Sword Art Online II – 24 (Fin)

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SAO completed the Sleeping Knights’ mission and resolved Asuna’s family problems to my satisfaction, leaving one episode to do, well, whatever it wanted as a curtain call. Preston seemed pretty miffed that she watched so much Chaika only to get a rudely rushed finale, but I knew that wasn’t going to be the case here.

The episode opens with a barbecue at Asuna and Kirito’s cabin; an opportunity for her new friends to meet her old friends. A montage follows, showing how they go on to fight more battles and go on missions as a united super-party, along with Asuna hanging out with her friends in the real world.

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But this isn’t just a goodbye to SAO, it’s a goodbye for Yuuki as well, who takes a turn for the worst. There’s nothing out of left field about this, though Asuna is still distraught that so soon after meeting Yuuki the universe means to rip her away.

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The Yuuki of the real world is too weak to talk, so Asuna grabs an Amusphere and meets her where they first met, on the isle with the great tree. Seeing the hale, healthy, and alert Yuuki there is a sight for sore eyes, but we know it won’t last long. This is her last full dive, and this time when she logs out, she won’t be waking up.

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There’s not much to say about Yuuki’s sendoff, except that it was pretty much perfectly done. Yes, it got pretty mushy there (even my roommate, who was watching SAO for the first time, teared up a little bit) but the emotions that let loose here were earned a long time ago. Asuna summons not only the other Sleeping Knights to say goodbye to Yuuki properly, but hundreds if not thousands of fellow players gather to pray for her safe journey to the hereafter, a fitting farewell to the finest swordsperson in the game.

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Yuuki could not have imagined a better way to go either; surrounded by friends and admirees alike; closing her eyes for the last time in the arms of someone she’s come to love like a sister. At her memorial service in the real world, those same masses from the game come to pay their respects, and Asuna is surprised to be able to meet Siune (An Si-eun), who took a turn for the better when her leukemia went into full remission not long after saying goodbye to Yuuki.

She also reports that at least one other Sleeping Knight seems to be on the mend as well. These aren’t taken as miracles endowed upon them by the departed Yuuki, but her love and strength, as well as Asuna’s, obviously helped their spirits and mindsets. And it’s understood that not all of the Knights will get better.

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Asuna also learns that Kirito knows Kurahashi too, and Kurahashi tells them that the original designs that led to the creation of the medical full-dive technology that’s now in development (and vastly helped by Yuuki’s cooperation in her last days) were created by none other than the late Kayaba Akihito AKA Heathcliff, the creator of SAO; an interesting (if sudden and oddly-timed) callback.

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We close with Asuna and Kirito enjoying a picnic with Sugu, Shino, Klein and the others in a park in Shinjuku. Yui is on Asuna’s shoulder, with eyes and ears to the real world, and probably more in the near future. Kirito and Asuna reiterate their desire to never leave each others’ sides, and as long as she keeps her grades up, she’ll be able to honor that desire. So Kirito…where’s the ring?

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Sword Art Online II – 23

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With the Sleeping Knight’s final victory sealed and her friendship with Yuuki forged and galvanized, Asuna still has a battle to fight; one that will define the rest of her life. And yet, here she is, setting her own problems aside and working feverishly with Kirito to help Yuuki ‘come to school’ via a remote-controlled A/V interface. It cannot be said enough: Asuna is The Best.

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It occurs to me that this like the first time in the whole two-season run of the anime (that I can remember anyway) where we sit down with Asuna’s class and just go through the normal school motions, without any other distractions (the virtual Yuuki on Asuna’s shoulder excepted). That, and the almost eerie, dreamlike way the classroom is lit, along with the enthusiasm of the class itself, gives this ordinarily mundane scene so much more weight and significance.

We’re seeing things, like Yuuki, for the first time. The cut to Yuuki in the school uniform as she gives a tremendously moving reading of “The Truck” — a story that starts with somebody looking from afar at something and wishing they could be there — so beautiful. I’m not surprised the class is enthralled by the reading, and Asuna, who can hear Yuuki’s experiences and feelings beyond the words of the book, even gets teary-eyed, as did I.

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Beautiful, contemplative, and tremendously moving — all are great adjectives to describe this episode, which I think is SAO’s best ever, despite not having one sword in it and only spending a small portion of its time in the virtual world. The first half of the episode is all about Asuna showing Yuuki both the world as it is that she’d never seen, and her life that was, in her hometown and abandoned family home.

Their entire walk, like the school scene, is filmed and lit extra-beautifully so as to underscore what a special occasion it is for Yuuki. Asuna (and Kirito) literally gave her the ability to exist in the real world again, if only in a limited way. Asuna doesn’t know it, but she’s about to be rewarded for her immense kindness.

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Yuuki talks about her mother, and how being here and now finally allows her to understand what her mother meant when she said: “God does not give us more suffering than we can bear”. She thought at first it was only another recited bible verse, but realized that her mother was surrounding and infusing those words with her own feelings and experience, as Yuuki herself did with her class reading.

