I’ve seen the first 13 episodes of the latest instalment in the anime franchise Sword Art Online. I thought that would be the whole series, but probably there are going to be 24 episodes like the earlier seasons. The story is full of plot contrivances and things that make you go “that doesn’t make sense”, “why are doing this instead of that?”. The focus of this article will be more on the bad story writing instead of my usual conspiracy or socio-political commentary, but there will be a little bit of that as well.
WARNING: THERE WILL BE SPOILERS!
Two Boys and a Tree
The story starts off with two young boys trying to cut down a huge tree called the Gigas Cedar. One of the boys is Kirito, one of the main characters, who appears to be playing a new VRMMO, as is to be expected from the series. The tree is sucking nutrients from the soil thus preventing the people from a nearby village from expanding their fields. The villagers have sent someone each day to cut at it for the past 300 years, but there’s only a small scratch on it. At this pace, it would take at least 1000 years to bring it down.
I sort of like the idea of having to cut down the Gigas Cedar, however initially I was wondering if Kirito is playing a new game where all you do is, be a child who has to cut down a tree that takes years, isn’t it that a pretty boring game. Who would want to play that? Later on it’s revealed that Kirito isn’t in a new commercial MMO, but it’s a millitary project to create a new kind of AI in this simulated world. In that sense the tedious tree cutting is sensible enough, however it is exemplary of one of the flaws in the writing of SAO: Alicization. The juxtaposition between story exposition in the real world and the progression of the plot in the new fantasy world, Underworld, is godawful. There are whole episodes that focus on merely the technobabble aspect of the story, whereas for the most part when the story is focused on Underworld, Kirito merely happily plays the part of a fantasy world protagonist, unconcerned on what is going on in the real world. This is problem raises its ugly head already in the first episode.
The first episode lasts around 45 minutes, instead of the usual 20-22 minutes of most animes, and the other episodes in SAO: Alicization. Throughout the first half, we see Kirito and his two friends in this fantasy world, Eugeo and Alice, engage in mundane fantasy village children’s stuff. While Kirito and Eugeo are cutting down the Gigas Cedar, Alice brings them lunch, but since it’s summer they complain that food spoils too fast, unlike in winter. So Kirito comes up with the idea of finding ice, to keep the food cool. The three children travel to the mountains encircling the human realm, they find ice, the bones of a dragon, and a Divine Object sword. On the way back, they get lost, and end up going to the other side of the mountains, next to the Dark Territory. The children see two knights flying on dragons fight, Alice stumbles and her hand hits the ground thus violating the Taboo Index set by the church. A head pops out of nowhere, which is clearly some sort of bot administering the rules within a computer program, witnesses the violation. The children return to the village, the next day an Integrity Knight flies in on his dragon to take Alice away to the capital to be executed for her crime. Kirito and Eugeo are sad.
While all of the above was happening, I found it moderately interesting, yet a part of me was merely wondering, what is going on, why should I care about the fate of these NPCs, why is Kirito playing this game with them, where is Asuna and their other friends? This wasn’t good storytelling, since the mystery did not take me deeper into the story, instead it disassociated me from it. I knew Kirito was playing a new game, yet it took them ages to reveal to the viewer what game it is, and why Kirito is there. If this wasn’t Sword Art Online, this kind of withholding of information might have worked, but since the viewer who has seen earlier seasons, knows the background, there isn’t much mystery, only a lack of relevant information. On top of it all, after Kirito logs out, we aren’t granted an explanation either, instead we see Kirito and his friends playing Gun Gale Online and talking about a new tournament. I couldn’t care less about this side story, which isn’t even mentioned in the following 12 episodes.
When we finally get exposition about Underworld, we learn that a company called Rath has figured out where the human soul is located within the brain, using this discovery they have made the Soul Translator technology. Using this they can create a much more realistic VR experience than the technologies from the earlier seasons, and later on it’s revealed they can clone the soul of a human into a computer program to create more realistic NPCs by connecting to your Fluctlight (the soul).
As the characters non-chalantly discuss how a company discovered the soul, something which existence philosophers and religious people have been debating for millennia, and it’s only used to make make glorified video games, all sense of reality fell away from the series. This grand discovery, and it’s merely a plot convenience for a better VR system in this anime series focusing on VR. However, how they describe it, it sounds more like Rath merely located the consciousness or the mind of a person, not the soul, but since the show uses the term Soul Translator, and also the person in charge of Rath, professor(?, or whatever his title is) Kikuoka, uses the word “soul” also in the original Japanese (魂), I just have to call it the soul as well. This show is stupid.
