It's weird that Sword Art Online became the more successful of Kawahara's work, considering that it had already failed before. He initially wrote it for a contest in 2002, but when it failed to place, Kawahara put Sword Art Online aside to work on other projects. When Accel World did well, the publishers wanted even more, and thus Sword Art Online finally saw the light of day. After reading this, though, I wonder if he shouldn't have just left it in storage.
SWORD ART ONLINE (Sodo Ato Onrain), based on the light novel series by Reki Kawahara, with original character designs by abec and art by Tamako Nakamura. First published in 2012, and first published in North America in 2014.
NervGear is the latest and greatest in video game tech. It's a virtual reality simulator, where a single helmet allows the user to experience the fanciful RPG world of Sword Art Online. Kirito is one of the 10,000 there in SAO on the first fateful day. Soon he and the other players find themselves trapped in the game. They must conquer all of the 100 levels of the game without dying, for if they die in-game, they will die in real life. Now Kirito must hone his skills and find new allies if he's ever to return to the real world.
If I had to sum up Sword Art Online in one word, it would have to be the same word I kept saying as I read it: bullshit. This story is a giant load of bullshit, one that only grows larger with each page. Kirito is bullshit. His romance with Asuna is bullshit. The pacing is bullshit. The plot twists are bullshit. Everything about this story, beginning to end, is bullshit. But if I'm going to explain exactly why I think this way, I have to start with its biggest source - Kirito himself.
Even the stupidest, most shallow shonen protagonist could be considered a towering force of personality in comparison to Kirito. He spends the first half of the story being an emotionless cipher. Unlike others, he doesn't seem to be concerned about whether he gets out or not. Since beta testers like him are seen as cheaters, he purposefully sets himself apart from others. While he occasionally comments on this, he doesn't seem all that torn up about his isolation either. Of course, why should he care? He has god-like powers in the game, so strictly speaking he doesn't NEED others to survive. Should he ever find himself challenged, all he has to do is pull some new power straight from his ass and everything is better. Why would he need to develop or be challenged as a person when it's so much easier to have the story hand everything to you on a silver platter, including your perfect gamer girlfriend?
Poor Asuna, she really deserves better treatment than she gets here. During the few points where she's allowed to fight, she is shown to be fine warrior in her own right. She's a high ranking guild member, although whatever respect she's shown seems to fly right out the window when she chooses to stay with Kirito. She even has something of an emotional arc. Over time we learn that for all her skills, she's actually quite lonely. She misses her family in the real world and feels disconnected from the other gamers as both a high-level player and one of the few girls in the game. It thus makes some sense for her to seek out a romantic relationship and to commit to it so fast and eagerly. I just don't understand what she sees in Kirito, because whether by choice or by story dictate, everything in their relationship comes back to him. He is the one who essentially has to fight for her honor when she chooses to leave the guild, on more than one occasion. In their joint battles, he is the only one allowed to make the finishing blow. He is the one who is waited on hand and foot at their cozy lakeside cottage, and it's his love for her that is apparently as super-powered and special as his swordfighting skills. The story repeatedly holds them up as this wondrous miracle, the only romantic pairing in all of Sword Art Online, as if they're this epic love story for the ages instead of what they are: a couple of kids playing out a fantasy of what romantic relationships are like.
This story also has major issues with pacing and focus. It puts more emphasis on Kirito and Asuna's romance than on...well, pretty much everything else going on in the game. As such, the main conflict - you know, the whole "defeat the evil developer and leave the game" thing - is outright ignored for two-thirds of this omnibus. As such, almost everything that doesn't have to do directly with Kirito and/or Asuna is cut out, the price paid for trying to shove two short novels' worth of story into a single omnibus. There's no sense of urgency to this quest, since any outside threat to the players is negated early on with callous flippancy. While thousands are said to have died, they're either faceless cannon fodder or side characters there only to serve as motivation for Kirito. All the while, everyone's sojourn in Sword Art Online is treated like some lovely virtual dream where everyone gets a chance to be a hero, instead of the terrible trap that leaves them in comas and subject to the whims of a madman. There's nothing necessarily wrong with escapist fantasy, but surely not everyone in the game has lives so miserable that the game world is preferable.
The ending is simply the final load onto the massive pile of bullshit. Is it a fitting punishment for the person who made so many suffer? Nope! Instead it's an opportunity for Kirito to pull a few more powers from his ass, including the ability to defy death itself. Worse still, there's no resolution whatsoever. When asked, the villain doesn't even remember why he turned the game into a trap in the first place and simply fades into the virtual ether. It's not quite forgiving him for his actions, but it's pretty damn close. I guess it doesn't matter that thousands died in SAO for no reason, because Kirito the video game messiah got a girlfriend! Surely that makes everything better!
I'm hardly the first person to point out that the story for Sword Art Online is a complete mess. Our lead is nothing but a blank wish-fulfillment figure, and everything in the story, including his love interest, serve only to glorify him. The story forgets itself for long stretches, only to resolve in the most self-serving and unsatisfactory manner possible. So when I say this story is bullshit from beginning to end, I'm not exaggerating in the least. Everything here is deeply flawed and endlessly frustrating.
Again, we have a separate character designer and artist credited, and the character designer is more of a technicality there to acknowledge the original light novel illustrator. Mind you, I wouldn't blame this abec person for not taking credit for art that looks THIS bad. This is Nakamura's first and only professional credit, and it shows on every page.
The original character designs for Sword Art Online were nothing special, but they're far more attractive in that state then they are here. Nakamura makes everyone strangely short, round and weird looking, like they've take one too many runs through the moe-blob filter. While the costumes are faithfully and flatly rendered, they're draped over characters who cannot express themselves beyond the broadest expressions. Nakamura's also bad at drawing action scenes, which is a major liability in an action series like this. The panels stay so closely focused on the characters that we never get a sense of scale to the dungeons or the bosses within them. The high-speed swordfights become incoherent flashes of energy bursts and speed lines in her hands, making hard to distinguish who is doing what.
Mind you, she struggles with perspective and scale outside of the fights as well. You never get a sense of how big these game levels are or any sense of beauty about them, as what little we do see is flatly shaded and barely drawn. She can't even handle humor well. Early on, there's a horrendously lame boy-falls-into-boobs gag that involves teleportation, but it's drawn in such a way that I still can't figure out what direction Asuna is falling from, much less how Kirito ended up on top of her with a handful of boob. The animated version of this story often gets a pass because it has flashy, colorful animation, but you'll find no such excuses with the manga version. It's ugly, incoherent, and amateurish on every level, and the makers must have been hoping that the otaku would buy it up solely on name recognition, not on the quality of the art.
I'm genuinely boggled as to why this story was the Kawahara story that became hugely popular because its flaws are numerous and plain to see. It's clumsily written and drawn, being more concerned with building up its Gary Stu protagonist than telling a good story. In many ways, this still reads like a half-finished draft. Maybe it should have stayed that way.
This series is published by Yen Press. This series is ongoing, but this story arc is complete in 2 volumes. Both have been published as a 2-in-1 omnibus, and is currently in print. This series is also available digitially as 2 e-books through Barnes & Noble.
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