Asuna tells Yuuki about own problems with her mother, and Yuuki gives her the advice she needs, borne out of the experience Asuna made possible for her, and burnished by the fact that every day Yuuki lives—be it in the real or virtual world—is to be treasured, and not wasted hiding one’s true feelings, or running away.

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Again, look how dark the room Asuna’s mother Kyouko is sitting in when she comes to her that night. They have been talking at each other rather than actually communicating, and the darkness represents their present impasse. Yet SAO II is smart and I daresay bold considering its past problems with bad guys to not portray Kyouko as just another unreasonable, irredeemable villain to be defeated and shamed.

There is hope for Asuna to connect with her mother; she just needs to figure out how to get her feelings to reach her, and how to reach her mom’s feelings as well. It’s clear to her that that can’t be done in the real world, face-to-face. Instead, she brings her mother a headset and begs her to join her in the virtual world so she can say what she has to say properly.

The office is dark, but it is also warm. There’s still hope and love in there somewhere.

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Kyouko, always driving the hard bargain, grudgingly agrees, but only for five minutes, and Asuna must first understand that she won’t be changing her mind about her having to transfer. She also demands Asuna fill out the necessary paperwork as soon as her five minutes are up.

The scene when Asuna logs in and finds Kyouko in her cabin, checking out the Sylph sub-account avatar Asuna assigned to her, is just so funny and charming, particularly when she and Asuna get in a little mini-spat about each others’ weights, which is such a mom-daughter thing to do…especially if both are lookers, which they are.

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The cabin is oddly cool in color and lighting, but like the school, the change gives what had been a routine locale for Asuna and Kirito’s crew much more of a sense of occasion and ‘special-ness’, because her mom is there for the first time. When she opens the window and the cold hush of the snowy forest fills the speakers, things get even more immersive.

Then we learn another reason why the cabin has so much sentimental value to Asuna, beyond her time there with Kirito and the others: it’s not at all unlike the real world cabin where Asuna’s grandparents – Kyouko’s parents – used to live. And one Obon when Asuna was there with them alone, and they told her how much their daughter Kyouko was a treasure to them, rising so fast and touching so many lives as a result of working so tirelessly to become great.

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Here, in that cabin, Asuna can tell her mother that while there’s nothing particularly wrong with putting the betterment of oneself above all else, it can’t be her way of life. She wants to support others, protect them, and improve their lives, while improving her own in the process. I’m not putting it nearly as eloquently or beautifully as Asuna, obviously, but it was a phenomenal exchange, perhaps one of the best in the show’s run.

T_T *Sniffle*…oh gosh, it’s so dusty in here. Does anyone have any Kleenex?

Heck, even Asuna’s mom tears up…a lot. While in the real world she can stifle her tears with her ‘armor’; here she can’t, and they come flowing out from the power of Asuna’s words. Her mom’s response to this: “What an inconvenient world”, is just such a perfect thing her character would say under such circumstances. Just one of so many great lines in this episode.

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The next morning, to Asuna’s relief, the dining room is full of light; her words and feelings reached her mother, no matter how stiff and stern she looks sitting there. She lauds her daughter’s desire to help and support others, but insists she do what is necessary to become strong enough to do that stuff, which means studying her fanny off, keeping her grades up, and getting into university.

If she can do those things, it’s fine for her to stay in the school she wants. It’s a transaction, a comrpomise; but it’s one arranged after the two parties had properly communicated, not one foisted upon the other, and so it’s one Asuna can live with.

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Aww, just look how goshdarn happy Asuna is. And she deserves it. She didn’t trick her mother or plunge a sword through her heart; she merely found a way to get what she needed to say through to her. That way was the virtual world, but in this case its trappings were that of Asuna’s memories and emotions, and not a wholly artificial fantasy world. SAO wasn’t just a game because lives were at stake; here Asuna uses ALO to fight for her life in a very different way, but it’s just as vital. And it’s all thanks to Yuuki’s moving, motivating words.

It’s a far better resolution to her conflict with her mother than I could have possibly hoped for. The writing really has soared in the Rosario Arc, as has the emotional resonance. This episode didn’t have a single sword fight or magic spell or crotch shot. Instead, it kept its characters shining even in the midst of considerable plot movements; and it moved me to tears more than once (though I’m told I’m a bit of a crybaby). For those reasons and far more, it is SAO’s best episode and masterpiece.

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Sword Art Online II – 22

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Asuna is troubled and confused after Yuuki suddenly disappeared and didn’t come back, and Siune doesn’t make things better by meeting with her and not answering any questions before quickly logging out herself. She did assure Asuna that it wasn’t because of anything she did…just that this has to be goodbye.

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While it would have continued her own dependence and time spent using a device her mother has threatened to take away if it makes her late one more time, Asuna was still excited at the possibility of continuing her friendship with the Sleeping Knights, even after they disbanded. But all the while she thought she was opening a book, they recruited her with the intent of closing a book, at the time and in at way of their choosing.

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Thanks to Kirito’s involvement with full-dive tech, he finds out where Asuna may be able to find Yuuki. Again, Kirito plays a small but crucial role, not only being a shoulder to lean into, but the source of the information that could give Asuna the answers she desires so badly. But unlike the previous episodes, where there was a battle to be fought and victory was achieved, those answers show Asuna that Yuuki can’t win the real-world battle she’s fighting.

