Sword Art Online (2012)

SAOZ

I wasn’t particularly interested in watching this series as the premise seemed really hokey. However, I found it on Netflix and at a loose end, thought I’d give it ago. Turns out that watching a cartoon about players trapped in World of Warcraft was quite entertaining. Who knew!

The basic conceit is that in the near future, people have virtual reality “Nerve Gear” to plug into their computers which hijacks their nerve impulses and allows them to play MMOs as if they were really there. The new game, Sword Art Online, has just been released and uses a new interface unit that you have to buy specifically for it.

That in of itself is probably fairly realistic. Given the prevalence of online gaming and the direction technology is going (Google Glass, Kinect), we will see an early prototype of this kind of thing within the next 10 years. Hell, early attempts at Virtual Reality in the ‘90s were only abandoned because the money was in home gaming and that wasn’t a million miles away from what SAO is suggesting.

SAO has been released and thousands of people rush out and buy it, get it home and log in. Obviously, in the future, games are completed before released and don’t require a 10 GB patch just to play it…

Once people have been logged in and playing around, there is an in-game announcement which states that no one can leave the game until the 100th floor is cleared and that anyone who dies in the game, dies in real life.

Obviously, everyone then immediately tries to log out but the option is missing from their display. They can’t physically remove their own gear as their nerve impulses from their brain are rerouted by the Nerve Gear. They are trapped!

Worse, the Nerve Gear to use the game, designed to kill anyone who dies in the game, will also kill anyone who has their unit removed in real life (cue: lots of people disappearing  in game because of well intending family members and medics).

"The future, as designed by Blizzard."

“The future, as designed by Blizzard.”

Lastly, everyone’s in-game avatar is forced to reflect their real life self image (and gender).

And so begins the story… this is all one big set up to effectively tell a story about an online roleplaying game: it has all the hallmarks, including guilds (and the subsequent guild politics), grouping together to fight bosses, levelling, loot (and the politics of who gets what) and all the other things you associate with playing these games (no one is cussed out for being a “shit healer” however).

The main protagonist is Kirito (the handle of Kazuto Kirigaya), a massive gamer nerd and beta tester on SAO. Consequently, he knows quite a bit about the game from beta test and quickly advances in the game.

The series follows Kirito around the game world in different adventures. He normally works alone (exploiting his knowledge of the game by himself) but occasionally teams with others.

I’ve actually played MMOs with people like Kirito: the sort of person who plays at their own rate, doesn’t really socialise and apparently just wants to be involved in the thing that everyone else is involved in. I personally find Kirito-type players to be strange: why play an online social game to be antisocial?

One of the reasons why I like watching animé series, is that they go into detail about things Western animations don’t bother with. Here, the show explores the psychology of people trapped in a deadly game. There is a community and people seem to settle into a semblance of virtual society.

It is quite interesting that as soon as their actual life is on the line, they lose interest in fighting. And that people still find a way to screw one another over: yes, even in a game where there are clearly defined good guys (players) and bad guys (computer generated enemies) with a definitive goal to free themselves, the human players still find a way to exploit the game mechanics to the detriment of one another.

Kirito is quite good as a protagonist. He’s interesting and not a bad guy, just a bit selfish. He does get involved with other people and that’s when the show starts to get better. The politics of grouping and guilding, while obviously dramaticised here, is still worth showing. It’s his relationship with some of the other players which are quite endearing and through that, makes Kirito a much more relatable character. By the end of the series, I had grown quite fond of Kirito and his friends.

The game world itself is quite cleverly created. It doesn’t have any magic in it for two reasons, the first, to make life more deadly and two, so that a person’s talent with a blade (and timing in the use of their powers) is paramount. Because it is virtual reality, the players are genuinely learning to sword fight. It’s a cool idea and I can imagine people actually wanting to play it.

Elsa couldn't be arsed with the snowman and decided to go fight the skeleton of a demon millipede.

Elsa couldn’t be arsed with the snowman and decided to go fight the skeleton of a demon millipede.

Consequently, the battles are big focus of the show and they are very well done. Obviously the animation is quite a bit better than what we are used to in current MMOs but it does evoke the feeling that they are in a complex, futuristic game but a believable one.

There is a major issue with the narrative in SAO. The story takes a random turn and I really didn’t like it. It comes right out of left field and I think the reason why I don’t like it, is because it offends my Western sense of narrative. However, the story doesn’t actually end there and goes off in another tangent (almost like half way through, they are told they have more episodes, so they tack on second storyline) but it is all tied together in the end with a satisfying conclusion. So I guess there is a payoff to the random choice in the story. Maybe?

Beyond that, the show doesn’t really stand out. The primary selling point is its main conceit. If you have played MMOs, you’ll get it and I think you’ll enjoy it. If not, the animation isn’t particularly exceptionally, nor is the plot or anything else about it. It lives and dies by the sword art online.

TL:DR “Sword Art Online is an animé about people stuck in the Matrix (if the Matrix was made by Blizzard). While entertaining, the only thing which makes it stand out is its conceit. If you don’t like that, give it a miss.”

