Friday, February 21, 2014

Kin'youbi Mosaic Special: 2/21/14 "A Midnight Fairy Dance" Edition

It’s been a pretty light week as far as news go, so this week’s Ramblings will actually be a more dedicated one to a show I recently finished watching… a certain show called Sword Art Online. I’ll cover some quick news first, and then, I’ll move onward with a very spoiler-laden post on my opinion of the show’s two arcs.
First, the news. Probably the most notable thing to talk about here is Aniplex of America’s upcoming releases of more Monogatari properties; specifically, the four-episode Nekomonogatari (Black) TV special that aired at the end of 2012, and the four-episode-plus-one-recap Nekomonogatari (White) arc that starts the Summer 2013 series known as Monogatari Series Second Season.
These two arcs will be released separately, with Black due on April 22nd and White on June 24th, as Blu-ray only, sub-only Limited Edition boxsets, with extra items limited to booklets, illustration cards, and the otherwise very solid-looking packaging. Black can be bought for $50, White for $60. As usual for Aniplex of America, those can seem like rather high prices considering how few episodes there are in each release—that, plus the fact that they seem to be releasing each arc individually, one can probably expect to be paying a total of about $250-$300 for all of Monogatari Series Second Season (and that’s not including Nekomonogatari (Black)). It’s certainly a steep price to pay for anime these days, and it’s ultimately up to you if it’s worthwhile… but hey, at least the damage will be spread out over a year or so.

Also available for pre-order is Haganai NEXT! I’ve brought this show up a couple of times before in my Best of 2013 posts, mainly noting that it is quite an improvement on the first season, so I am definitely looking forward to picking this one up in May.
Next up is my discussion of Sword Art OnlineWarning: major spoilers for Sword Art Online after the jump!

Nowhere near as good as Summer 2012's other show about fairies.