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Now I finally understand why Kirito thought there was something “long-term full divey” about Zekken/Yuuki. Reinforcing the idea that you truly know someone by fighting them, he saw the same tendencies he himself has in VR combat as a result of his two years there fighting for his life. The real Konno Yuuki has been in full dive continuously for three years, because in the real world she’s bedridden in a hospital clean room, suffering from incurable, drug-resistant AIDS.

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The reveal of the rail-thin Yuuki surrounded by machinery, as well as the tragic story of how she ended up there, is desperately sad and tough to watch, yet also calls to mind the kind of reveal a mad scientist-type villain would pull to show Asuna he means business. Refreshingly, that isn’t the case here; Dr. Kurahashi is a good man and this is simply the future of medicine, though it’s more than a little strange and frightening to contemporary eyes.

On the other hand, considering Yuuki’s irreversible condition, being able to escape the body that failed her to new virtual worlds is a tremendous gift, and that’s how Yuuki sees it and how she saw her time with Yuuki on the Sleeping Knights’ final mission.

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Throughout Kurahashi’s discussion with Asuna, Yuuki is listening, but once she sees Asuna only wants to see and talk to her again, she invites her to dive into ALO to meet her. There, she explains that the Sleeping Knights are all hospice patients (hence the ‘sleeping’) with terminal illnesses. They decided as a group that the next time two of them were told they didn’t have long to live, they’d disband.

Thanks to Asuna, they were able to do so on their terms, and even leave their mark on the memorial wall. They wanted Asuna to forget them to spare her the pain of knowing the sad truth of the Knights, but Asuna isn’t that kind of person, and Yuuki knows that now.

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It was great enough that SAO finally got around to using my favorite character, and give her something important and exciting to do. It’s even better that they gave Asuna something she couldn’t do, no matter how strong she became: save Yuuki’s life. It also puts into perspective just how trivial her own problems with her mother and her life direction really are. After all, she haslife ahead of her, period. That alone makes her blessed.

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But while Asuna can’t save Yuuki’s life, she asks her what else she wants to do before it ends. When Yuuki says she simply would like to go to school, suddenly Asuna has something she can do for her, for the same reason she was able to find and speak with Yuuki at all this week. Kirito. His research on trying to give Yui a real-world experience could be used to let Yuuki experience school.

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Sword Art Online II – 21

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Much to my relief, this doesn’t turn into The Kirito Show just because he showed up at the end of last week’s episode. Heck, he’s not even the only guy who shows up; Klein does too. They’re only there to let Asuna and the Sleeping Knights focus on defeating the twenty people blocking the boss room. And that’s it.

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Kirito estimates he can give them three minutes; the Knights only need two ( I counted). After those two minutes of awesome, blistering battle, punctuated by a powerful charge by the Berserk Healer herself, the way is open for the boss, and Kirito stays behind, giving Asuna the victory sign.

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Facing the montrous two-headed boss for the second time, Asuna notices a special guard stance he takes whenever a gem between his two necks is hit. Asuna focuses on that gem and tells Yuuki to target it, which she does by using one of her male comrades as a step stool. In the heat of the battle, Yuuki slips up and calls Asuna ‘Sis’. That’s no surprise to me, but Asuna finds it odd.

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She shrugs it off when the boss is defeated and the Knights revel in their victory, rubbing it in the faces of the dastardly rival guild. Kirito is nowhere to be found, I guess he split after those three minutes. But as has been the case with him this entire arc, we’re just fine with him being a cameo.

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Kirito doesn’t even crash the Sleeping Knight’s party, which Asuna hosts, even though it’s held in his house. Classy move on his part, as the party is for the Knights, after all. During the party, Asuna asks if she can join them, but Yuuki seems oddly put off by the request. Sinue seems to want to say something, but never manages to. Changing the subject, Asuna suggests they check out their names on the Soldier’s Memorial.

There, Yuuki again slips up and calls Asuna ‘Sis’, but this time realizes it, and promptly and tearfully logs out. Throughout the boss battle and celebrations that followed, the idea that Asuna’s mom would pull the plug on her again was always in the corner of my mind, lending an extra layer of tension to the whole episode.

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Yet, in the end, it’s Yuuki, who has been sold as Asuna’s secret sister (or half-sister), who disappears from the game, without so much as an explanation. Why doesn’t she want Asuna learn the truth? How did Asuna play so long without getting yanked? Will they ever meet in the real world? All questions I’m hoping will be further explored in the next episode, forebodingly called “Journey’s End.”

Until then, I continue to revel in this Asuna-centric, and really Women-centric arc, really turning around what had been a lackluster SAO II Fall cour simply by treating its female characters as more than just Kirito’s suitors.

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Sword Art Online II – 20

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Asuna’s takeover of SAO II continues this week, much to my approval. When Zekken Yuuki whisks her off, I was partially expecting something more sinister than a guild of friends wanting to make memories before they have to split ways in the Spring, but it still worked incredibly well, because, Asuna was the anchor.

