Sword Art Online The Movie – Progressive: Scherzo of Deep Night

The second of the Sword Art Online Progressive movies, Scherzo of Deep Night debuted in October 2022 in Japan and is now making the rounds in the States (and elsewhere) as a limited-run theatrical release. It does assume that the viewer has watch the first movie (Aria of a Starless Night), but no other familiarity with the franchise is required to appreciate it. Those familiar with the original series will appreciate certain parts of it more, however – especially the dramatically greater role of Argo, who appeared only briefly in the original Aincrad content.

Scherzo of Deep Night is the subtitle of the fourth Sword Art Online Progressive novel, which means that the animated version of the storyline is entirely skipping the parts of the first Progressive novel dealing with floor 2 and the entirety of novels 2 and 3. Despite that seemingly-big continuity gap, the movie may actually play better for viewers who have not read the novels. All that an anime-only viewer will missing is more details on a couple of points referenced here, such as Kirito having an earlier conflict with Morte, how Asuna upgraded her rapier, and how the two leading guilds – the Aincrad Liberation Squad (one of the groups that will later merge to form The Army of the original Aincrad arc in the first TV series) and the Dragon Knights Brigade (who weren’t even mentioned in the original Aincrad arc, and so likely either disbanded, were killed off, or absorbed into another guild over time) came to both spring up as competing successors to Diavel and key components of the game’s initial clearing group. However, none of this lack of background knowledge is crippling to understanding what’s going on here, as key background points are laid out sufficiently enough.

On the plus side, anime-only viewers will not be distracted by the other major element that’s missing, and so may appreciate the overall cohesiveness of the movie better. That major element is Kizmel, an autonomous AI-driven dark elf knight NPC, whom Kirito and Asuna fall in with starting on floor 3. Her absence has been very controversial with novel readers, but as much as it would have been nice to see Kizmel in animated form, this novel reader regards it as the right call. Kizmel’s presence is primarily in the context of a multi-floor quest arc Kirito and Asuna get involved with, which chews up a lot of time starting with novel 2 but is also mostly an aside to the main plot lines involving the efforts to clear the game and the rise of the PK guild Laughing Coffin as the setting’s chief player antagonists. In a TV series format, her presence may have been feasible, but major cuts had to be made to make this part of the story work in movie form, and Kizmel is the easiest big cut to make. Also, while Mito hardly fills the role of Kizmel, her continued presence essentially takes up Kizmel’s story space, and her more intimate connection to Asuna is more impactful anyway.

Aside from Kizmel’s absence, the movie hits all of the major story points of novel 4: the two guilds which have formed which compose the bulk of the clearing group aren’t getting along well despite certain members of each being romantically-connected, Morte and his associates are trying to push that into open conflict for their own twisted ends, Kirito and Asuna temporarily get separated by a trap in a dungeon, Asuna has to go to extraordinary lengths to recover something she loses, and Argo emerges to become much more directly involved in activities on the fifth floor, especially involving dealing with the tricky fifth floor boss and stopping a potentially problematic conflict over an item drop which could give a major advantage to one guild or the other. It tackles this by splitting the viewpoint more evenly between Asuna and Kirito’s points of view, though Asuna still gets decidedly more scenes exclusively featuring her than Kirito does. By contrast, Mito still has a presence, but her role is much reduced; prior to the climactic boss battle, she only appears in one scene, though this time both Asuna and Kirito independently interact with her. In the latter case, she serves as the sounding board for Kirito to voice some of his inner thoughts about Asuna and how he can see – even at this point – that she has the potential to become a leader in the game.

The most interesting addition here is the much greater role for Argo, the catty information broker who is rarely in the front of action but plays an integral behind-the-scenes role as the main person behind the production of the player guides. Though Asuna has met her previously to this, this part shows most effectively how the two become friends and how she’s hardly a push-over in a fight if she does get cornered, though her fighting style is far different from that of both Asuna and Kirito. The other highlight part for me was Asuna’s efforts to retrieve her lost item when she’s separated from Kirito. This is the first time since her semi-suicidal solo dungeon exploration midway through the first movie that she has had to act on her own, and she acquits herself well with the strategies she comes up with. Her sharp instincts and quick-thinking under pressure also come into play in the movie’s tense final scene. Hence, while Asuna shows some clear weaknesses here, and still feels at this point like she needs to be watched over, she also shows signs of the grit and capabilities which are the foundations of her eventual rise to being one of Aincrad’s most prominent players.

And of course it wouldn’t be SAO without some glamorous battle scenes. The movie opens with the boss battle on the fourth floor and feature a couple of cool, interesting duels before achieving its action climax with the battle against the Level 5 boss. I won’t spoil the specifics, but that boss offers an interestingly different kind of challenge, one which gives all the major participants – Asuna, Kirito, Argo, and Mito, among others – a chance to shine. Supporting technical merits are about the same as for the first movie, but the musical support, while still effective, did not achieve as much impact.

An English dub is supposedly circulating, too, but that was not available in my area.

Overall, the second movie does not achieve anywhere near the gravitas of the first, and largely because of that, it does not have as much impact or leave as much of an impression. It is still a solid game-oriented fantasy caper worthy of the franchise, and the direction is it taking (in terms of the skips it is making) is an acceptable one; frankly, the Progressive novels are a bit too thorough, and the movie does a respectable job of stripping the story down to its essence while still maintaining a place for new elements like Mito. Whether you’re a novel-reader or anime-only viewer, the movie is worth a look and going for the theater experience if you can.

Rating: B

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