And here’s my last seasonal review post, and last overall post, of 2012…
Sword Art Online
Ever since it started airing back in July, it seems like viewers of Sword Art Online have been strictly divided, either loving it or hating it with little ranking in between. I know it must have a decent sized fan following due to things like the many who have translated and read the novels, a high MAL ranking, and good sales in Japan. But it also has an equal following of those who grew to think poorly of it not long after the first episode, with opinions ranging from thinking its a train wreck but harmless wish-fulfilling entertainment, to thinking its absolutely terrible in any respect. So what did yours truly think of this very polarizing anime?
I definitely agree that the show has flaws and was not the master epic it set itself up to be in the first episode. But I still found more good and enjoyment in its 25 episodes than bad. I think the show is easiest reviewed by dividing it into its first half (the Sword Art Online arc) and its second half (the Alfheim Online arc). So I’ll start with the first half, which is also the one I liked more. After a suspenseful first episode that holds nothing back in throwing us right into the main conflict of the show, the rest involves Kirito making his way through the game while he (and in turn, the viewer) learns more about the SAO world and meets many characters, friends and foes, before eventually becoming an item with one of them, Asuna. What I enjoyed most about the early episodes of the first cour was seeing the interesting possibilities of such a virtual world as SAO and how one would play through it. A lot of the action scenes and fights against the boss monsters were cool too, and Yuki Kajiura’s score added an extra likability to them. What I didn’t like about the early episodes, however, was the insistence on going the “harem route,” making Kirito encounter a bunch of girls in a row that he has to help and how each arguably develops feelings for him. The fact that these girls hardly play any role later in the story makes them seem even more like token harem characters. But once Kirito just stuck with Asuna and the plot got out of the “help the guest character” formula and began moving forward, I really started to like it. In fact, the latter part of the first cour with Kirito and Asuna becoming lovers and making their way through the game together was my favorite part of the show. While I don’t think they, or really any of the SAO characters, are particularly unique or memorable, they had very sweet moments together that even made me tear up at times, and it’s very refreshing watching an anime couple consistently honest with their love rather than blushing and denying all the time. The mini-arc with Yui’s introduction and them treating her like their child was admittedly on the cheesy side, but as for the majority of AsunaxKirito stuff, I quite liked it. The ending of the first cour was nicely bittersweet too.
The second arc with the new world of Alfheim was unfortunately the weaker of the two in my opinion. The show again insisted on having another helping of harem, with an unnecessary side of insect to boot, with making Suguha also have feelings for Kirito, which didn’t lend itself to the plot in any way – Lyfa could have just as well been another girl Kirito meets, like Liz and Silica, rather than his “sister” and the plot would have worked out basically the same (and if someone could answer me this, how did Suguha not know that the Spriggan she was friends with was her brother when his name was “Kirito”? Wouldn’t she have been suspicious at least?) And because there was so much needless emphasis on Suguha’s unrequited love, there was little time to develop the Alfheim world and even less time to develop new characters like Alicia and Sakuya. This arc also introduced an over-the-top creepy villain who people seemed to have problems with because of the hentai-esque things he does to Asuna. But he’s a creepy sick bastard so it’s not outrageous for him to do creepy sick things to a girl he has creepy sick feelings for both in the online world and in real life. There were also more deus ex machina in this second arc than the first, which didn’t help it either. But I will give the Alfheim arc some points for having a couple of good emotional scenes between Kirito and Suguha and Kirito and Asuna. If it could have just found something else to spend its time with besides another case of unrequited love for the insufferably perfect Kirito.
In general, Sword Art Online is one of those series that has a lot of flaws but at the same time has a good amount of entertainment value. For every annoying harem cliche or deus ex machina there’s solid romantic moments and interesting virtual world concepts. There’s nothing particularly great about the characters or deep about the story…it’s the kind of series were you can’t help but recognize its flaws and have to decide for yourself whether you want to put the critical mind aside and just enjoy the wish-fulfilling fantasy world and sometimes cliche dramatic moments.
Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun
One of the few shojo series I’ve watched this year, Kaibutsu-kun has a fairly typical shojo setup of an overly studios, stoic girl meeting a somewhat sociopathic, delinquent guy, and the two of them try to come to grips with their romantic feelings for each other amidst their friends and other characters who also need to sort out their relationships. Again, a very standard shojo plot, so in the case of Kaibutsu-kun, it’s all about taking a cliche premise and doing good by it…which the series does do in my opinion. As far as story goes, there really isn’t much to say as it’s an extremely character-driven show – every episode involves either our main couple growing closer together or further apart, some backstory for a character, or one of the side characters developing feelings they need to cope with. So the appeal of this show just boils down to whether you like the characters and want to see them work things out. Personally, I think they were all likable in their own way. Both Shizuku and Haru have the typical case of “find the good in characters who seem to have few good traits,” which is a trope I happen to be a sucker for. A lot of people had a problem with Haru’s “rape” line in the first episode and his accidental abusive tendencies, but once you get to know him it’s easy to see that he’s well meaning but is just a socially inept airhead. Asako was my favorite character (I guess I also have a soft spot for characters who are sweet but also kind of ditzy and hapless) so I enjoyed every scene she was in. The rest of the cast were all decent as well. The only ones I could have lived without were Haru’s delinquent friends who I felt didn’t add much of anything to the show and after they had such a negative affect on him in the first episode, it didn’t sit well with me that we’re supposed to like them later on. I also thought Haru’s twin brother was kind of a pointless character who seemed like he’d be menacing to the story when he was first introduced but just sort of faded away after that.
While it has good characters and good writing, my only problem with the series is that it didn’t have much direction. One minute Haru and Shizuku would make progress in their relationship, then the next minute they’d take a step back. And by the end of the series, it seemed like they were still that way even 13 episodes later – no big emotional solidification of their love or anything. And the many cases of unrequited love for the other characters, such as Yamaken for Shizuku, Asako for Mitsuyoshi, and Ooshima for Haru (and Sasayan for Asako maybe?) felt the same way – there’d be some focus on it but then it was just kind of left hanging with no real resolution. This lack of concrete relationship progression unfortunately took away the higher rating I could have given to the series. I can still recommend it to any shojo, romance, and/or slice-of-life fan for a good, fun watch, but nothing amazingly funny or emotional. The show could definitely use a second season and I hope it gets one!
I’m going to hold back in my review of K because a second season was recently announced which may explain the unexplained events and unanswered questions left by this first season. And that really was what most of the series was like for me – very cool looking stuff happening but with question marks all around the characters and events. By episode 13, I still don’t really know a lot of the “what?” and “why?” in the show. I have a vague gist of what was going on, but by the end, the seemingly interesting world and characters were left so unexplored it hurt. In the big battle between Mikoto and Reishi for example, I know the series wanted it to come off as very dramatic, but because I hardly even know these two characters and why they’re fighting and what emotional implications it has, I just couldn’t bring myself to care that much even though I wanted to. Same thing with the relationship between Anna and Mikoto or the relationship between Awashima and Reishi – the series wanted us to feel it but I had a hard time because we just didn’t get to know them well enough. And as for the world it’s set in, again, very vague – how is one chosen to be a King? What’s the nature of the powers they have? How do they live among average people and do average people know that they exist? Does anyone question those giant swords floating in the sky? Why was the Colorless King a fox spirit and why was he so evil? And what about Strains and their deus ex machina abilities? Where did they come from and why can a Strain like Neko turn into a cat? Maybe some of these questions were answered very slightly in the show, but definitely not enough to solidify such a complex fantasy world with such a large cast of characters. I certainly don’t mind if an anime wants to leave things up to the viewers’ imagination, but they have to at least give a sufficient amount of information to make us invested in the characters and be able to make sense out of the show’s world, which I don’t think K did well.
Many will agree, however, that what K has going for it is great animation and style. I think it does too – the action scenes were always nice to look at and that steady techno music it always seemed to have in the background really helped give the scenes an extra flare. And I don’t think the characters were awful or anything; both they and the fantasy elements of the show were potentially interesting…if only I knew more about them. Throughout all the episodes I didn’t really know why a lot of things were happening or why characters did the things they were doing. Like I said, it was like watching a bunch of question marks running around and that’s not what I enjoy – I want to see characters I can relate to and a world I can piece together!
But again, I’m going to put these thoughts on hold as perhaps the next season of K will address these issues I have. While that won’t change the fact that the first season fails to adequately flesh out its setting and characters, if the second season gives me more answers than questions, I can at least recommend watching it as a prequel to this season rather than a sequel.
I’ll be back next week with a countdown of my favorite anime of 2012~! Until then, I want to wish you all a Happy New Year and see you soon =D