Sword Art Online: Alicization – War of Underworld – 12 (Fin) – A Matter of Choice

When the hordes of red soldiers arrive, they don’t distinguish between Human Empire or Dark Territory, they just start killing everyone. It’s because of this that the Pugilists’ general, Champion, rips his eye out in order to defy his original programming and do what needs to be done to save his people from being wiped out: join forces with Asuna.

While Asuna briefly loses an arm in combat and is strongly fatigued by using her godlike powers to rend the earth, she has enough both to heal herself and build bridges across the chasm she made so that the Pugilists can reach their isolated comrades and take the fight to the red soldiers.

Asuna, the Pugilists, and the Integrity Knights fight well, but in the chaos, Vecta swoops in on his dark dragon and captures Alice, knocking her out with a sleep spell. Needless to say, this is a big, big disaster, since the world will end once she’s placed on the World’s End Altar (hence the name, presumably).

Bercouli is the first to give chase on his dragon, and once she’s healed, Asuna mounts her horse and follows, but Vecta has a hell of a head start. They can only hope his dragon tires before he reaches the altar far to the south, and that they’ll catch up to him while the dragon is resting.

Back at Rath, Critter is about to send a second wave of American players to overwhelm what’s left of the Human Empire’s army. Vassago wakes up after being out for eight hours. The JSDF will attack in twelve hours, so he wants to dive right back in to fight Lightning Flash Asuna and Kirito, whom he assumes is there fighting and not in a semi-vegetative state. He also tells Critter he has a “very special” account to use this time.

The second wave arrives and surrounds Asuna’s forces, but they are decimated by aerial bombardment from a single archer in the sky: Shino has finally taken the stage, much to Asuna’s tearful relief. With Critter re-instituting the 1000:1 time difference, they’ll have a whole other cour in which to catch up to and defeat Vecta, but it’s not going to be easy. Unfortunately, we won’t return to Underworld until April 2020. It will be a long wait; hopefully there will be some decent Winter shows to keep us distracted until then.

Sword Art Online: Alicization – War of Underworld – 11 – Protecting The World They Built

When Vecta sends his remaining troops across the chasm Asuna created a few at a time, it goes predictably badly, gaining the ire of the leader of the Pugilists. Asuna, Bercouli, and the other knights mop up the relatively defenseless forces, but Vecta isn’t surprised; the Human Empire has superior AI for its grunts and generals. But he has another ace up his sleeve, where his tech Critter is hard at work back on Rath.

The first thing Critter does is synch the Underworld’s clock to the real worlds, so an hour here is an hour there. Then he sends out a massive invite blast to an Underworld “beta test” in America. The resulting montage of people speaking horrific English made me wonder why they bothered, as it almost pulled me right out of the episode, but the end result is that Vecta is able to amass a reserve army of seasoned American MMO gamers, thus potentially turning the tables.

From the realm where she’s on standby, observing the digital world, Yui notices the implementation of the fake beta test, and notifies both Suguha and Shino. Following Yui’s instructions, the girls head to the Roppongi branch of Rath, ask to speak to Kikuoka, and are given access to STL beds. Looks like Asuna will soon be getting reinforcements.

Finally, Yui rouses the rest of the SAO/AFO crew: Lisbeth, Silica, Klein, and Agil, and brings them up to speed. Needless to say, all of them are fully on board with helping Kirito and Asuna any way they can, but the four of them plus Suguha and Shino won’t be enough.

They need numbers to counter the American invasion. A similar beta test blast in Japan won’t give them those numbers, as it’s the middle of the night when perhaps a tenth of the active users. Definitely a clever use of time zones as an obstacle to gaining parity with Vecta’s forces by the same methods.

It falls to Lisbeth & Co. to gather what members of the various tribes of AFO are awake and deliver to them a heartfelt speech that will convince them to undertake all of the risks that come with diving into the Underworld. Those risks include the lack of admin control, UI interfaces, and pain absorbers, and the potential for character degradation or even total loss.

It’s a tough sell, and many of the assembled players believe SAO survivors look down on them, but Lisbeth digs deep and gives an impassioned call for everyone who loves MMOs to come to the aid and defense of a world all of them helped create, and an AI in Alice who is the culmination of their shared experiences and emotions.

As we all know, War of Underworld is being split into two cours, the first of which will end with the next episode. And while it will be hard to wait for the ultimate conclusion to this arc, this first half looks primed to end on a very satisfying note as the titular Underword War enters its next phase.

