Sword Art Online: Alicization – 05 – Returning the Favor

After spending four episodes in the Underworld with Kirito, we finally return to the real world, picking up right where we left it, when Kazuto got injected while protecting Asuna.

Asuna meets Suguha and Kazuto’s mother at the hospital, where they’re informed that he may never regain consciousness after suffering untold damage when his heart was stopped for five minutes.

Then everyone’s favorite morally ambiguous suit Kikuoka Seijirou shows up, telling Kaz’s family that there’s only one place that can treat him properly.

They concur, and Kazuto is transferred to another facility, but when Asuna and Suguha try to visit him the same evening, they aren’t allowed. Further, Asuna’s monitor of Kaz’s heart rate is out of range; he’s just gone, and so is Kikuoka.

Asuna and Suguha meet with their friends in ALO to bring them up to speed, and with help from Yui they begin to assess the places he’s been and the places he could be now. The group splits up, with Klein driving Asuna and Suguha to a nondescript warehouse and helipad…but there’s no Kazuto, at least not anymore.

Apparently at a dead end, Yui tells “Mama” Asuna not to give up, as “Papa” Kirito never gave up looking for Asuna in ALfheim. Agreeing, Asuna asks Suguha if she remembers anything her bro said about his job; she remembers that the machine he used was based on the Medicuboid, designed by Kayaba Akihiro, AKA Heathcliff, inventor of NerveGear and Game Master of SAO.

Asuna recalls someone watched over Kayaba while he was diving, then recalls her name: Koujirou Rinko. Yui finds Rinko at a lab in California. She, along with Kayaba, was a member of the Shigemura Lab, which developed the Augma headset. It stands to reason she might know about STL and Kazuto’s wherabouts, so Asuna sends her an email.

Turns out Dr. Koujirou Rinko has already been hounded by Kikuoka to join him on a new project, and so she travels to his location via helicopter, which turns out to be a Totally Awesome Top Secret Floating Base called “Ocean Turtle.” Rinko is accompanied by her blonde English-speaking, somewhat shifty assistant Mayumi Reynolds.

After going through a veritable gauntlet of security checkpoints, Rinko and Mayumi enter a command room that oversees the Underworld Kirito is currently living in. It would seem to be an actual physical environment, which explains why those crossing its boundaries into the “Land of Darkness” are so harshly punished.

In the control room they meet Kikuoka, donning yukata and geta as if he were at a seaside retreat. That’s when Rinko reveals why she finally agreed to come: her assistant “Mayumi” is really Asuna in disguise. When Rinko heard from Asuna that Kazuto—whom she met following the death of her lover Kayaba, and who chose not to destroy the World Seed—she decided she’d help Asuna any way she can.

And so now Asuna has managed to slip by a number of layers of carefully laid security and is in the very heart of Rath’s operation. And she’s PISSED. She wants to know where Kirito is, pronto. Considering everything she’s been through thus far, including one would hope Kikuoka would be amenable to her request. Now things are starting to get interesting.

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Regalia: The Three Sacred Stars – 01 (First Impressions)

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Sisters Yui and Rena live a peaceful life in the kingdom of Enastoria, but they become involved in a vortex of destiny when a giant robot challenges Rena, who must reveal her true nature as the non-human core of the Regalia Magna Alecto. Yui stays by her side and together the sisters defeat the bad guy.

After watching Regalia’s first effort, my quest to find original Summer 2016 action/sci-fi/mecha shows continues to be unfruitful (Zestiria aside).

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While the strong sisterly bond is appealing, the motivations of Rena in this first episode—i.e. so quickly abandoning Yui to fight on her own—felt a bit forced.

The mecha designs are bland and chunky, the overall animation is merely average, and the bad-guy-of-the-week is laughably subpar, simply yelling a bunch of stuff before being taken down.

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More than anything, there’s the strong scent of the familiar all over Regalia, from the fact one character is an empress and the other the product of science/mysticism, to the extremely uninspiring mecha battle. Even the title of the show sounds generic.

