Hey! It’s okay, you are allowed to like Sword Art Online I didn’t think I had to explain that, I thought that I was being, y’know, funny, by playing up and making fun of the whole “I don’t understand how somebody likes an anime that I don’t like!” thing, but, uh, then I read some threads on r/anime, and I realized that Poe’s Law might be kicking in pretty hard So I just want to put this on the record: You’re not a bad person for liking SAO You don’t have shit taste, and you’re not stupid, unless you send me death threats. That’s pretty stupid There are plenty of legitimate reasons to like this show, and today we’re going to be exploring what those are, because any show that can reach over a million people has to be doing something right, and I really want to figure out what that something is And no, this isn’t going to boil down to an insulting and reductive conclusion like, “Thirsty weebs need wish fulfilment,” although I do think that is part of it for some people This is a serious, analytical look at the series The mechanics of mass appeal have always fascinated me, and SAO’s… lacking qualities in other departments make it easier to isolate those mechanics than it would be looking at something like FMA Although, if you guys enjoy this, I absolutely plan to follow it up with more “Why Do We Love” videos in the future, including one about FMA, so let me know in the comments if you’d be interested in seeing that Also, while I’m being nice to you SAO fans, stay tuned to the end of this video to find out how you can win some cool swag signed by Reki Kawahara himself, and get Sword Art Online eBooks for ¥600 off by using the promo code “basement” at bookwalker.com You really can’t understate the impact that SAO has had on popular culture I mean, it takes a lot of brand recognition for an American product to get a shot on network TV, let alone a Japanese one. And much as we critics like to downplay popularity as a measure of quality, success like that doesn’t just come down to random luck. That said, luck is a major factor SAO is often lauded for its great premise, but that’s only half the story The most obvious factor in SAO’s whirlwind success is that it hit on the right premise, at the right time When SAO came out in 2012, eSports and Free to Play games were becoming huge in the public eye League of Legends had already overtaken WoW as the most-played PC game of the year, and WoW’s death grip on the MMO market had loosened enough so that the landscape of online worlds was becoming more expansive and varied than it had ever been before It was the perfect time to release any story about hardcore gaming, hardcore MMO gaming in particular, and with the Hunger Games phenomenon just starting to “catch fire” thanks to the first movie’s release, the market was hot for death game stories in particular Add to that the exploding popularity of the then-new Game of Thrones and Walking Dead, and any series with a similar sense of lethality was bound to do well Just look at how many articles at the time compare Attack on Titan and SAO to those two shows And on top of that, anime was about to blow up in a big way in the West Crunchyroll came to my attention in fall of 2011, when they acquired the rights to Fate/Zero I was hooked enough on the series from watching it on their ad-supported site to bite the bullet on a subscription just to get one episode ahead, and I don’t think I’m the only one From 2011 to 2012, Crunchyroll began offering a serious value proposition by doubling their seasonal anime library, and becoming the go-to place for basically everything coming out of Japan by the summer of 2012 It might not have been Fate/Zero specifically, but between huge series like Hunter x Hunter and quality niche stuff like Space Brothers and Kids on the Slope, the streaming service finally had enough content to pull in and sustain 100,000 subscribers by September of 2012, and 200,000 by March of 2013 It had become the service of choice for the then-niche anime community SAO hit right in the middle of this surge in anime’s Western popularity, right at the point when Crunchyroll had enough content to be worth a subscription, but before it became totally unreasonable to watch everything on the service As one of the biggest fish in a rapidly-expanding pond, SAO both benefited from, and helped spur on the service’s growth Since it was one of the most popular shows on the service, Crunchyroll naturally put it at the forefront of their marketing push, which only increased its brand caché among anime fans and casuals alike At this point, SAO was huge in Japan, and within the niche of Western anime fandom It had proved its market viability enough to become a flagship title for the recently revived and redesigned Toonami block on Cartoon Network in spring of 2013,

and it was both relevant and popular enough to be added to Nexflix in 2014, right in time to hype up the second season Anime had become a massive wave, washing over popular culture, and like 2013’s Attack on Titan, SAO had the good fortune to start riding that wave while it was still small, and go all the way to the top The two series’ similar tones, and similar lethality, meant that fans of one were likely to be fans of the other, and that cross-pollination only helped them both But if good timing and an enticing premise were all it took for a show to embed itself in the popular culture, we’d be staring down season season three of The Unlimited Hyoubu Kyosuke right now, and goddamn, now that I say that, I really wish we were As much as it pains me to admit it, SAO does do some things very right when it comes to its execution that primed it for its whirlwind success One of the biggest factors in this regard is the look of the show A1 Pictures has faced a lot of criticism from anime youtubers and critics in general for the uniform look of its productions, and indeed, it can get pretty tiring to see the same faces, in nearly identical artstyles, over and over again But that’s not going to be a problem for