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Attack On Titan (2013)

"Can I interest you in a copy of the Watchtower?"

“Can I interest you in a copy of the Watchtower?”

Like most 30-something Westerners, my first experience of animé was Battle of the Planets, a very heavily edited and dubbed version of Science Ninja Team Gatchaman. If you are from America, you are just as likely to have seen Star Blazers, another re-dubbed Japanese animé originally called Space Battleship Yamato. Not that any of us knew this at the time.

In the United Kingdom, we had very limited access to such imports. Aside from the occasional random video in the video rental shop, we could only see the very small amount of programmes dubbed for TV. Oddly, these programmes ranged from the European/Japanese co-productions of classic European stories, Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds, Ulysses 31 and Mysterious Cities of Gold to Laputa: Castle In The Sky (the first film from the now very famous Studio Ghibli).

It wasn’t until the 1990s when Channel 4 took an interest in the genre, that the UK started to see more sophisticated and adult animé outside of expensive imports. Satellite channels, like FOX Kids, also broadcast dubbed TV series. Later, several companies, like AD Vision and MANGA, started offering official releases of movies and TV series (the latter, usually a measly 2 episodes a VHS tape). That’s when we got to see things like Akira, Patlabor, Ghost In The Shell, Guyver, Tenchi Muyo!, Gundam Wing, Serial Experiments Lain, and the seminal, Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Believe it or not, this is actually a review of Attack On Titan.

Believe it or not, this is actually a review of Attack On Titan.

Neon Genesis Evangelion was game-changing. It was immensely well written, sophisticated with exceptional animation. Unsurprisingly, it was extremely well received both in Japan and the international market. It was a deconstruction of so many tropes of the ‘giant robot’ genre of animé (children piloting giant robots, which are the only defence against a giant monstrous enemy) and it was truly excellent. It borrows Judeo-Christian themes and ideas, which, seen through the eyes of a non-Judeo-Christian lens, adds a sense of uniqueness to the show.

It was a phenomenon which continues today, nearly 20 years later (a third film in a new series of ‘rebuilds’ just having been released).

The reason for that rather long introduction is because I wanted to establish that I’ve been fan of animé since the very early 80s and, while I’ve only seen a fraction of what’s out there, I’ve seen a fair amount over the years. That’s why I feel I can say that in this post-Evangelion world, Attack On Titan is close to being another game-changer.

"This is why we should be working on giant robot technology right now."

“This is why we should be working on giant robot technology right now.”

 

Attack On Titan is a riff on the giant robot genre, however, here, it asks the question: how would we deal with the traditional giant monsters of that genre if we didn’t have access to the technology to combat them?

Usually, in that genre, there are giant robots or monsters or some reason for the protagonists to pilot giant mechanised robotic vehicles to combat them. Sometimes it just happens that mecha is the pinnacle military technology but other times, as in Evangelion, form follows application. In Attack On Titan, they have nothing larger than a traditional cannon to fight the titular bad guys which forces the defenders to be creative…

I’m not going to go into too much detail about the show, as part of the entertainment is learning as you go along. Suffice to say, none of what happens is what you think based on my précis. Plus there are plenty of twists and turns in the action, particularly how they deal with a society on the verge of collapse while surrounded by giant monsters who want to eat you whole. It’s really well written and I’ve adopted one of the show’s sayings as a personal motto.

One of the things about this show which sets it apart from others is just how brutal it is. People die. A lot. And while it is bloody and gory, it never feels gratuitous because the setting is just that macabre.

And it’s not just the monsters but the citizens themselves. From civilians desperate to escape (and just how desperation can drive a person to do terrible things) to authority figures having to make some pretty brutal decisions to how people can be quick to take advantage of others. This is not an uplifting or endearing show. It is unforgiving, harsh and utterly enthralling.

The closest show I can think of in terms of themes is the remake of Battlestar Galactica. Both try to have a sense of realism in an unrealistic setting. Both follow a group of humans somehow trying to eke out an existence with limited resources and even more limited capacity to be humane. Both face bleak prospects with little hope of success. So if you liked Battlestar and like animation, you’ll probably like Attack On Titan too.

As always in most (animé) series, there are a number of mysteries to be uncovered in Attack On Titan. Unlike a lot of other shows which hold back mysteries, they are revealed in a timely fashion and new questions are raised. This is extremely refreshing after sitting through the likes of Fafner In The Azure (which I thoroughly enjoyed but they held their cards close to their chest long enough for it to get boring) and, dare I say it, Lost. Shows which hang on raising questions and drip feeding the answers need to take a lesson from Attack On Titan (on how to do it). And maybe Lost (on how not to).

Suffice to say, series one ends on a cliff-hanger which was as frustrating as it was brilliant, that is, very.

TL:DR “Attack On Titan is a brutal show about people surviving on the edge of a knife. It has layers like an onion which are peeled at exactly the right rate. This is an important show.