Regalia doesn’t do anything offensively bad, but it doesn’t offer anything exciting or new that would hook me. And so, with a handful of new shows left to watch, my search continues.

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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 – 02

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This week backed up a bit from Sinon’s introductory scene last week, setting up that scene with a bit of team strategizing, and then barreling right into the action, which barely lets up thereafter. The episode is dominated by one big, elaborate, very slickly-animated, thrilling battle. Just two episodes in, and things are looking good here at SAO.

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In GGO, Sinon is the sniper in a six-man crew of player-hunters, but their latest prey appear on the horizon with a new face attached to a big, cloaked body. Sinon is uneasy about this unknown, and wants to take him out first to eliminate that unknown, but the team leader Dyne overrules her. Sinon shoots the known Minimi gun-holder first, and can’t take out the stranger after, as he dodges. Then he pulls the cloak off to reveal…a minigun.

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Turns out the big man is Behemoth, a noted bodyguard-for-hire whose smile on the battlefield only further fuels Sinon’s intense desire to kill him, proving she’s the strongest on said battlefield. When her team loses a man, Dyne wigs out, but Sinon calms him down and directs everyone to execute a pincer attack. Behemoth still won’t go down, even after Dyne lunges at him with a gutsy suicide attack that buys her time to find a new nest.

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But even high up in a huge, awesome half-collapsed skyscraper, as Sinon’s crosshairs focus on Behemoth, his focus on hers, and she loses her leg, dodging a lethal shot only barely. As she plummets to the ground, she executes a number of bullet-dodging acrobatics before finally regaining her bearings and delivering a perfectly timed headshot. Sinon 1, Behemoth 0; Game over. “Sinon” awakes in the real world, unsatisfied. She won, but lost two comrades and a leg. She’s not as strong as she wants to be. Not yet.

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The episode could have cut to credits right then and there and I’d have been perfectly happy, but instead we get Bonus SAO, as we check in on Leafa, Liz, and Silica still chillin’ in ALfeim Online, gathering loot. Kirito and Asuna are also there with Yui, happy as clams. Staring up at Aincrad, Kirito ready to discuss something with Asuna—most likely the mission Kikuoka gave him last week. The day he inevitably crosses paths with Sinon should be something to behold.

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Sword Art Online – 24

Kirito and Yui materialize in the same white corridor where Asuna was once in. Yui breaks through the walls and they find themselves in the World Tree’s branch system. Kirito spots the birdcage and they race to it, and reunite with Asuna. They need a console to log her out, but before they can do so Sugou materializes, dispersing Yui and immobilizing both with gravity magic. He strings Asuna up and starts to undress and molest her in front of Kirito, who hears the voice of Heathcliff. Kirito gets up and logs in as Heathcliff, then resets King Oberon to Level 1. After defeating him, he logs Asuna out. Kayaba Akihito’s digital afterimage gives him “The Seed”, a new world of some kind, and then Kirito logs out, thanks Sugu, and bikes to the hospital to see Asuna.

We’ve long since written off Nobuyuki Sugou/King Oberon as an absolutely irredeemable, One-Dimensionally Evil Bastard. The video game database GiantBomb has four criteria that exclude a character from this category: “1.) a traumatic or tragic experience in the past that affected their mental state, 2.) a potentially misplaced sense of justice; seeking revenge from a wrongdoing committed against them or someone they cared about, 3.) a potentially misguided belief that their actions will not only benefit his or her self, but the world around them as well, and 4.) ultimately reform their ways and become good.” Sugou has none of these qualities, so yeah, he’s PURE EVIL. In case you doubted it, this week he chains Asuna up by her wrists, starts tearing her already-skimpy clothes off, and starts lapping up her tears with his tongue. You have to hand it to SAO, they were not going to hold back with this guy.