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Yuuki was dueling people in search of a seventh member to join the six of the Sleeping Knights – the smallest party allowed to fight a boss, and she chose Asuna to be that seventh. It’s while hanging with them that she realizes “Hey, this isn’t Aincrad anymore. My life isn’t literally at risk; I can let my hair down, go all out, and have fun!” It’s a liberating feeling.

I like the idea of this Asuna-for-hire. With her skills, exp, and rep, she can basically get work wherever and whenever she wants in ALOIt’s a similar situation in the real world in that she has the ability to be and be with whoever she wants…only in the real world, others are calling the shots for her.

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That point is made clear with the subtlety of a sledgehammer when, still beaming after meeting her new friends and agreeing to fight with them, her mom literally pulls the plug, because Asuna is hella late for dinner. It’s telling that its hard for Mom to wake her up gently, almost as if Asuna’s subconscious self doesn’t want to leave.

Pulling the plug is the only way to pull her out. Her mom is annoyed, but she’s also concerned about Asuna’s priorities, and her continued reliance on a device that stole two valuable years of her life. Still disoriented from being pulled out so roughly, “This isn’t like the NerveGear,” is all Asuna can muster. That distinction means nothing to Mom, but a multitude to us, knowing what she went through. What Mom can’t grasp is that for two years, Aincrad was her daughter’s reality.

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Depriving her of ALO, especially right now when she’d finding herself again, is to deprive her of the means to heal the psychological wounds of the NerveGear, and transition to the mindset mentioned above, that it is just a game, not life and death. Coming to grips with that and making that her new normal is a large step in re-establishing the real world as her primary reality.

Even if her mom was in the mood to listen, Asuna lacks the means to properly explain why she needs this; their experience gap is just too wide. And if Asuna’s late for dinner again, Mom is taking the machine away, period. Asuna is trapped again, and runs out of the house. Looking at her missed calls, a snowflake settles on Kirito, the boy her mother won’t let her have.

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But Asuna, to her credit, doesn’t call Kirito. The next day, she dives into ALO, meets with Yuuki and the Sleeping Knights, and go over the gameplan: they’ll hit the labyrinth and look in on the boss, and if the conditions are right, they’ll have a go at him too. She’d never betray it to her new friends, but Asuna may benefit from a quick mission here, as she’s not sure when that plug will be pulled at any time.

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The strong and balanced Sleeping Knights end up impressing Asuna with how quickly they carve through the labyrinth, but her skills come in handy early when she detects scouts from a rival guild spying on them behind shrouds of invisibility. Interestingly, though the boss makes a badass entrance, we don’t see the fight at all, but they end up losing badly.

That feels like a cheat until Asuna takes the group aside and warns them that their battle was watched by the rival scouts’ lizard familiar, which explains why their last two boss losses resulted in that boss being defeated quickly soon after. The Sleeping Knights are so into the fights, they never noticed they were doing all the heavy lifting revealing the weaknesses to their rivals. Pretty dastardly, isn’t it?

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Asuna, again taking charge, cheers the group by saying it’s not too late to avoid a third theft of their rightful glory: if they hit the dungeon and defeat the boss before the rival guild can mobilize, they’ll their names carved on the memorial wall after all.

When they return to the boss, the partially-amassed rival guild blocks their way and won’t budge. From Yuuki’s perspective, there’s only one thing for it: fighting them. She walks up to the biggest, toughest member of their guild and takes him out in three blinks of an eye. It’s a nice reminder of just how tough this girl is.

In the process, Yuuki tells Asuna “some things can only be understood through fighting”,  and suddenly Asuna thinks of her protracted battle with her mother in the real world. Because words are the only weapon she can use out there, her Mom will never truly understand her.

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That’s not to mean she and her mom need to go have at it in the dojo, of course, but it does explain their impasse. Also, there are other kinds of fighting. I’m also mindful of the fact that Asuna’s mom is out there and doesn’t understand her, but someone who is probably her sister (she’s not called Yuuki for nothing) is in here, and does.

Yuuki’s words galvanize Asuna, such that even when the rival guild’s reinforcements arrive and prepare a pincer attack, and they’re outnumbered dozens to one, Asuna is not fearful. She puts her wand away, draws her sword, and gets ready to rumble. This is where she wants to be, right here and now: fighting beside her new friends. Even if they lose this battle — and they’re probably going to lose this battle — they’ll dust themselves off, come back, and win next time.

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Really the only thing that would make this better for her is if she were having this battle with people closer to her, like, say…this guy. Oh, hey, there he is, right on cue, hiding among the ranks of the charging rival guild members, Yui perched on his shoulder.

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Don’t be mistaken: Kirito isn’t here to rescue the Damsel in Distress and fight so she doesn’t have to…not this time. This time he’s here simply to even the very uneven odds in her present battle. He’ll take on one part of the rival host, while she and the Sleeping Knights can push through the other and fight the boss.

