He is the hero of Sword Art Online. A blueprint for so many Isekai heroes to come. But he is also a scapegoat for everything people find wrong with the series, a character criticized for being nothing more than a generic harem lead. A gary-stu who never really suffers any setback. Much has been said about the lead of Sword Art Online, but throughout my journey with the anime series, I have seen something else: a story about a young boy stepping out of his self imposed shell and becoming a well adjusted and brave young man. A blank slate that is forged into a solid story of wins and losses. After the cut, let’s take a character dive into Sword Art Online’s main character: Kirito.
To look at Kirito is to not examine his actions in one single arc, but to look at his journey from the very first episode to the last. It is the reason I have waited to do any real talk about Kirito, as I wanted the last word of Alicization to be said before I started. I am glad I did that, because it helps paint a full picture of just who he is. There is good, and there is bad, but it is the journey that matters.
When we first meet Kirito in Aincrad and through that arc’s first half, he is very much what people have criticized him as. A sort of self insert character who is leagues better at the game than anyone else. Who wanders around episode to episode, dressed in his black trench coat and dual swords, laying waste and solving everyone’s problems. He gets fame, respect and the admiration of characters like Liz and Silica. All of what people say about Kirito is true here, but that I believe is the intent. As we learn more about him, we see that Kirito is a recluse, an introvert who prefers to lock himself away in a virtual world than engage with the real one. A child adopted into his extended family who never fit in, despite the obvious love of his aunt and uncle, and his cousin-sister Suguha. Out of everyone locked in the SAO world, Kirito is the one who seems to enjoy it the most, because here he gets to be a hero, a badass, someone who matters.
It is also through meeting Asuna, (with an assist from Sachi) and the relationship they develop throughout the second half of Aincrad that we get to see that view stripped. Through Asuna, Kirito learns that there is more to the world than racking up a good player score, or being a lone wolf. She shows him peace, tranquility, and what love can be like. Their romance, while laced with the whirlwind feeling that all teenage love is, feels real, and for Kirito it is the one thing that he might actually take with him when SAO is finished. That when he logs off, it’s not something left at the screen. Like how Asuna is able to choose her own destiny the way she wants, Kirito is able to see a world beyond the shallow and frankly pathetic one he has lived before.
This carries over to Fairy Dance, where instead of enjoying that new world, Kirito is driven to save Asuna from it. The boy who just drifted from place to place being a badass is gone. In his place is a young man desperate to save something that is real, that actually means something. Asuna’s happiness and contentment is more important to Kirito than clearing the final dungeon of a raid, or getting the best loot. At the climax of that arc, when Kirito brings the conflict into the real world, tempted to kill Sugou for what he has done, he stays his hand, but that anger, that rage is real, something that comes from experiencing more than just a game world. By the final moments in Fairy Dance Kirito has started to leave the NEET lifestyle behind him.
Yet things aren’t finished for Kirito, and Sword Art Online’s big strength is making sure that the events of Aincrad aren’t just forgotten. Throughout Phantom Bullet, we see that while Kirito may have left with a newfound respect for life, his family and his friends, and knowing what love and affection is. We also see him take the bad as well. The anguish over having killed people who tried to kill him, the guilt over failing to save Sachi and his first guild. The anger at seeing Suguo abuse Asuna. When the realization that the SAO murders are being continued, that he will have to continue fighting people, Kirito reveals his weakness and his fears, and it is only through his experience with Sinon, a girl suffering her own trauma, that he learns to take the good, and the bad. By the time Phantom Bullet and then Mother’s Rosario have ended, we see Kirito more at peace with himself, focused on a future working in computer design, going with Asuna to build a life together. At his heart, he is still the black swordsman, the dual-wielding badass, but Kirito’s identity isn’t tied to his in-game avatar. Instead he is a young man looking to what comes next, changed by experiences both good and bad.
Those experiences are seen in Alicization’s first half, where we see Kirito slide into the role of a mentor and brother. For the first time in the series, we see Kirito form a bond with another man. In his time spent with Eugeo we see a Kirito who is at peace with himself, confident, but not cocky. Proud of his abilities, but also humble enough to keep learning. Happy to help guide his fellow students, but not hold their hands. This mentor role for Kirito is the culmination of everything we’ve seen so far. The young NEET shut-in has become someone who can be admired for his wisdom and courage. For his ability to face down a situation and remain a confident and humble young man. But when all of that is cruelly ripped away with Eugeo’s death, we also see that the scars from the previous arcs are never truly healed.
War of the Underworld may put Kirito on the bench for most of the season, but the final moments before his return drive home how much suffering and anguish he’s gone through. This is a 15-17 year old kid, who at this point has experienced more death and killing than most grown people, or even peace-time soldiers do. A young man forced to grow up in constant life or death situations. Who has had friends taken away, and has had to confront a cruel and evil side of humanity, both in others and in himself. Eugeo’s death, one that he is never allowed to truly grieve (and then is forced to grieve AGAIN after the memory wipe), serves as a final barrier that is shattered, and Kirito would have fallen into complete despair if not for his friends, who remind him: you are forged by the good things in life, as well as the bad. That fighting for what you believe is is not wrong, that loss can define you as much as triumph can. It is that Kirito, forged by all those memories and events that is able to defeat Gabriel and save the Underworld.
Now I say all this, or rather summarize all of it for a simple reason. Yes, Kirito is 100% that blank slate isekai protagonist in Aincrad. But he doesn’t remain like that. Instead that blank slate is inscribed with the triumphs and tragedy of a boy thrown into a situation he should have never dealt with. Who is able to reforge himself into a mature and well-adjusted young man who is many things; calm, collected, humorous, confident, and sensitive to the people around him. To go from a nerdy and loner, probably one step away from becoming a version of Natsuki Subaru, to this is proof enough that Kirito is a good character. Yes, it is not perfect, nothing ever is. But to those who believe that Kirito is just a gary-stu with his own harem, I do have to wonder if you ever watched the show past the first half of Aincrad.
Sword Art Online’s Kirito will probably never be one of the great main characters of the medium. He doesn’t have Subaru’s brutal teardown, Shirou’s relentless guilt. He’s not Naruto Uzumaki’s zero to hero story, or even Issei Hyoudou’s sensitivity and insecurities. But Kirito is absolutely a good character, and his journey is really what makes Sword Art Online work. Don’t let yourself be fooled by the anger rants of video essays, or knee jerk reactions of people upset that Sword Art Online got too popular too fast. Kirito is a good character, and a blank slate that slowly, wonderfully becomes something full and complete.