In 2012, the anime series Sword Art Online debuted. Despite nitpicking about its shaky logical foundations, the compelling dual gimmicks of its premise – players trapped in a VR MMO game, actions taken there have real-life life-or-death consequences – won out and turned the series into an immediate smash hit. That began one of the most enduringly popular franchises of the 2010s, despite the flawed nature of the source novel: it had big story gaps, was too much of a raw power fantasy for some tastes, and regularly violated its setting’s own rules for purpose of dramatic license. The anime series improved the story gap problem by including side stories from a second novel which greatly filled out the initial Aincrad arc, but even then, the story was not as robust as it could be. Writer Reki Kawahara recognized that, and so produced the Sword Art Online Progressive novelseries, a revision from the very beginning specifically designed to flesh the story out a lot more. This movie adapts the entirety of the first Progressive novel while also revising and updating the story even further. The result is a triumph which thoroughly satisfied this franchise fan, even if I didn’t feel that everything it tried completely worked.
The original Aincrad arc was told mostly from the point of view of Kirito, which too often resulted in Asuna’s potential strength as a character getting downplayed. Though advertised as a veritable co-lead, she rarely got to show what she could do without Kirito at her side; in fact, she appeared in only maybe one scene in the entire Aincrad arc where Kirito was not also present, and she was not even the focus character in that scene. (Both Silica and Lizbeth got more feature solo treatment than she did, and they only appeared briefly outside of their feature episodes.) The first Progressive novel partially remedies this by telling some scenes from Asuna’s viewpoint, but the movie takes that a step further by making Asuna the nearly exclusive viewpoint character. This is a wonderful development for dedicated Asuna fans like me, and she once again proves how well she can hold her own in the spotlight.
Peeks into Asuna’s background (which come in the later Mother’s Rosario arc) showed that Asuna was a girl who seemed perfect on the outside but was not in the slightest in control of her life. In fact, trying out her brother’s NerveGear was one of the rare impulsive acts she made entirely of her own will. Sadly, the fateful irony of that is not explored here, but even in SAO she still starts out being led around, protected, and coached by a friend from school. The movie shows how it took a combination of a betrayal by that friend and initial encounters with Kirito for her to find her inner strength – first to die on her own terms and, later, to stand and fight for survival. In the TV series, Asuna dazzled visually when her cloak comes off during the battle against Illfang, but in this version of the scene she dazzles just as much with her commanding presence and spirit, in addition to playing a bigger role in the battle. That she would eventually become the subleader of Aincrad’s leading guild and a driving force behind the effort to clear the game is far more credible after seeing her here. Perhaps most importantly, this also shows that her decision to stick with Kirito even after he declared himself a “beater” (a major change from both the original novel and TV series) is in character for her without any “protagonist gets the girl” contrivances, as she is finally deciding something for herself. This and other scenes here (some from the second episode of the TV series, some not) also lay a much firmer and more convincing foundation for her later romance with Kirito.
The biggest addition is the introduction of Rit, a girl in Aincrad who was Asuna’s classmate, chief academic rival, and closet friend in the real world. (“Closet” in the sense that the two conspicuously only hung around together when Asuna’s other classmates were not around.) In the novel and manga versions, Asuna learned about the game through diligent study after holing up in a room for a few days after Kayaba’s announcement, but here Rit serves that purpose. Rit is both a gamer in general – something which distances her from other girls – and an SAO beta tester specifically, and I did appreciate the beta tester aspect being more than just window dressing. The story does not necessarily need her, and at times tries too hard to force her into established scenes, but she is used effectively, including offering some yuri baiting (many signs point to her being interested in Asuna) and getting some of the most difficult emotional scenes as she must deal with the circumstances that eventually split her from Asuna. Kirito, on the other hand, is relegated to a major supporting role, but seeing him from an outside view is interesting, especially the way he acts towards Asuna during their first meeting. Many other important characters get at least brief cameos, including Argo and one other whose name escapes me but who will be important later in the Progressive adaptations.
The technical merits certainly show off the advance of nearly a decade and a movie-level budget, with recreated scenes looking distinctly sharper this time around; the battle against Illfang in particular shines anew, but the depiction of sword skills in action also looks crisper. Base animation quality in general is also much stronger, and the scenery is as sharp as ever. The musical score leans heavily on themes from the TV series, with a few new additions and a solid closer by LiSa. Only a subtitled version was available at this time; I will update this entry when a dubbed version becomes available.
While established fans will probably get more out of this movie, Aria on a Starless Night is a reasonable entry point to the franchise, as it does start the story from the very beginning. For established fans, it makes an excellent complement to the first two episodes of the first series, and one that I look forward to watching again in dubbed form.