Anime Review #80: Sword Art Online II, Part 1

In recent months Sword Art Online (SAO) has found a resurgence in mention throughout the anime community for many reasons: 6 November of this year, in the story, marks the start of the first episode’s events: the eponymous game was released, trapping 10,000 users, kicking off a mass nationwide panic and a fervent race against time to reverse the curse. When first released, it gained massive traction, being both praised and trashed from opposing sides, with one calling it an entertaining action/romance mix and a bunch of others jumping on the hate bandwagon either because of the likes or genuinely rational discrepancies. I won’t be surprised if there’s a lot of commentary looking back at the initial reactions it got when the day comes. I personally think there wasn’t much to celebrate about it, and am very surprised to know people could fall for such a simplistic, rushed story that tried to pack every element of the isekai genre into 12 episodes per arc; but it is what it is.

What I won’t expect is the same kind of hoopla for its successor, Sword Art Online II (hereafter SAO II), and the two seasons that make it up. So here we are, 76 reviews after my last take on Sword Art Online and I’ve finally come around to analyzing its successive story, starting with the first fourteen episodes comprising the Phantom Bullet Arc.

SWORD ART ONLINE II PHANTOM BULLET ARC

I swear I didn’t Photoshop this. That’s Kirito on the right

Continuing where they left off with their previous series from two years prior, the minds at A-1 Pictures are responsible for producing SAO II, airing from 5 July to 20 December of 2014 encompassing 24 episodes. Our subject matter, the Phantom Bullet Arc, covers the fifth and sixth volumes while the succeeding arc, the short-lived Calibur and Mother’s Rosario arc (more on that coming up very soon) take the seventh and eighth chapters of the light novel. As with any continuation, many of the cast members from SAO returned to voice their characters, who got some visual updates and personality changes compared to before, but also saw new faces joining them, such as Sawahiro Miyuki (who voiced for Di Gi Charat, Welcome To The NHK, Bakemonogatari and Hunter x Hunter) and Souchirou Hoshi, the voice of Kira Yamato from Mobile Suit Gundam SEED and Masaru Daimon from Digimon Savers.

One fortunate aspect of SAO II is that compared to its predecessor, the response to it isn’t as divisive as its predecessor, being more objective and less emotionally charged; in fact, this series has received significantly more praise, marking a turn of the tide for the franchise. Needless to say, there’s nothing more and nothing less that was taken away from it.

PLOT

When we last saw Kirito (real name Kazuto Kirigaya) in SAO, he had just survived a harrowing two-year coma which left him medically inept, and in poor shape; and that was followed by him having to save his online girlfriend, Asuna, from the hands of a pedophile scientist. Fortunately, one year has passed since those events and he has returned to full form, rehabilitated and reintegrating himself back into society, attending a school specifically made for survivors of the Aincrad incident, including Asuna, Lizbeth, Silica, and others. Despite the trauma, nevertheless he is still enthusiastic as ever about the VR technology side of things, and gets his shot at redemption when a government official, Kikuoka Seijirou, briefs him on an incident on the game Gun Gale Online (hereafter GGO), where a player was found dead from a sudden heart failure while in the midst of a tournament match – with the suspect, labeled Death Gun, on the loose. Although Asuna is somewhat concerned, she supports his decision to investigate the matter, and he enrolls into GGO with a new avatar – a feminized version of himself. (Somebody tell me what crack they were on when they wrote this)

“If you don’t open your mind up to your past, you won’t be able to pull the trigger.”
– Kirito, probably

Joining him is Sinon (known as Asada Shino IRL) who, ironically, due to a childhood incident involving killing a bank robber, has a crippling fear of guns that overshadows her online prowess as a sniper, making her a target for bullying and taunting from Endou, a girl at her school. One day, she is saved from such by Shinkawa Kyouji, a fellow gamer and the hand-picked inheritor of his father’s hospital business, who subsequently befriends her and finds interest in her gaming activities. She introduces him to the world of GGO, where he flawlessly completes a training game and uses the prize money to buy a light-saber in tribute to his Aincrad days and registers for the Bullet of Bullets competition, which goes awry when his real gender is exposed, causing a rift between them. Minutes after his first victory he comes face-to-face with Death Gun himself, who vows to defeat him and expose his identity, and successfully scares the living crap out of Kirito by flashing his tattoo marking him as a member of the villainous Laughing Coffin society from the Aincrad days.

