While possessing a perfectly enjoyable charm, Sword Art Online Progressive: Aria of a Starless Night struggles with a few glitches in its writing and its focus.
Here’s the biggest plot hole of this movie: It forgets the fact that if even a single Korean player was in SAO, this whole death game would end in 6 hours. Don’t believe me? Ask Diablo III.
Sword Art Online Progressive: Aria of a Starless Night – certainly a mouthful of a title but believe it or not, actually short as anime titles go – takes place in a not so distant future where a sort of massively enhanced Valve Index called the NerveGear is widespread, allowing people to take dive their consciousness into a virtual world. One such world is a newly released game called “Sword Art Online”, an MMORPG. However, it turns out to be a cruel trap designed by the developer, Kayaba Akihiko (Yamadera Koichi), who reveals that no one can log out of the game, and that if they should die in the game, they will die in real life.
Now, if you searched up and clicked on this review at all, odds are you would know what Sword Art Online is, and what this movie is based on. In fact, I’d like very much to bring up the source material and compare the two, since that lends a new perspective to how this movie handles things. However, not only would that make this review longer than a whole college essay, but there is still an infinitesimal chance that you just happened to stumble on this review by accident. Therefore, I’ll look at this movie solely on its own as much as possible.
The film centers around a player called Yuuki Asuna (Tomatsu Haruka), who is, to put it in gamer terms, a complete noob. She doesn’t even spend five minutes on character customization, and she puts her real name as her username; anyone who spent more than a day on the internet would know this is a massive shortcut to getting ten thousand stalkers attached to you. But more importantly, she doesn’t know anything about this death game she has been thrown into. How does she fight? Where should she go? What weapons suit her? This makes her quite suited as the protagonist: after all, if you played any MMO, or even any game in general, it’s not hard to relate to that lost feeling.
Thankfully, she’s got a helpful guide alongside her called Mito (Minase Inori), who is also her IRL friend. Unlike Asuna, not only is Mito a skilled gamer, but she was also a beta tester for “Sword Art Online”, allowing her to gain and share many tricks and tips with Asuna. While she doesn’t get too much of a buildup initially, her friendship with Asuna is pretty believable, and she has a perfectly understandable motivation: she doesn’t want her friend to die. She is also there for organic worldbuilding, sort of like a gamer walking her friend through her first let’s play.
In all honesty, what I just said would sound common and obvious for writing in general; a lot of them bring in a clueless protagonist in order to fill the readers in on the world alongside the character. However, commonality isn’t necessarily a bad thing; hardly anyone in the world doesn’t know what a big Mac is, but that doesn’t make it any less filling.
And the film still manages to keep its own identity due to its world. The premise of a game world turned reality is an inherently appealing concept, after all. Who didn’t want to one day step into the shoes of their superpowerful online avatar deepDark666 and explore the game? The fantasy world is filtered through video game mechanics such as debuffs or menu windows, things that are easily recognizable. It is putting a spin on the typical fantasy world by using the familiarity and immersive appeal that games provide. And that fantasy never lets go of the dark edge behind the premise, that death in this new world is a legitimate threat.
Point is, while the characters aren’t insanely well written with ten different layers to them, they are relatable and sympathetic, both Asuna, who has no idea what she’s doing and just wants to survive, and Mito, who wants her friend to stay alive no matter what. I would have been fine if the movie was just focused on these two trying to clear the game.
But then, around the halfway mark, a new character shows up. His name is Kirito (Matsuoka Yoshitsugu) and he’s apparently one of the best players in the game, and he starts to take plot significance. And here’s where I must break my initial promise a bit and mention the source material. See, this movie is an adaptation of a light novel series called “Sword Art Online Progressive”. However, in the original, the main characters were Asuna and Kirito, and it was their dynamic that propelled the plot. Mito is a completely original character, made solely for the movie.
Thus comes the biggest issue with the film, because the seams where they attached the Asuna and Mito story to the Asuna and Kirito story is rather obvious. Separately, they are good: Kirito has a slightly different but still appealing relationship with Asuna through the second half that contributes to Asuna’s character. However, Mito’s presence diminishes as a result, and in the end, her story with Asuna feels muddled. I feel it says something when Kirito and Mito never legitimately interact with each other once in the story.
Not only that, but towards the end we actually get some more development on Kirito’s side. Now, this wouldn’t be an issue if he was the dual protagonist alongside Asuna; however, because of Mito, Kirito doesn’t even appear until an hour into the film, meaning his sudden prominence and plot significance feels much more incongruous. And it hurts Asuna as the main character, as now she has to share center stage with not one but two protagonists. Even from the perspective of a completely new viewer, the problem still persists because the lack of focus remains regardless of whether you know the source material.
Is this film bad? I wouldn’t say so. It has stellar production value, with dynamic animation and action scenes that really bring the world of Sword Art Online to life. But in a way, that’s even more frustrating, because I can see the overall package being legitimately good if they patched out all the bugs in the story. Again, I feel it’d have been perfectly fine if they went in a completely new direction with this adaptation and just focused on Asuna and Mito. But they settled on both doing something new and staying faithful to the original, and the end result is like trying to eat fried chicken and chocolate at the same time: tasty on their own, but not when sharing a mouthful.
Sword Art Online Progressive: Aria of a Starless Night is currently being screened in theatres and IMAX screens in the US and Canada.