I’ll warn you now, this is a very niche review, for a movie in an anime franchise of which I am a huge fan. I mentioned a little while ago during the review for Ghostbusters: Afterlife that using fan service as your main draw is a hard balancing act if you’re trying to reach out and recruit new audience. This film attempts none of that, and it doesn’t even pretend to. This is for the die-hards, and as such, I will judge it by my die-hard standards.
And believe me when I say, I am a dedicated follower of Sword Art Online. I’ve not missed an episode of the anime since it debuted in the U.S. I have seen both movies subbed and dubbed in theatres. I own every light novel in the main canon available in English stateside, as well as each edition of the “Progressive” spinoff series on which this movie is based. I have every domestically-released blu-ray of every season and movie. This is one of the facemasks I’ve been wearing since the pandemic started:
Suffice to say, my credentials are well in order.
Normally I’m not a fan of retconning, as the vast majority of the time it’s a cheap way to create new stories without regard for the previously beloved canon the creators are now contradicting. One of the chief offenders in this area has been The Simpsons over the last several years. I know there’s over three decades of content, but beginning with the likes of the universally-despised “The Principal and the Pauper,” the show has never missed an opportunity to decide that something that made for a pure character moment or story no longer counts. The most recent instance was last week’s episode, which decided to make it so Homer actually knew his mother wasn’t dead when she left him as a child, and he even successfully tracked her down, just so they could bring back Glenn Close to voice Mona again. Now, I love Mona, and her introductory episode is one of the greatest in the show’s history. Its follow-up was also one of the stronger outings of the middle seasons. Then they killed her off for no reason, and since then, about once every third year, they find some convoluted way to bring her back via flashback or memory, in this case nullifying what made “Mother Simpson” one of the most beautiful episodes in all of television by taking away the surprise of their first reunion. I don’t often complain about the show’s waning quality over the years, but this aspect really sticks in my craw.
I bring this up because SAO is one of the few pieces of media where retconning is not only forgiven, but necessary for the continuation of the overall story. The original light novel, written by Reki Kawahara for an online contest over a decade ago, went from the main character, Kirito (Yoshitsugu Matsuoka in the original Japanese, Bryce Papenbrook in the English dub) getting trapped in the titular virtual reality death game on the first floor of the floating castle, Aincrad; and then jumps all the way to Floor 74, where he meets his eventual girlfriend, Asuna (Haruka Tomatsu in Japanese, Cherami Leigh in English), before discovering the secret of the game and beating it one floor later, 25 floors sooner than the intended end point on Floor 100.
By winning that contest and getting the funding to turn the book into a series – both in print and then in anime form – Kawahara had to go back and add new stories to flesh out Kirito and Asuna’s relationship. The second book in the series added supplemental stories, including one that moved their meeting back to the middle floors, where they begrudgingly work together to solve the mysterious death of two players. When the anime was greenlit, another retcon was needed to introduce Asuna as early as possible, so that she could be a fairly constant presence and a fully-realized main character. That was done through the two meeting on the first floor before a group of frontline players raided the boss room, setting their paths in motion. That was the second episode of the TV show, with the boss battle recreated and expanded even further in the first “Progressive” novel (debuting a few months later), where Kawahara has decided to take a floor-by-floor approach, each new volume chronicling them working together as friends in self-contained stories before what is presumed to be some sort of falling out which would reconnect to the main story where they’re not on good terms until Floor 74.
It’s a rare exception to the retcon rule, because this is a franchise where not a lot was mapped out in advance of the early success. It’s important to bear this in mind while watching Aria of a Starless Night (also the title of the Floor 1 story in the “Progressive” books), because even more has to be retroactively changed to fit the needs of this cinematic edition.
I personally love the “Progressive” series, mostly because it expands on a few characters we only briefly meet in the anime or even make reference to, such as Argo the Rat or the hotheaded Kibao, not to mention the origins of the murderous Laughing Coffin guild. The series also introduces a dark elf non-player character called Kizmel on Floor 3, who is one of my favorites throughout the entire canon. When a “Progressive” movie was announced, my immediate glee was at the possibility of getting Kizmel finally rendered into the anime, but sadly, we’re not there yet (though a sequel is already in production for this movie, moving to Floor 2, so presumably we’re not far off).
Anyway, the course of this film makes two major changes to the proceedings. The first is that the film is largely from Asuna’s perspective rather than Kirito’s. The Black Swordsman is still around, and prominently featured (including adding in one more retconned meeting between the two before the most recent book canon establishes), but this is much more Asuna’s story. That’s mostly because the main narrative has mostly been Kirito’s since the beginning, with a few diversions here and there where another character like Asuna takes center stage. It’s even a fun bit of formatting in the books, as every chapter and subsection taken from Kirito’s perspective is written in first person, while everyone else has their story told through a third person omniscient framing.