Because of the distinction in how he’s he’s utilized here, I’m not miffed in the least by his presence. It’s a good use for Kirito at a good time. Just being there reminds Asuna that she isn’t alone, those she loves have her back, and her own battles aren’t over and lost yet, either in here or out in the world.

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Sword Art Online II – 19

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It took until just five episodes left in the damn show, but SAO II finally delivered something I’ve been yearning for since the second season was announced: an episode with Asuna as the focus, doing things. While part of me is content we got an episode like this at all, I’m pleased to report that it was a damned fine episode in its own right.

By now we’re well aware of the inner turmoil Kirito, Asuna, and the others carry with them, even though only Kirito has gotten that much screen time to explore it (as well as Sinon, whose turmoil came from the real world, not the game). What we haven’t seen is much of Asuna’s struggles with that turmoil, and just how cold and uncaring her family is to her situation.

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Asuna leaves her very cold bedroom to the huge, stodgy dining room where her mother scolds her for not being five minutes early for dinner. The dinner starts off relatively innocuous until Asuna realizes her mother is using this opportunity to tell her she plans to marry her to a countryside banker and move her to a better school so she can start college early.

This dynamic works because while Asuna’s mom is basically the villain here, she’s decidedly not evil, only cold and pragmatic: she didn’t come from money, but married into it, and she’s determined to make sure Asuna avails herself of the opportunities she’s been given in life.

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And that’s all well and good…if ignoring the fact that Asuna “one of those children who spent two years killing each other.” Her mom’s phrasing seems to be designed to underplay just how traumatizing the experience is, and shrug it off as an unfortunate inconvenience, but she can’t just wave away the emotional scars, nor the bond she formed with Kirito. Her mom’s checked into him as well (again, devaluing him by calling him a child), and forbids her to choose him as her mate.

When Asuna questions her judgment after subjecting her to the criminal Sugou as her first betrothed, her mom dismisses that as her father’s choice, not hers. Asuna is forced to retreat, but not before tossing that dig about her mom being ashamed of being from poorer parents.

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Asuna doesn’t want the path that’s been laid out for her; it’s a path laid out by parents who may on some level care about her happiness, but are forcing their own definition of happiness upon her, “for her own good.” It’s pretty tough love, and unlike Kirito, whose family situation is just peachy (aside from his sister briefly being in love with him), it’s made diving into ALO a kind of emergency release for Asuna. With the weight of the world and her parents’ expectations bearing down on her, ALO is where she has strength and agency.

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Yet even in the virtual world, Asuna admits she hasn’t done much and is worried the Lightning Flash Asuna of yore is gone, along with her innocence. Fighting Zekken — whom she’s surprised to find is a girl — is a way of validating whether she’s still “got it”, which in turn could give her more strength to face her problems in the real world.

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Zekken is a perfectly nice, polite young lady, but the surprise of her gender throws Asuna off at first – as does her ridiculous speed.

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Taking a step back and another deep breath, Asuna realigns her resolve, remembering why she’s there: not just to prove she’s still a power in ALO, but to blow off some steam. The difference in the two halves of the fight are like night and day; in the latter half, Asuna goes all out and is able to keep up…

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…Right up until Zekken turns it up and breaks out her overpowered, almost-cheating special skill. At this point, while Asuna’s resigned to losing, she’s not upset by her performance; it was a duel she can look back upon with satisfaction. Then, at the last second, Zekken holds back her blade and ends the fight. It turns out she wasn’t necessarily looking to win the duel either…only test her opponent. And Asuna passed.

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Before the duel, Kirito confided in Asuna that he thought something was fishy about Zekken, as if she were a “product of the full-dive environment.” I don’t understand that term any more than Asuna, but it is an unsubtle hint that there’s more to Zekken than just a duel-loving heavy user. The fact her player name is “Yuuki”, Asuna’s last name, is also telling.

Kirito’s suspicions are confirmed when Yuuki flies Asuna up into the sky to formally ask her to “please help [them],” meaning whatever Yuuki is, there’s more than one of her, and as powerful as she is, their duel impressed her enough to believe Asuna could be of help. And I’m sure that notion alone raised Asuna’s spirits considerably. This episode sure raised mine!

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Sword Art Online II – 18

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We start in a warm and familiar log cabin in the forest on a cold and snowy night…

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Perhaps well aware its audience would only tolerate so many recaps, SAO II wisely avoided a re-telling of what was a brief, self-contained Excaliber arc. What we got instead was still lightweight enough to make Colin Chapman blush, but rather than a random, partially-baked, pulled-out-of-its-ass Norse-loaf, both distinct halves of this episode were steeped in the SAO we’ve lived through and emotionally resonates the most for us. It was a warm, cozy episode.

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Full-size Human Yui > Tinkerbell Yui. There, I said it.

God, I almost forgot Yui was once normal-sized! Yes, we go all the way back to the halcyon time of almost perfect contentment on Aincrad’s 22nd Floor, a log cabin in the forest where Kirito and Asuna fell in love and built a home and family. Unlike Kirito, Asuna didn’t really like her home and family in the real world, so when they lost their cabin, it was like losing the only home where she’d ever been happy.

