You may have been thinking that what we need at this time of year is a lovely Christmas special of some sort and fate has smiled upon you. The first volume of Sword Art Online is out today!
What? It totes has a Christmas episode. It’s a crazy depressing Christmas episode but Christmas nonetheless.
This is actually an odd one for me because I rarely get to review something that I’ve seen before. Certainly I’ve never gotten to review something that I’ve already seen all the way through twice, so this is something novel for me and I can give you a properly educated opinion on whether the DVD adds value to the series. So let’s find out if it does.
Well this is cheating. I’ve already seen it twice so clearly I love the story and think it’s one of the best examples of Shounen this side of Bakuman. Only problem is, this isn’t the story. This is the first seven episodes of the story.
I have trouble understanding splitting up shows that are already over. It makes sense when they do it in Japan because they’re just cranking them out as quickly as they can and they normally do it while the show is still airing. It makes sense when they do it for long running series because imagine if you had to wait until Doctor Who finished to buy the box set.
So the only reason they could have to break them up is if there’s an obvious break between story lines, which there very much is in Sword Art Online. That and the break happens right in the middle of the show so it’s a perfect time to split the series (well, you’d get 14 eps on one set and 11 of the other, so maybe a bit lopsided but that's what they ended up doing with the 3rd and 4th volume anyway). The place where the split doesn’t happen is after 7 episodes.
That said, I can understand why they broke it where they did. The last episode in this volume thankfully doesn’t end on a cliffhanger but does end by setting up for the love story to happen, so it actually ends up working as an introductory volume before we start properly caring about people.
The question is, is it an intro worth watching?
The simple answer, to my mind, is yes. One of the great things about Sword Art Online is that it sets the pace very well. Every episode has something big happening, be it setting up important plot points, having some great action sequences or setting up a mystery over two episodes. This, however, is also one of the drawbacks of this format as the show is going to start losing pace at some point and will start having some slower episodes which you’ll only care about once you know and love the characters. This is fine if you marathon it in one sitting or if you’re watching week to week but becomes far more problematic when you throw months between each volume.
With that in mind we have to assume that this first volume will actually be the best of them all. It doesn’t have the best action sequences and it doesn’t have the best story or character building moments but, on average, it keeps the action and the emotion far more consistent than the rest of the volumes will be able to. There are epic battles, there are beautiful moments, there is suspense and there is a bucketload of exposition.
So yeah, all things considered this is the best bit of the series overall but has none of the individual best episodes… well, maybe the Christmas episode because of all dem feels.
Oh, right, and for anybody wondering, it’s a story about gamers in a MMORPG being trapped inside it by an evil mastermind of some description and having to deal with life inside a video game. Fast paced, epic action.
I would never claim that Sword Art Online is the best drawn show ever. It never goes into the kind of ridiculous weapon detail that you’ll get with some shows, the characters are by no means horrendously over complicated and the scenery doesn’t have the kind of epic vistas that you will find in some other shows.
That being said, it doesn’t do any of the above poorly. The MMORPG setting means you end up with a great range of weaponry and costumes going on and it is nice to see people’s armour and weaponry change as they level up. That MMORPG setting also means that you end up with a lot of very varied settings and seasons, both with different and interesting towns as well as different types of scenery (and even some lovely above the clouds scenery when people get flung into the stratosphere for a Superman love scene moment).
The imagery isn’t all we’re there for either and I’m a big fan of the music. I know one of my flatmates holds the SAO OP as the best anime theme he’s ever heard (clearly never watched any K-ON or Kuragehime) and it’s certainly got some good music bookending each episode, but I’m also fond of the background music. The score is very well put together and evokes just the right emotions for what your’e watching.
Being that this was something I had seen multiple times before in Japanese, I decided to watch this dubbed but still with the subtitles on so I could compare the translation. What I discovered was that the sub actually gets a bit ropey at some points, like when somebody says, “Hey, let’s throw a party” instead of “Why don’t we form a party?” The sub got it wrong, the dub got it right, and it’s not a small thing to get wrong, though it was just background dialogue in that case. I think one reason for it may have been because it looks like they tried to British up the subs, which I only say because at one point the protagonist talks about his mum instead of his mom.
The problem is that if you rely on the dub then you have to put up with the dub. Now, it’s not a horrendous dub, but it’s also not great. I don’t feel like any of the characters really fit their voices, though that may be because I’m so used to the Japanese VAs. It was also kind of weird to see that the only black guy in the whole show was voiced as a jive talkin’ black guy (not quite that bad but certainly stereotypical). As ever, the voices sound far too much like they were ripped from Saturday morning cartoons and that just isn’t going to be the audience for this show (they could be for this volume but they definitely won’t be for the last ones). There were also bits where the intonation on the voice acting was just wrong so the phrases had a different effect all together; a rookie mistake if ever there was one.
That said, I decided to be objective about it so I got the flatmate who loves the OP in and got him to watch the very important scene from the Christmas episode without subs. He didn’t even realise he was watching anything different and said that he appreciated not having to read the subs as he could concentrate on the action. So there we have it, the voice acting is not so bad as to ruin the important bits. Of course, my flatmate was quite drunk when that happened so I’m not sure how much we can trust his opinion.
OK, this is where this has to shine. We’ve only got half a season and everybody’s already seen SAO so the DVD itself has to come at us all guns blazing.
The only extras are the OP and ED without any credits on them. The DVD menus are very nicely animated, but it’s impossible to tell which language settings you have selected (which is pretty key for watching japanimation).
With no extras to speak of it all comes down to the presentation of the show and you’ll be glad to know that you never get that second set of credits with no music on a black background that seems to happen so often and ruins the flow of a good ol’ marathon. The problem is, that’s about the only thing the presentation does right. All speech and signs are in the same text, overlapping speech is just demarcated by hyphens at the start of two lines on top of each other instead of using different colours or sizes of text and the OP and ED have no karaoke, just translations.
That last one may seem petty but it’s one I always mention and whenever I watch the whole lot I end up singing along by the last few episodes of each OP and ED. Depriving the DVD buyers of that privilege seems like a crime.
So what we have is 7 episodes of a great show when you could be watching the whole series on crunchyroll. So why should you get the DVD or the Blu-Ray (of which you should definitely get the Blu-Ray because once they hit the proper bosses you’ll want it in all its shiny glory and hopefully it’ll get rid of some of the deinterlacing artefacts that were on the DVD. That and the Blu-Ray has the DVD bundled in for free)? Only if you’re a die hard dub fan and can’t wait for them all to be out at the same time (they should all be out by the end of March if Manga Entertainment stay on track). If you are buying early and you like you some shounen then it’s not a purchase you’ll regret. It is a fantastic show, it just deserves better presentation.
If it were a full box set it would be an instant 5, but it’s not in any way and I always feel let down when I open a DVD case to only find one disc in there, so instead it gets a passable
3 out of 5 Stars
While you decide how much you really need to be watching that Christmas episode come Christmas Day, I’m off to see what else is on.