Sword Art Online: Alicization – War of Underworld – 10 – The Turn of the Tide

After a quick look at Asuna utilizing the STL to enter the Underworld, she makes her appearance and saved Bercouli, Ronie and Tiese. The latter two are the first she meets, and she corrects their assumption that she’s the actual Goddess of Creation Stacia. When they thank her for saving everyone, including Kirito, Asuna asks to see him at once.

Their reunion is powerful but muted on the surface, like Kirito himself, but he still manages to shed a good number of tears upon hearing his girlfriend’s voice, seeing her face, and feeling her embrace him. It’s also clear to the pages that these two definitely know each other. But when Asuna leaves the tent, she is attacked by Alice, and the two spar magnificently until Bercouli breaks it up.

A good deal of exposition follows, as Asuna explains who she is, where she and Kirito come from (in terms they’ll understand), and the forces at work beyond the Underworld. Her mission as a representative of Rath is to bring Alice to the real world before the enemy, or the entirety of the Underworld will be erased. Bercouli figures out for himself that the enemy Asuna seeks is Emperor Vecta.

Despite all the sitting/standing around and talking, this is still an episode I enjoyed immensely. Not only did Asuna finally reunite with Kirito, but she and Kirito’s Underworld allies finally get on the same page. Alice is reluctant to “run away” to the real world with her, but the alternative is much worse, she agrees to do so, but only after the Dark Territory is defeated, or a peace negotiated.

Asuna agrees to join them in that fight. Now, at least, Alice is aware of the stakes of having a target on her back; merely sacrificing herself will be pointless, as it will spell the end of Underworld’s usefulness to the enemy. Once everything is laid out, the various parties head to bed…but it isn’t long before Asuna goes to Kirito’s tent, which Alice previously had forbade her to enter without her permission.

The two women reach a compromise: in exchange for access to Kirito, Alice wants to learn more about Kirito from Asuna, who is happy to agree (though she warns it’s “a very long story”; a nice meta quip). The two start by listing all the weeks, months, and years they’ve known Kirito, and in what capacity. His page Ronie joins in the “information sharing”, as does his former master Sortiliena Serlut.

Even in his present vegetative state, Kirito was able to bring together four strong, talented, kind people together to share stories about their time with him. The “competition” never strays into the realm of the absurd (watching the four tug at his arms and legs, for instance just wouldn’t do). I also appreciated the show didn’t throw in a cliffhanger introducing the latest threat, but ended on an earned, calm, and optimistic note.

Sword Art Online: Alicization – War of Underworld – 09 – Slash & Flash

Getting impatient, Vecta orders his main force of Pugilists and Dark Mages to advance with orders to capture Alice unscathed at all costs. Now that his prey/soul-snack is in sight, it won’t be long before he takes a more active role in the battle.

Another new Integrity Knight in Sheyta Synthesis Twelve volunteers to meet the Pugs and slow them down. Her specialty is impossibly fast slashes from an elegant and flexible épée-like sword skinnier than she is (the Pugs mock her lack of muscle tone on several occasions).

Sheyta has no problem carving up the Pug leader Champion’s forces with brutal efficiency, but Champion himself is literally made of harder stuff, which intrigues her. She draws the battle out longer for two reasons—she’s buying time for Bercouli, Alice, and the others, but once all of her armor has been sheared away and Champ is at full power, she’s actually having fun.

She’s about to finish things when Champ’s lieutenants snatches him away. The match ends in a draw, but put a rare smile on Sheyta’s face. She and Champion gained a mutual warrior respect, the kind of two-sided badass brawl I prefer to simply obliterating the masses of boring evil monsters.

Vecta sends Vassago to harass the Humans’ supply corps, and ends up crossing swords with Ronie (never any luck, that girl). However, she’s able to sound the alarm, and Alice and Bercouli are also there, having anticipated their supplies would be targeted. Even so, Ronie is in big trouble against the far stronger Vassago…until a miracle occurs.

At least, Ronie considers it a miracle, because the God of Creation Stacia appears above her and rends great fissures in the earth that swallow up Vassago and his minions. Stacia, of course, is merely an Underworld avatar being inhabited by our good friend Yuuki Asuna, who makes one hell of a divine entrance that simply gave me goosebumps.

On his way down his own personal size abyss, Vassago recognizes “Lightning Flash” from Knights of the Blood in SAO. The hero(ine) is finally, finally on the scene, in a powerful avatar poised to rescue the damsel-in-distress—in this case Kirito in a welcome inversion of SAO II. I can’t wait to see her fighting beside Alice.

