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Thursday, November 6, 2014

I Wasted Half An Hour Reading The Sword Art Online: Aincrad Manga

Pictured above: a huge waste
of time.
So you won't have to! Believe me, you don't want to. "But I'm the biggest SAO fan in my anime club!" No, you don't. "But I love Kirito and Asuna!" Then you'll hate this. "But I always read the-" NO. YOU. DON'T.

Quick summary of Sword Art Online for the cheap seats: an incredibly immersive MMORPG using virtual reality technology named Sword Art Online has just opened for regular play, only now thousands of players are locked into the game with no log out button and real, IRL death around every corner - unless they can defeat the final boss, clear every level, and beat the game.

Our protag, Kirito, is a beta tester player with a special dual wielding ability who becomes the user base's best chance at survival. He teams up with Asuna, one of the fastest and strongest users in the game, and they eventually fall in love. Video game hijinks ensue. People die. Ridiculous bosses spring up for drama. And then the final boss shows up! If you watched SAO on Toonami, you already know this familiar song and dance routine.

But if this is your first introduction to the SAO verse, you are getting a rather slapdash version of it. It's a non-linear, messy wreck of an adaptation and can be very confusing without previous knowledge of the series. And if you've already watched the Aincrad arc in anime form, you really don't need to read the manga.

First things first: the artwork is awful. Tamako Nakamura draws like a beginning artist who just opened their first account on Pixiv and is still figuring out their Wacom tablet. The age of characters are skewed by Nakamura's art: Kirito looks like a child when he's supposed to be high school age, and the older characters look cartoonishly aged. The action scenes are splashed on the page and hard to follow with the eye; there's no natural flow to them, and the artwork clutters the panels without rhyme or reason.

Could they make Asuna look any more
stereotypically moe?
Every character has the same trio of limpid expressions - embarrassment, anger, and confusion. Asuna and Kirito blush bright and often, like virginal school children about to be punished for being out late. At times, the character design looks warped, like Nakamura isn't aware of how human anatomy works. It's almost mortifying to read.

On top of that, it recounts the story of Kirito and Asuna in a non-linear fashion. It jumps around the Aincrad arc, skimping on essential arcs or outright cutting them out. There is more pages spent on Yui the mystery girl than on Kirito's old guild or how people were doing horrible, terrible things in SAO, either to take advantage of other people or get out of the game by any method possible.

The Aincrad Liberation Army is seen long enough to be made irrelevant by Kirito and Asuna. Heathcliff feels more like an afterthought than anything else, and the ending is painfully rushed and devoid in emotional resonance. This bit makes me the most angry about this chopped and screwed take on SAO, as the end of the Aincrad arc hit me where it hurt and made me believe it had been worth the pain to get Kirito to the final boss.

The pacing is so slapdash that it's hard to believe the omnibus put out by Yen Press spans several years of people trapped in Aincrad. We don't see a lot of the boss battles, or how the levels are actually cleared, and a lot of the base towns throughout Aincrad aren't even seen or mentioned. In other words, if you want the whole story of how Kirito saved the world, you have to watch the anime or read the visual novel. The manga doesn't do it justice one bit.

As a manga adaptation, this added nothing to the original Sword Art Online story. As an independent manga, it is confusing and messy to read and lacks charm. As a part of the SAO canon, it's not worth the time it would take to read it. I won't be picking up the Fairy Dance manga; I can only imagine how jellyfish-like they've turned Leafa into. Now the light novel? That's a different story. Perhaps the artwork will be better.

You can watch the Sword Art Online anime on Crunchyroll.