Brushing off the incident, he callously proceeds through the tournament, defeating Sinon by reaching into her vulnerable side, and continues to ponder the identity of Death Gun, remarking that he might have encountered him during an ambush back then, also remembering his involvement in accidentally killing some folks from there. Initially disturbed by the thought, he later accepts it as necessary to protect the lives of others. Renewed with a new vigour, he jumps into the Bullet of Bullets’ final round, meeting Sinon once more, who teams up with him to expose Death Gun, who they notice kills one of the players and delivers an ominous message – one which Asuna and Klein, watching the live-stream with their friends, recognize as coming from a former enemy of theirs. They end up being forced to fight him, and successfully defeat him. During the battle, Death Gun forces Kirito to confront his past actions and find closure with it, while Sinon learns to overcome her own unwillingness to fight thanks to Kirito’s encouragement and sharing of his experience at the ambush.

“No, I am your father.”
Death Gun, in an alternate timeline

After defeating Death Gun and co-winning the competition with Kirito, Asada is visited by Kyouji with the intention to celebrate her title, but when she rejects his advances, things turn dark. He reveals that he and his older brother, who was part of the ambush Kirito faced, were controlling Death Gun, with him locating, and injecting the fatal poison to the unlucky IRL player, while the latter controlled the in-game avatar. Renewed with fighting spirit, Asada fights him off when he attempts to rape her, just in time as Kirito saves her, and incapacitates him, narrowly avoiding getting squatted by the fatal poison in the process. As the arc wraps up, Kirito and Asada meet up with Seijirou to debrief the plot, while she joins his group of gaming friends, and in a bittersweet end, she loses her fear of guns and meets a woman she saved during that bank robbery, who thanks her for having saved her life all those years ago – and that of her then-unborn child.

WHAT I LIKED

  • The pacing was sooooooo much better here. No longer do you have to worry about random time-skips, disjointed plot sequences, or having to fill-in-the-blanks between episodes to figure out who/what/where/when/why/how. Instead, they kept their focus to one mission: defeating Death Gun and freeing GGO from further online harassment, and building upon the battles and adding room for character development.
  • The battle scenes were well-animated, like those against Death Gun, and was able to match up with the intensity from the previous series, notwithstanding the change to gun mechanics rather than medieval-themed weapons. The change in scenery (deserted ruins as opposed to lush landscape), gameplay modes (battle royale gunfights and not free-range MMORPG), and new weapons meant more available fighting styles and a whole new ball game for SAO to explore – a breath of fresh air from the usual playing field.
  • The segment where a young Asada fights off a crook to save her mom, and thwart a bank robbery in the process, was chilling to watch – emitting almost the same vibes as the segment where Mikasa’s family was murdered in Attack On Titan, and Eren saving her. Unlike everything else which happened in a video game, and therefore could be understandably dismissed as fantasy, this segment takes place IRL, and thus becomes downright terrifying especially seeing Asada wield a gun to fight for her family’s life – only to get ostracized for it and crush her innocence at the world’s cruelty. (Yeah, you’d think killing a bank robber will get you bonus points from others but no, SAO‘s world is quite warped…)
They gave Sinon quite the character backstory, I must say – ironic as it can be to find her playing a game with the tool she abhors the most

WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE

  • GGO feels like a solid game, except for one glaring problem: of all the artillery selections that could be there, why is there A LIGHTSABER among the choices? Never mind the fact that it conveniently allows Kirito to once again display his leet gaming skills, but which project manager or game designer thought that it would be appropriate to put A SWORD in a game that’s about SHOOTING THE LIVING CRAP OUT OF EACH OTHER? What ever happened to the age-old axiom, “Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight”?
  • Did we really need another attempted rape scene in this series? It was bad enough that there was one in the abominable Alfheim arc, and somehow the series decides to throw in another one just to emphasize how over-the-top and pure evil Kyouji (who, in hindsight, was kind of obvious to spot as the villain just by how random his appearance was) was. A better change would have been to have him backstab Sinon in-game, especially given how close he was to her.
  • Ditto for Seijirou’s complete absence from the series; he (or at least, Klein) could have made for an engaging buddy to tag along but instead, they only show up for one bit to talk with Asuna and company to sort out Death Gun’s identity, while leaving Kirito to himself instead of giving him some valuable tidbits given his experience. As a matter of fact, we didn’t need to see them going about in their small side adventure prior to watching the Bullet of Bullets showdown.
Friendly reminder that Asuna, Lisbeth, Suguha, Silica and Klein still exist in this show as well…

