Sword Art Online: Alicization – 01 (First Impressions) – The Cutting Edge

“Prime” SAO is back after a brief detour into GGO with LLENN, and drops us into yet another new VRMMO world in which Kirito is the only familiar face. He’s friends with a lad named Eugeo and the village elder’s daughter Alice.

Tired of food quickly spoiling in the summer heat, they go forth into the mountains to harvest some ice. But they get turned around and end up in the forbidden Dark Territory, where Alice accidentally slips and momentarily crosses the threshold between realms.

For that seemingly mild transgression, she is charged with committing a grave taboo, and sentenced to death by an Integrity Knight of the Axiom church, who carries her off on his white dragon. Kirito and Eugeo can do nothing; the knight is far too powerful.

As the dragon disappears into the sky, Kirigaya Kazuto awakens in a lab: he’s a test subject for a new full-dive VR experience unlike any other. The lack of context with which the first half of this double length episode is fitting, as Kirito’s experience felt far “realer” than any VRMMO he’d played before—and thus more disorienting.

Back into a game he knows far better: GGO. Sinon has recruited him, Asuna, and their other friends to try to take out a veteran PK team that has a 100% success rate. They fail to kill the PKs, but do force their retreat. Still, Shino wants Kirito’s help in the next BoB to defeat the one player she couldn’t: Subtilizer.

While not altogether necessary, the brief “cameo” stint within GGO brings us back to familiar territory and reminds us of the bonds that have been forged between these players. Kirito and Shino are friends IRL, and just as comfortable conversing there as they are fighting in-game.

Asuna joins them as Kirito tells the two women more about his “part-time job” as alpha tester for the new full-dive system from a company called Rath. The tech is called Soul Translator, or STL, and while it’s unlike any other VR dive before, Kirito retains no memories of what actually goes on there. As such, while the mention of Alice causes a reaction, he’s not precisely sure why it does.

Kirito’s talk of stints within STL that feel much longer than the real dive time (which sounds like a time-bending DMT trip), as well as his slighter figure, worry Asuna and Shino alike, but he assures them he’s fine. In fact, he’s prepared to head to America to check out the very latest full dive tech, but expresses his wish for Asuna to accompany him, as he “can’t live without her.”

She agrees, but their romantic bliss doesn’t last long, as a character from their past appears IRL: the last surviving member of Laughing Coffin, Johnny Black. The slightly unhinged dude whips out a poison injector and nicks Kirito just as he stabs him in the leg with his umbrella. Now obviously Kirito doesn’t die here, in the first episode, but there are sure to be ill effects.

The question is what Asuna will do in the immediate aftermath of the attack, when Kirito recovers, and whether there are any lingering effects of the injection. Will the America trip have to be called off? Will Kirito get to help Shino out in GGO? Who is Alice and why is she Alicizing? These are some of the many questions I intend to get to the bottom of by continuing to watch SSO:A.

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Sword Art Online II – 12

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Last week was almost entirely Kirito and Sinon idle in the cave talking, and it seemed like they’d arrived at a plan. That was the planning, this week would be the execution, right? Hold on; we’ve got ten more minutes of exposition and re-planning in the cave before we see a lick of action. That’s a disappointing choice for the midpoint a show that’s had no shortage of them this season.

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I get that asking for a prompt resolution to the Ballet of Bullets arc is something of an unreasonable demand, but the fact of the matter is, I’m just not into it anymore. It’s been dragged out too long and the urgency and momentum aren’t there. Even when we get to action, as we do in the Kirito/Death Gun/Dark Wind/Sinon battle, it’s all stuff we’ve seen before. Sniping is only so interesting an activity, as is dodging bullets and swinging a purple lightsaber around.

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I’m glad Sinon is able to take out Dark Wind, gaining back her confidence in the process, and isn’t even particularly troubled when Death Gun takes out her scope. As for Asuna, I’m glad the show is trying to involve her somewhat, but this week all she did was move from ALO where she was watching Kirito on TV to the hospital where she watches him on TV.

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The development of her part in this is molasses slow. One thing I did like was how Kirito will never remember Death Gun’s real name because he arrogantly refused to learn it in the first place. But it wasn’t a particularly confidence-inspiring episode going into the show’s second half. I never thought I’d be considering dropping SAO…but even my patience has limits.

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Sword Art Online II – 11

Sinon's Ass, From Four Different Angles
Sinon’s Ass, From Four Different Angles

Those of you looking for some SAO action this week were surely disappointed, as literally absolutely nothing happened this week. Kirito tells Sinon about his past and his mission and they formulate a new plan, while Asuna gets Kikuoka to spill the beans about Kirito’s whereabouts. But it’s all just talking, and most of it is while Sinon is in a needlessly compromising position. There are also enough shots of her ass to make a decent drinking game.