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So when Egil notifies Kirito and Asuna that the 21st through 30th floors of New Aincrad are open for exploration and clearing in ALO, they jump at the chance to find and reclaim that home. Their friends and family help out, and unlike the Jotenheimr arc, there’s an actual important purpose to their fighting that I care about. The boss on Floor 21 puts up a fight (on Christmas Eve!), but with their usual excellent teamwork the party brings it down and advance to the next level.

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Asuna’s well-earned jubilation at returning to Floor 22 to find their cabin just as they left it, and Yui returning to her normal size after they press they “Buy” button together…I’m not gonna lie, I got a little glassy-eyed myself. It’s a beautiful little moment; filled with joy. And now we know why in the episode’s cold open the gang was in that cabin!

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The timing couldn’t have been better for Asuna, either. As the daughter of a super -rich aristocratic family in Kyoto, her family subjects her to meet-and-greets and omiais with sketchy rich douchebags. There isn’t any indication she’s being forced into anything, but it’s clear ALO isn’t just an idle escape; it’s where she finds strength and control over her life. There, she has a family in Kirito and Yui and the rest of the gang. But still, you’d think her folks would let her choose for herself after she came so close to being freaking coma-raped last season.

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It’s at her home in the cabin in the woods where she’s having a study sleepover session with Kirito, Yui, Sugu, Liz, and Silica, where she learns of Zekken, a mysterious but singularly powerful dueler offering a unique eleven-hit combo sword skill that matches her preferred setup to the one who beats him (or her; they’re continually referred to without gender).

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Liz, Sugu, and even Kirito have already gone up against Zekken and lost, so it would seem to fall to Asuna to get the job done and win that skill for herself. That’s a good thing, as it would be nice to have Asuna front and center kicking ass again, as we’ve only seen the slightest tastes of her in action thus far this season.

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When Asuna is shocked Kirito couldn’t beat Zekken, Liz has a very good theory for why he lost. Sugu remarks that Kirito wasn’t slacking off, but nor did he dual-wield. As Liz puts it, Kirito will probably only ever fight with everything he’s got if the game is no longer a game, such as it was in the days of SAO and when he was fighting to free Asuna. It’s a nice bit of analysis from Liz, another one we hear far too little from.

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No green-bobbed Slylph Asuna? BOOOO!

Just kidding, Blue Asuna will do just fine for the upcoming fight. A new ending sequence prominently shows a girl who somewhat resembles Asuna but isn’t Yui or anyone we’ve met before, and furthermore matches Zekken’s general color scheme. Combined with the way the gang talked about Zekken without specific gender articles, this girl is probably Zekken herself. I for one am excited to see where this new Asuna-centric arc takes us.

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And now, your SAO II Moment of Zen:saoii18mz

Sword Art Online II – 17

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Nearly as quick as a fairy archer’s kick to a frost giant’s nose, the Norse Mythology / Excaliber (not “ur”) quest is wrapped up.  King Thrym turns out to be far less of a threat than I thought, and he’s dealt with in the episode’s A-part.

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That’s accomplished due to more teamwork by the party, and in this case, again I find myself forgiving the sheer size of said party, for no other reason then…well, look at the size of the boss! You need a forward team laying down melee attacks while others stay back and offer ranged attacks and support spells. It’s all pretty by-the-numbers…then Freyja has Kirito find Mjolnir and transforms into a He-Man-garbed Thor!

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OMG ASUNA DOES SOMETHING THIS WEEK!

Not does her sudden gender-swap kill Klein’s brief and only love interest to date (not that it really mattered, since she was virtual), but gives the party the edge they need to bring down Thrym, as Thor proves quite the large and effective decoy, keeping Thrym’s hands full as the rest of the party can attack at will.

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SUUUURRRRRRRRRGE!

Klein wins Mjolnir as a reward (though he sucks at hammer-wielding), and the party moves on to the lowest level of Thrymheim where Excaliber rests. It’s at this point that both Kirito and I remember that he summoned the holy sword once before, after his foe failed to do so…

Yeah, I kinda wish the sword had turned into an creepy, annoyingly haughty cartoon character.

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After it’s removed, Thrymheim crumbles and the party starts falling with it, but Tonkii arrives on cue to bear them to safety. It’s at this point that Kirito holds Excaliber uneasily in his hand, and, deeming it still too heavy, throws the thing into the dry lake.

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This seemed like a stupid thing to do, and Sinon, agreeing with me, quickly retrieves it with an arrow enchanted with a retrieval spell. I thought she did this because she wanted it herself, but she just gives it back to Kirito, making him promise to think of her when he uses it. A little out-of-character this week, aren’t we, Sinon? Also, why are you giving it back to him? He’ll just throw it away again!

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Okay, that helmet is kinda cute…

Then Urd appears along with her sisters Verdandi and Skuld to thank the party and officially end the quest, and Klein instantly falls for Skuld and asks for her contact info even though she’s just a virtual NPC and not a real woman and he just met her. This strange and somewhat pathetic move somehow earns Klein Lisbeth’s respect…though maybe she’s being sarcastic?

