A review of the second Sword Art Online anime series
Some way into this second series of Sword Art Online I found myself thinking that it was quite brave. Taking the clown-shoed silliness of the first series and slowing everything down, focusing on characters and setting, seemed like an odd decision. Like so many other aspects of Sword Art Online II though, I was disappointed. It’s not being brave, just invoking standard shounen-esque time wasting. Meaning if you watched the series as it aired you will have spent several weeks watching wunderkind Kirito and newcomer Sinon sit in a virtual cave in the middle of a virtual desert.
Imagine a character that is part Jesus Christ and part James Dean and you get the idea
I shouldn’t really have expected anything else really. I liked the simplicity of the first series’ bifurcated storyline in a schlocky, intelligence-lite way, but the spark of that first storyline - trapped in a virtual world, die here and you die for real - was gone. Alfheim, the fairy filled fantasy funfair that occupied the second half of that series and is now the staple MMO for the core cast, was bright and cheerful but lacked the tangibility of Aincrad. It’s disheartening then that this second series kicks off by plunging Kirito into the grimy, gunmetal grey world of Gun Gale Online.
There’s a point at the end of a series, the final episode receding into memory, when you wonder why you kept watching it. Akame ga Kill is exactly that series. It is staunchly, even startlingly mediocre in just about every regard, but because it hovers just above that baseline of entertainment - not offensively dumb enough to abandon but not good enough to sing its praises - here I find myself twenty four episodes later.
There wasn’t the remotest of hints that it was ever going to be better than average. From the off the story of Tatsumi, a swordsman from the boonies whose compatriots are killed and he falls in with the band of assassins, Night Raid, is about as nuts and bolts as it comes. Chief amongst the group though is Leone with a ferocious blonde mane and a fiery attitude. No wait, maybe it’s Sheele the demure, bespectacled scissors wielder. Or perhaps Bulat…
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.
Intentional or not, medieval fantasy series always fall under the shadow of Berserk. Densetsu no Yuusha no Densetsu doesn't do itself any favours by featuring an effeminate, silver haired leader or an desirable, unusually powerful ally. There are certainly other parallels to be drawn but the first three episodes prove wholeheartedly that the series has its priorities straight by focusing first on characters, then on narrative and some way down the list on the mythos-specific idiosyncrasies. In short, it's forging its own path and being thoroughly entertaining while doing it. Its title may be outlandish but the strength of the cast and its willingness not to cower before gore or tragedy means it is a promising start to an intriguing full-length series.
The opening episodes don't pull any punches [...], capturing that dark fantasy vibe bubbling under a façade of sky blue and sunset amber
In the kingdom of Roland, ravaged by war and rotten with corrupt nobles, a magical academy that takes in orphans and the children of criminals has two particularly special students. One is Ryner, a slovenly and unmotivated boy who has cursed eyes known as Alpha Stigma which give him immense magical power. The other is the charismatic Sion who was subjected to ferocious bullying while young due to his birth as a bastard child of a noble father and common mother. Now though, he has the support of a shadowy and lethal family of bodyguards as well as the conviction to ascend to the throne with the aim of purging the country of its ruinous ills. Both will be instrumental in the upcoming turmoil - war and civil unrest - and the old legends of powerful demons and heroes may yet play a part in that.
Just like the taijitu that features so heavily in the plot, Otogi Zoshi is split into two parts with elements of its twin interspersed throughout. The tonal and aesthetic difference between the two parts is arresting, the first favouring a poised and atmospheric wander through a viciously feudal Japan, the latter a collection of modern mysteries scattered around Tokyo and sharing many similarities with the latest two Shin Megami Tensei: Persona video games. This division of themes and story promotes perseverance: if the initial tale of blades and intrigue doesn't engage, perhaps the dark and foreboding march across many of Tokyo's landmarks will. Conversely it threatens to alienate an audience that fell in love with the first story or losing them before the second begins. By and large it succeeds in crafting a compelling story with characters that, crucially, work across the gulf of a thousand years, however even with the guiding hand of Production I.G the series isn't without its flaws.
switching between schoolgirl prep and urban pop with pleasing regularity
The Heian era city of Edo is infected by discontent: famine and lawlessness plague the streets while the outlying lands are run by thieves and malcontents. Even the Emperor isn't immune: struck down by a debilitating illness and without long to live, his closest aides, advised by the mystic Abe no Seimei, send word to retrieve the magical magatama stones in order to save the capital. With the eldest son of the Minamoto household, Raiko, bedridden it is up to his sister Hikaru to undertake this task. Disguised as her brother and joined by her faithful bodyguard Tsuna, and eventually the womanising Usui, the enigmatic Urabe and freakishly strong Kintaro, the group hunts out the magatama against foes both weird and devious. On their return however, all is not as it seems and the Emperor's aides have ulterior plans for the magatama, although it will be Seimei whose actions will have the most far reaching consequences, the ramifications echoing a thousand years into the future.