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Still, I can appreciate the need to have a calm-before-the-storm episode before the mid-season climax, and what is said in Kirito and Sinon’s episode-long discussion is at least interesting to me most of the time, even if the episode on the whole isn’t. For one thing, Kirito realizes that Death Gun can’t actually kill people with a virtual bullet: that’s magic. It’s far more likely there’s a second Death Gun—his accomplice—in the real world, preying on players who live alone and have crappy locks on their doors.

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Sinon is Death Gun’s latest target, and the real-world one is indeed in there, even administering a shot that raises her heart rate, though somehow Kirito is able to calm her down and keep her from logging out, which would have meant certain death. Still, the Death Guns seem to be following a certain code, which means the real world one won’t kill her unless virtual Death Gun shoots her. For that reason, Sinon needs to stay out of Death Gun’s sights, which won’t be easy as he can become transparent.

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The plan is pure simplicity: Kirito will serve as a decoy and draw Death Gun out, and Sinon will snipe him from afar. Easier said than done. Other highlights of their talk was Sinon learning Kirito hasn’t learned how to deal with the lives he took while in SAO, any more than she’s learned how to deal with those she killed in the real world. All he can tell her is that to “keep thinking” about it—at acknowledge that it was done—is the minimum amount of atonement.

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Both of them have yet to learn that atonement need not consist of them hating themselves for the rest of their lives. I can’t say I was enamored of the overdone Sinon fanervice this week, but I like the fact that the responsibility for taking out Death Gun will fall to her, as well as the fact Asuna may yet involve herself in this situation out of love for Kirito. The mission he told Kikuoka he’d carry out may be important, but isn’t worth his life, and Asuna seems poised to see his life isn’t lost needlessly.

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Sword Art Online II – 10

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On the one hand, I watched a good deal of this episode with a firm frown on my face, bitterly annoyed and disappointed that Sinon is, for lack of a better word, comprehensively emasculated from the in-game bad-ass we liked so much since her first episode, and put into the position where the steady, reliable Kirito has to rescue her, even if she’s not even sure she wants to be rescued.

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“It’s all good Sinon. We all have our days when we’re not at our best.”

On the other hand, that Sinon we liked never really existed. She was only a front; a shell Asada Shino created when she started GGO as a form of therapy. In other words, when it was just a game. When suddenly confronted with a trigger for her PTSD—namely, the gun she used to kill someone—she crumbles and can no longer pull the trigger, but there’s nothing out of left field about that; it makes sense, when taking all her circumstances into account.

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THERE…That wasn’t so hard, was it?! (It was.)

The flaw in Sinon’s goal, as laudable as it sounded in theory, was that even if she was recognized as the strongest player in GGO, it wouldn’t have any effect on the Asada Shino in the real world. Sinon was a persona, and a fragile one, that the reality of her psychological issues was simply too much for. So while we’re disappointed Shino had to hit rock bottom, it’s better for her illusion of strength to be broken now, not quite halfway through, so she can begin the process of becoming stronger the right way (whatever that is).

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You may ask yourself: “But Hannah, if Sinon gets so worked up around Death Gun and her past, why is Kirito such a cool cucumber?” Well, I have a few answers to that. Sinon had to kill when she was just eleven years old; she killed in the real world, getting literal blood on her hands; she was ostracized by her peers. Shino got the shorter end of the stick all around, and had a far weaker support system. Long before Kirito was trapped in SAO, Shino was trapped in a prison of guilt and self-loathing.

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For the record: the “Circle of Chanting Mean Kids” trope should really be retired.

She’s still not completely out of that prison, and Kirito is still in one of his own. As cool and composed as he was this week, he still can’t guarantee he won’t abandon her, turn tail and run when that Death Gun is pointed at him again. Storms of fear and doubt rage beneath his calm exterior, Sinon just hasn’t seen it’s full extent, while we (and Nurse Aki) have.

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So…when does he break it to her he’s spoken for?

I’ll be honest: the show is currently breaking zero ground in having the girl rely on the guy so much thus far, but I can accept this setback provisionally if it represents the first step towards her properly dealing with her past (Wishful thinking? We’ll see!), which could lead to a stronger, more stable self. That’s a greater possibility now that she knows Kirito shares the burden of having killed for real. She’s been working so hard to forget about what she did, but Kirito did forget, and can speak from experience: forgetting and plowing ahead will never be as effective as acceptance and forgiveness.

