Reki Kawahara is definitely having a moment right now. He's a light novel writer who initially found success with Accel World, but it's his Sword Art Online series that became a phenomenon. Both have been turned into animated series as well as manga, and both deal with young boys who are sucked into an immersive online world. So let's take a look at both of them, starting with his first success.
ACCEL WORLD (Akuseru Warudo), based on the light novel series by Reki Kawahara, with original character designs by HIMA and art by Hiroyuki Aigamo. First published in 2010, and first published in North America in 2014.
Even in a world where people are more interconnected with technology than before, some people can't escape their own problems. This is the case for Haruyuki, an overweight junior high student with few friends, a lot of bullies, and even more crippling self-esteem issues. While online, he ends up attracting the attention of Kuroyukihime, the most popular girl in school. She convinces him to download a program called Brain Burst, which gives him access to a deadly fighting game called Accel World. Now Haruyuki must use his skills to fight his opponents, gain levels, and uncover the mysteries of Accel World, with Kuroyukihime guiding him along the way.
As noted above, Accel World has gotten a lot of attention indirectly thanks to the popularity of Sword Art Online, since both are written by the same person and both deal with young men using futuristic technology to enter deadly online games. So, how does this series compare to its famous successor? Honestly, I think it's better. It not only features more complex characters, and to some degree better incorporates the sci-fi elements of the future tech with the story as a whole.
While Haruyuki is a very mentally damaged person, those same issues make him a very relatable and sympathetic protagonist. His self-esteem is so crippled that it verges upon depression, where his brain rejects even the kind words from his childhood friend Chiyu. Worse still, it takes a beating every day from the class bullies that use Haruyuki as a go-fer because he's short, fat, and physically weak. For Haruyuki, the online world is his safe space, the place where no one can make any demands on him. Haruyuki's depression and awkwardness is almost uncomfortably realistic, to the point that I wonder if it stems from personal experience on Kawahara's part. Still, that gives him a ready-build emotional arc - he's already so low that there's pretty much nowhere to go but up. Also, his depression makes him inherently sympathetic. You want him to feel better, and thus are that much more invested in his successes. It might not be the most subtle character writing, but there's a kernel of reality in his personality which goes a long way towards getting the reader invested in him.
Kuroyukihime is no slouch in the character department, either. In the real world, she is the ideal schoolgirl - bright, poised, and loved by all. In the online world, though, she shows her true colors. As the volume progresses, she's shown to have some very selfish reasons for bringing Haruyuki into Accel World, and her relationship with him starts to take a manipulative edge. She's the one who guides him through this secret online world and gives him tips during his fights. She's the one who makes up a fake relationship between the two to excuse their closeness and the one who casts doubt upon his only friend Chiyu. It becomes increasingly clear that she's not exactly a good person, and it is so refreshing to see such an approach. So often, characters like her are shoved to the side by the story, there to serve as cheerleaders for the male lead or as a prize for him to win at the end. While they may be given a few quirks, their personalities are usually kept simple so they can be more easily hammered into whatever otaku fetish is in style. So seeing Kuroyukihime being developed as this morally grey puppetmaster was a genuinely unexpected direction. She has just as much of a stake in things as Haruyuki, and her personality given just as much weight. I'm just as invested in her as I am in him.
Accel World does a good job easing the reader into the futuristic tech of this not-too-distant future. It's basically one where the internet is everywhere, and accessible straight from your brain. Most of the uses don't differ all that much from today - gaming, casual conversation, money transfers, things like that. Otherwise, the world is more or less like our own, so the culture shock is minimal. In comparison, Accel World itself isn't all that impressive. Accel World is supposed to be this super-secret, super-fast version of this future Internet, but it ends up looking like a fighting game with a sandbox-style map. The fights themselves aren't that complex, as his opponents tend to have a single and obvious weakness for him to exploit at the last minute. It's a little disappointing that Kawahara put more thought into the background technology than he did with the program that drives the actual plot.
Even if the tech is not full developed, the two main cast member are and in interesting ways. That alone gives Accel World an edge that a lot of similar series do not have. I'm genuinely invested in their stories and want to see how they'll develop because they're shaping up in not entirely predictable ways.
As what is becoming all too typical for manga based on light novels, there's a separate credit for both the original light novel illustrator (credited as character designer) and for the actual manga artist. The original character designs have been transferred more or less intact, from Haruyuki's flat and cartoon-like real form to Kuroyukihime's delicate, gothloli prettiness to Haruyuki's sleek, futuristic avatar in Accel World. Aside from those designs, there's not much else to say for the art. It tends to consist of a lot of talking heads that are interrupted only by a few fights, and it's all presented in an unremarkable way.
While the art may be plain, the character writing more than makes up for it. Accel World is more focused on exploring the minds of our leads than flashy fights, and doing that helps to make this story more compelling than some of its peers.
This series is published by Yen Press. This series is ongoing in Japan, with five volumes currently available. Two volumes have been published and all are currently in print.
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