime beyond. Now while I am certain people are about to go for the easy answer to our question of Kirito’s harem. We’ll get to that at the very end. I want to instead talk about how we got to this issue first, and why, it I do understand it.
If you want Sword Art Online’s first season, most notably the Aincrad arc. Up until the point where Asuna and Kirito get together, it isn’t hard to see the harem situation start to build up. The episodic nature of Aincrad’s first half mostly consists of Kirito going around and helping different female characters with their problems. Whether it is Silica trying to revive her pet dragon, Lisbeth trying to find some magic ore, or even Sachi with trying to survive. Those adventures, and the closeness they have with Kirito can make it pretty clear that they all have interest in him. Furthermore, Kirito’s blank slate and generic Isekai template that defines him in Aincrad’s first half doesn’t do the character any favors. Even when this is put to bed with his further development in the later arcs, those arcs themselves often star Kirito and another new female character, Suguha in Fairy Dance, Sinon in Phantom Bullet, and Alice in parts of Alicization.
It is understandable that someone who looked at Sword Art Online, whether through the first half of season 1, or just at the posters could instantly assume the show is a harem. As the cast is largely female eccentric, and Kirito remains the only real main male lead, anime fans who have been around the block a few times, will have the knee-jerk reaction of going “Oh, anime has a harem in it,” and that I think is very understandable. I get that, I do. However I do think, when you look at the series that argument mostly falls apart. Now, before I get into the main reason, I want to talk about the other female characters and their relationship to Kirito. Many viewers believe that Silica, Suguha, Lisbeth, Sinon and Alice all have a romantic interest in Kirito, or at the very least ‘like him’ in a teenage crush sort of way.
And honestly? They’re right.
One of things I think people forget about the characters of Sword Art Online, is that they are teenagers, and teenagers are often whirlwind hurricanes of emotions and feelings. Teenage girls especially, and too often than though, feelings of love and affection aren’t something you can turn off, something you can’t wish away. Even when the story directly addresses those feelings and puts them to bed, as is done with Lisbeth in Aincrad, and Suguha in Fairy Dance, those feelings and fondness are still left over. Suguha may have accepted that a relationship with her supposed brother might not happen, but it doesn’t mean her feelings just stopped. And that’s OK.
Despite them knowing that Kirito is pretty much spoken for, that he is devoted to Asuna and vice versa, the girls themselves can’t help but feel fondness and affection towards Kirito. It’s not difficult to see, when Kirito is often going to extreme lengths to protect his friends, fight their enemies or just being an all around good, thoughtful, kind and mature person. For Sinon in Phantom Bullet, Kirito offers her a kindred spirit who understands her trauma, but gives her the space and independence to deal with it. Instead of Shinkawa who wants to suffocate Sinon in his obsessive affection. In many ways he shows off the best in what a potential boyfriend could be, and for these girls, who are still in the throes of teenage puberty, it is not hard to see that hold affection for him, even if they, and the anime have gone to lengths to put them to bed. If the girls get jealous or comically upset that Kirito and Asuna are being all romantic, can you really blame them? When Kirito is the only guy (and the only positive example) of a guy they constantly see?
Then of course, there is Asuna.
From the second of half of Aincrad, to the very climaxes of War of the Underworld, Kirito and Asuna’s relationship has been the emotional backbone of Sword Art Online. From Aincrad to Death Gun, from Yuuki to Rath, Kirito and Asuna have remained together and devoted to each other. There is trust and understanding, because when Kirito has to run off on his own, often with a new girl at his side, Asuna doesn’t get upset, or jealous, or clingy. She understands that Kirito, the man she loves will always come back to her. Kirito in turn, like when he is confronted by Suguha’s affections, always has his eyes on Asuna and has never strayed from his commitment to her, even when there are plenty of other women who would happily take her place. Even Alice, who tags along after the events of War of the Underworld, and remains probably the only female in the story who has actual real and true feelings of love for Kirito probably won’t cause him to stray. His relationship with Asuna is one of the key pillars of the series, and after so many episodes, so many arcs, and an entire movie, it would take something along the lines of a Domestic Girlfriend level bait and switch to change that up now. And I’m pretty sure of Reki Kawahara did do that, it would be received exactly the same way it was with Domestic Girlfriend.
Like I said at the start of this, I do fully understand why people do think that Sword Art Online, and Kirito in general has a harem. Looking at the series with no context, it is easy to make snap judgment. But if you actually sit down and watch the series, look at the characters, the stories they tell, and their relationships, that idea falls apart rather quickly and definitively. Could the anime and series be more forceful in making it clear that it is not a harem? It could. Do I wish that Sword Art Online had introduced another male character like Eugeo (and kept him around) in order to balance out the cast? Hell yeah. Does the anime does like to flirt with the idea now and again? It does, and there are ‘harem-moments’ sprinkled throughout the series (Alicization literally has a scene where a bunch of the girls sit down and discuss how awesome Kirito is), but I chalk up those as either tropes of the anime medium, or fun indulgences by Kawahara, with no real stake to the plot. Those are OK, just it is OK for the girls to have these affections for Kirito. That doesn’t make it a harem, Sword Art Online never was.
I hope this little post helped make that little clearer for you.
Suguha best girl.