Anyway, he’s clearly decided he’s going to have his way with her, in front of Kirito no less, so it’s a good thing there’s a hint of Heathcliff still floating around this world to aid Kirito. You have to wonder if his desire to possess Asuna body and soul clouded his judgement, causing him to overlook technical stuff beyond his control that lurked in the bowels of the game he stole. In any case, finally Kirito, Asuna, and Yui reunite (this happens early, and it’s a beautifully cathartic little scene), and then, once Kirito has had enough and heard the voice of Kayaba Akihito, he exacts righteous vengeance upon King Oberon, making sure to maximize the pain he can feel before slicing him to bits. Our only concern now is, can Kazuto get to Asuna before Sugou? The episode doesn’t seem all that worried, but we are. When he was killed in the game, he woke up. He’s still a hella dangerous guy. If we were Kazuto, we wouldn’t rest until the real Asuna is in our arms and Sugou’s behind bars.


Rating: 8 (Great)

Sword Art Online – 22

Kirito tries to break through the barrier, but can’t. Far above, Asuna can hear Yui calling for her. She responds by throwing down a SysAdmin access card. Kirito heads to the tree’s base, where he must start a grand quest to gain access to the interior. Once within, he meets heavy resistance from hundreds of high-level guardians, and he’s KO’ed before he reaches the top of the chamber. Leafa enters to retrieve his resurrection flame and revives him outside. Kirito starts to head back in, and when Leafa tries to stop him, he says Asuna’s name, and Leafa realizes he’s Kirito. They both log out, and Sugu confesses everything to Kazuto before shutting herself in her room.

Well, be careful what you wish for; you may get it: Leafa and Kirito now know each others’ true identities. When we think back on all the time Leafa’s been spending with Kirito, it’s pretty amazing he’s never spoken Asuna’s name. Instead, Yui’s referred to her as “Mommy”, while Kirito hasn’t refer to her by name at all. Combined with the fact Kirito and Leafa both sound exactly like Kazuto and Suguha, we’ve always had trouble suspending belief about their ignorance. But that’s all over now; the cat’s out of the bag, and in sudden and gloriously harsh fashion. Now Kazuto and Suguha are in a very, very bizarre situation.

Of course, Kazuto’s been in a strange situation ever since he was trapped in SAO for two years, and his virtual wife is now stuck in ALfeim, and direct assaults on the World Tree’s defenses come up well short. But once Suguha tells him the lot – and it’s a very emotionally-affecting scene brought home expertly by Taketatsu Ayana – Kazuto can only…apologize. He still has to rescue Asuna; her life, sanity, and even identity are all at real risk. We feel for Suguha, but it’s pretty clear Kazuto will never feel the same way for her he feels for Asuna, even if he thought it was okay. Whatever happens, few series shake up status quos as aptly as SAO.


Rating: 9 (Superior)

Sword Art Online – 19

Kirito and Leafa enter a cave network that leads through the subterranean town of Lugru, but Yui alerts them to a dozen players headed in their direction. They turn out to be a squad of Salamander mages, who block the entrance to Lugru and force Kirito into a fight. Leafa hangs back and heals him, and he uses an illusion spell to transform into a giant monster that kills eleven of the twelve. Back to normal, he bribes the survivor for information. Once in town, Leafa logs out to learn Recon’s been trying to reach her. He knows Sigurn is working with the Salamanders, and is planning an surprise attack on a meeting between the Sylphs and Cait Sith.

As the main battle in this episode showed, battles in Alfeim are a bit more complicated than swords and shields. Sure, there’s both of those, but augmented by a galaxy of magic that hurts, heals, supports and sabotages. Sigurn has ordered a hit on Kirito and Leafa, and the squad he sends definitely has their shit together. Kirito complains earlier about having to learn English to memorize the spells, but it doesn’t sound like any English we know. He’s a a meleer no surprise the spell he ultimately casts on himself turns him into an even more powerful meleer. Apparently he can also run really fast now, which startles Leafa when he grabs her along for the ride.

Kirito’s goal is to get to that Tree of Life, climb it, and rescue Asuna. Leafa’s faction is now faced with going to all-out-war against the one group who may have the best chance to get where Kirito needs to go. That means Leafa has to deliver the obligatory, selfless “If you want to kill me and join them, go ahead.” speech. Obviously, Kirito declines. In SAO if you died, you were dead in the real world, and if you murdered another players in SAO, that made you a murderer. He’s going to keep playing with a conscience and not give in to the impulses the game offers to sate. To him, they’re all in it together. And there is a life at stake in Alfeim: Asuna.