It’s revealed that the secret VR project Kirito is involved with wipes your memories of the experience after you log out. This detail is a also dismissed by the characters discussing it as not a big deal. I would say this is an even bigger deal than the ultimate purpose of the Rath VR project, Alicization, which is to make an advanced AI to create killer robots (not that it’s not alarming, but as a story element, it’s dull and unoriginal). If this program can wipe your memories, you have to wonder, if it could also be made to create false memories. Could they use it to make Machurian Candidate type killers, or simply brainwash people who play your new VRMMO to vote for the correct political party, or make them always buy Pepsi.
The Contrived Disaster
Let’s get back to the story. At the end of the first episode Kirito is attacked by a surviving member of Laughing Coffin, the player killers from season 1. If they kill you in the VR game, you die in real life, and he’s armed with a Death Gun from season 2’s Gun Gale. The attacker manages to hit Kirito, who ends up in a coma after the doctors stabilize him. However they say Kirito has brain damage and may never recover. Then he is secretly transferred to the Rath secret island facility and conveniently put into the new Soul Translator VR machine, so he can continue the Underworld game. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
I figured the point of this attack is to make the morally dubious company Rath seem more acceptable to the viewer, or at least allow Asuna, Kirito’s girlfriend, who manages to sneak onto the island, to allow them to keep Kirito in the VR machine so the story can continue. After all, the company did secretly abduct Kirito, which Kirito’s friends figured out, and were not too happy about. Yet after Asuna finds out his situation, and Kikuoka tells her it’s the only way to make him recover, by playing this VR game, she goes along with it. Talk about a plot convience based on a plot contrivance, the attack by the Laughing Coffin member.
If attack didn’t happen, there would have been no need to send Kirito to the secret facility and the AI killer robot plotline couldn’t have been revealed, or Rath would have had abduct them, and thereby making them obvious bad guys.
AI Rights and Killer Robots
Let’s talk about Rath and their intentions. They created a computer simulation how this fantasy world develops over time (time goes much faster in Underworld than the real world). Their intention is to perfect a proper AI to create killer robots to fight in wars to save lives of the Japanese Special Defense Forces. Professor (let’s just call him that) Kikuoka seems quite passionate about this saving lives of soldiers bit. First of all, is Japan at war in the SAO universe? It takes place in the future, so maybe it is, although it doesn’t seem like it. What’s the point in creating robot soldiers to save lives if there is no war? Also none of the characters seem concerned, including Asuna, that they’re trying to create robots to kill humans, the enemies in any hypothetical war. Or are they going to give robots to their enemies too so that neither side loses human troops? It’s not as if civilian casualties are a thing…
Another thing, more importantly is that it doesn’t seem to occur to any of the characters that maybe the robots will disobey their masters, maybe Russian hackers will program them to attack Japanese instead, maybe there’s a glitch, anything like that. Apparently movies like Terminator and Matrix do not exist in the SAO universe, an anime whose whole premise is that somebody comes up with a neat new technology, it’s abused and people end up losing their lives over it. Yet none of the characters seem bothered by this possibility. I can understand that professor Kikuoka who is an amoral mad scientist, or the company, Rath, that makes money off of it, don’t mind, but how about Asuna, who is there on location to act as the avatar of the viewer? Her only moral concerns is that Kikuoka’s research might harm the AI Fluctlights in the program, or when they upload those AIs into killer robots and they go off to die in a war. Kikuoka says he cares more about the life of a single SDF soldier’s life than the life of a 100,000 (maybe it was a million, don’t really care) Fluctlights, and Asuna gets triggered by this. Who should I be rooting for, since Kikuoka seems more reasonable here?
Kikuoka describes the fantasy world of Underworld to Asuna. He says all of the people are very obedient to law, there are no murders or theft, and they slavishly obey the Taboo Index set by the church (which apparently does not forbid rape as is revealed later). He says this is a problem since he wants to create killer robots. However later on in the series it’s revealed that in the Dark Territory the monsters such as goblins also have Fluctlights, but they are more predisposed to slaughter. So they already appear to have AI willing to murder, so isn’t their experiment a success already? Why continue with the whole Underworld VR game?