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Sword Art Online II – 09

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There are only a few cases in entertainment where watching people watching something within the show is tolerable. MST3k is certainly one of them. SAOII is not. There’s something a bit silly about Asuna, Yui, Rika, Suguha, Keiko, and…er…what’s-his-name watching the BoB from within ALO. Why lie in bed alone when you could get together in the real world and watch in person?

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In any case, these scenes were part of a larger over-arching problem with this episode: it lagged. I was a little more tolerant of the pace when things were still building up, and I realize this arc will probably be over in three episode’s time, but the stalling was a bit too over-apparent here, and there wasn’t really anything we haven’t seen before (Kirito’s bullet-dodging is kind of one-note, for example). At this late stage, I was left wanting.

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Worse still, despite how little happened in this episode, it has the audacity to end on a cliffhanger, with Sinon being paralyzed by Death Gun (who has more super powers than a State Farm agent) and is about to be shot (and killed for real) when the ep cuts to credits. This means Sinon is either dead (doubtful) or has become yet another damsel in distress for Kirito to swoop in and save.

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There are other possibilities (another player could save her), but it’s frustrating how much being around Kirito has sapped her of her agency. He’s pawing her constantly and calling all the shots. The fact that Death Gun’s Death Gun (which is the same kind she used to kill as a child) turns her into a basketcase doesn’t help matters.

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Sword Art Online II – 08

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No more setup or qualifying; Ballet of Bullets 3 officially kicks off this week; a 30-man battle royale with only one victor (at least, there was only one in the previous two BoBs) taking place in a 10 square kilometer stage filled with several different terrains. One of SAO II’s challenges is to make the game look like a lot of fun, and it doesn’t have any trouble with that: the pre-BoB betting; the drinking and carousing; the countdown and the fireworks all conspire to make this a grand, exciting event.

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Before it starts, Sinon allows Kirito to keep hanging around her asking for information, likely because she felt a connection between them in the qualifying finals. Unlike us, she doesn’t know exactly what Kirito’s deal is, but in exchange for letting him stick by her, she gets a lot more information in this regard, and even realizes that Kirito could well be an SAO survivor, something he doesn’t admit for sure (though we thought he would).

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In a nice moment of levity, Kirito capitalizes on his new-found celebrity in GGO, which has all but equaled Sinon’s overnight. Of course, that would evaporate almost instantly if everyone finds out he’s really a guy. But he wants all eyes on him because that’s what all of Death Gun’s victims had when he murdered them: it was done out in the open, with an audience. And there’s no greater audience in GGO than BoB.

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After Sinon reiterates the promise Kirito made her to stay alive so they could fight, they jump into BoB. Nine of the thirty players drop almost immediately, and surprisingly, Sinon and Kirito aren’t apart for long. Kirito makes another deal with her: they’ll watch the battle unfold until there’s only one player left and them; that person is sure to be Death Gun, if he’s the threat Kirito believes him to be, after all.

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Sinon agrees (as long as she gets to fight him seriously at some point in the future), but Death Gun surprises them both by showing up out of nowhere, hitting “Pale Rider” (whom Kirito thought could be Death Gun) with a stun round super-rare silencing sniper rifle then aiming his handgun at him. Fearful Death Gun’s shot will kill the player, Kirito orders Sinon to shoot Death Gun first. Cliffhanger and roll credits. Rats!

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All in all, nice episode. Certainly all the pieces seem to be in place for the final confrontation with Death Gun, including the reveal of who he actually is. Like the 75th Hunger Games, the BoB will probably fade into the background in light of Kirito’s more pressing mission, and again, Sinon should prove a valuable ally. While she may exhibit tsundere-ty on occasion, I’m loving Sinon’s interactions with Kirito, wanting to learn more about him as her trust in him gradually grows.

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Sword Art Online II – 07

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In this calm-before-the-storm episode, SAOII puts the action on hold and takes the time to reflect on the present emotional states of Kazuto and Shino, painting the coming rematch as must-win for both of them. If Kirito loses, his chances of facing off with Death Gun diminish greatly, now that Death Gun is far more than the target he was hired to investigate.

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While outside of the MMO where he gets to shoot and slash and take his mind off things, in the real world Kazuto is haunted by his titular “crimson memories,” or rather the lack of detail in them. After putting on a brave, reassuring face for both Asuna and Sugu (a face they don’t quite believe), it’s Nurse Aki who finally gets to the heart of his torment: because he forgot two of the faces of the men he killed, he believes he’s a monster who doesn’t deserve to be saved.

