Let me start by saying Sword Art Online: Alicization was a hard sell for me from the beginning. As I’ve already said, 2017’s Sword Art Online The Movie: Ordinal Scale felt like the perfect ending for the series, incorporating both the real world and simulated reality and building off the premise that the former inhabitants of Aincrad are still reckoning with the consequences of having been trapped in that world. We even got an engagement for Asuna and Kirito too. But a post-credits scene with Seijiro Kikouka showed that there would be more to come.
My first question at the start of Alicization, as it is with every new season of SAO, is Why can’t these kids find a new, safer hobby? Perhaps a book club? Knitting? Foosball, for chrissakes? The extent to which all of the characters —and Kirito in particular — still engage in these virtual worlds is baffling. In season two, we got Sinon’s Gun Gale Online storyline as one that directly addressed the relationship between her gaming life and her own personal trauma, but Kirito is ever so willing to jump right into the newest, and inevitably dangerous, technology. Someone should check to see if that kid’s okay, but it really seems like he’s got a death wish.
[Spoiler alert: Spoilers for the first 12 episodes of the season will follow.]
Alicization opens with a younger Kirito and his friend, Eugeo, living in a picturesque virtual reality village. Kirito has a whole life there with Eugeo and their other friend Alice, with a job and childhood memories, but when he wakes up in the real world, he has no memories of his virtual life. Kirito’s working part-time as a test subject for a sketchy company with a new technology called the “Soul Translator,” which manipulates memories. When Kirito gets attacked by yet another crazy rogue gamer (apparently there are many in this series) in the real world, he’s spirited away by his employers to a secret base where he can get the medical attention he needs — which, very conveniently, involves him being hooked up to the Soul Translator devise again.
The majority of the series takes place within the Underworld, or the VR world of the Soul Translator, and Kirito and Eugeo embark on a journey to save their friend Alice and figure out what’s so fishy about this world.
SAO has always had its fair share of eyebrow-raising techno-logic, but the logic behind the Soul Translator — that the “soul,” as we understand it, or human consciousness (“fluctlight”), exists in certain brain cells and the machine can copy that information and transfer it to an avatar in a different medium — is iffy. The rest of the concept that follows is interesting, the idea that artificial intelligence can built be built from the “bottom up,” can be “born,” and grow and learn and develop with its own unique experiences to guide it. But the building blocks of the concept, “fluctlights” and souls, are a step too outlandish for my taste.
Because time passes more quickly in the Underworld than it does in the real world, we see Kirito and Eugeo grow up together over the course of a few years, which would be fine if their story were more engrossing. We get a sense of the world and Kirito and Eugeo’s interactions within it, as well as a good sense of the time Kirito has spent there, but the pacing is mind-numbingly slow in the first few episodes before Kirito and Eugeo actually get to their journey, at the end of episode four. The real world isn’t any more intriguing, at least for the little time we spend there, in episodes five and six, purely for the sake of some very heavy exposition.
It feels like an egregious mistake to have Kirito on his own again, with Asuna and the others sitting on the sidelines. Sure, it makes sense to just have Kirito as the sole “real” person interacting in the VR world, but Kirito, on his own, is not particularly interesting. He’s a good swordsman, and of course he’s the valiant hero-protagonist, but in terms of personality, he’s the Wonder Bread of his ilk. This setup also means that Asuna (who should’ve been the true hero of this franchise) is relegated to the role of concerned girlfriend. Even after she goes on her mission to find where Kirito was taken (also, how was this kidnapping even legal?), she simply agrees to go along with their plan and becomes the vehicle through which we learn about the program. If it weren’t for that, she wouldn’t serve any purpose this season: a means for exposition and a source of inspiration for our male hero. Ugh.
In general, the lady characters this season are poorly served by the show. Speaking of, we need to talk about that rape episode. In order to carry out their grand scheme to rescue Alice, Kirito and Eugeo have to become knights, and in order to do that, they have to go to a swordsmanship academy. Once Kirito and Eugeo become elite students there, they’re presented with their own female valets to train, Ronye and Tiese. When the boys hear that Ronye and Tiese’s roommate, a valet to snobby second-seat swordsman Humbert Zizek, has been asked to perform indecent tasks for Humbert that still break neither the school’s rules nor the Underworld’s “Taboo Index” of commandment-laws, they confront him and first-seat swordsman Raios Antinous about the abuse. In retaliation, Humbert and Raios tie up Ronye and Tiese and plan to rape them in front of Eugeo, knowing that they’re entitled to do so and that Eugeo can’t interfere. Of course, Eugeo manages to violate the code anyway just in time to save the girls, and Kirito shows up for the assist, but let me just say the whole thing was very fucked up.
The interesting part of Alicization is the questions the series is posing in regards to ethics, morality and artificial intelligence. It’s territory the show has dipped into a bit before but never so blatantly as in this season, when the inhabitants of the Underworld are beholden to a “Taboo Index” of laws that aren’t actually moral in and of themselves. This point could have been illustrated in any number of other ways, but as soon as Ronye and Tiese appeared in episode nine, it was clear that they would only serve as a means to illustrate a lesson our male heroes could learn from.
To think that in this age of #MeToo a show could engage in such an extended depiction of assault for the benefit of the male characters’ development is appalling. And of course SAO won’t be the first or last show to do this, in the world of anime or beyond, but what’s even more perplexing about this episode was the fact that it was the most violent one in an otherwise pretty tame season so far. There haven’t been many fights. There certainly haven’t been many injuries, with the exception of a very large goblin king Kirito takes down in episode four. But in episode ten, we have to witness Raios and Humbert licking and fondling the girls, unbuttoning their clothes and spreading their thighs for several minutes as Eugeo attempts to fight the seal that prevents him from immediately acting. We have to see the dramatic buildup to his moment of breakthrough, but for some reason we have to watch it within the context of these girls being horribly assaulted.
If one can get past the rape episode (IF one can), the action does pick up, though to add insult to injury, that uptick in the conflict and tension is due in part to Kirito and Eugeo’s actions to save Ronye and Tiese. Unfortunately, the assault became the show’s way of upping the stakes, because otherwise, so far this season lacks the sense of urgency of the two previous ones, as well as the movie. It’s unclear if there are any real-world repercussions to what happens during Kirito and Eugeo’s quest. And up until that episode, it seemed like the boys had a pretty easy path to their victory: go to swordsman school, graduate, become knights, find Alice.
But episode 12 only marked the end of the first part, called the “first cour,” of the third season. The “second cour” is already underway, and reportedly we’re in for four cours total, so we’ll see if more action (and, dear god, please less assault) is in store.