REVIEW: Sword Art Online: Progressive Movie Takes Asuna’s Story On A Shaky New Path

The latest SAO film brings viewers back to the beginning — the Aincrad arc

Sword Art Online Progressive

Image via the English SAO Twitter account

 

A note on safety: The following movie review undertook the strictest of safety procedures to watch the anime film in cinemas in Japan, including washing hands with disinfectant before and after, sitting in seats apart from others, going to a cinema outside of the busy metro area, wearing a mask during the entire runtime of the movie, and being fully vaccinated. We strongly urge everyone to follow the recommended safety protocol in your country, always wear a mask when in public, and get vaccinated if you're able — not just for your sake, but everyone else’s as well. 

 

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After nearly a decade since the first Sword Art Online anime series graced Japanese TV screens and became a massive hit, the franchise headed back to the first arc in the latest film Sword Art Online The Movie -Progressive- Aria of a Starless Night. The new film retells the story of the first floor as seen in the first two episodes of the TV anime series from the perspective of Asuna rather than Kirito. 

 

Though, I should say this is more of a reimagining of the first floor rather than a retelling. Not only is the addition of the anime original character Mito the reason Asuna gets interested in the Sword Art Online game to begin with but is also her pre-Kirito emotional crutch.

 

Which seems to be a continuing trend for Asuna. When we were first introduced to Asuna in the franchise, she is shown to be a capable player, brandishing a sword and making her way through the first floor by herself. But then in some further SAO media, she’s either a damsel or not shown to be as capable as she was in the Aincrad arc, which is a shame.

 

Sword Art Online The Movie -Progressive- Aria of a Starless Night

The three leads; Asuna, Kirito, and Mito (Photo: Daryl Harding)

 

I enjoyed watching Asuna grow throughout the film and seeing the first level of Aincrad from her perspective. I didn’t enjoy that a female version of Kirito (who was also a Beta tester!) was her new knight in shining armor and that, instead of growing on her own, Asuna was only shown getting stronger alongside Mito and Kirito. There was no moment in the film where Asuna was seen growing without external influences despite there being ample opportunity to do so.

 

The new character of Mito was an interesting addition. On one hand, she played a large part in the character development of Asuna, but on the other, Asuna’s big character breakthrough moments still happened with Kirito, with Mito only being slapped on top. I could imagine that if Mito wasn’t in the story, not much would have changed for Asuna or the characters around her. In fact, they did Agil dirty by changing a scene.

 

Sword Art Online The Movie -Progressive- Aria of a Starless Night

 

Aria of a Starless Night is the first time Ayako Kono, who was previously a unit director on Ace Attorney and Black Butler: Book of Atlantic, has sat in the director's chair and it shows. The animation on the film felt like a TV-level production, complete with very long, drawn-out dialogue-heavy scenes of just two people talking. At times, it felt like a poorly crafted version of the original series, with the film trying to remain very close to the series’ style.

 

Lightly littered throughout the film — and, of course, the end fight — is some nice action animation from action director Yasuyuki Kai (animation director on episodes of Soul Eater and key animator on the original SAO series and films). Aria of a Starless Night had some hints of great animation but the polish on the rest of the film just wasn’t there.

 

One of the biggest changes was the character designs from Kento Toya, who updated the original designs to be more in line with his work on Alicization, making all the characters appear younger than they did in the original TV anime series. This helped sell the horror of the situation they were in.

 

The flip side of that is that Aria of a Starless Night still has some of those classic “oh ... Sword Art Online” moments. Like when Asuna is being licked by a monster while squirming on the ground or through the use of some … choice camera angles and posing. 

 

Sword Art Online The Movie -Progressive- Aria of a Starless Night

Image via the English SAO Twitter account

 

By far the best part of the film was the sound design and music. Yoshikazu Iwanami designed the sound of Aria of a Starless Night and I’ve hardly heard anything better in a theater. I saw the film in IMAX, and while it didn’t help the animation at all, I could feel every blade strike, every clank, and the UI sounds of the game world. This alone transported me to the world of Aincrad and sold me more on the fact it was a game than the original series.

 

Whenever Yuki Kajiura’s tune “Swordland” plays, I can’t help feeling a sense of nostalgia as the music swells through those high-tension moments. Kajiura, of course, returned to compose the music for Aria of a Starless Night, who weaves her classic compositions into new remixes in the film, all of which sound great.

 

Sword Art Online The Movie -Progressive- Aria of a Starless Night

(Photo: Daryl Harding)

 

Sword Art Online The Movie -Progressive- Aria of a Starless Night is a film built for fans of the franchise that does a decent-ish job of introducing itself to newcomers but sticks way too close to what the original TV anime did while still lacking in many aspects that made the original — and Ordinal Scale — so compelling. 

 

You can get your link start in the original Sword Art Online TV anime here on Crunchyroll, with the entire series currently streaming. Sword Art Online The Movie -Progressive- Aria of a Starless Night opened in Japan on October 30. The film will open in North America on December 3. Australia and New Zealand will follow on December 9, with other countries coming later.

 

Sword Art Online The Movie -Progressive- Aria of a Starless Night

An adorable Asuna postcard (Photo: Daryl Harding)
 

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Daryl Harding is a Japan Correspondent for Crunchyroll News. He also runs a YouTube channel about Japan stuff called TheDoctorDazza, tweets at @DoctorDazza, and posts photos of his travels around the Pokémon world on Instagram

 

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