Past columns have covered genres which appear mainly, if not solely, in anime and have only just started to leak over into the west. These have covered mecha, harem, magical girls, yaoi and moe anthropomorphism. However, this column features what I personally believe to be a new genre of anime which has only developed in recent years.
Sword Art Online began as a series of novels in 2009, which have also been turned into manga in 2010, and was adapted into a 25-part anime series in 2012. It was widely considered to be one of the biggest anime of last year. The series has also been turned into a series of video games, which is somewhat ironic considering the plot of the story. The anime is set over two arcs, so to avoid spoilers this article will only cover the first arc.
Beginning in 2022, gaming has evolved to the stage where virtual reality is incredibly realistic, with the most popular system of playing it being the NerveGear VR helmet. On 6th November that year, a new game is launched by the inventor of NerveGear called “Sword Art Online” (SAO), which is a Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game set in a floating castle in a medieval fantasy world.
10,000 copies of the game are sold and the players log-in, including a teenager with the username Kirito, who was a beta tester on the game before its release. However, everyone soon discovers that they cannot log-out. Soon the inventor of NerveGear and SAO, Akihiko Kayaba, reveals to all the players that they are all trapped in the game and the only way out is for someone to clear all 100 levels. The worst thing of all however is that if a player loses all their hit points, or if someone in the real world tries to remove the NerveGear by force, the helmet will release a series of microwaves, frying that player’s brain and thus killing them.
While many are driven to suicide or die early on in the game, other players try to cope the best they can. Some fight on and form teams called “guilds”, other become merchants, while Kirito trains on his own, making his way through the game using his advanced skill. As he progresses he does later develop feelings for another player, a girl called Asuna. The two become very close, but both are still focused on beating the game, no matter how many weeks or months it may take.
Sword Art Online is primarily of interest because of the central plot element – a game in which you risk your own life. Kirito calls it a “death game”, which is also the term I have been using to describe the genre. In recent years this idea has becoming increasingly common place in anime, manga and novels. Novels featured the idea first, with stories like Battle Royale being written in 1999 and later adapted as a film, or you can go back further in time if you like as the story of Faust playing chess with the devil is similar. The original manga of the classic series Astro Boy (No. 1) featured a similar idea back in the 1960s, but this was never animated. More recently you have The Hunger Games which has similar themes to Battle Royale (a bit too similar in some people’s eyes). There are several other anime death games I could list but this is something that will be touched in later columns.
With regards to Sword Art Online itself, another key draw is the art itself. It is a very bright, colourful series that is pleasing visually. Also, the lead characters are a very appealing. While the series does start slow, mainly focusing on one-off tales, the relationship between Kirito and Asuna does develop. Other interesting characters include Yui, a young girl who Kirito and Asuna discover wondering around with no memory. Yui brings our heroes even closer together, both in terms of love and tragedy.
There are other issues with the series other the slow start. The fact that the series constantly refers to “swordsmen”, even when it is directed to the female characters is a bit annoying. However, the ideas that are displayed in the series still make it a worthwhile watch.
Sword Art Online is being released in 4-parts in both DVD and Double-Play Blu-Ray/DVD collections by Manga Entertainment. Part 1 is out now with the other three parts are being released monthly. A special episode is being screened on the website Crunchyroll on New Year’s Day. The manga adaptation and the original novels are to be release in English by Yen Press starting in March and April 2014 respectively.