CHARACTERS

SAO II‘s first half showed poise not just in its pacing, but how their characters were better-treated, specifically Kirito and Sinon who got spotlighted and their personas fleshed out. Back in the day, Kirito was known as the overpowered main character, a bland guy with no redeeming qualities other than that, outside of being a ladies’ man and a Prince Charming to Asuna’s damsel in distress. Fortunately, that Kirito gets shelved in SAO II. Granted, he is still the same tactical, level-headed and skilled player that he was in those days, but now with the added twist of getting a personality upgrade in getting deconstructed partway through the story, takes an added role of being Sinon’s guide in overcoming her doubts to make her mentally stronger, and I find he’s much more loosened up and less tense than before. Honestly, I really liked him here than in SAO because they gave him what the first flick couldn’t: a personality – allowing me to somewhat look past the fact that he’s still unrealistically overpowered in GGO, even with his minimal experience, that his gaming prowess remains stagnant, and the absurd fact that he basically wins with only swordsmanship in a Counter Strike setting.

The same thing goes for Sinon. Remember when every girl that Kirito met either dies (Sachi), dismisses him as a big brother type (Silica or Lizbeth), or gets a personality downgrade in between seasons (Asuna)? Again, let me say this again: take that conception of SAO you have and throw it out the window because his new sparring partner, Sinon, is the absolute opposite of all these girls combined. Coming with severe psychological and confidence issues, Sinon’s time with Kirito improves her as a person and makes her more sociable, defensive, and secure in her abilities. By the series’ end she’s a completely different person and we can expect her to be up-and-about the next time the gang is about to go on another gaming quest. It’s a step to showing that not all the female characters of SAO are shallow as they originally seem. Despite this, I do have a few negatives to say about her, and it’s how, her role in the game becomes massively downplayed after Kirito arrives. I understand he’s the main character and all, but if you’re going to make her development come full circle, at least make it show while she’s playing the game too, instead of giving her a mental breakdown and relegating her to the shadows afterwards.

Nobuyuki Sugou Lite, at your service!

Unfortunately the villains, Death Gun and Kyouji, were Phantom Bullet Arc’s dynamically futile stock duo. It baffles me how lame SAO‘s villain constructing can be, for in these two characters they’re not only poorly written, but basically the same prototype of in-game Kayaba and Sugou from the first season. Bloodthirsty, mysterious figure? Check. Acquaintance-turned-rapist? Check. Association with the old game? You bet your arse it’s there. And last but not least, we have an ill-contrived, vague reference to Kirito being thrown into the mix, because… why not, they have to make the villain “interesting” somehow.

MUSIC

For this section I will only make evaluations of the opening and ending songs. Once again LiSA and Luna Haruna return to sing the respective tracks – Ignite and Startear in this case. For what they were worth, they were underwhelming especially when you put it against the vastly superior pair of Crossing Field and Yume Sekai. In the case of Ignite, the beat was strong, lively and gave the Phantom Bullet Arc a more mature and less make-believe feel. Startear was skippable on the other hand; the instrumentation didn’t really do justice to the lyrics, which to be fair actually fit Sinon’s character arc very well, and might have been something sung by her.

FAVOURITES

Favourite moment: Two scenes come into mind: Kirito and Sinon first meeting each other, the latter unaware of his actual gender and him having an inner monologue with himself trying to fake being a girl to win her over was kinda hilarious, and Asada redeeming herself by telling off her former bullies in episode 14, preluded with a fake-out scare and her redeeming “It doesn’t bother me” attitude to Endou’s gun was awesome to see.

