Transparency is important, so I’ll just say it.
I don’t particularly like Sword Art Online. Sure, visually it’s a treat and conceptually it’s interesting, but the series makes a lot of choices with its characters and story I can’t agree with. Anyone who has watched the entirety of the Alfheim arc will hopefully know what I’m talking about, and the problem doesn’t begin or end there. I can’t entirely blame A-1 Pictures for this though, because it is an adaptation of a light novel series so there’s blame to share between the author and studio. That being said, I have tried not to let the various issues from previous arcs colour my experience, and am reviewing these episodes based on their own merit. This turned out to be good decision, because episodes 20-24 really put the rest of what Sword Art Online offers to shame.
Having fought Yuuki in episode nineteen and proven her skill with a blade, Asuna is introduced to Yuuki’s guild, the Sleeping Knights. The members of Sleeping Knights are a close knit group, but real life is rearing its ugly head and soon they’ll have to disband for personal reasons. So, in order to create a lasting memory of their time together, they plan to defeat a floor boss and go out in style with their names carved on the Monument of Swordsmen. This is where Asuna comes in. Having shown her abilities, she is asked to join the Sleeping Knights and help complete their party. Being a party of seven means they’re in for a tough time though, and the guild seems to be suffering some hardship yet to be revealed.
First of all, there are two things I like about the concept of Sword Art Online. One, the concept of community in online gaming shown through guilds and party member relationships. Two, a focus on people who have had to adapt to incredible circumstances and then re-adjust to their old lives. How characters exist and adapt after a shared traumatic experience is high on the list of things I like to see explored in stories. Unfortunately the first Sword Art Online series was relatively lifeless and dispassionate where these themes were concerned. Kirito wasn’t a sympathetic character, his adjustment to his situation was barely a focus or felt hollow, and he and the characters around him never really changed. Many female characters were introduced into the story for the sole purpose of inexplicably developing an awkward crush on Kirito. Later, some were even all but removed from the main conflict or abused by the narrative of the anime. Interesting characters like Asuna are exceptions to being a one note character, but she still suffers abuse by the main narrative to an uncomfortable extent.
These shortcomings are important to establish because the final episodes of season two do the exact opposite. These five episodes do a better job at illustrating the things I liked about the concept of Sword Art Online than the entire series combined, all while maintaining the integrity of the characters and not giving in to cheap fan service.
The best part is that Asuna really comes into her own in these episodes. Kirito has very few appearances, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that’s probably one of the reasons I like these episodes so much. He’s there when it’s necessary, but otherwise the focus is on Asuna and her relationship with her new friends, her mother, and online games. We get an idea of her home life and the complicated relationship she has with her mother, a woman who doesn’t understand her or her interests and wants to push her towards a future she can’t see herself in. It’s great character building for Asuna and some of my favourite scenes are between the two of them, neither quite able to meet each other half way or explain their motivations clearly.
Yuuki is another standout character, and her relationship with Asuna and the personal philosophies they learn from each other help them grow and change. Alongside Asuna’s confrontations with her mother, these moments hit the highest emotional notes. The Sleeping Knights are also interesting characters, but they take a backseat to Yuuki and her relationship with Asuna as the episodes progress. There is a good pay off with them towards the end though, which is much more than previous arcs of Sword Art Online have given their side characters.
If you’re a fan of the series, you already know the episodes look great and sound fantastic. Battle sequences have a lot of energy, and they’re bright, flashy and generally fun to watch. The softer moments are still given adequate love and attention, and some of the most memorable scenes from these episodes aren’t the grand battles, but the quieter moments between characters.
As is a common characteristic of DVDs with so few episodes, the extra feature contains only the textless opening and closing themes. That being said, I really like the opening theme and visuals so I’m not going to complain too much. The disc only has five episodes on it, but if you’re like me and harbour a dislike for the series as a whole, you might find something worthwhile in these few episodes. In my opinion they are the best the series has to offer. Shifting the focus from Kirito to Asuna makes the show much more interesting, and the directions the arc goes in shows that the series is capable of a lot of heart. If only it had been able to show it more in previous arcs.
It’s hard to critique only a handful of episodes in a series because they don’t exist on their own, but are part of a bigger picture. It’s simply impossible for me to ignore the quality of the previous Sword Art Online arcs because they were so average and treated their characters so poorly. So there is no way these episodes on their own can make me like the series as a whole, but they remind me of the potential I initially saw in the show’s concept. Is that good enough? Maybe. Does it erase the poor decisions and gross treatment of characters in previous arcs? Absolutely not. But it’s a step in the right direction for the series, and a good high note to end the second season on.
I only wish that episode nineteen could have been bundled into the DVD too, as it’s where we are first introduced to Yuuki and has some really good moments between Asuna and her mother. If episodes 19-24 were all together, Asuna’s story arc would feel complete.
A review copy was provided by Madman Entertainment to the author for the purpose of this review.