Tag Archives: fantasy

Game Of Thrones Showed The Failings of “Punching Up”

Many viewers were disappointed by the final episode of HBO’s fantasy behemoth Game of Thrones, but I was not one of them. While invested in the story to some extent, for a long time, I’ve valued the series as a pop-culture phenomenon rather than a narrative, and in that sense, it’s never disappointed me. Even when I wasn’t interested in what Daenerys, Cersei and Tyrion were doing, it was always intriguing to see other people trying to justify how these quasi-medieval characters’ actions could be consistent with 21st-centruy political ideologies. Sometimes this took the form of heartfelt, insightful critique; other times, incredibly energetic mental gymnastics. It was entertaining either way, arguably more entertaining than the show itself, and certainly more entertaining than most other television.

That all came to end with the series finale, “The Iron Throne.” With this episode, fans could no longer pretend that the series was addressing their pet political grievances, and that was a bitter pill to swallow—especially for intersectional feminists, who had long held that Queen Daenerys Targaryen’s penchant for freeing slaves would lead to the end of systems of oppression in this particular fantasy world. For Daenerys’ hard-core fans, the hope was always that the end of the series would chronicle the birth of a feminist, egalitarian utopia—or at least, something clearly on its way to that. Not only did this not come to pass, but the series had the chutzpah to present a solution that was only a slight variation on the status quo, which must have read as not just a disappointment, but a slap in the face.

To be fair, most of the disappointment with the finale was likely nonpolitical in nature. Fans complained about the shortened series (the final two seasons were both shorter than the series’ standard 10-episode season), leading to insufficient character development, and plot twists that seemed rushed even when they made sense in theory. The staff’s decision to take an extra year to create Season 8, leaving all of 2018 sadly Thrones-less, played a big role; with a whole extra year to anticipate the ending, fans had ample time to build gargantuan expectations that could never be met by any TV drama, even a stellar one.

There’s also the disappointment of book readers, something which, if not unique to this show, was nevertheless another source of friction. Readers of the A Song of Ice and Fire novels hoped that some of the elements that had been seemingly trimmed from the TV series might make a last-minute appearance in the finale. When it turned out that popular characters from the books like Lady Stoneheart and Young Griff were well and truly excluded from the TV canon, that was just another nail in the coffin.

In fact, most of the criticisms of the finale were focused on pacing and production issues, essentially apolitical factors. Still, a small, but extremely vocal minority wants us to know that Game of Thrones failed them because it failed their politics, and that reveals some interesting things: Both the extent to which politically-motivated viewers were watching the series through a distorted lens all along, and the desperation to fit the story into paradigms that it doesn’t get along with. To some extent, these people were watching a different show altogether.

One of the reasons why this phenomenon is so significant is because the show was a big enough cultural phenomenon to attract high-profile politicians, who used it unabashedly in their campaigns. Both Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren lamented Queen Daenerys’ dark turn at the end, implying that this development was anti-feminist, if not in quite so many words.

“We were getting so close to having this ending with just women running the world, and then the last two episodes, it’s like, “Oh, they are too emotional.” The end,” said Ocasio-Cortez. Not only does Ocasio-Cortez seem to treat it as a given that “just women” ruling the world would be a good thing, she also misrepresents Daenerys’ story. As fans well know, Daenerys was the product of a powerful family that practiced incest for hundreds of years, spawning many emotionally volatile people, most of whom were male. To characterize Daenerys’ turn to madness as something viewers were supposed to interpret as the fault of her gender, rather than her (incredibly loaded) family history, would require ignoring the entire backstory of Game of Thrones.

Warren, who changed her allegiance to Sansa Stark after Daenerys’ homicidal turn, expressed disappointment that her woman of choice didn’t end up on the Iron Throne.

“She walks away saying, “I’ll still be Queen in the North.” Come on Sansa! Go for the big one!” said Warren. Her enthusiasm for a Sansa-led monarchy is endearing, but seems blind to one of the main points of the series: seeking power leads to destruction, almost inevitably. In fact, everyone who set out to rule the Seven Kingdoms ends up dead; the only one who survives is Sansa, and that’s arguably because she limited her ambitions to the North instead of the entire continent. As a fan of Sansa, Warren should be pleased that the flame-haired Lady of Winterfell essentially dodged a bullet there. If Warren had any inkling that her desire to see a woman gain the power of the highest level of monarchy was inconsistent with the show’s thoroughly anti-monarchy message, she has yet to discuss it.

Haven’t had enough of female politicians being mad that HBO did not fulfill their feminist fantasies through Queen Daenerys or Queen Sansa? You’re in luck, because New York Senator (and Warren’s fellow Presidential hopeful) Kirsten Gillibrand was also on board.

“She’s (Daenerys) somebody who made sure the lowest income, the least empowered could have a voice and that was who she was. And why did the writers have to turn her into a Mad Queen? That was not part of who she was,” said Gillibrand.