Sword Art Online: Alicization – 18 – The Sword That Cut Through Time

Bercouli Synthesis One isn’t like the other Integrity Knights have Eugeo and Kirito have faced to this point. He’s not in a rush to fight; he agrees not to kill since they didn’t kill his apprentice Fanatio; he calls Eugeo “shounen” rather than “boy-o”; he doesn’t look down on Eugeo or question his existence, or curse his sinfulness.

Yes, Bercouli is a “friendly opponent”, the guy who, inadvertently or not, seems to lull less focused opponents into a false sense of security with his casual, charming manner. But there’s no doubting the guy can bring it, thanks to his Time-Splitting Sword that was once the hand of an earlier Cathedral’s clock.

He’s also more than happy to explain how his move works…but not until he’s already used it and Eugeo has fallen victim to it. Eugeo sees that he can’t make this a close-range fight, but also knows Bercouli wants him to think long-range for his next attack.

Eugeo does indeed go long range—there’s no alternative—but when Bercouli stops and shatters his ice, Eugeo uses the shards to obscure the fact he’s tossed his sword away and made a false one, which also shatters. In Bercouli’s moment of wondering what’s going on, Eugeo releases his real sword from the ceiling, catches it, and stabs Bercouli with it in a smooth sequence of moves.

Kirito would be proud: it’s an Aincrad combo if ever there was one, not only making full use of the surroundings and anything else to gain an advantage, even if the opponent thinks it’s unfair or underhanded. For his part, Bercouli is amused and even impressed by the sheer audacity of someone throwing their sword away in the middle of a fight.

He’s in good spirits because the Eternal Ice didn’t finish him, and he starts to break out of his frigid binds, but Eugeo summons the second memory of his divine object: The Rose, which slowly drains both of their lives. The reason this isn’t suicide for Eugeo is that being a character near the peak of his maximum life, he’s confident that his life will outlast that of Bercouli, who was turned into an integrity knight much later in life.

Bercouli wonders what he’s talking about, miffed that Eugeo presumes to know anything about his past. That response in turn angers Eugeo, who hates how all of these Integrity Knights believe they’re divine beings summoned from the heavens by the Pontifex, when they’re really human beings; their mothers gave birth to them; they lived their own lives.

Even if most of the people in those lives don’t remember the knights, Bercouli is different because the heroic deeds of his life are immortalized in the oral tradition of Rulid Village. It’s as if, in his case, Administrator overlooked the potential means of her first knight recovering his lost memories and thus regaining his humanity.

This is all very good stuff, so it’s a little jarring for a new party to arrive on the scene quite suddenly, especially when that party is of the “goofy carnival clown/jester-class” disposition. Before The Rose fully takes Bercouli’s life, this asshole, one “Prime Senator Chudelkin”, rolls in like a ball, then scolds Bercouli for his “treasonous” act of not going all-out against Eugeo.

Bercouli bristles at this and asks Chudelkin to stay out of the affairs of swordsmen, to no avail. Chuddy puts Bercouli in a Deep Freeze—far deeper than even The Rose—after informing him that both he and Fanatio will be “reprocessed” by the Administrator in due time, and that they’ve found a new pawn to replace him…in Eugeo, calling for Kirito’s help before he freezes over.

That would have been a perfectly respectable, even boss way to end the episode, but SAO:A wasn’t done. We check in with Kirito and Alice resting on a ledge, waiting for more light to keep climbing. Kirito complains about being hungry, assuming Integrity Knights don’t, but he’s shown to be mistaken when Alice’s stomach grumbles.

At that point, he produces the buns Cardinal had given him, and prepares to toast them with a fire spell. Alice snatches them away, and uses a much more appropriate combination of water and air to properly steam the buns right there in her hand. She even jokes about eating them both before handing one to Kirito.

This may seem overly sweet and lightweight after such a comparatively heavy and serious end to Eugeo (which worked despite Chuddy’s horrid design) but I for one enjoyed it, since it’s likely next week won’t have any time for such moments. Kirito, impressed with Alice’s cooking skills, recalls that her little sister Selka is also so skilled, and Alice grabs him like he’d just delivered a grave insult.

She wants to know what he’s on about, and depending on how honest she judges his story, she might kill him on the spot. I had assumed they’d get right back to fighting as enemies once they reached the open floor, but with Eugeo now incapacitated and only Chuddy and Administrator herself left to face, that might not be the case.

It’s possible Alice believes Kirito’s story about her, the memory block is ejected from her head, and the two fight side by side to safe Eugeo and defeat Administrator. But hey, that’s just one possible route; I don’t possess a blade that cuts through time to the show’s future…AKA the LN.

