In my opinion, Sword Art Online is a tricky anime to think and talk about. Here's why:
1. Sometimes, it can almost trick cynical folks into thinking it might be a good anime, or at least an enjoyable one. Then it takes a nosedive, letting down all fans with snobbish tendencies.
2. A lot of people love it, so when an anime newbie asks, "What do you think of Sword Art Online?" I have to watch my words. Seriously, that's one of the trickiest questions a newbie can ask me. On the one hand, I don't want them to think the anime fandom is exclusive and snobbish. I don't want to hurt their feelings, and I don't want to make anime-watching a chore full of critiquing. On the other hand, I want to give them an honest answer, which means I'd rather not sing SAO's praises.
3. SAO's frequent dips in quality allow cynical anime fans to ignore its strengths as a philosophical discussion starter.
|Death Gun in SAO II, ep 12. Doesn't he look nice and creepy|
and like something out of a Terminator 2? I like this shot.
First, let's talk about what I do like about SAO. The animation is nice—just about everyone will tell you that. But more importantly, there's action. There are sword fights, a cool main character... Some people complain about how Kirito is too powerful and doesn't have much room to grow as a swordsman. Me? I don't take issue with that. It boosts the entertainment value for me, and the entertainment value is pretty much the only reason I kept watching... well, that and I wanted to see what people were talking about.
The scenario is pretty clever, too, and not just because video games attract otaku. As I'll mention in the later part of this post, SAO explores "What If" questions that are relevant to philosophical and scientific questions today. For example: "If human experience is filtered through our neurological system, then what if we could hijack that system so people experience virtual reality as actual reality?" The last arc in SAO II has one of the best "What If" questions: "What if we could use virtual reality to help—and perhaps one day treat or even cure—chronically ill patients?"
Now, here's what I don't like about SAO:
I wrote about this in my post "Sword Art Online Confuses 'Shock' with 'Fitting Climax.' Again," as well as in a Tumblr post, so I'll confine my list of grievances to an actual, limited list.
1. Kirito and Asuna's relationship is often unbelievable. It feels like they were playing house in the first season's ALO arc. And in the GGO arc of SAO II, it's like they aren't really dating. Again, see the links above, especially the Tumblr one, for more ranting. Between writing those and complaining to my friend, I've ranted about their relationship too much already. Ugh...
2. Kirito's sister/cousin/whatever, who goes by Leafa online, has a crush on him, and it's not handled very well. It's clearly just there for some weird entertainment value, and it does not add any significant psychological conflict to the show. Oh, and Leafa's crush has apparently completely evaporated by SAO II.
3. There is gratuitous sexual harassment and abuse. I'm not saying it should be cut out entirely from the series. And it's not like it's in every episode or anything. But there's a difference between "shock" and "fitting climax," as I wrote in an earlier blog post.
|Yuuki and Asuna in a safe version of ALO, just playing the game|
and beating level bosses. Look at them. Do you see why I have a
hard time taking things seriously in ALO? (SAO II, ep 24)
4. The depth and seriousness in SAO is inconsistent. In the first arc, thousands of lives are at stake. Players must learn to navigate and beat this VRMMORPG in order to survive and escape back into the real world. In the second arc, Asuna is in very real trouble, and there are still many lives that need saving, but... the characters all become fairies, and I can't take them seriously. Plus, as important as Asuna is to many people in the audience, the stakes in this arc just aren't as high.
Then you get to the second season... the GGO arc is nice and dark. There's a murder mystery, and Kirito appears to wrestle with some post-traumatic stress. But after that, it's right back to a safe version of ALO, where Kirito and the gang go on a quest that's only slightly more exciting than the ones you go on in your typical MMORPG. Finally, the last arc is, in my opinion, of higher quality again—lives are not at stake, but the emotional conflict and character development are better than in much of the show.
I think that gives you a taste of SAO's inconsistent quality. I must repeat, though, that I did enjoy the last arc. And, in the last minutes of the last episode, Kirito and Asuna have a great conversation about the implications of virtual reality technology. Here's a brief quote from Kirito:
"I thought that the closer the real and virtual world got, the better the future would be. But the more the boundary between them blurs, the more it starts to trick people."
Yeah, Kirito is obviously much more than a simple swordsman-gamer or tech geek; he's gained some wisdom in his trials these past couple years. His conversation with Asuna is worth going back to, since it has applications to our world today and in the near future.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that SAO could have been amazing. From what I understand, the science fiction in this show is much more than just a gamer's fantasy. It's based partially on current predictions about humans, computers, and virtual reality. It opens questions about what the human experience is—How well could virtual reality mimic bodily reality? If we could program a virtual reality that would trick our senses into believing it to be true, if we could make ourselves feel like virtual experience was physical experience... would it be real?
There's another, related philosophical topic: what is the difference between humans and an AI like Yui? If the first question asks, "What is human experience?" then the second question asks, "What is human? What is a person?" Is a human just a biological computer? In that case, the main difference between Yui and Asuna is their hardware. But if a human is more than a biological computer, if people consist of both spirit/soul and body/brain, then Yui is not comparable to Asuna and Kirito. She appears to feel and act like a human/person, and perhaps the programming glitch makes her "think" she is a person... but she is, in fact, just a program, and only Asuna and Kirito's interpretation of her actions secure her a place as a full character.
In Sword Art Online, the line between the virtual and the real blurs. By the end, Kirito is figuring out how to get Yui into the real world. The characters rarely get into the philosophy and ethics of it, but it does happen on occasion. I do not remember them asking "What is human?" though, only "What is human experience?" and "How can virtual reality play a positive role—through medicine and entertainment—or negative role in our lives?"
All of these are important questions to ask. What do you believe about human life and personhood? About reality and human experience? I have to ask myself these questions, and then I have to ask one more: Does what I believe really match up with what the Bible says about human life and reality?
These are worldview questions. In other words, the answers to these questions play an important role in how you view yourself and the world around you.
In the last episode of SAO, Asuna's friend, Yuuki, prompts another important worldview question: "Why live if we're only going to die? What is life, and what is its purpose?" My answer is different than Yuuki and Asuna's answer, but that is for another post.