Don't you just hate spoilers? I do, too. That's why I always try to include warnings. However, I sometimes ramble a bit too much here or there and maybe a few (or many) key plot points slip without me giving proper notice. So I'd like to include a blanket spoiler warning for the weary internet travelers of the world: Here There Be Spoilers. You've been warned.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Sword Art Online II

Someone was cutting onions in my room as I watched the final episode of this series. I kept trying to find the onion-cutting sonofabitch, but he was a nimble bastard. Every time I looked away he would be gone and I was left with onion-induced tears as I stared at the TV screen as the final scene ended. Damn, onion ninjas.

I've seen a lot of anime deaths in my time, but very few legitimately made my eyes watery. Normally, I just kind of sigh and think, "Damn, I really liked that character." And if I didn't like that character then it's "Party in Jacobia" time.

But there are times when anime deaths are so sad that it is unbearable. To date I thought that only One Piece, Anohana, and Naruto Shippuden could make me bawl like a little bitch. Cowboy Bebop and Gungrave made me misty. A few others did, too. I'm sure if I go back on my blog I can remember which ones did or didn't but I'm pressed for time so I'll just say that a few have made me misty, but far fewer made me cry like an eight year old kid that watched his puppy get run over. Sword Art Online had a number of sad moments (Sachi), but none of that could compare to Sword Art Online II's ending.

However, I suppose I should go back to the beginning of the end rather than the beginning itself. Why? Well, I feel like reviewing it this way. Don't judge.

Much like the first season, Sword Art Online is made up of smaller stories that more or less segue into each other. The first series was adapted from four light novels and four short stories.

The second series is a bit less frantic since it only adapts just over three light novels. There doesn't seem to be an overarching sense of "this series could end at any time so let's cram everything we can into this" type of mindset in this series. 

The first series was a bit uneven in that the first half was so ridiculously fast-paced and super serious that the second half of the series sort of tripped over itself because the story just wasn't as menacing or suspenseful. Sure, there were plenty of moments, but it was clearly in the shadow of the first arc. Sword Art Online II is thankfully a bit more even although there is a bit of a lull in the middle. 

This lull I am referring to is a three-episode arc that felt more like an OVA than a part of the series. Of course, there was also an episode before this arc was a recap episode dubbed "episode 14.5." So essentially there are four episodes that just don't cut the mustard with me.

On episode 18 we begin the "Mother's Rosario" arc. At first, it seems like another harmless and potentially boring arc. I found myself growing a bit annoyed. Sword Art Online II started off with the fantastic "Gun Gale Online" arc that was the best arc since "Sword Art Online" in the first series. Hopes were high. I thought this series was going to be even better than the first one. 

But once "Gun Gale Online" ended and the rather pointless "Excalibur" arc began I saw my hopes come perilously close to being dashed. Then "Mother's Rosario" started and I could only scratch my head and wonder where all of the magic went. 

I kept watching until the end, though. I just don't drop anime unless they are truly awful and this wasn't awful. It was actually pretty good even with the "Excalibur" stuff, but it wasn't "the anime of the year" type of stuff just yet. "Mother's Rosario" would be the final arc of Sword Art Online II so therefore it had the duty to truly push this anime as a whole to the same level as "Gun Gale Online."

Asuna, who was almost forgotten about in "Gun Gale Online," is the main character of "Mother's Rosario." When Asuna hears about a powerful warrior named Zekken that promises to teach an 11-hit original sword skill to whoever can beat him in a fight, she is certainly a bit intrigued. Asuna, despite being reduced to a damsel in distress for much of the first series, is a badass at heart and her badass heart decides that fighting Zekken might just be worthwhile. After all, Zekken even beat Kirito. 

So who was this Zekken?

Well, he wasn't a he at all. Zekken was a she and she certainly kicked ass. It was almost otherworldly how good she was. Remember that both Kirito and Asuna were trapped in a video game for two years so there should be almost no one capable of beating them so handily. 