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We cut to Kazuto showing Shino and Sugu his new “mechatronics” demo which allows his digi-daughter Yui fly around the bar, and is it just me, or is the episode running out of stuff to do??

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Finally, we end with a big New Year’s feast in the real world, with Kirito taking care of the check with funds he presumably earned in the GGO arc. Overall, this episode was a little disappointing and safe. It wrapped up a fairly inconsequential sidequest, but seemed to have difficulty filling the running time. I’m wondering if one or two more lightweight sidequests are all that’s left in store for the last seven episodes, which would be an even greater disappointment.

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Sword Art Online II – 16

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The stakes of the group’s New Years “Just For Fun” Optional Quest for Excalibur are raised significantly when Yui realizes that because ALO uses the same Cardinal architecture for creating random quests drawn from human mythology, literature, and history, the natural conclusion to their present Norse quest is Ragnarok, a “final battle” that will destroy the world, meaning the entire ALO game map, wiping out everyone’s progress.

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That’s like your Playstation packing up without warning. Yes, this has happened to me, and it sucks. So now that this is no longer playing around, this episode get sback to the basics of SAO: RPG-style battles filled with physical and magical attacks and defenses. We also finally get why the party is so big; even the minotaur-like guards on the “easier” of the four floors are tough customers that require sustained onslaughts to bring them down. The only thing missing from the battle are flying numbers showing how much HP and MP is being lost or spent.

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That tough battle is eventually won thanks to contributions from everyone — yes, even Asuna and Silica fight! — and they move down to the next level, but run into an ice cage where a beautiful damsel is imprisoned and, well, Klein can’t help himself, succumbing to his “Bushido” and freeing her, even though everyone (including him) is pretty dang sure It’s A Trap!

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She turns out to be not just any wench, but Freyja, Norse goddess of love, sexuality, beauty, fertility, gold, seiðr (sorcery), war, and death. Not a bad addition to the party, in other words…and Hey, none of the other girls seem to have an interest in Klein, but Klein needs love too!

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With Freyja now part of the fray, Kirito goes over the plan with everyone: Nothing fancy, just observe the upcoming boss’ moves, look for patterns and weaknesses, and take the bastard out before the medallion turns completely black and they lose all the hours of progress they’d amassed in the game thus far. This one’s for all the marbles.

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Freyja immediately exhibits a boon of having her in the party, as she casts a spell similar to “Bubble” that no one else wields, which increases everyone’s Max HP by at least 50%. Combined with Asuna’s party buffs, they’re as prepared as they’ll ever be to face King Thrym. My only nitpick would be that they didn’t get a little more intricate and thorough with the support spells, the way one must do in RPGs prior to a big fight.

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Once in the King’s Chambers, the party is flanked by fantastic wealth, obviously meant as a temptation to draw them off their path or even just delay them until Ragnarok arrives. King Thrym himself, being a frost giant, is suitably imposing, haughty, and mocking, dismissing the intruders as nothing more than flies sent by Urd to annoy him with their buzzing.

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Before the battle begins, Thrym notes that Freyja is with him, and that she was sent to his fortress to wed him, an offer he’s kept open, but imprisoned her because he suspected she was trying to steal from him (likely Excalibur). He also loads up three separate health bars, meaning he’s no Yiazmat (by God that guy was a pain in the ass), but he’s no Goomba, either

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Sword Art Online II – 15

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With the BoB behind us and a week removed from a recap, I was eager to get back to Sword Art Online, and maybe get some more scenes in the real world between Kazuto and Shino. Alas, Sugu tells Kirito that someone’s after the Holy Sword Excalibur, and he’s back off into MMOLand.

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Sinon unfortunately just becomes one of the gals, with cat ears and a tail that’s seemingly specifically there for Kirito to pull in jest. Kirito and Sugu gather Asuna, Yui, Klein, Lisbeth, and Silica to complete their rather large and ungainly party of eight. I can’t say I care all that much about Klein, Lisbeth, or Silica; but they’re here, and I suppose they’ll have a unique use as this arc progresses.

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The characters descend into the frozen wastes of Jotenheimr, which is below Alfheim but above Niflheim. There, Sugu summons her friend she rescued from baddies: a very cool-looking eight-winged elephant-octopus thing she named Tonkii that kind of freaks everyone else out a little but proves helpful.

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Once the party boards him, they fly through the skies of Jotenheimer until “Urd, Queen of the Lake” appears to deliver quite a bit of exposition about the arc to come. She and her two sisters are of the Hill Giants, who were subjugated by the Frost GIants led by King Thrym of Niflheim who ascended to Jotenheimer and disconnected the roots of Yggdrasil, turning the verdant paradise into the arctic wastes we see.

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He did that with Excalibur, which means if Kirito & Co. can retrieve it, the frozen castle Thrymheim that is lodged in the rock ceiling will descend and return Jotenheimer to its previous state. Since he wanted to grab Excalibur anyway, Kirito and Urd’s goals match. I’m not sure what to make of this all yet, but the striking visuals of the new landscape were marred by the sudden gaggle of old and not entirely compelling characters.

