So you hate Sword Art Online, huh? Here’s why Ordinal Scale Absolves the Sins of the Former

Release Date: March 9th, 2017
Cast: Yoshitsugu Matsuoka, Haruka Tomatsu, Kôichi Yamadera
Director: Tomohiko Ito
Studio: A-1 Pictures
Distributor: Aniplex America, Eleven arts, Azoland Pictures
Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Animation

Rating:
Review Spoilers: Minimal
IMDB | Rotten Tomatoes | Wikipedia

Watching a film in a theater is an experience, not merely a trite distraction to be forgotten. Contrary to popular belief, the experience begins long before you take your seat or even buy your tickets from the ticket booth. The experience starts as far back as when you see the first trailer or catch first wind of the film’s existence in whatever form that presents itself. 

Sword Art Online The Movie: Ordinal Scale was an animated film released on March 9th in limited theaters around the United States. It came from the anime series Sword Art Online, which aired from July 2012 to December 2014. You see, Ordinal Scale is not the first anime film to have received a one night only special premiere in select theaters around the U.S. In fact, after the 80’s, anime films were periodically released theatrically in America. The 90’s and early 2000’s boasted the largest amount. More recently, there haven’t been as many. 

Now that you know the history, I’m sure you’ll understand how important it was to catch Ordinal Scale‘s release. News of the event surfaced several months before the film graced auditorium screens nationwide. Once the news reached me, I knew instantly what I had to do. I had to buy tickets before they sold out. The next few months were a long wait, filled with eager anticipation. It wasn’t until the week before the event that I actually purchased the tickets and boy did I cut it close. A false alarm led me to believe that they were entirely sold out, but after some dedicated investigation, I found a theater I could travel to and fro. Each individual ticket was a ludicrous eighteen bucks, which may not have felt as reckless if it wasn’t for Sword Art Online’s poor condition as a series.

Listen here, I will not attack the show or point out every flaw. After all, what show is entirely free of imperfections? Still, the series has a bad reputation and for good reason. It began as an intriguing adventure in a mysterious, dangerous world. Soon, the other elements of the story pervaded it, thereupon bringing it to ruin. So, while I was eager to see the film, my hopes remained shamefully low.

To my fortune, I was pleasantly surprised. Let me walk you through Ordinal Scale‘s one night special U.S. premiere.

The Experience

Upon walking through the doors of the movie theater, the world fell away from me to acquaint me with a different one slightly akin to a renowned anime convention. Cosplayers donned the gowns of my favored characters of lore. It was a sight to behold and an immersive one at that. I found my way to the auditorium and my reserved seat. In this moment, the sense of community had washed over me. Here were others, an auditorium full, who dropped a whopping eighteen dollars on a ticket to see a movie most Americans didn’t even know existed.

While film trailers are an especially welcome sight, enough so that I try to make it to every film a few minutes early, Ordinal Scale took a different approach. Most viewers sitting in that theater were SAO fans or at least viewed it in some capacity. This was surely factored in when someone elected to preface the film with onscreen trivia. The trivia revolved around the Sword Art Online series, so it was fairly easy for any fan.

After a few rounds of trivia, the film went even further to blur the boundaries between reality and fiction. Up on the screen! Look. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Haruka Tomatsu, voice actress of Sword Art Online‘s secondary protagonist Asuna Yuuki! She welcomed the viewers with a short speech about her appreciation of our attendance and her hopes of us enjoying the film.

It was hardly a surprise when Yoshitsugu Matsuoka, the voice actor of the primary protagonist Kirito (technically his first name is Kazuto Kirigaya, but it’s similar to Jay Z’s real name being Shawn Carter), followed with a similar speech. When Matsuoka prompted for frenzied cheers, he didn’t receive too many, but there were a few.

Whatever the case, I have to point out the surreal tone that quickly overshadowed that theater. Here I was, poised to watch a new tale about fictional characters and being told to enjoy the film by their physical manifestations. 

And so the world around us fell away once again as we plunged headfirst into a world that felt like it existed solely for us hundred or so viewers. 

Link Start!

The Film

Simply put, it was great. The animation was excellent and it found a perfect balance between light bits of humor and harsher moments of peril. Jointly, the film made a serious effort to rectify the mistakes made in the series.

Right from the start, it introduced key elements of the plot and made it very clear that this would be a different breed than the show that garnered much hate in the past few years. The film calls attention to the difference between AR (augmented reality), which is the technology that the new video game runs on, and VR (virtual reality), which is what every game in the series ran on. This simple difference already causes friction between the characters and their connection to their world.

The protagonist, Kirito, and the deuteragonist, Asuna, face irreversible damage to their future together while having adverse responses to the new AR technology. Little do they know, there’s a dark agenda hidden within this technology’s growing acclaim.

So let’s address the ways in which the film expiated the series.

1. It ditched the godly protagonist formula that worked “oh so well for the series.”

In Sword Art Online‘s first season, Kirito was extremely overpowered due to having played the beta version before the full version’s public release. While this early exposure to the game made it believable that he would have superior skills compared to most of the other players, it failed to justify the absurd extent of his power.

While it was clear that the game mechanics relied primarily on the individual’s mind, it was difficult to comprehend with what criteria some players were overwhelmingly better than others. In Ordinal Scale, Kirito prefers VR technology over AR and refused to catch on to the wave of AR gaming. Consequently, he sucks at it. I mean, really sucks. This forces him to come to terms with meliority of other players, something he never had to face in the series, and affords him the chance to strive for improvement.