Kirito surmises that Zekken somehow must be somebody that dives into the virtual world on a 24/7 basis, but how could that even be possible? 

After Asuna's defeat by Zekken, Zekken actually asks Asuna for help in defeating a floor boss. Along with Zekken's group "Sleeping Knights," Asuna tries to come up with a plan that would allow only seven people to defeat a boss when normally it takes 47 (or some other ungodly high number, I don't really remember).

Zekken's real name is Yuuki and Yuuki is actually a Medicuboid user. What is does that mean? Well, it's better to watch to find out.

But I will say that "Mother's Rosario" truly does lift itself into a realm of its own. Yes, "Gun Gale Online" was awesome and the much longer story arc that everyone was waiting for, but "Mother's Rosario" is simply better. In only seven episodes, "Mother's Rosario" made Sword Art Online II go from pretty good to a transcendent experience.

The idea of dying in a video game has been a popular one for so many anime and even in Sword Art Online (both series) itself, but in "Mother's Rosario" it has never felt so truly realistic.

On September 11, 2012, a man named Sean Smith was killed in an attack in Benghazi, Libya. It's an incident I only discovered about because I read Crunchyroll's comments section during a certain episode. He died while playing a game. I discovered a tribute that you can read for yourself here. Then I thought about people I knew from only avatars on the internet that have passed on into the next world.

"Mother's Rosario" packs such a wallop for me. I cried. Sword Art Online has caught some flack for involving "real life" moments with "in game" moments and sometimes this causes the plot from the game to seem rather silly, but none of those criticisms should apply to "Mother's Rosario." It's not only excellent at weaving a story between the game world and the real world, but it also weaves a story into everyone's world.

People die. Everyone dies. And when they do their Facebook profiles, game profiles, message board profiles... All of that becomes something like an obituary. And it's sad. There are people I've never even met that have had such a huge effect on me and some of them have passed on and there's a terrible hole in my heart because of that. There are days I wake up and my Facebook feed is crying because someone everyone else knew has died. Virtual death... Everyday it seems to be like a real thing and it is everywhere.

"Mother's Rosario" blew me away. "Gun Gale Online" was great and action-packed, but "Mother's Rosario" is Sword Art Online II at its best and it makes this second series a truly great one. Better than the first, I say.

I suppose I spent all of my time talking about a short arc instead of the fourteen-episode arc "Gun Gale Online," but I was moved to do so. However, Kirito's fight against the enemy known as Death Gun is worthy of attention and mention so I will try to do just that.

After Sword Art Online and ALfheim Online you'd think Kirito would stay away from video games, but Kirito is a die-hard gamer and he is coaxed back into the world of dangerous gaming when a rumor starts that someone is killing people in real life by killing them in the games. Haunted by memories of Aincrad, Kirito feels obligated to start playing Gun Gale Online to hunt for the "killer" Death Gun. Only Death Gun finds him first and Kirito discovers that Death Gun is actually a survivor from Sword Art Online. Death Gun, under a different moniker, was part of a group called the "Laughing Coffins" that specialized in killing people in Sword Art Online when everyone was trapped in the game for two years.

"Gun Gale Online" is a mean arc even if Kirito's appearance is incredibly off-putting. The girly-boy avatar seemed too intentionally weird. However, I don't have any other gripes. The conclusion, while being a bit different than what I was expecting, still holds up after I think on it. For the most part, anyway. The ending almost came across as big a blunder as (obscure movie alert!) I Bury the Living's ending, but this conclusion actually seemed plausible under the circumstances so I won't take away any points.

Sinon is also a wonderful character and she at first seems like a possible romantic rival for Asuna, but this vanishes once the arc is over. After "Excalibur," her character disappears, too. That's unfortunate, but that just means the Asuna x Kirito ship won't be sinking anytime soon.

All in all, this was a wonderful season. I just wish that the recap episode hadn't been included at all and that the Excalibur episodes could have been a separate OVA or something. Still, fantastic stuff. Especially, "Mother's Rosario." Just watch out for those onion ninjas.

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