the casual anime fan, whose only seen a few dozen series Their shows might look pretty similar, but they all look polished and professional, assuming they’re given enough time in production [COUGH] Phoenix Wright [COUGH] They might not look or feel as nice as something from Ufotable, Kyoto Animation, or Bones, but they can get most of the way there in less time with a smaller budget, and that’s impressive People like things that feel polished and professional That’s one of the driving principles of my YouTube success, actually When I started out, I made a point of establishing my channel’s look with strong, clean graphic design, so that it wouldn’t feel like a hobby project I just threw together in my mom’s basement Rather, it would feel like a professional production that I threw together in my mom’s basement Hence, I’m a “Professional Shitbag.” If you haven’t seen a million shows like it before, SAO looks really clean and cohesive It looks like what you expect a good anime to look like The lineart is sharp and crisp, the characters blend with the environments well, at least when the camera isn’t moving, and you can freeze on almost any frame and use it as a pretty decent wallpaper, which is all that many casual anime fans look for in a show’s visuals A1’s visual style is also very versatile Its characters look cool, but they’re still very expressive The girls can be moe cute, the heroes can look badass and youthful, and the adults can look old and hardened, and they all look like they exist within the same world Despite its “Sameface Syndrome” problem when put next to other A1 anime, SAO’s main cast has impressively diverse and easily recognisable character designs On the subject of design, while I do think that SAO would be a crappy game in real life, I will credit it for looking very visually appealing The environments are super varied and interesting, from the flower dungeon, to the ice peak where they fight the dragon, to the trippy cave system where they find the Gleam Eyes As VR spectacles go, this world would be a hell of a draw The show’s visuals can really pop with vibrant colors, without looking too silly, and those can be muted down for more serious scenes without it looking incongruous with the rest of the show SAO manages to sell moe, horror, action, and even Looney Tunes-esqe cartoon comedy at times, and it all feels like roughly part of the same series And that highlights one of the show’s other big strengths; plot variety Because of the long timescale of its storyline and the way that its setting creates a sort of blank slate for adventure, it can dabble in lots of different plot concepts, and even genres One episode might be a short tragedy about Kirito watching all of his friends die, while the next is a cute story about saving a little girl’s pet and beating up some cackling Team Rocket villains, and that can be followed with a two-parter murder mystery, and after that, why not, let’s go on a sidequest for crafting materials that blossoms into a short unrequited love story! None of these individual stories have to have to be particularly great, hell, they don’t even have to make much logical sense, because each one is so different from the last that it’s kind of fun to watch just for the surprise of finding out what they’re going to do next Even if you really hate one storyline, you can rest assured that something new is on the horizon within an episode or two, and there’s a good chance that at least one of the many things the show tries will work for you And because Kirito’s character arc is about learning to open up to other people, all of those different plots feel like they’re moving the central plot forward, or at least a little, even if they’re really just filler That results in a show that feels like it’s moving forward at a good pace Emphasis on “feels,” because if you look at the actual storytelling and the logical structure of events,

it’s an absolute mess. I mean, just look at the final fight between Kirito and Kayaba Akihiko, it just comes out of nowhere on floor 75 and, agh, doesn’t work at all But, if you’re just sitting down for entertainment, how a show feels to watch is paramount, and what sense it makes doesn’t matter so much And to be clear, I’m not saying that it’s dumb to enjoy a show on that level There’s value in sitting down, turning your brain off, and simply being entertained for the sake of relaxation Analyzing anime can feel like work. For me, it is work In SAO, it feels like at least one really important thing happens every single episode, and there’s usually a really cool-feeling action scene every two or three episodes to keep the excitement up As a result, the show has momentum Once you start watching, it’s very easy to keep watching without getting bored or confused The show is consumable, like popcorn or other A1 Pictures shows like Gate The show suffers, a lot, when it loses this forward momentum, which I think is a big part of why even fans of the series acknowledge that the Fairy Dance arc kinda sucks Kirito has a clear goal there, with an obvious solution in trying to rescue Asuna, which means that any diversion from that goal, like going off to fight a random guy in PvP, feels like a true waste of time And Kirito’s character is entirely static during that storyline, he doesn’t grow or change at all Neither does Asuna, or anyone aside from Suguha, and even then, only kind of So even when the story is moving forward, it feels kind of flat Gun Gale fixes that in a kind of artifical way by giving Kirito sudden onset PTSD to get over, but it does help the story feel more substantial, and fans reacted positively to that When it does work, even if it doesn’t actually have any idea where it’s going, SAO’s story moves forward with a bold sense of confidence and purpose Speaking of boldness, SAO also excels at setting a strong tone for whatever is happening in its story at any given time, particularly early on Not necessarily the most appropriate tone, as Explanation Point noted while