Okie, I’ve just come back from seeing the Sword Art Online movie so let’s talk about it. But before that, because of the nature of the “fanbase”, I think I have to preface this review by telling you guys where I stand on the franchise.
I am by no means what you would call a big fan of the franchise. I have never read the original Light Novels nor have I ever played any of the games. I haven’t even bought any merchandise (…aside from a couple of figures). I have only watched the original two anime seasons. They were entertaining, serviceable shows with fun characters, sweet moments, cool concepts, interesting worlds and great action. I had no big issues with it. At least, not any that would warrant me trying to crucify the series and burn it at the stake. As much as I liked it, I never really did get into it and I never latched on to any of the characters except for maybe Sinon and Yuuki.
(I’m sorry, but Sinon’s waist is a thing of beauty. Yes, I have a thing for shapely waists, but I digress.)
So, being neither a big fan nor a hater, I went into this movie with zero expectations, like I try to do for all movies. And as it turned out, even for a person like me with hardly any attachment to the series… I had an absolute blast! (^o^) After a dearth of anime movie sequels that actually succeeded in being little more than hollow, nostalgia-bait projects, it was refreshing to see that this movie does pretty much everything right… in my opinion, of course. Let me substantiate that.
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Just like Yu-Gi-Oh!, this movie was an original story and a direct sequel to the previous installment. However, unlike Yu-Gi-Oh!, this movie was able to cleverly incorporate fanservice elements (the non-erotic kind) without making them feel unnatural or contrived. Not only that, it was able to have a surprisingly tight plot that was self-contained. But it also drew enough references to the original to make it a proper continuation. Everything was cohesive and everything fit together well.
Starting off with the themes of the story, the main premise in this movie is the advent of AR technology and its increase in popularity over the “traditional” VR technology (as ironic as that might sound). In addition to the relevance of the discourse, the ideas and discussions it generated in the movie were thought-provoking, to say the least. While nothing revolutionary if you’ve seen Evangelion, Ghost in the Shell or Serial Experiments Lain, it was enjoyable to see the characters grapple with existential issues that ranged from how the self is defined, how memories relate to reality and how one handles trauma and loss. The dangers of AR were also critiqued with regard to the blending of the virtual and the real and it was nice to see that they acknowledged that both types of technology came with their own pros and cons.
Kirito’s hesitation to embrace the AR technology felt really on point and it was great to see him take time to adjust to the very physical nature of the new AR game. On a side note, I really loved how they portrayed the AR interface. I particularly loved the little notifications that popped up that were used to comic effect.
Regarding the plot, very basically, Kayaba Akihiko’s professor, Dr. Shigemura, the developer for the new AR headset and Ordinal Scale AR game in the movie, gave his daughter, Yuna, a NerveGear headset. She died in the game and he holds himself responsible for his daughter’s death. Through the AR headset and game, he plans to trigger traumatic memories in the surviving SAO players to “steal” them (more accurately, the memory scanning process makes it impossible for them to recover naturally). From the memories that players have of his daughter in the game, he hopes to reconstruct Yuna as an AI. Eiji, former Knights of the Blood guild member, Dr. Shigemura’s accomplice and Yuna’s friend during their time in SAO, also feels regret for not being able to overcome his own fear of death and his failure to save Yuna in the game because of it. He carries around a book memorializing the SAO incident that fails to mention him due to his cowardice.
The reasons this story works is because of how well everything fits together thematically. First and foremost, Dr. Shigemura and Eiji’s motivation is personal, believable and compelling. In addition, Dr. Shigemura’s plan is tragically ironic as it parallels Kayaba Akihiko’s own, the very plan that stole his daughter away from him. Another parallel can be drawn between his predicament and the predicament of our main characters, bringing us back to the themes of the self, memories, reality and trauma. Dr. Shigemura and Eiji are trying to deal with the trauma of losing Yuna to SAO while the other characters are dealing with the trauma of their past experiences in SAO. How should one deal with trauma? Do memories make the person? Some of the SAO survivors think it is better to forget the past, while Dr. Shigemura is unable to let go of his.
It hits close to home and there is a sense of urgency and desperation when Asuna’s memories are stolen away from her, driving up the personal stakes quite nicely. While not everyone might have had the best of experiences in SAO, Asuna was able to forge precious ones during her time there, one of them being a promise to go stargazing together with Kirito. Here, I would like to add that the plot did lend itself to some very genuine and tasteful emotional moments between Asuna and Kirito. In the end, the answer is to embrace the past, both the good and the bad, and to move on by focusing on the present and the future.