Another thing that bothered me, is that the Fluctlights in Underworld are able to use magic. What would be the point, if what the programmers are trying to do is to develop AI for killer robots in the real world? The show does sort of answer this later on though, by revealing that the Pontifex Maximus of the church uncovered these system or console commands within the program to make the Sacred Arts. Still, why wouldn’t the scientists at Rath just disable these? Is there any good reason to let them have them, except that this is a fantasy world, and fantasy worlds are supposed to have magic. One character later on says that the people of Rath want the people in Underworld to suffer, so maybe the presence of these Sacred Arts create suffering, but I would say they relieve suffering more than create it.
Back to Underworld
Back in Underworld Kirito and Eugeo manage to cut down Gigas Cedar by using a Divine Object sword they found in the cave with the dragon bones. Like I said earlier, I sort of liked the idea of the tree, but after it’s cut down, we don’t really see how it affects the village nearby. After that the boys, who are now teenagers, join a sword fighting high school in the capital with alleged intention of saving Alice. It’s been 6(?) years since Alice was taken away.
However at the capital the boys simply go along with the sword academy curriculum. This takes them at least two years, I believe. They don’t attempt to go find Alice, and also Kirito seems unconcerned about his situation in the real world, Asuna or his friends. He simply plays along with it. You cannot say that he has amnesia, since when he arrives back in Underworld after being shot by the Death Gun, he remembers meeting with Asuna and Sinon he tries to log out, he wonders if Eugeo is an NPC or a test player, and so on. Apparently he doesn’t care about the real world anymore.
It also makes me wonder why is there such a sword academy in the world anyway. It has been mentioned once that there are rumours of goblins from the Dark Territory who have attacked some villages, and Kirito and Eugeo fought goblins once in the caves beneath the mountains between the human realm and the Dark Territory. It’s also mentioned that there are four empires in the human realm, and the possibility of war is mentioned. So I wouldn’t necessarily call this a plot hole, but it’s simply a lack of relevant information. It’s one of the classic sins of storytelling, show, don’t tell. The purpose of such a combat based academy would be obvious in any normal fantasy world, but not here. SAO: Alicization does not show you these things. If this was a good anime like Goblin Slayer, they’d shown at least a couple of rapes and a dozens murders by goblins by the time the boys reach the academy. Also, if there has been war between the human empires in the past, it renders professor Kikuoka’s claims about Fluctlights being too peaceful moot.
Anyway, Kirito and Eugeo eventually become seniors in the sword academy, and gain a page, or squire, under them. The boys meet two one-dimensional asshole bad guys, Raios and Humbert. They emotionally bully our heroes, but the protagonists handle it well. Their pages, both female, report that Humbert has been asking his page, another female, to fill odd requests for him, such as giving him massages while she is in her underwear. Kirito and Eugeo go to have a talk with them, but apparently Humbert’s sexual harassment continues, the two pages go to have a talk with the two assholes. Eugeo hears about this and goes to confront them as well. Raios and Humbert are drinking wine in their night gowns, and reveal that the female pages are tied up on the bed. After that, they attempt to rape them. After an excruciatingly long angst scene from Eugeo, he cuts off the arm from Humbert. Raios gets his sword, and Eugeo who is emotionally messed up, and because his eye blew out due to reasons not yet properly explained (this part of the storyline does sort of intrigue), is not in the condition to defend himself. So Kirito arrives and kills Raios.
Now let’s back up a bit to analyze Raios and Humbert. From the very first time you see them, you know they are assholes. As more is revealed, you find out they are high-ranking nobles who abuse that rank to be assholes to others. It’s fine to have this sort of one-dimensional bad guys as random thugs the protagonists have to deal with in a regular action scene, but it doesn’t work here. It’s simply bad writing. Moreover, before they attempt to rape the two pages, they say they are punishing them for disrespecting high-ranking nobles. It’s all legal and does not violate the rules of the school or Taboo Index. Apparently rape is just fine according to both laws.
The actions of Raios and Humbert don’t make sense. The two pages come to complain in their room, they tie them up on the bed, and proceed to drink wine until Eugeo arrives. Why didn’t they rape the girls before he arrived? Did they want to do it in front of Eugeo to humiliate him? That was a smart move, turn their backs to an enemy with a sword, who just happened to use that sword on them. They’re only a plot convenience to allow the main characters to do something heroic, and get them arrested.