talking about the first boss fight in his excellent video about SAO Abridged, but a tone that is powerful and striking nonetheless The monsters feel scary and intimidating, the comedy feels fun and lighthearted, the romance feels heartwarming and intimate, the deaths feel tragic and poignant If you’re not invested in the story and characters, a lot of this can feel cloying and emotionally manipulative, but until something happens to take you out of that, like Yui’s death did for me, watching SAO is an emotional rollercoaster A big part of that is Tomohiko Ito’s direction He is really good at placing the camera and cutting in a way that draws out the maximum possible emotion from any given scene He needs to work with great source material, like Erased or Gin no Saji to really shine, but even working with Reki Kawahara’s leavings, he does a good job Like the use of reflections in windows while Kirito listens to Sachi’s last message to him is legitimately incredible filmmaking The emotional impact of the series is further enhanced by the work of Yuki Kajiura, Tomohiko Ito’s most favoritist composer, who also crafted the amazing soundtrack of Erased, as well as Tsubasa, Madoka Magica, Fate/Zero, Kara no Kyoukai, and some of the Xenosaga video games Yuki Kajiura is one of the the most singularly talented composers working in the anime industry today, and it’s hard to understate just how much of an impact I think she’s had on the perceived quality of SAO Her compositions for the show give it an air of cinematic quality, but they also feel distinctly, and very appropriately, video game-y In particular, I’d argue that she is the primary reason that people say SAO has good action scenes Her compositions make fights that are actually pretty stilted and janky, outside of a few sakuga cuts, feel incredibly bombastic and slick. When SAO’s music kicks up, it gets your pulse pounding, and it’s hard to resist getting caught up in it or even humming along to that memorable hook Watch these fights without the music, and they kinda… suck I’m working on a much longer video talking about why in detail, but if you want to see for yourself, I’ll link to a compilation of the best fights of the series in the doobly-doo Kajiura’s abilities don’t just improve the action scenes, though Her work is an integral part of that emotional rollercoaster effect, heightening the emotion of each scene and connecting the emotional beats so that the shifts in tone feel less jarring than they might otherwise feel She makes the scary scenes feel scarier, the sad scenes feel much, much sadder, and the romantic scenes feel powerful and moving And that brings us to the big reason that I think people love SAO

Most of the things I’ve talked about so far aren’t totally unique to SAO, and though they are important factors in getting people interested and keeping them invested in what’s going on, they’re not enough on their own to make people care so much that they’ll tell me to kill myself in my comments when I badmouth it To evoke that kind of emotional response, a show really needs to get its audience to say “Fuck yeah!” And the thing that makes a lot of people say that, myself included when I first watched SAO, is the fact that Kirito and Asuna get together in episode ten, after several episodes of buildup where other characters notice that they have a thing for each other, and it’s just really cute That’s just not a thing that happens in anime. Even in shows with a clear OTP relationship, nine times out of ten the romance will be drawn out to its breaking point, and the characters will only hook up right at the end of the story, which isn’t just a lazy way to create an emotional arc, it’s tedious to watch The “Will They, Won’t They?” is a story we’ve seen a million times, while the equally interesting story about what happens after, the trials and tribulations of actually dating and being in love, is almost never touched upon You can justify that in a romance anime where the story is about characters sorting out their feelings and finally getting together, Toradora does that and it’s just about perfect, but even there, after a while you start to crave shows that buck that trend, like Ore Monogatari, My Little Monster, and Golden Time And with shows that have other things driving the plot, there’s really no excuse There are few things that could really improve on Fullmetal Alchemist, but Winry and Ed hooking up earlier in the story would probably be one of them Look at how many people loved Mikasa’s confession to Eren at the end of Attack on Titan season two That was beautiful! Or how I, and only I, because I’m literally the only person who watched this show, gushed about Eii-chan and Natsu hooking up in Baby Steps season two It’s a very pleasant surprise to see two main characters of a show like SAO commit to a monogamous relationship this early in the plot, and I think that most people who love the series do so because, in this respect, it doesn’t waste their time This plot turn changes changes a lot of story dynamics, too, since Kirito and Asuna can be explicitly motivated by their love for one another, and that love can be made much deeper than the obvious mutual crushes that drive shows less willing to pull that trigger And for a story so driven by its emotional content, that one change makes SAO feel very different from just about everything else a casual fan is likely to have seen, and from what you would probably expect going into the show Now if you’re like me, and you think a lot about story structure and plot logic, that effect of that change doesn’t really last Reki Kawahara is totally unwilling to abandon his harem anime nonsense, so every new arc sees Kirito introduced to a new hot girl who wants to jump his bones In terms of narrative structure, that really undercuts the importance of his commitment to Asuna But, if you’re just watching the show to enjoy a show, then it feels very substantial, to the point that fans get very mad at me when I call this harem anime a harem