The movie ends on a perfect note, showing the passage from the SAO book that mentions Yuna in passing. While she is gone, she will live on in everyone’s memories because of her benevolent actions, showing that one’s actions are also important in determining and influencing how the self is constructed and remembered. This idea of agency is also brought to the forefront when we realize that Dr. Shigemura was selfishly trying to recreate Yuna against her wishes.
In terms of more general plot elements, I had absolutely zero issues with the pacing. Seriously, it was neither too fast nor too slow for me. The slower moments were inter-spaced between the adrenaline-pumping action scenes to allow for a breather and the action scenes recaptured my attention. I have to mention that many of the plot elements at the end were also set up right from the beginning (like the concert trap) and it added to the tightly-knit nature of the narrative. The solution to the problem did feel a little bit sudden, but it was explained and set up just enough for me to give it a free pass.
Moving on to fanservice, this was the part that impressed me the most. If you are an SAO fan (or at least have seen the first two seasons like I have), you will be floored by how many references they were able to seamlessly incorporate into the story while still making it feel completely natural. Here are some examples:
- Eiji was a previous Knights of the Blood guild member.
- As the AR headset required users to relive their traumas from their experiences in SAO in order for it to detect the appropriate memories to scan, they were made to fight familiar foes and monsters from SAO.
- The MMO Stream program interviewed numerous familiar players from ALO and GGO to get their opinions on the declining playership of VR games.
- The Medicuboid was used to scan Asuna’s brain for any damage, post-memory loss.
- In order to get a weapon powerful enough to defeat their foes, Kirito and the gang had to defeat the planned Floor 100 SAO boss (a treat to see in and of itself).
- To defeat the boss, we got to see all of them in their old outfits as they were restored along with their old levels and abilities (Sinon got her GGO outfit). Kirito’s Dual Wield? Yup. It’s in here.
- The players that we saw interviewed were summoned by Yui to help out in the final battle. Because we saw them at the beginning of the film, their presence was not jarring in the least.
- The BEST throwback, in my opinion, was Asuna using Yuuki’s Sword Skill in her SAO costume with Yuuki’s shadow appearing beside her. It was poignant and beautiful to see and it was used in the most perfect way – to show that Yuuki was there fighting alongside all of them during the big character reunion scene. I literally applauded right there and then.
This is how fanservice should be done. The fanservice was written for the story, not the other way around. Honestly, this movie felt like the culmination and progression of everything that came before it and I was flabbergasted by how cohesive everything was. Absolutely nothing went to waste.
Also, almost all of the characters were given their own time to shine on-screen in their new Ordinal Scale outfits with numerous, gorgeously animated action sequences… except for Suguha, bizarrely enough. She was away on a Kendo training camp or something, which was unfortunate. (Did we even see her Ordinal Scale outfit in the film?)
With regard to actual fanservice, there were two scenes of Kirito and Asuna kissing, two scenes of Kirito and Asuna on the bed (one of him pressing his face into her chest in a very non-sexual way) and one of Asuna bathing, more on this later.
In conclusion, the movie was very clever in incorporating fanservice into the rather tight plot and nothing felt forced or contrived. Also, the themes were thought-provoking and pertinent, the emotions were genuine and the stakes were high. I also felt that the pacing was excellent, not too rushed and not too slow. In short, this movie was everything the Yu-Gi-Oh! Movie wasn’t. (Yes, I’m still bitter about that…) (>.<)
While this is a sequel movie, I think newcomers will be able to enjoy it due to how self-contained the story is, but I sincerely think that it’s best to have first watched the original two seasons to be able to fully appreciate the characters and get the full emotional weight of the references. Even if you aren’t a fan of the original (I know you probably aren’t), I highly recommend you give the movie a chance.
(Bonus Working! cameo!!!)
Regarding the actual viewing experience, I have several comments that I’d like to add. I saw the fan preview screening of the movie and got quite a number of excellent extras including a couple of posters and 6 (printed) signed cards. Pretty stellar giveaways.
Unfortunately, the screening itself was problematic. First of all, there were numerous translation mistakes in the subtitles. It was as if the translator couldn’t understand simple nuance/context.
- 「そんなにファンじゃ…」“I’m not that much of a fan” became “I’m such a huge fan”.
- 「楽しみ！」“excited for” became “enjoyable”.
- 「自分が…」“You yourself” became “me”.
Seriously? Even someone without an understanding of Japanese could tell something was wrong with the subs. I didn’t bother looking at them half-way though, so they might have been a ton more.
Also… if I’m not mistaken… THEY FREAKING CENSORED ASUNA’S BATH SCENE BY ZOOMING IN ONTO HER FACE AND SHAMPOO BOTTLE!!! ARE YOU KIDDING ME!!! Jeez! It’s not like we even get to see her boobs or anything! (DO WE???) Come on, this is absolutely ridiculous. (>.<)