Rating: 6 (Good)

P.S. Lugru is yet another awesome-looking town. It’s too bad they spend like no time there.

Sword Art Online – 18

Lyfa and Kirito leave the city bound for Arun, the base of the World Tree, but when her fellow party member Sigurn protests, she decides she’ll be a renegade with Kirito. Recon asks him to take care of her while he stays behind to investigate something. Oberon tells Asuna he met Kirito in the real world and doubts he’ll come for her, but Asuna knows better, and discovers the code for her cell door. Kirito experiences “rotating out” for the first time, but neither he nor Suguha notice the other is still in the game. Kirito has the feeling they’re being watched, and Suguha mentions the possibility of an animal “tracer”, in this case a bat.

The series seems to be committed to following Suguha everywhere, even places where she might not be fully clothed. While we know this is just fanservice, showing her in her underwear and naked in the bath could be construed as visual metaphors for her vulnerability as she struggles with her feelings for her brother and the nature of this new Kirito guy who has totally upturned her VR life (which isn’t a bad thing). Her comatose bro inspired her to start playing Alfeim Online, to see for herself the world her brother loved so much. One wonders why her mother allowed her daughter (and only conscious child at the time) to start playing VR games after what happened to Kazuto. Maybe she doesn’t know.

Her adventurous spirit in Alfeim doesn’t show through in the real world, where she decides against barging in on her brother. If she had, she could’ve discovered he’s Kirito, which would make things very interesting, but the series seems to be saving that revelation for another time, which we understand, as it’s a big one. Whenever it happens (and it better effing happen) the awkward situation between Suguha and Kazuto is at least more intriguing than seeing Oberon poking Asuna in her cage. Seriously, dude…you mounted a mirror so that the keypad could be seen in the reflection? We’re hoping that’s intentional, to give Asuna a glimmer of hope to later snuff out, ’cause that’s not good prison design.


Rating: 7 (Very Good)

P.S. The view from the top of that tower that Kirito and Lyfa jump off is inded quite nice. Also, honorable mention to Yui, who gets some cute scenes.

Sword Art Online – 16

Kazuto visits Agil, who tells him the pixelated photo of Asuna was taken by players of a new MMO called ALfeim Online, after flying to the highest level they could reach. Agil lends him the game, and Kazuto uses his NerveGear to jump in. Once he registers as Kirito, he learns he still has all his SAO parameters and skill levels compatable with ALfeim, but all his items are unknown save one: the file he copied Yui into. She is resurrected as a Navigation Pixie. Kirito watches two other players, Lyfa and Recon, get chased by baddies; Recon is knocked out of the game, and Lyfa is cornered. Kirito comes to the rescue, owning the baddies.

Let’s get this outta the way – SPOILER ALERT: Lyfa is Kazuto’s sister Sugu. Book it. Yeah, she doesn’t look like her, but she sounds like her, and she yells the same when she’s swinging her sword. Also, she’s good with that sword. Like a kendo quarterfinalist. So now Kirito (he’s Kirito again!) finds himself in another MMO (though not trapped in it) with both his little sister and his soulmate Asuna (who is trapped). The underlying SAO architecture is the same. Asuna didn’t wake up because she remained trapped in that architecture  Why is anyone’s guess, but it certainly is a raw hand to be dealt.

While the new fairy look makes Kirito look dumber, this game is already cooler in our books because players can fly. That’s a nice feature. It does suck, however, that all of Kirito’s inventory except for Yui was corrupted, and Yui isn’t even omnipotent anymore (if they had to bring her back, this was a clever way to do it). But despite that, Kirito is able to kick some ass, impressing someone he probably doesn’t realize is his sister/cousin. And we can bet he’ll be trying his darnedest to get up into that World Tree to free Asuna from her big birdcage. She remains off-screen and inactive this week; naught but a damsel in distress. And she was once so much more, long ago…well, actually just two episodes ago.


Rating: 7 (Very Good)