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Aki can’t do much more than offer hugs of increasing intensity, but hugs can be immensely effective in moments such as this. I particularly like how Aki admitted she had no idea what it must’ve been like to kill in SAO, but as a medical professional she deals in life and death all the time, and sometimes someone has to die for someone else to live, and someone else has to choose, and live with that choice.

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Neither I nor Aki can believe that Kazuto is the monster he claims, simply because a monster wouldn’t suffer like he is. And as Aki says, people have a right to save themselves by balancing their guilt for the people they killed by remembering the people they saved and protected. It’s a burden to be acknowledged and carried, not a pyre upon which to immolate oneself.

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Shino is in a bit of a tough spot as well. Her time spent with Kirito in GGO has changed her; she’s even making a gun shape with her hand in the real world, something she never could do. As much as she doesn’t want to admit it, he’s helping her become stronger. Meanwhile, Kyouji confesses to her in both worlds, wanting her to go back to the way she was; a selfish notion, considering how much we know Shino didn’t like the way she was.

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Continuing his campaign of acting like a very suspicious motherfucker, Shinkawa Kyouji makes Sinon even more uneasy—not the best thing to be when you’re in the tournament of your life—but Kirito is just as uneasy. These are two people whose souls have been wounded by the lives they’ve taken, and both have chosen the BoB as the venue of their redemption, if there’s any to be had. But only one of them will move on.

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Sword Art Online II – 06

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One of the nice things about SAO is that the previews are simply a static screen with the title of the next episode, as Kirito says “Next Time: [Episode Title]” It doesn’t spoil what’s to come, so we had no idea the show was about to hit fast forward on the BoB preliminaries and deliver what we’ve been waiting for: the first battle between Kirito and Sinon.

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By SAOII standards, that came in a hurry, but a welcome one. The second episode showed us how a GGO battle works and how good Sinon is, but fell down on both stakes and emotional resonance, since we hadn’t yet learned about Sinon’s troubled past, and the parties in the battle were fairly inconsequential, beyond reminding Sinon she has to get stronger.

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This episode improves on all of that one’s shortcomings, and while the vistas were cooler in that one, the quality and pace of the combat is maintained, only this time we care more about the outcome, which ends with Sinon conceiting defeat and surrendering. It also repairs the rift caused by a misundrstanding last week that drew Sinon away, and also turned her idea of the “strength” she seeks on its head. For all those reasons, I think this was SAOII’s best episode to date.

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Up until now Sinon had fathomed strength as the thing that allowed her to slay the most powerful foes with ease, and which allows Kirito to stand still and still dodge her sniper fire, or slice her final bullet in two in their final duel. Kirito sees all that as merely skill, not strength. He also relies on luck and circumstance; his interaction with Sinon after the first round wasn’t a calculation on his part, but it affected her aim from then on regardless.

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No, to Kirito, strength is the thing that allows you to continue living with yourself after having chosen to kill, and kill more than once. Even if it was to defend his comrades and the woman he loved, he still took their lives. Sinon also killed to protect herself and her mother, but both of them have the same problem: Sinon has been unable to move on from that event, and now that Death Gun has reawakened his crimson memories, neither can Kirito.

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Kirito and Sinon, sittin’ in a tree…A-N-G-S-T-I-N-G…so now Sinon may well belive that she’s found her soulmate, but Kirito is, not surprisingly, unaware of the connection, since he doesn’t really know about her past. He also already has Asuna. But in any case, he and Sinon are now no longer enemies, which means she could prove a valuable ally in the coming fight with Death Gun, should he choose to involve others. Of course, he’s said he’s done with killing, but up against a killer, he may have no choice.

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Stray Observations:

  • I really dug the GGO victory fanfare that plays when the battles are one. I counted at least three instances of it here.
  • Particular kudos are in order for Sawashiro Miyuki on her voice-acting in this episode. It’s always nice to hear her voice a leading lady, though her villains are pretty great too.
  • Notable Kirito and Sinon contrasts: she’s primarily in white, he’s black; he charges his opponents in a mad rush, she hangs way back and snipes.
  • I dug the flashback to when Asuna was still rocking her Knights of the Blood garb. Too bad we didn’t get to see her fight much. She remains a tragically underused character.

Sword Art Online II – 05

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Ah, Kirito…so good with a sword and at dodging bullets…not so good at avoiding unfortunate situations. To whit: he follows Sinon into the girl’s locker room, forgetting he’s a guy. She’s already in her underwear, so all he can do is tell her the truth and apologize right then and there. Perhaps not undeservedly, Sinon sours on him at once.