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Sword Art Online II – 14

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I was initially a little disappointed that yet again a Damsel in Distress would be rescued by the valiant Kirito, and then Kyouji proceeds to pin him down and inject him. In that moment, he’s the damsel now, and it’s Shino who saves him by knocking Kyouji out with her boombox. Sure, the lethal injection didn’t enter his body (Kyouji just happened to shoot into an electrode on Kirito’s chest which is lucky to say the least), but Shino still saved him, and herself, from the psychotic Kyouji.

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In the next act, Shino shows how much she’s grown since meeting Kirito and winning the BoB: when three bullies ask her for money, she politely refuses; when they pull a gun on her, she freaks out a little at the sight of it, but recollects herself. When the girl can’t pull the trigger, Shino disarms her, turns off the safety, and hits a can dead on from pretty far away, revealing it’s a BB gun. Then she puts the safety back on and hands it back to her terrified would-be tormentor.

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It’s an immensely satisfying exchange, escpecially when Shino’s out of sight and nearly collapses from anxiety afterwards. She didn’t suddenly become Rambo in the real world, but she’s taken the crucial first small step, and she’s going to keep taking more. It’s also pretty funny that Kirito picks her up from school in his motorcycle, which creates a small sensation from Shino’s classmates and likely raises her stature in the school a couple of ticks, simply because they don’t know that Kirito’s actually a bit of a dweeb.

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What follows is unapologetic exposition about the three people who together were Death Gun in and out of GGO, and how they planned to take out powerful players. Both Kyouji and his older brother were fueled by envy of those more powerful, while Kyouji himself dealt with the additional stress of being the heir to the family hospital after their dad gave up on his older brother. As their plan to kill elite players got more realistic, the virtual world became his reality.

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Here, Shino shows a different kind of strength when she insists on talking to Kyouji as soon as it’s possible. Even though he did terrible things to her, he was a broken person, and she doesn’t want him to keep on being broken. She herself once sought power in GGO, and risked having that world become more real than her own. Her apparent willingness to forgive Kyouji may be more than he deserves, but its her right to bestow that forgiveness if that’s what she wants.

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The final and most powerful act of the episode that redeems the somewhat boring Death Gun infodump is the sort of intervention-light that follows. At first it seems like Kirito is just going to introduce her to Asuna and Rika, but then he reveals (and apologizes for) his true intent: for her to meet the post office worker whose life she saved by killing that gunman. The worker comes with her adorable four-year-old daughter, whom she was pregnant with at the time of the incident, so Shino saved two lives in one.

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One can weigh the pros and cons of one’s actions all they want in one’s head, but having grateful beneficiaries of your actions staring right at you, thanking you profusely and giving you a drawing is another thing entirely. Because she saved lives, she has the right to forgive herself for taking one, as much she has a right to keep blaming herself. While certainly a delicate and highly personal situation, Kirito went through a very similar thing, and because he and Shino became friends, he did all he could to help her, as did Asuna and Rika; before they even met her.

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Sword Art Online II – 13

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Yaaay, stuff happened in this episode! Lots of stuff. Some of it great, some of it very unsettling. First of all, BoB is over. It was excitng at first, and ground to an irritating crawl in the middle, but got exciting again at the very end, which had the effect of restoring our patience for the show, at least for now.

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When Kirito is locked in a tough battle with an estoc-armed Death Gun, a scope-less Sinon tries to figure out another way, any way, that she can help him out. She finds one in a bullet trajectory aimed at Death Gun that distracts him just long enough to give Kirito an opening to halve him, right after finally remembering his name from SAO: Red-Eyed Zaza. (He remembered the red eyes that matched that name in a briefing).

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With Death Gun dealt with, the focus moves to his real-world accomplices. Kirito and Sinon exchange their real names, and Sinon tells him where she lives so he can rescue her later. Sinon then ends the BoB by pulling the pin on a grenade, tossing it to a totally freaked-out Kirito, and then pulling him into a big hug. They both explode at the same time, making them co-winners of the BoB.

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That was a pretty funny and happy scene, but things would get far darker and more messed up from there. Kyouji pops by to visit Shino and “congratulate her victory”. When she opened her door to him I knew things wouldn’t go well at all, as the loose screw in his brain gets a little looser when he’s alone in her bedroom with her, and he starts to force himself on her, his fixation having come to a breaking point. It’s skin-crawling, claustrophobic scene.

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Kyouji actually sought her out because she killed people with a real gun, and decided to use the same Type 54 she used to do it in GGO. Now he’ll kill her before he lets anyone else have her. Yes, it’s unfortunate that Shino has to be the would-be sexual victim of a demented psychopath just as Asuna was in the first series, but we knew Kyouji was no good and had a bit too much of a one-sided thing for her, so it was only a matter of time before he popped.

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Fortunately, when she half-heartedly declines to have Kirito visit her, Kirito had no intention of staying away. Shino helps her own case by going into her mental cave, communing with Sinon who tells her not to give up, and gives Ryouji a fight that keeps him from doing any permanent damage when Kirito finally busts in and takes him down. As he was her knight and pillar of strength in GGO, so he is now in the real world. Only much less girly.

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