Many anime enthusiasts, when asked about Sword Art Online, tend to say something along these lines: "The first arc was pretty good, but I can't stand the second half." Despite its many flaws, I found myself entranced by the show from beginning to the end. When thinking about the many flaws during the second half, I often wonder why I enjoyed it, despite these issues. In light of the recently begun second season, I would like to dive into this second arc and talk about why it wasn't as bad as one might think. (Warning: spoilers for the entirety of Sword Art Online)
First, a clarification: Fairy Dance (the second arc of Sword Art Online) had many issues. I am not attempting to say that it was a wonderful show with no flaws. What I am doing is explaining why these flaws did not significantly hurt my enjoyment of the show. (This also does not cover issues that are prevalent in both arcs)
There are many egregious issues within Fairy Dance, but perhaps the most taboo issue for a western audience was the incestuous thoughts of Suguha towards her brother, Kazuto (Kirito, for those who don't remember his real name). I found this part unnecessary and, much like most western viewer, gross. The show's excuse that they weren't really siblings by blood doesn't cut it for me. However, I thought that the situation actually brought up good character developments and emotional scenes that did add to the story overall. Suguha, in an attempt to get over her brother, begins to fall in love with a person she plays online with, only to realize that the person is also her brother!
Despite the nature of her desire, I felt terrible for her upon this realization. This girl had been fighting urges in a way that had now led to her being hurt further. She was completely crushed. It would have been better if she was not Kazuto's sister, but the emotion was still there, the character development still present. I was still affected by her dilemma.
Another major issue along the same vein as incest were the rape-y scenes between Asuna and her captors. One thing to be made clear: I have no defense for the scene when Asuna is recaptured by the slimy assistants. That was just plain gross.
However, there is a scene towards the end where Sugou (the Fairy King) takes off some of Asuna's clothes and essentially plans to rape her. This scene, while more than a little disturbing, is actually crucial in establishing Sugou's character. Sugou does not even have a flimsy excuse for his behavior, unlike Akihiko Kayaba. He is clearly a disgusting, evil pervert. These terrible plans for Asuna also fuel Kirito, and create a very nice emotionally-charged and climactic scene. I was on the edge of my seat the entire time. (and slightly grimacing)
Perhaps the most commonly complained-about issue that many have with Fairy Dance is the reduction of Asuna from an independent female leading character to a damsel in distress. Truly, I would have preferred to see Asuna in a more active role in the story. However, I was still able to enjoy this part of the show for what it was: a classic rescue the princess tale. It was not as clever as the first half of Sword Art Online was, but when considered on its own, I do not dislike it.
Kirito's drive to rescue Asuna was so incredible that I could almost feel it radiating from my computer screen. His distress upon hearing of her marriage to Sugou was almost palatable. He is willing to sacrifice himself, again and again, just to see her. For me, that was enough to keep me watching. However, I understand that this is a very dividing opinion, and I am sure that many would not enjoy such a story. For those that do though, it is plenty satisfying.
The lack of depth in Alfheim Online is also often bemoaned. Relative to Aincrad, Alfheim is minimally explored, and this creates a linearity in the plot that many dislike. While it is absolutely true that more exploration of Alfheim could have benefited the show, it is sometimes exaggerated how little the viewers see of Alfheim. We know of nine races, and how instead of a base level system there are skills to be trained. The Salamanders, Cait Sith, and Sylph all play important roles in the story.
Visits to other capital cities outside of the Sylphs' would have been nice, but it would have bloated the story far too much for the mere eight episodes actually spent within the game. The same goes for the other races: in the short amount of time, it would have not made sense to see all of them in detail. One important forgotten point about Kazuto's time in ALO is that it was far shorter than his time in SAO. Additionally, during the first arc very little of the world of Aincrad is actually explored. This leads me to believe that the lack of depth is really only a problem for viewers because it is compounded with a variety of other problems, and is really more like icing on the cake.
Fairy Dance was fairly linear. However, it did feature subplots such as Suguha's inner struggle, and the plot of the Salamanders to weaken two of the other races.
I think that this second arc actually benefits from being linear. The two years the characters spent in Sword Art Online would have featured a variety of events, and thus it made sense for the plot to deviate from the main story occasionally. However, Kazuto's time in Alfheim Online was limited to far less than two years, and was focused on one goal: saving Asuna. More deviation would have just dampened the emotional impact of Kazuto's desperate quest.
There were also several highlights of Fairy Dance that helped overcome some of the issues that the show faced. For example, the emotional moments within the show were executed excellently. Who can forget that moment when Kazuto and Asuna meet in the real world for the first time and their SAO characters fade into the snow, finally at peace?
Fight scenes continue to be well coordinated and animated. Witnessing major battles is always entertaining in Sword Art Online through both arcs. The fantastic soundtrack also continues to assist the mood, and even the new opening and ending are well done.
Sword Art Online was not for everyone. Its second arc had many flaws, but when actually looked upon from an analytic standpoint, these flaws had elements that helped craft a story that would remain one of the most well-known anime for years to come.
Since this is such a hotly debated and complicated topic, I am sure many will disagree or have other points I did not discuss. Please feel free to comment below, and I'll make sure to reply. Thanks for reading!