Sword Art Online, or Why I Liked Fairy Dance More Than Aincrad

Sword Art Online is definitely one of the more controversial titles in recent memory. On one hand, it’s an extremely popular show which has many fans who absolutely love it; on the other hand, there are a good number of anime fans who absolutely hate the show. There are also fans who liked the first half, “Aincrad”, a lot, but found the “Fairy Dance” second half to be distasteful.
I, on the other hand, while having plenty of problems with both arcs, liked “Fairy Dance” better.
First, a bit of my short history with this show. I started following the show when it first aired in Summer 2012, and made it a couple of episodes into the Fairy Dance arc in Fall of that year before having to drop the show due to both a general lack of interest in the show and real life catching up to me. I then ignored it for an entire year before picking it back up at the beginning of this year, starting by watching a couple of episodes to catch up to the Toonami broadcast of the dub that was going on, and then watching said Toonami broadcast until they broadcast the last episode this past week. So this is one of a few shows which I have actually seen both the sub and the dub in one go-through (having seen the last 6 episodes dubbed).
As for why I liked Fairy Dance better than Aincrad, there are a couple of reasons. First of all, I like the world of Alfheim better than that of SAO (the first arc). I’ve always been more of a fan of mages and magic-based classes in RPGs, so the fact that SAO completely lacked any sort of magician class did not appeal to me at all—Alfheim was clearly the better of the two games in that regard. Add on a fun-looking flight system and a beautiful world straight out of a *cough* fairy tale, and if I had to choose which of the two games to play, Alfheim is easily the one I’d choose.
The real reason, though, that I liked Fairy Dance more than Aincrad, is that I don’t have to pretend that I care about the whole “if you die in this game, you die in real life” aspect… because I don’t. Honestly, that plot point made me not want to even start with this show at first. There are a number of problems I have with this particular construct.
First of all, with a show based off MMORPGs, I was expecting something more significant in the way of portraying elements that are specific to them—for example, the fact that in most MMORPGs, death is not permanent. It’s certainly undesirable (in many MMOs, a death leads to a large loss in experience points, for example), but the fact that one can take a risk of death in order to defeat a tough opponent is a unique aspect of MMOs that the Aincrad arc gets rid of, whereas it remains in Fairy Dance, giving the latter a more MMO feel to it.
Moreover, the fact that the characters can log in and out, instead of being trapped in the game, means that we get to see both the online and offline lives of the characters. This is one part where the Fairy Dance arc even manages to get just the smallest of advantages over what I consider to be the epitome of an MMORPG-based anime, Log Horizon. It’s also a major reason why I actually like Suguha, the “heroine” of Fairy Dance, more than Asuna: being able to see her life offline and how she interacts with Kazuto allows me to care about her more, to the point where I like their relationship more than the romantic relationship between Kirito and Asuna (not saying I’d rather that Kazuto and Suguha get together, though). I’ll have more to say about Suguha later.
The biggest problem I had with the “die in real life” aspect is how badly it and the first arc’s main villain, Kayaba Akihito, was done. Because of his “death in-game equals death in real life” setup, what Kayaba does in the first arc essentially amounts to mass murder of many innocent people—not sure of the exact number, but I believe it is at least a couple ten thousands dead from this game. In real life, he would be considered one of the worst killers in history; in-show, he ought to be treated with an appropriate amount of gravitas for what he has done. But at the end of Aincrad, we get… an admission of a god complex, and… that’s it. As if that was enough for the audience to accept his having killed a couple ten thousands of people. (Hint: it is not.)  
Mind you, Sugou is not a good villain at all. He goes the complete opposite direction of Kayaba: instead of an attempt at a nuanced villain gone horribly wrong, he is just an exaggeratedly evil, shallow villain whose only purpose is to antagonize both Asuna and Kazuto; moreover, he is so horrifically creepy that he provides the absolutely most disturbing scenes in this show, which I felt was wholly unnecessary. Beating the audience over the head with how evil a guy is isn’t the way to write a villain, either. That said, Sugou was evil, and he was treated as evil; at the end, he is brought to justice with no apologies. That is ultimately much better than Kayaba’s being treated not only as “maybe not that evil”, but even possibly “kind of good”, with no good explanation whatsoever.
None of this is to say Fairy Dance is without its problems. Sugou is a big one, and another big one is Asuna, still a rather likable character, being put on the sideline and treated as not only a weak damsel in distress, but also an object of sexual desire courtesy of Sugou’s depravity. I’m also not entirely a fan of the whole pseudo-incest plot with Suguha; I feel that her story could have been told better without at least a pre-existing crush on her brother. There’s already plenty worth exploring in her personal story simply from the perspective of a concerned sister whose brother has distanced himself from her after finding out he’s not actually her brother, and then who underwent everything in SAO to distance himself even further. She then starts playing Alfheim to try to learn more about her brother’s world, and there, in her loneliness, she ends up falling for “Kirito”, only to later find out to her horror that he is actually her brother, and then must figure out how to deal with her feelings… Somehow, that feels like it could be a better story to me.
Again, though, overall, I do rather like Suguha as a character, even moreso than Asuna (though I do like Asuna too). I know there are plenty who dislike her, either for her incestuous feelings or for general immaturity, but I found plenty to like about her; she does show growth over the course of the arc and even manages to stand up to Kirito, when his “everything will go my way” attitude finally catches up to him. There are also some nice moments between her and Kazuto at the end.
Likewise, despite many people considering the Fairy Dance arc the weaker half of Sword Art Online, I personally found it overall the more enjoyable half. Overall, I wouldn’t consider Sword Art Online a particularly good show; its major problems with its villains and overall plotting are just too big for me to ignore. I’d give it a 6.2/10; a decent score, but not quite something I’d say I liked. Still, the Fairy Dance arc is definitely a major reason why I consider the show at least decent, and not a failure of a show.
Still, Log Horizon is so, so much better.


  1. I wasn't a fan of SAO. I found part of it interesting (especially at first, I think). I didn't give it a low star rating. But, honestly, Sugou so disgusted me, most logical thoughts of what I did or did not like about the show were overpowered, especially as the months went on and the more positive aspects SAO faded from memory, leaving only Sugou and parts and that annoyed me.

    Yeah, Log Horizon is definitely better, in so many ways.

    1. Yeah, Sugou definitely was disgusting. So much so, that a Taiwan TV network was fined for airing the episode in which he sexually assaults Asuna in-game (ep. 24):

      I guess the advantage I had in watching the Toonami broadcast--or specifically, watching a DVR recording of it--was that I could just fast-forward past that scene to preserve my sanity. :P