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She’s mad not just because he misrepresented himself and got a free show, but every bit as much (if not more) because she let herself get fooled; let herself believe she’d finally met another strong girl in GGO; someone she could trust. While it wasn’t Kirito’s intention, he did make a fool of her, and that’s not something she’ll easily forgive.

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Still, even before the revelation, Sinon warned Kirito that she wouldn’t go easy on him if they meet in the finals; there can one be one BoB champion, after all. Now considering him her enemy, she makes him promise to meet her there so she can personally teach him “the taste of the bullet that means defeat.”

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It’s a harsh position, but like I said, Kirito made her remember how much stronger she needs to become. Meanwhile, Sinon, while declaring she’ll “beat all the strong ones” with a slightly twisted smirk on her face, reminds Kirito of Death Gun, the whole reason he’s here. He’ll know for sure when he gets to fight her who she is, but first he’ll have to win five battles to reach the finals.

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The first battle, set in an ancient ruin at dusk, is a bit hairy at first until Kirito catches on to the way GGO informs you of bullet trajectories. He dodges his opponent’s bullets with acrobatics, speed, and his light sword, which he uses to run him through. One down, four to go. It’s tiring, but it’s doable.

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Then, back in the staging area, where Shinkawa Kyouji (our candidate for Death Gun), is watching Sinon fight on the monitors, Death Gun himself suddenly sidles up to Kirito, asking if he’s “the real thing.” Kirito gets the vibe from the guy that they know each other, and his tattoo confirms it: he’s a fellow SAO survivor and former member of PK guild Laughing Coffin.

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It’s not surprising that Kirito wouldn’t be the only SAO player in GGO, and that some of those other players might not be all right in the head. Since Kirito was a thorn in Coffin’s side, there’s no doubt at this point that he is now on his list of strong ones to eliminate. So much for a low profile!

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Sword Art Online – 10

Kirito loses to Heathcliff in a duel and must join the Knights of the Blood Oath. His first training mission is to clear a dungeon on the 55th floor with Godfrey and Kuradeel, who apologizes for his past behavior. When they stop for lunch, Godfrey and Kirito drink water laced with paralysis poison. Kuradeel is a former member of Laughing Coffin, a criminal guild. He brutally murders Godfrey, then turns on Kirito. When his HP goes critical, Asuna swoops in to save him, and Kirito saves her when she lets her guard down, killing Kuradeel. They spend the night together and agree to fall back from the front lines for a while and get married.

In something like Bleach or Naruto, a battle between a protagonist and a powerful foe or rival can potentially take up dozens of episodes, but here on SAO, it’s literally over in the first five minutes. Kirito loses (in what’s a quick but awesome exchange of sword blows in a Roman-style colosseum), and must join Asuna’s guild. This makes sense; the stakes weren’t that high. All it meant was if he lost, Kirito would have to confront his fear of association stemming from the Moonlit Black Cats and losing Sachi. He tells Asuna this and they share a heartfelt embrace. She tells him not to worry, because she’ll protect him – and we believe it, not just because Asuna is a proven badass, and far stronger than the Cats; but because she actually proves it not too much later on.

It can be said all it takes for evil to succeed is for good to not see evil’s treachery coming. Indeed, both Kirito and Asuna’s inherent goodness and mercy almost get them killed. A good job is done initially showing Kuradeel as genuinely contrite and willing to move on, but when he shows his true despicable colors, he inadvertently serves as the catalyst for advancing the Kirito X Asuna initiative. For this, we forgive his overacting. Watching her in All Business Mode taking out Kuradeel is awesome to watch, and credit where it’s due: Kirito gives Asuna a kiss when she most needs it, and when his intentions couldn’t be conveyed any more powerfully.

She seems to overestimate the level of those intentions when she suddenly kills the lights and cyber-strips in front of him, ready to go all the way. It looks like we’ll get the second straight episode in which the guy turns down a half-naked girl’s advances, but they do indeed sleep together. (We initially thought he didn’t, but on second viewing, he did. Thanks for keeping us on our toes, readers!) This is illustrated in a very subtle sex-cut, going from an Asuna power punch to…er, a lamp…to Kirito waking a content-looking Asuna up post-coitus.

Having shared her bed, he’s now ready to wed her…and settle down for some time in a lower level. Considering they were both almost murdered by a fellow guild member, Heathcliff shouldn’t have a problem with that. We’re glad their relationship has progressed so quickly, and with more than a cour left, there’s plenty of time to test them. We can’t help but think how awesome it would be if they beat the game, wake up, and meet in the real world…amarite? but unlike Kirito and Asuna, let’s take this one step at a time!


Rating: 9 (Superior)