Favourite battle: Being the most action-packed segment of the two halves, my favourite battle was the first involving Kirito, Sinon and Death Gun in episode 10 was absolutely gripping and most climactic of them all – more so than their follow-up fight in episode 12-13 or Kirito defying all logic and probability to win his first battle in episode 5.

“It’s over, Death Gun! I have the higher ground!”
– Kirito, also probably

Favourite quote: From Kirito and Sinon’s discussion at the beginning of episode 11:

Sinon: Please, tell me: what’s your secret? How is it that you could treat your past like nothing and become who you are now?

Kirito: There isn’t. It still haunts me. Some nights I can even see and hear them calling out for me at the moment of their deaths.

Sinon: But… that’s impossible… you…

Kirito: No, it’s fine. Maybe this is why I’m still here, to ponder the sins I’ve committed and make penance for them. At least, as long as if I can do that, I can become stronger from them and not repeat the same mistakes.

Kirito encourages Sinon to find her own way in life, rather than view him as a superior

CONCLUSION

Phantom Bullet Arc played out rather satisfactorily, and in some respects was a vast improvement over the Aincrad story. Meaningful character drama, combined with plenty of in-game action and a different type of adventure for Kirito and Sinon were some of the things that struck a chord with me. That doesn’t mean that it is peak SAO – there are some things which can’t be overlooked, and dare I say that even with all these adjustments I still found it to be largely forgettable, even carrying some remnants of the obvious tropes that were present beforehand. Mother’s Rosario, meanwhile, is a completely different garment to investigate, and that (along with the short-lived Calibur part before it) will be the subject of the next Anime Review.

SCORE: 6.6/10

Don’t let this distract you from the fact that the Maple Leafs blew a 3-1 lead in the Stanley Cup playoffs

8 thoughts on “Anime Review #80: Sword Art Online II, Part 1

  1. Does anyone else find it weird that in a mainly male dominated hobby Kirito doesn’t have more guy friends . Practically his entire friend group seems to be women. Must be weird for asuna to be in a friend group where practically every member has a crush on your boyfriend (including the one he’s related to). She doesn’t even seem to react in Calibur when Sinon asks him to think of her whenever he uses it. Doesn’t seem like most women i can think that of. Still I suppose it’s shows she believes she can trust him so maybe it just speaks to the strength of the relationship. Alternatively she may just think he will have to stay because they have a “daughter “ together. The show keeps getting weirder

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    1. You do have a point. His circle resembles way too much of a harem rather than a gathering of mutual friends. Isn’t it weird also how for the most of the first half Klein and Asuna are seen in the same scene more than she is with Kirito?

      Granted, I think in Alicization he buddies up with another male player, and (correct me if I’m wrong) I think somehow he and Asuna are more central to the plot there than in this season. But the details of that are quite blurry to me since I have yet to watch that part. At the end of the day, it’s just SAO being as SAO as it wants to be lol

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  2. Thanks for sharing. I haven’t watched SAO but the reviews on youtube (with their compelling in depth analysis and evidence galore) was mostly negative. I really would like to watch the first 3 seasons of this anime and write a review but I fear I will just add fuel to the fire for this decade old anime. And yeah, the light saber… why is it Kirito is the only one who actually discovered that it can dispel bullets and not those who had been playing longer than him? His being OP is one of his irritating flaw.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The negative reviews of the first half IMO are merited. I’ve seen the first season already and boy, I can confirm it was a trainwreck of storytelling and character development was basically nonexistent. Just another shifty fairytale type of story. Honestly I think with all that’s been said about it since then, you won’t be adding any fuel to it.

      As to your second query: I have no idea LOL 😂 That’s one thing that hasn’t changed for him. But wait until you see what happens to him in the second half…

      My advice: don’t hold any high expectations for the first SAO, but be surprised for the second 🙂

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  3. It’s not as good as the Aincrad arc, but it’s still enjoyable, in my opinion. I think GGO is a thrilling world to be in, both in the anime and in the video game Fatal Bullet.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed. For me it’s Mother’s Rosario (see last Friday’s post) >>>>>> Aincrad > GGO >>>>>>> Alfheim. Though I’ll say the gunslinging style of this arc was a bit off for my tastes 🤔

      Thanks for liking! Hope you enjoy my other content here.

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