There will always be something enticing about the portrayal of MMOs within anime. Like .hack//sign before it, Sword Art Online tickles the fancy of those who revel in finding the glitches, the rare objects, the dark and hidden zones of online worlds that subvert the otherwise strongly governed rules and are all but untouched by the masses. For the first half of the series at least, again like .hack//sign, the pesky outside world cannot interfere, for the players of SAO are locked into Aincard by a nefarious programmer. Reach the 100th level and escape the game, if you die you die for real, if you try and take off the gear used to access the game, you die.
Three simple rules, ten thousand players, starting pistol... Go. From there protagonist Kirito, a beta tester and all-round MMO connoisseur, is able to single-handedly charge through what would otherwise take squads, groups, even whole guilds to defeat. A lovely bit of wish-fulfilment intimating that by relying on solitary skill rather communal co-operation a single person is able to succeed and thrive.
Asuna is standoffish at first, joining and rising through the ranks of one of the most prominent guilds in the game, but her relationship with Kirito turns her from a strong and independent young woman to a fawning, doe-eyed housewife that quite literally hides behind her partner's coat. Kirito may have combat skills that make him a one man army but Asuna has the highest cooking skill attainable! Asuna wishes to leave her guild, but it's up to Kirito and the (male) Guild Master to decide her fate! It's a deplorable turn for who was the only promising female character in the series, with others dying early on, too young to be a viable romantic interest, or just crushingly naïve.
The Sword Art Online game has to end though and it doesn't happen when the dwindling group of players triumphantly storm the final bastion of that lofty tower. It comes well before that on hunch from, who else, Kirito. The world quite literally dissolves away and everyone is booted unceremoniously out from the game. Apart from Kirito. Who is gifted a cryptic dialogue with the wicked developer who enacted the now two year old saga.
For those who haven't read the somewhat infamous visual novels the series is adapted from (glopping and all), this poses the question of: where next? Faeries, that's where. Yes Kirito, or Kirigaya to give his civilian name, is right as rain after spending two years torpid and wired in to an online game and is ready to jump straight in to another one. And where is his virtual bride Asuna in all of this? Why trapped in a cage having been denied logging out of Aincrad she is now trapped within Alfheim by a nefarious developer. Another one, different to the first one.
Like writer Reki Kawahara's other virtual work, the latter-half's antagonist is a megalomaniacal, baby-eating demon in gurning human form. No shades of grey here - there's no time between all the manic laughter, monologuing and power fantasies. Now Kirito really has to save the helpless Asuna, except now he has a pixie who's really an AI who's acting like his and Asuna's daughter from Aincrad as well as a blonde, busty fairy sidekick who's actually his sister who frequently goes online in nothing but her undergarments!
Like the adage of boiling a frog, there's not really a specific point when the utter lunacy of what you're watching dawns on you, and right to the closing moments the series takes itself with po-faced seriousness. The first half drags along the rapidly melting snowman of respectability that by the second half has turned to water, been drunk, and is now being urinated out in a gutter somewhere by a fat alcoholic. The first arc presented Aincrad not so much as believable but as varied and alluring with impossible architecture and pleasant twists to the fantasy trappings. The second however is so focused on the sister/brother romance-but-not-romance (oh my!) and single minded charge towards the captive Asuna that Alfheim is given a raw deal with little shown of what could have been a rich and intriguing world.
The stunning backdrops, clever framing, scrappily fluid animation for the fights and Yuki Kajiura's orchestral return to virtual worlds are frequently bewitching but hide the IQ points tumbling out of your ears as another ludicrous deus ex machina drives what little remaining plot there is further into the ground.
This perhaps then the price of popularity: armchair critics and their impotent snipes at an irreverent plot and antiquated sexual politics that makes Sword Art Online, when all is said and done, stupidly watchable. Not a guilty pleasure but a slick and consumer-smooth product that is unchallenging and goes down easy. It doesn't matter that Kirito diving back into online games after Aincrad is absurd, no more than any artificially lengthened TV or film franchise, foreign or domestic. Yes it's disheartening Asuna is a martyr for female representation in media. Yes so many things could have been done better. But sometimes good versus evil, white against black, has the pulpy, instant gratification that nuance and and well-roundedness don't. Go then Kirito, you hollow shell awaiting projection, you champion of social solitude and MMO players everywhere. Strike down your enemies and woo every curvaceous member of the opposite sex in the process. Just make sure it looks and sounds good while you do it.