Prior to this, the world within this VR game had been presented as almost Utopian, even if the Taboo Index is quite strict. Now they expect us to believe that rape is fine. Either because no-one ever thought of something like this (but why would theft be illegal if no-one does it either?), or because it’s really just a dystopian nightmare that looks good on the surface, but deep down it’s corrupt where people like these abuse the loopholes. Fine, if that’s the case, then show, don’t tell. Because based on what we’d seen before this, this is not the case.
After the incident with the attempted rape and subsequent murder, Kirito and Eugeo are arrested by an Integrity Knight, who just happens to be Alice. She’s lost her memories though. The boys’ pages come running on the scene with their swords, they ask Alice Knight to be able to bring their swords with them. She agrees, but she will keep hold of them. This action denotes an important fact; Alice is not retarded, but the writer is. Why else would she agree to bring the weapons of these two violent criminals along, unless they were to break free at some point and get those weapons? Lazy story convenience.
The boys end up in prison in the mysterious tower waiting to be executed. Kirito acts very calm, as if this was part of his plan and that they can escape easily, which they do. At this point, I couldn’t help but wonder, what was the point of the sword academy story arc? Is it only to adhere to Japanese law which states that anime always has to have high-school drama? Why didn’t they try to break into the tower two weeks after arriving in the capital? Before that they could have done a bit of scouting and information gathering. They sure claim wanted to save Alice, but didn’t do anything for a couple of years. Maybe they couldn’t get in the tower, except by being arrested. Why didn’t they go on a Grand Theft Auto-like killing spree? That would’ve done the job. Well, that wouldn’t have been heroic. The boys remember their main mission only due to two random assholes that try to rape their pages. Or they’re forced to continue it.
Why in the first place is the viewer supposed to care about anything that goes on in this fictional VR world anyway? Because they’re like real people because of Fluctlights? I don’t. How about Kirito, how to fix him? He’s the main character from the earlier good SAO seasons. He doesn’t even remember his VR childhood with Alice.
Anyway, Kirito and Eugeo break out of prison, but are stopped by an Integrity Knight. They manage to short-circuit him by mentioning him of his heritage, memories that have been suppressed, but not wiped clean. Then a female Harry Potter sends them to her library via teleport spell.
Kirito gets two episodes worth of exposition from Harry Potteress who is some sort of program, Cardinal System, who was supposed to take care of the world, but the Pointifex Maximus stole it from her. This excess exposition, from these episodes and from earlier try to make SAO: Alicization seem like it’s hard sci-fi. As if the technological concepts or the moral dilemmas are something to be taken seriously. They’re not. It’s simply tedious. The original SAO was a fantasy anime with a sci-fi twist. It was fun, but nothing deep. The latest season is simply crap.
Back when I saw the original season, I thought the premise wasn’t that believable either. That a company could make this dangerous technology, and some guy would be able to weaponize it, and no governmental agency would foresee it, or that so many people would blindly buy into it without being suspicious. Now that I think of it, it doesn’t sound so far-fetched. I’ve seen so many cases of AAA game publishers sell buggy messes or crap ruined by micro-transactions, and still people pre-order them so that Sword Art Online seems quite plausible.
Anyway, back to SAO: Alicization. Harry Potter reveals how Underworld was created, or how the people populated it. Originally there were four scientists who logged in, they had children, then they had children and so on. However one of those four scientists was a selfish prick, and his offspring inherited that prickishness, and now the nobility and the church are populated by such people. Overall I find the notion that being evil is inherited or genetic quite intriguing, and it may have real world parallels to it, yet in the story it doesn’t quite work. It sounds more like a plot convenience. Especially, since as the story now tries to make us believe, the world of Underworld is this dystopian nightmare where the elites oppress the masses, but we haven’t seen it except in the case of Raios and Humbert, which still seems like an isolated incident. Once again, show, don’t tell. Are the good people in the world so dumb they don’t realize what is going on?
Oh yeah, at the end of the exposition session female Harry Potter wants a hug from Kirito to know what it feels like being a human. It comes out of nowhere. Complete emotional claptrap.
That’s as far I’ve gotten in the show. I think episode 14 is out, but I doubt I can stomach to watch anymore of this. I get the feeling the script writer doesn’t have any overall arching vision for the show, instead they write one episode at a time based on what seems “cool”. It’s awful and offends the viewer’s intelligence.