Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Animated Reviews: Sword Art Online - Progressive

Sword Art Online - Progressive -
Scherzo of Deep Night

It's not always easy to find a series that inspires loyalty as a consumer, especially due to the length of time that transpires between seasons of an animated show since production times are usually longer for an animated series as opposed to live-action. It's really easy to find yourself drifting away from the shows that you loved during the down-time between seasons as you're drawn away by the next big thing. But occasionally you find that show that pulls you in and keeps you coming back season after season like clockwork. For me, Danmachi is one of those shows. Ghost in the Shell is another. As is the Venture Bros. and Rick and Morty. 

Sword Art Online also falls into that category of one of those long running shows I keep returning to season after season, movie after movie. I've watched SAO ever since it started back in 2012. Went to see the first movie in the theaters, twice -- the first time in the original Japanese with English subtitles, the second in the English dub version. I've watched the spin-off show Gun Gale Online and I've kept up with the more recent movies. I've also rewatched the first story arc ("Aincrad") a couple times. So. Yes, I'm officially a fan of the show.

Now, I will admit that I haven't watched the latest story arc, titled SAO:Alicization and SAO:Alicization - War of Underworld. As it's about a total of 47 episodes and had a break in the middle between parts one and two, I made the decision to hold off until the entire story arc was released. And as both 2022 and early 2023 have been has been filled with good shows, it made the waiting rather easy. As we're nearing the end of the Winter season, I'm expecting to get back to SAO in the Spring and hopefully ration those episodes out over a couple months.

Sword Art Online - Progressive
Aria of a Starless Night

Well after the show's timeline moved forward, two movies have since been released: "SAO - Progressive - Aria of a Starless Night" and "SAO - Progressive - Scherzo of Deep Night" (released in 2021 and 2022, respectively). These two films held a lot of interest for me as they told the first season story from the perspective of the female main character, Asuna. So they're using these feature-length movies to flesh out the backstory and provide a lot more depth and motivation to her character. Danmachi did this with a spin-off series (Sword Oratoria) that followed the "Sword Princess", so I was interested in seeing how the writers of SAO tackled the challenge of telling a story from another main character's perspective.

Now, while I love how they're expanding her story, it does take place in a period of time where you already know the fates of the primary and secondary characters. One of the difficult things about making movies that are inserted into an earlier season of such a long-running show like SAO is maintaining a level of peril for the main characters. At the time these two movies are released, we already know who lives and who dies in the Aincrad story arc. To combat this, the creators added a couple new characters (Asuna's real-world friend Misumi "Mito" Tozawa and the information broker "Argo the Rat"). In doing so, the creators imbued them with real purpose for being in the story and then let us wonder if they were going to survive -- since they weren't featured in the original story arc.

The nice thing that the writers did with these new characters is they were scripted in such a way that them not being featured (or even mentioned, really) in the Aincrad story arc until now makes logical sense. And if they survive to the end, it still makes sense why they wouldn't be featured in the television series. So having these extra characters never feels like a form of deus ex machina.

In the end, both Aria and Scherzo tread the well-worn paths of fighting minions and boss monsters in the game but the story is kept fresh by the inclusion of additional character development, political intrigue, and enough screen time devoted to the new characters to make you really care for them and their outcomes. By the time the movie was over, I was hoping not just for a third feature, but also left with the desire to go back and watch the entire Aincrad arc once more before diving into the current Alicization story arc.

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