Seeing a character evolve is an important part of a story and we get to see it from Kirito for the first time. Admittedly, he still accomplishes mastery over the new system way faster than he reasonably should. Even then, he uses the older system for the last battle. While it’s a proud, nostalgic moment for viewers, it took away from his progress.

2. It reaffirmed the strength and self-determination of the female protagonist.

Asuna is a war-goddess with sensational fighting capabilities and a strong knack for leadership. She blazes her own trail and in the series, she quickly ascends to a high position of the most powerful guild in the game. This is a young woman who fears nothing and overcomes every challenge with articulate tenacity.

All the more reason for fans to disavow the second half of Sword Art Online‘s first season. In the pitiful excuse of a second half, Asuna loses all independence and finds herself locked away in a cage. She only gains freedom after Kirito spends the rest of the season fighting to reach her and defeats her captor, after the maniac disgustingly sexually assaults her.

This can never be forgiven, but Ordinal Scale begs for it anyway by designating Asuna the exceptionally better player in the AR game and shifting focus to her successful bouts against resurfacing enemies from the days of Aincrad.

Although the film falters during the second arc with Asuna losing her memories and once again relying wholeheartedly on Kirito, the last battle greatly reinforces her dynamic values.

3. It acknowledged the less prominent players who affected very little and/or died without being remembered.

!!!Massive Spoiler Alert From Here On Out!!!

The film’s antagonist is really just a face and muscle for a higher power pulling the strings from behind the curtain. The young man who we perceive as the villain for a good part of the film, Eiji, was once a member of the same guild Asuna helped lead in Aincrad.

Eiji avoided the battlefield and gained no recognition as a result. He fell in love with Yuna, another player who lived as a bard in everyday obscurity, but she died when he was too weak to protect her. Yuna’s death went unnoticed by everyone aside from Eiji and Yuna’s father, Professor Tetsuhiro Shigemura.

Professor Shigemura hatched a plot to use the new AR game to steal the memories of every SAO survivor who may have met his daughter. It’s impossible not to pity Yuna for her unjust death and that she was forgotten. It especially strikes a chord when the closing credits show several instances where she regularly greeted the protagonists and their allies with sincere carols.

It’s easy to forget that the chaos affecting the main characters also affects others and even brings death to innocent bystanders. These individuals are just as significant to someone somewhere as the protagonists are to the story, but naturally the series overlooks the thousands of players who lost their lives during the story, some of whom we saw die inconsequentially beside the central characters.

4. We finally saw the Floor 100 boss!

If you’ve never seen the anime series then you know nothing of the trick surrounding the 100 floor boss’ identity, whose defeat would free all living players. In the last episode of the Aincrad arc of the series, Kirito discovers that the man who trapped everyone in the game has played along them the whole time as the guild leader of the guild Asuna joined.

This man, Kayaba Akihiko, planned to betray the players during the 100th boss fight. Akihiko delights in Kirito’s deductive skills and offers Kirito the chance to bypass the last 25 bosses they need to battle if he is able to defeat the guild leader in one on one combat. This would result in everyone’s instant freedom if he were able to win or his instant death if he lost.

Being the hero that he is, Kirito takes the deal and wins miraculously. Case and point, we never get to see the 100th floor boss in the original series.

In the last battle of Ordinal Scale, we see the series culminate in a clash between every single character we’ve rooted for along the way against the floor 100 boss they never got to face. Words will fall flat if I attempt to describe the sheer awe that this creature inspired.

Not only was this boss the biggest, most powerful boss we’ve ever seen from the SAO universe, but it somehow managed not to come off as arbitrarily almighty. It lead to challenging, deadly, yet surmountable havoc. A big focus targets teamwork and the strength that comes from a properly coordinated variety of fighting styles.

5. It teased at a new entry into the series, centered around a game called Rath.

With the amount of virtual games that have brought dismay in the SAO series, you’d think there’d be more apprehension with them. But no, we don’t care how dangerous games are to us, we’re going to keep playing them anyway.

In the end credits of the film, Professor Shigemura was brought to a secret facility where he learns of Rath, a vague new game. In the subsequent darkness, three words provided light: SAO will return.

All of these great directions the film went in make it all the more disappointing to see it make some of the same mistakes the series made. It’s as if the creators saw how captivating their film could be, but couldn’t withstand the yearning to interject the same flaws just for the hell of it. Namely the biggest flaw was…

Making Asuna a “Scooby-Doo Daphne!”

You could probably guess, but a “Scooby-Doo Daphne” is a damsel in distress, especially one who finds her/himself in that role often enough. The film started Asuna off as a more capable character than its protagonist, but then found an arguably legitimate way to strip her of her particular wherewithal. This can only be partly forgiven because of her renewed sense of bravery and determination in the last battle. Still, why don’t you give her a rest?

Final Thoughts: I loved the film possibly more than the original series on which it was based. Ordinal Scale is primarily for SAO aficionados, but can still be enjoyed by any action/adventure anime fans. It was an original story that not only plants its fair share of easter eggs, but also mended many of the elements that cheapened the show.

The film could attract new fans and recover old ones simultaneously. A DVD release date has yet to be officially announced, but my guess is that films based on other anime series could receive U.S. theatrical releases while we wait. So definitely keep your ears open for any opportunities, I know I will.