To know me is to know that I’ve been a huge fan of the Sword Art Online franchise ever since the first television anime series premiered about a decade ago, in the summer of 2012. A big part of that love stemmed from the introduction of the female lead, Asuna Yuuki, in the second episode. From the very first moment I met her, I knew that she and I were going to go far together, and here we are almost a decade later with me singing her praises once again because Asuna has finally got her own movie.
Titled Sword Art Online: Progressive Movie — Aria of a Starless Night, this movie is an almost completely new re-telling of the original Aincrad arc from the first television series. Except, instead of jumping around from time period to time period, the story explores the dungeon floor by floor and makes Asuna, and not Kirito, the main character. Sword Art Online: Progressive is a wild and daring ride that takes us into the world of Sword Art Online through the eyes of the arguably more likable lead character.
The story begins with Asuna waking up and starting an average day in her life, which includes her daily scolding from her very strict mother. Then there’s the fawning from the other students at school who see her as nothing short of perfect. The only one who really knows the true Asuna, the one she keeps to herself, is her friend Misumi. After meeting by chance at an arcade one afternoon, the pair became best friends and often spend time together after school secretly playing video games (although Asuna isn’t very good at them). This is when Misumi invites Asuna into a brand new fantasy virtual reality MMORPG called Sword Art Online.
At first, Asuna is hesitant since she doesn’t really consider herself much of a gamer, but on a lark, she borrows her older brother’s Nervegear system and plugs into the game. This is when tragedy strikes; on the first day of the game’s launch, the creator appears before everyone and informs them they are now locked in the game and, if their hit points reach zero, the Nervegear system will fry their brain in real life, killing them. Asuna and Misumi (or Mito as she’s known in the game) are stunned at first, but since Mito was a beta tester for the game, she promises to keep Asuna safe and teach her everything she needs to know to survive. Will she be able to keep that promise forever?
Getting into the movie itself, there is a lot to praise about this title. The first thing that stuck out to me from start to finish is that Sword Art Online: Progressive takes having female lead characters very seriously. If you’re going into this movie expecting even a little of Asuna or Mito fan service, you’re going to walk out very disappointed. Even with the inclusion of a bath scene towards the end of the movie, Sword Art Online: Progressive never puts its lead characters into compromising situations nor does it ever subject them to questionable camera angles. This might annoy some fans but I saw it as the movie taking a progressive step forward (see what I did there?) in how strong female characters are portrayed in popular media.
Audiences also won’t be able to deny that this is a tightly produced feature. Unlike Sword Art Online’s previous movie attempt, Ordinal Scale, the pace of this movie is very swift. At no point does it feel like the movie is wasting precious seconds on something meaningless, nor did it ever feel like it was dragging. They spent every moment within this movie developing these characters into real people so that when the inevitable, impossible choice arises for one of these characters, the emotion that hits you feel genuine.
In particular, I really enjoyed how, in the final act of the movie, the harrowing decision comes back into play and has had a profound impact on the character in question. This character doesn’t just brush off what she did but carries it on her shoulders like Atlas holding up the planet until the closing moments of the movie when she can finally relieve herself of her guilt and shame.
If one were to fault the movie for anything, it would be that Asuna essentially learns how to play the game from a female Kirito clone in the form of Mito. While their looks and choice of primary weapon are nothing alike, they were both beta testers for Sword Art Online and teach Asuna everything she needs to know to survive in the game. In a way, you could argue that Asuna needs this guidance to grow into the amazing “Lightning Flash Asuna” that she becomes later in the franchise canon and that this initial kickstart is important to her development down the line. That’s fine, but knowing what she’s going to be capable of down the line already has me impatient to see her kick ass.
It’s not even that Mito is an unpleasant character to use to lead Asuna to her destiny. The first act with Asuna initially joining the game and spending time with her friend (watch for Asuna to interact with an NPC early in the movie) is some of the most charming of the entire feature. However, I can’t help but feel that the movie could’ve been improved a little without Asuna being led around by another hardcore gamer that she happened to know in the world.
If you skipped the original Sword Art Online series because you didn’t want to watch a glorified, over-powered, harem protagonist hack and slice his way to certain victory, I urge you to give this new re-telling a chance. Making up for the mistakes of its predecessor, Sword Art Online: Progressive is a solid new beginning for the franchise. I’m looking forward to more next year!