anime, in the same way that all of the deaths early on make the show feel very lethal and dangerous, so long as you don’t realize that all of the key characters have plot armor If you do buy into it, the scenes of Kirito and Asuna being a couple and enjoying each other’s company are extremely emotionally satisfying And by the same token, if Yui doesn’t bug you the same way she bugs me, her relationship with Kirito and Asuna is adorable Hell, Asuna and Kirito’s romance is the only part of the movie that I think really works To get more cynical for a moment, for the segment of the audience that does use this show as pure escapist wish fulfilment, the fact that Kirito can have an emotionally fulfilling relationship with his wife, while still being chased by hotties who look like this, and this, all because he’s so dang good at video games that he’s basically invincible, those aspects only improve the show for you But I don’t think that most people who love SAO love it for those reasons I think they love it because it managed to get them deeply invested in its main characters through one very bold plot turn, and once you care about those characters, seeing Kirito be an unstoppable badass stops being eye-rolling, and starts being cool and fun I think they love SAO because the world that it creates seems like a very appealing place on the surface to spend time in, and you can imagine yourself being one of the NPCs going off and doing something that’s not vital to Kirito’s plotline, like that guy who’s fishing, for some reason I think they love SAO because it came at the right time in their lives, right when they were getting into anime If you’ve seen hundreds of anime, then yeah, parts of it are going to feel played out, but if you’ve seen just a handful, SAO is going to feel fresh, and new, and exciting And considering that it’s at the forefront of the anime fandom, even today, I think it will be among many people’s first anime for many years to come, and I think that ties into why so many of us so passionately hate this show as well

Because when we discovered it, it had all of this promise and potential, but at one point or another, be it a poorly-executed death or a very, very poorly-executed rape scene, it let us down profoundly, and we were left unable to enjoy this thing that, at one point, seemed like it could be so great, that was, at one point, so enjoyable for us That disappointment is a lot more cutting than the overt and unsurprising terribleness of something like The Asterisk War or Akashic Record But not everyone was disappointed in it in the same way. And while I do think it’s fundamentally poorly made, SAO does some things right that are going to be more important for some people than the things it does wrong are for me That’s just how art works, and if those are your tastes, if this show is important to you, you might be interested to know that bookwalker.com, KADOKAWA’s light novel and manga eBook store currently has two contests running where you can run a Shikishi art board signed by series author Reki Kawahara, or an Ordinal Scale Clear File, featuring art of Asuna and Kirito right from the movie To enter for a chance to win, all you have to do is buy any volume of the original SAO light novels, or the new Progressive light novels, which you can get for just two bucks by entering the promo code “basement” at checkout for ¥600 off your order Buying the SAO Progressive novels will give you a slightly higher chance of winning a signed board, since they have two up for grabs for those, but if you buy one of each novel, you will have two chances to win And not only do you get a chance at the prize, you’ll also be able to read the SAO light novels on any device, from your phone, to your tablet, to your NerveGear People have told me many times over that the books are better than the show, although I’ll be evaluating that for myself soon enough, so if you’re a fan of the show and you haven’t read them yet, you might really enjoy them And if you’re not an SAO fan, you should know that volume eighteen of Spice and Wolf and volume four of Re:Zero just hit the Bookwalker storefront as well If you want those, or anything else they have to order, remember that you can use the coupon code “basement” to get ¥600 off that purchase And if you’ve seen my “Amazon is Killing Anime” video, then you know that I’m donating three dollars for every person who uses that coupon to the Animator Dormitory Project, in order to help out young animators struggling to find their footing in Tokyo If you are a fan of SAO, or, like me, you used to like it, then leave a comment below, and let me know what you think of this assessment And while you’re down there, if you could hit subscribe and tell me what you think of this whole format for talking about popular shows, I would appreciate that too If you are a fan of SAO, or someone who used to like it, I’d love to hear your thoughts about this assessment in the comments below And while you’re down there, before you hit subscribe, I’d also appreciate you telling me if you want to see more videos like these about what make shows popular And if you really want to support the channel, you can go to patreon.com/(mothers)basement and pledge money monthly to help me make more videos like this one With your help, I can hire editors like the very talented FlipAnime, who actually made this video, and make my videos better and better as a result The people whose names you’re seeing onscreen right now are people who helped me out, and I cannot thank them enough from the bottom of my heart for doing so If you want to hear me talk about SAO some more, and you’re willing to laugh at the series, then you should check out this video where I break down why the game design in the show is kinda bad Or if you want to hear me praise Tomohiko Ito, then you should check out this video where I talk about Erased But if this is the last that I see of you today, then I’m Geoff Thew, professional shitbag, something something link start