Sword Art Online: Alicization – 17 – The Ascent

Considering the Rising Arc has consisted of “climb a few levels, fight a boss, repeat” structure, SAOA has managed to mix things up by demonstrating both the variety of integrity knights and varied ways in which they fight and think, and the variety of ornate settings in which they fight within the cathedral.

Things get shaken up even more when Kirito and Alice end up outside the Cathedral’s quickly-autohealed walls. All of a sudden things get a lot more simple and minimalist, both in where they are—Dangling from Kirito’s sword, with death beneath them—and who they are to each other: enemies who must work together to survive.

Interestingly, Alice inititally wants Kirito to let her plummet to her death, for she wouldn’t be able to live with the shame of being saved by “such a sinner.” Kirito actually has to remind her that as a knight, her life is not her own, but belongs to the church, and to her Pontifex. Whether she has to bear shame or not, it is her duty to live on and protect humanity from the incursion of the Dark Territory.

He even makes the case that his and Eugeo’s “invasion” of the cathedral is the will of the gods and of Stacia, since Alice herself cites that their will is revealed through the actions of her servants. So Alice holds on, lets Kirito raise her up so she can put her sword in the wall just as his slips out, and then she returns the favor and lifts him up.

A Truce it is, then: they will work together to climb to the open-air Morning Star Lookout on the ninetieth-fifth-floor, at which time the truce will terminate and Alice promises to slay him. Kirito soon learns he’ll be doing most of the work on this climb, as apparently Integrity Knights are a pretty specialized sort, and Alice neither has the athleticism (not to mention outfit) to do the gymnastics necessary to climb.

As Kirito climbs in the virtual Underworld, Asuna and Rinko are having lunch when they a Japanese escort ship on the horizon changing course in a maneuver that catches one of Ocean Turtle’s officials off-guard. In a neat little transition from Asuna piercing her salad tomato to Kirito piercing the wall of the cathedral, we return to the climb. I’m not sure what else to say about the brief trip to the real world, except that it’s possible the easy peace Asuna and Rinko of enjoyed may not last.

With the sun setting, Kirito is finding it harder to generate wedge objects, so Alice makes one of her own (gold and fancy-looking, of course), revealing she was letting him make them this whole time even though she could have chipped in earlier.

Eventually they can see a ledge above them where some kind of statues sit, but they begin to transform into dark territory minions, which start to attack the two. And just like that, what had been a tough enough job of climbing the sheer wall is made that much more perilous with these flying beasts.

Since dealing with the minions isn’t going to work of Kirito has to hold Alice up, he decides to hoist her up to the ledge above, in a move that catches her entirely by surprise, but does add some stability to their situation. Once she’s on solid ground, she hoists him up in the same way, though he hits the wall back-first and upside-down.

Detaching the chain so they can both move freely, Alice dispatches two of the three beasts with one slash, then waits for Kirito to take care of the third, asking if he needs any help. He doesn’t, and once he finishes his foe off, she likens his weird Aincrad style to a kind of dance that would be performed on stage at the summer solstice festival.

That’s an odd thing to note, because when Alice thinks about it more, her head starts to hurt. She’s never actually been to the festival, as she initially said, but heard about it from monks…apparently. Or maybe the Alice buried in the Synthesis is starting to claw its way back to consciousness, due to all of her interaction with her old friend Kirito.

Regardless, throughout the climb Alice’s opinion of Kirito seems to soften more and more, until she even offers her handkerchief to the “criminal” to wipe minion blood off his face. Perhaps she doesn’t want him at any externally-forced disadvantage for their 95th-floor duel. But even as an integrity knight Alice doesn’t like the fact their were minions in such a sacred place…it means someone in the church wanted them there.

Cut to Eugeo, who is without Kirito by his side for the first time in quite a while. He continues climbing, and makes it to a hall on the ninetieth floor, which appears to be a bathhouse. There he encounters a man bathing there, covered in muscles and scars: not just any Integrity Knight, but Commander Bercouli Synthesis One. He asks for Eugeo to give him a little time to relax, as he just arrived from a long dragon ride.

Will Eugeo be able to defeat or at least get past Bercouli without help from Kirito? Will Kirito manage to defat Alice, or possibly turn her to their side once and for all before they face Administrator? Either way, their epic climb is almost at an end.

Sword Art Online: Alicization – 12 – Sage of the Infodump

Kirito and Eugeo just barely hold their own against Eldrie Synthesis Thirty-One, who is armed with all manner of magical attacks and divine objects. They’re only able to escape defeat when Eugeo suddenly remembers why Eldrie seems so familiar: he used to be Eldrie Woolsburg, the North Empire representative swordsman.

