Note: the text below contains spoilers of every sort, from both the first and second seasons of Sword Art Online. Viewer discretion is advised.
The first season of Sword Art Online (SAO) starts with a few stumbles, lurches forward into a steady trot, and soon sprints towards greatness with the same wide-eyed determination that protagonist Kirito exhibits when leaping into battle. It tackles a variety of fascinating issues, and introduces us to a surprisingly unique pair of lovers -- especially when compared to the greater pantheon of anime heroes.
And in fourteen episodes, Sword Art Online has reached a level of tension and drama that few anime could ever claim to achieve.
But then it all comes crashing down, and we're berated with eleven more episodes that assault us with so many troubling stereotypes, I have to wonder if Director Tomohiko Ito and his writers were coerced into changing the direction of the series midway through (or perhaps were unfairly bound by the source material). Sword Art Online is the most disappointing anime I've ever seen, and I do not write those words lightly.
But let's take a few steps back. This is the first anime series that Neethi (my wife) and I watched together. We've seen plenty of shows before, of course, but usually I've already screened them, and I select ones that I think she might enjoy with me. With Sword Art Online, we both went in blind, based on the recommendation of an anime-watching friend (Hi Alisa! I don't blame you!). I originally planned to watch it myself, but Neethi asked if she could join in just for fun, and we ended up sticking it out together.
This made the first season of Sword Art rather special for us. As a newly-wed couple, we were treated to a story of two young people falling in love, despite the many troubles around them. It clicked with us at once. This is in large part due to the strength of Kirito and Asuna as characters, who both shine as examples of "new age" anime heroes that defy the tired stereotypes we all know and love/dread.
Kirito is a brooding loner, yes -- that much we've seen before. But we witness his transformation much earlier than we might expect, and his growing love for Asuna is adorable and delightful in almost every way. It's devoid of the common sexual perversions found in anime, and it’s also mutually respectful. Their love blossoms from their partnership in battle -- a respect and honor that you rarely see in young couples. And instead of Asuna acting as the helpless damsel that needs saving, we see both she and Kirito protect each other. Seeing them fight side-by-side is such a thrill, as their love underlies their awe-inspiring coordination. They attack together, they defend together.
Speaking of Asuna... Oh Asuna, a legend of our time! Here we have a female character so notable, so incredible, that I was shocked to see her in an anime at all. She's introduced with immense modesty, a cloak wrapped around her to hide her sex and beauty in a predominately male environment. I found this almost chillingly realistic, seeing as how so many female gamers feel compelled to hide their identity online in order to avoid abuse. A very real, very sad fact.
But soon she makes herself known. And her skill, authority, and courage rocket to the heavens. And, despite a slightly impractical skirt for battle, she achieves these feats with an attire most befitting a warrior! It's effeminate, but not (overly) sexualized. In fact, the most intimate moment we have with Asuna is not when she undresses in front of Kirito due to a delightful misunderstanding, but when she's lying next to him in bed much later, her back made bare by her nightclothes. This simple moment, shot from an unassuming angle, speaks volumes to the character and integrity of the Sword Art Online staff. It’s romantic, sweet, but never disrespectful to Asuna’s character.
(Not to say the first season is immune to its anime clichés. Most of the other female characters aren't nearly as noteworthy as Asuna, but we must celebrate our victories where we can.)
These strong character dynamics make Sword Art Online more than notable on their own, but the series' grasp on our collective fear of death, and how that fear influences our behavior, makes the story even more special. Even though everything in the first season is "virtual," the danger always feels real, and my fingers would tighten around Neethi's hand whenever our beloved heroes would enter a boss room or face a saboteur.
But all too suddenly, Kirito, Asuna, and the rest of the SAO players are freed from their long, long imprisonment. The beautiful world around them crumbles in a burst of sunlit color, and Kirito and Asuna enjoy one last moment together, side by side, as they watch their lives change.
And then Kirito wakes. And stumbles down the hospital hallway in search for the wife that he never truly met. It's sudden, perhaps premature, but utterly exhilarating.
Then season two starts. And Sword Art Online regresses into an almost infantile state, shedding any and all socially progressive thoughts in favor of an overtly sexualized female lead, embarrassing animation, and a once-great heroine reduced to the damsel in distress.
First, the most problematic of the issues above: Kirigaya Suguha. Kirito's sister, who previously was an unseen motivation and driving force in Kirito's exploits, emerges as a sexualized cliché with incestuous tendencies. Such tendencies aren't exactly groundbreaking in anime, as we all know. I'm, sadly, quite used to them. But to see them here, and in this way, is heartbreaking.
The writers try and wave any dangers of this away by quickly explaining that she and Kirito aren't real siblings -- only cousins. But that's not much better, right? At least from our current understanding of family and biology, this is still an extremely troubling situation. So most of the entire season awkwardly attempts to both justify and exploit Sugu's feelings for her brother. And all the while we sit back and shield our eyes as close-ups of her chest and panties are peppered into almost every episode. It’s almost depressing, to see the series resort to such things.
This plot twist could have been so easily avoided, too! We learn that Kirito and Sugu had a pained relationship early on. Use that! Why not build on their friendship inside ALO? As they fight and fail to understand each other in the real world, they bond and connect inside a game. And the revelation of their identities helps heal their once strained relationship.
But no. Sugu has to be in love with her cousin. Because why not?
Meanwhile, the incredible Asuna is placed in a literal birdcage, given a more revealing outfit, and faced with an omnipresent threat of sexual violence. She is stripped of her power, groped by a slime creature, and only has a handful of spoken lines for the entire season.
What... what happened?
Where did strong characters go? What happened to the thrill of real-world death in a virtual space? Why remove Asuna from the equation? Why thrust Sugu into such an old and perverse plotline, with very little care as to how it’s handled?
Neethi echoes most of my concerns with the second season. She loved Asuna and Kirito as I did, and was disgusted by the sudden shift between seasons. I had to urge her to keep an open mind, as she considered stopping partway through. And even though we soldiered on together, both of us were thoroughly puzzled. We would sit in silence after each episode, shaking our heads in disbelief.
How could it fall so fast, and so far?
No matter the reason, it's easy for me to point to Sword Art Online as the biggest disappointment in my long experience with anime. I'm so thankful to have watched the first season with Neethi. And I almost wish, just a little bit, we would have stopped earlier. Before the heart-pounding battle with Heathcliff. Before the confrontation with the Skull Reaper. Before they escaped the bittersweet confines of Aincrad. So we could forever remember Kirito and Asuna's precious few moments in their lakeside cabin, enjoying a simple and quiet love together, 'till the end of their days.