(This post is part of a series of posts covering Christmas-themed anime episodes. For more posts like these, check out the 12 Days of Anime tag.)
There is something strangely entertaining about watching Kirito suffer. It hasn’t been happening nearly as often lately, which is possibly one of the main reasons I dropped SAO II, come to think of it.
Today, we return to the first season of SAO, where Kirito is the poor, misunderstood gilded hero who has yet to reveal the true extent of his badassery. Hiding his true strength is what causes the poor people around him to suffer and die! He couldn’t protect the fragile girl! SUCH WOE, MUCH MISERY.
With the obligatory snark out of the way, I’d say this episode did pretty well for itself and I thought it was a very good standalone piece! Yuuki Itou, the episode director of episode 3, doesn’t have a particularly standout style, but he has done some great work in the past, including the key animation of the Bungaku Shojo movie (which was, if nothing else, a visual delight). I was impressed by how well episode 3 of Sword Art Online managed to convey so much expression and emotion with such a story that was so obviously abridged. I think Itou was able to achieve this by using visual cues that managed to breathe enough personality into what were ultimately one note characters.
This shot was my personal favourite from the episode. All colour is removed from the background and even the monsters themselves, emphasing how removed Kirito is from his immediate context. The camera zooms out jarringly, clearly showing not only just how many monsters are in the vicinity, but also emphasising the irrevocable distance between Kirito and Sachi.
This sequence from earlier in the scene was also extremely effective. The red filtering emphasises Kirito’s desperation and bloodlust, while the camera pans quickly to follow all of Kirito’s movements, showing a panorama of neverending monsters. Sure, the script might not have done a good job establishing the characters for us, but the visuals display very starkly what Sachi and co. mean to Kirito.
By all rights, Kirito’s suffering should come across as more pompous and self-important than it actually does, but the lack of internal monologues does wonders here. Kirito’s shyness is perfectly conveyed through his body language throughout the episode, and so his brooding feels more reflective of what it actually is: the actions of a socially awkward teenager clinging to lofty ideas. It does a great job of humanising him. Observe his body language and facial expressions in these four shots:
So yes, this episode may revolve around Kirito’s perspective, but here, he’s really not such a bad character.
In the larger context, this episode was about the powerlessness people feel in the context of Aincrad. To an extent, you might have agency in this world – you can join a guild and you can play the game at whatever pace you like – but ultimately you’re trapped in a death game you can’t escape. But this is not the same as real life. This world is much more dangerous than the real world. The players have not yet adjusted to this new, heightened sense of reality, but soon enough they will. Man, the early episodes of SAO had some great stuff going on.
All in all, I came out of this episode feeling pretty convinced that Kirito did not have a Very Merry Christmas. Poor chap.
At least he got to meet Santa, though!