We know how Kirito got into SAO, but we’ve only heard offhand remarks about Asuna’s introduction to the game, and to VRMMOs in general, so shifting the focus is a solid decision. Asuna’s a very popular character, and getting her almost diametrically-opposed origin story to the main hero definitely enhances the character.
The second move is to introduce Asuna’s heretofore unknown best friend, Misumi, who goes by the handle “Mito” in the game. Voiced by Inori Minase and Anairis Quinones, Mito is a somewhat introverted ace student (the only one to surpass Asuna in middle school), but is also a hardcore gamer who, like Kirito, participated in SAO’s beta test, giving her some advance knowledge of the game’s mechanics and strategies.
Mito’s introduction serves two key purposes. The first is to test out a new character. The light novel series is still ongoing, and the anime completed its fourth season last year. There’s no reason to believe there won’t be even more installments in the years to come. As such, if fans like her, there will be tons of opportunities to bring her back (I think there’s even a hint of her in the current arc of the light novels, but I’m not sure yet; just got the latest one a couple weeks ago and I’ve been too busy with other stuff to start reading), and if they don’t, she still works as an incidental character that Kawahara and the show’s producers can write off at will.
The other is to give Asuna a believable means by which to survive the first month of the game, where 20% of the initial players have already died before reaching the first boss. As a self-professed novice, there is some suspension of disbelief required to buy Asuna living until she meets Kirito. Creating Mito provides that exact means. She’s a calming influence, but also a steely-eyed pragmatist, evidenced by a scene where she refuses to save players swarmed by monsters after triggering a trap. It’s not that she doesn’t care, it’s just that she’s experienced enough to know that her and Asuna intervening will almost certainly mean their own deaths. She keeps Asuna grounded, teaches her what she needs to know, and provides emotional support and friendship for someone who’s never felt more alone and scared in her life.
All of that works for the first half of the film. We have someone new to root for, more information about one of the series leads, and a bit more exploration into the nuts and bolts of Aincrad. This is all good for a super fan, especially those who will recognize brief cameos by other series regulars or monsters described in other stories in this universe. It also provides a weird bit of anticipation and hope for the future, as in this story’s world, SAO is released in November of 2022, less than a year from now. We probably won’t hit full dive technology in the real world by that point, but after the last two years, the idea of fully immersive interaction through virtual worlds isn’t the worst of ideas.
The back half of the film largely follows the books and the established scenes from the TV anime, for better and worse. Sadly, this means some odd redesigns in some areas to justify basically charging fans to see what they’ve already seen for free.
The biggest difference here is in the Floor 1 boss himself, Ilfang the Kobold Lord. In the original anime, as well as artwork from the books, he’s a hulking, fat, dog warrior thing. This time around, I guess to look more intimidating, dude is SWOLE!
I understand why this was done, but honestly, it took me right out of the picture. I get that you can’t just recreate the same fight we saw on TV, but there were different directions the movie could have gone. There could have been a lot more focus on the overall strategy of the fight. They could have included Diabel’s greed about the Last Attack Bonus, fleshed out much more in the book than it was in either the anime OR the movie. Or hell, since the first “Progressive” book came out after the anime aired this fight, why not just treat it as read, with a few montage shots, and then move on to the completely new (to viewers) content of the second floor, rather than making us wait until the next movie.
Still, on the whole the film works because of the quality of the animation, which is some of the strongest in all of anime, right up there with the likes of My Hero Academia and Demon Slayer. The blend of CGI and traditional cell shading is nothing new, but it’s been consistently great in this series for almost 10 years now, growing incrementally better with each new iteration, so that the older stuff still holds up while the newer bits feel like we’re unlocking new content in a living video game.
It also doesn’t hurt that the characters, with their accompanying voices, are just as richly drawn as ever, both in design and development. With every new entry in this multimedia franchise, we learn more and more without ever betraying the core characteristics that got us attached to them in the first place. This is where retconning succeeds with a property like SAO but fails on The Simpsons. This series retcons meetings and events while staying true to the characters, while the other usually just does it for a one-off gag without caring about the consequences it means for the characters we’ve loved for over 30 years. Because Kawahara (and director Ayako Kono) know that some details have to be changed for the sake of story, there’s an extra commitment to making sure that we can still reinforce the strength of the characters without rewriting them.
As a fan, I’m more than satisfied with how this turned out, and I’m excited for the next entry. As a critic, this probably goes down as a decent anime film that doesn’t even try to reach a new audience. Because the film and its creators are aware of this from the beginning and hold no illusions about what they’re doing, that’s okay. This is the way you cater to a narrow audience without having to concern yourself with a wider appeal. It’s fun, functional, and the new information supplements what we already love rather than replacing it.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Are you an SAO fan as well, and did this movie make you geek out? If you got the chance to play a full dive VR game, would you? Let me know!