Hearing his former name and other details of his past, a triangular prism is slowly ejected from his forehead, and the former Eldrie’s personality seems to return. The transformation is interrupted by an attack by a second knight armed with a bow and riding a dragon, but the implication is clear: what happened to this guy must’ve happened to Alice. The person she used to be might not be gone; only repressed.

Kirito and Eugeo would have probably eventually been caught by the second knight, but are given yet another break when a voice tells Kirito which way to turn and presents them with a glowing secret doorway through which to dive.

They land at the bottom of a stair, before a diminutive-looking sage called Cardinal. She is the Cardinal System that once governed the Underworld, but she’s been usurped, and her powers are now limited to the great library that contains all of the world’s knowledge and history.

Upon showing the boys around, she sends a sneezing, soaked Eugeo off to the bath to warm up, and summons some food and tea for Kirito. The balance of the episode is Cardinal (voiced, I think, by Tange Sakura, complete with “umus”) basically delivering a lengthy infodump, focusing on her “twin elder sister”, Administrator, the self-made Pontifex of the Axiom Church and only one who can contact the outside world.

“Administrator” was once Quinella, the offspring of the first political marriage between high lords, and the descendant of one of the “original four” inhabitants of Underworld who, unlike the other three, was driven by greed and a lust for power. Quinella was gifted with System Call, and used it to hunt animals and gain more and more authority.

Eventually, she had her followers, upon whom she demonstrated various “miracles”, build her a church in which she still resides to this day, being worshiped and ruling with absolute authority. She solidified that authority by writing the Taboo Index, which forbade the very actions that gave her the power boost she needed to seize command of the world.

Even Quinella couldn’t initially win against the ravages of time, but even on her death bed never stopped trying to find the right commands to undo her demise. She succeeded, either due to coincidence or help from the outside world, and her fluctlight was augmented with the Cardinal System as it was to create a new, no longer “human” being, naming herself “Administrator.”

Suffice it to say, Admin is one tough cookie. Considering how badly Kirito fared against a novice Integrity Knight, he and Eugeo are going to have to seriously up their game if they want to overthrow her. I daresay it wouldn’t hurt to snap Alice out of her brainwashing (Eugeo knows far more of her past than of Eldrie’s) so she could fight beside them.

But I’m just spitballing at this point. The villain has been introduced and explained. Now we’ll see what the heroes are going do about it.

Sword Art Online: Alicization – 11 – You Can’t Have Alicization Without Alice

Any hope of Saber Alice looking upon Eugeo and Kirito and remembering her past is thrown out the window when she clobbers Eugeo for getting too close, and threatens to have his hand off if he does it again. It may look and sound like Alice, but the personality has changed, whether it was overwritten or wiped and rewritten.

She merely fulfills her duty of sending them to the Central Cathedral dungeons via dragon—a pretty short trip, but I guess traditions are important in the Axiom Church. Tiese and Ronie tearfully send their mentors off with their swords, apologizing for their role in getting them in trouble. Eugeo, for his part, tells them they did nothing wrong: it was right to try to help their friend, despite the risks.

Back in the real world, Asuna watches the unconscious Kirito, wishing she could dive in to the Underworld to rescue him—and has me wondering why that hasn’t happened yet. Perhaps it’s still too soon to pull him out without killing him?

In any case, Asuna at least has Rinko to keep her company. She also meets one of Higa’s latest inventions: a robot that is the prototype for the kinds of artificial bodies into which they’ll eventually be downloading fluctlights, which is ethically all kinds of iffy, no matter how lighthearted Higa seems.

In the dungeon, Kirito and Eugeo learn that their chains are the same level, which means when they smack them together hard enough, they shatter. And since the chains are stronger than the bars of their cell, they’re able to knock that down too. It’s a good thing the guard is a very heavy sleeper.

From this point on, the two know they’re openly defying the church: no more hesitation. The plan is to find out why Alice has lost her memories, then find a way to undo whatever was done with her so the three can go home to the village together, just like old times.

They make it into the cathedral’s hedge labyrinth, which is bursting with gorgeous rose bushes, but are stopped by Alice’s student, Integrity Knight Eldrie Synthesis Thirty-One.

Alice expected Kirito and Eugeo to escape, and thus stationed Eldrie where she did. He’ll send them back to the dungeon, but not without doling out some kind of harsh punishment—something neither of them are about to take lying down.

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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