For someone who doesn’t watch a lot of anime, I know a whole mess of anime-related facts—chalk it up being online in 2018, which has also inculcated in me a wealth of knowledge about professional wrestling, mobile games, and vaping culture. But the truth is, I can name the anime series I’ve watched on two hands. I grew up on the mainstays of Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon, graduated to some rented Slayers VHS tapes as a teen, and more recently have gotten into shows like My Hero Academia and JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure.
But again, even though I haven’t watched most of the classics or contemporary hits, I know things about them. I know about the dragon maid lady. I know about the big robots people have to kiss inside to make them go. And I know about the man who punches real good.
So I thought I’d do an experiment—I’d ask Twitter to pick a show for me, write what I thought I knew about it, watch a few episodes, and compare fact with fiction. I gave Twitter three options, each shows I’d heard about but never seen: Sword Art Online, Darling in the Franxx, and Boruto.
hey for an as of yet unannounced thing i'm going to write about a popular anime i've never seen based on what i've absorbed from twitter then watch some eps and compare my impressions with reality. which should it be?
— merritt k (@merrittk) April 17, 2018
As you can see, it was a runaway. It’s Sword Art Online. It was always going to be Sword Art Online.
What I Think I Know
Okay. So as far as I know, Sword Art Online is one of those shows about kids getting sucked into a digital world. Like Digimon? Except instead of just going into the internet, they’re playing an MMO. It might be VR? I think probably their bodies are still alive outside, like in The Matrix.
I’m pretty sure it’s a fantasy MMO with monsters and wizards and talking trees. And there’s a guy who’s the main character, and there’s a girl. I’m pretty sure her name is Asuna. Probably they’re trying to get out of the digital world because they’re trapped and escaping somehow involves beating the game. Actually, this sounds a lot like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.
Overall, I’d guess that Sword Art Online is a pretty typical shonen anime—a series aimed at teen boys, based around adventure, friendship, and challenge.
But you don’t want to hear about all that, do you. You want to hear about That Chapter. I can practically hear you rubbing your greasy little mitts together.
Fine. Fine! Yes, most of what I know about Sword Art Online refers to chapter 16.5 of the original book the anime is based on, a chapter that was written by the author but somehow disowned or discounted in continuity. It’s a chapter in which the main character and the love interest have sex. Not a big deal, right? We’re all adults here, and why shouldn’t physical intimacy—a major part of the human experience—be involved in the stories we enjoy?
Well, it’s a badly written sex scene, which is hardly uncommon amongst male authors. But it’s so badly written that it’s become infamous, attaining meme status and infiltrating the public consciousness as a representation of the franchise.
I’m guessing that it’s probably not a part of the show.
And The Truth Is…
It’s 2022. Humanity has finally created an immersive virtual environment, the titular Sword Art Online—a game played with a headset that converts brain signals into motion and sensation in the game. Everyone’s psyched for it to come out, including protagonist Kirito, who was in the game’s very limited beta. He logs in and meets a newbie named Klein, and immediately becomes a likable dude by helping him learn the ropes. But when Klein goes to log out to eat a delicious pizza, he finds he can’t.
The situation is this: the game’s inventor has locked everyone in. Nobody can log out, removing the headset kills you, and—as the meme goes—if you die in the game, you die for real. Plus, everyone’s avatars are replaced with reproductions of their bodies in the real world—no more idealized selves for these players. Why is all this happening? Well, the inventor just seems to be a total dick who gets off on having the power of life and death over the 10,000 players in the game.
After one month, one fifth of the players are already dead. There’s some resentment towards the beta testers, who some newbies perceive as having abandoned them. Kirito squads up with Asuna (the one character whose name I knew!) and they take on the first level boss. A named character gets killed but Kirito and Asuna take the behemoth down. People are mad at Kirito again, though. But he has had enough of their shit, dons his new Matrix trenchcoat, proclaims himself a “beater” (a beta tester/cheater) and goes off on his own.
So I got some things right: Asuna, having to beat the game to escape, and the players’ bodies living outside the game. No wizards, though! The first episode even makes a point of stating there’s no magic.
But you guys, I am actually pretty into this! There are so many things I’m curious about: what are SAO’s inventor’s real motivations? How are the players’ bodies being sustained? Why is there no magic in the game? Is the story going to explore the attraction of escapist fantasies in a bleak capitalist world? And is chapter 16.5 going to appear?
I’ll have to watch more to find out, except for that last one. I’m pretty sure the answer there is “not in a million years.”