While Senator Gillibrand is correct that Daenerys was concerned with the fate of the poor (at least as far as delivering them from slavery; it seems unlikely she would have given poor people a voice in her government, had her reign in Westeros lasted for more than ten minutes), saying that the Mad Queen was not “part of who she was” requires ignoring a pile of foreshadowing bigger than a sleeping dragon. As early as the first season, Daenerys spoke of making her enemies die screaming and showed no remorse when subjecting people to painful deaths. This tendency toward violence only increased as the show continued, and while some of her victims were truly evil and likely deserved their fates, others did not. In order to think that Daenerys’ turn toward madness in the penultimate episode came out of nowhere, either Gillibrand missed several key episodes, or she simply ignored anything that didn’t jibe with her personal view of Daenerys as a good-hearted champion of the downtrodden.

All three politicians appear to have viewed Daenerys primarily through the lens of modern feminism. The fact that her story was a cautionary tale about the corrupting nature of power—a problem that knows no gender—was either lost on them, or ignored by virtue of being politically useless to them. What’s concerning is not that they brought their own ideas with them to the show (we all do that); it’s that the feminist lens seems to have rendered certain parts of the story blurry, even impenetrable. None of these women are stupid, yet either all three of them missed (or forgot) crucial elements of the story, or they selectively ignored what they didn’t want to see.

Politicians were far from the only ones trying to fit a square peg into a round hole in this regard, however. Naturally, TV critics were each viewing Daenerys’ storyline through their own questionable lenses.

“Now, the worst thing for me was the subtext of this last story because Dany saw herself as this freedom fighter who was liberating the oppressed in their kingdoms,” said NPR TV critic Eric Deggans.“And in a show with almost no characters of color, her followers, some of them who were former slaves, were the closest thing to that. She was killed by a son of the people who originally ran things.”

So despite being a platinum-blonde princess, descendant of the god-like Dragon Lords of Valyria with magical powers, according to Deggans, Daenerys’ real role in the story was as a proxy for under-privileged people of color. From this perspective, Jon’s murder of Daenerys was not a reluctant hero putting down a genocidal tyrant, but the status quo triumphing over progressive change. That makes a certain amount of sense if you buy into Daenerys’ rhetoric as a liberator of slaves (though she did very little liberating in the final seasons, and a whole lot of murdering), but seeing Jon Snow as a symbol for ingrained power structures is a stretch. You mean, the guy who was denigrated for supposedly being illegitimate his whole life, ran off to the edges of civilization because that was the only place he could find acceptance, was literally murdered because he choose to give illegal immigrants a chance, functions as a stand-in for the white, male patriarchy? If Jon was supposed to represent entrenched, institutional power, he was amazingly bad at it (which, to be fair, is very in character. Jon Snow is bad at most things, which is what makes him so lovable. Or maybe it’s just that pouty face.)

So the “subtext” that Deggans objects to is apparently that an advocate for oppressed people of color (sort of) was killed by a white man with extensive privilege, which is hard to reconcile with anything we know about these two characters. Granted, subtext is subjective, but I like to think I have seen enough event television to be a proud graduate of Subtext Boot Camp, and I’m having a really hard time seeing Deggan’s political reading as anything other than a desire to twist the narrative into a privilege-themed pretzel, having little or nothing to do with what actually transpired on screen.

Speaking of privilege, Laura Hudson of Wired* was so committed to the tenets of intersectionality that she perhaps missed the point the show was making about the nature of violence as a solution. When Tyrion Lannister spells out for the audience that Dany’s repeated acts of violence only made her more confident that violence was the answer, no matter how justified she was the first few times she did it, Hudson characterizes this as Tyrion advocating a complete abnegation of moral judgement.

“…Tyrion laments enabling her and makes a very bad argument about Dany’s use of force, which essentially begins, “First she came for the slavers of Astapor and I said nothing…” Ah yes, it’s too bad she didn’t just sit back and decide to see if the slaves could free themselves by winning against their masters in the marketplace of ideas! It’s a facile analysis of force that conveniently erases all power structures from the equation, that imagines there is no moral difference between Dany rising up to kill slave masters and murdering thousands of innocent children.”

Yes, it would be foolish to suggest that Dany could have defeated slavery non-violently in the marketplace of ideas, if Tyrion had said any such thing. Of course, Tyrion’s argument is not that there’s no moral difference between killing the slavers of Astapor and killing innocent people; it’s that after killing enough slavers of Astapor, and others of their ilk, it gradually becomes easier to kill in general. When you have a big enough hammer, everything begins to look like a nail; Tyrion is smart enough to realize that Daenerys’ had come to see the whole world as a bed of nails. That’s a problem for viewers on the far left, because the distinction between Punching Up and Punching Down in social justice ideology is supposed to be a clean one; the idea that doing a lot of Punching Up might eventually make you more prone to acts of excessive Punching Down is an uncomfortable subject.

“While it’s hard to resist the pithy moral absolutism and easy applause line of “violence is always wrong,” it’s also worth noting that despite its superficial patina of fairness, this argument invariably benefits the powerful; not only do they get to pretend that there’s no difference between punching up and punching down, they get to robe themselves in self-righteousness and claim the moral high ground while they do it. Who’s the real Nazi—the Nazi or the person who punches a Nazi, hmmm?” Hudson continues.

In truth, I’m not sure if the setting of Game of Thrones really gels with this modern conception of Punching Up versus Punching Down, regardless of the evergreen punching-Nazis hypothetical. It works in the most general sense (doing something bad to evil people is more justifiable than doing something bad to good people) but once you get any more specific than that, it’s hard to reconcile. Most of the people in the fictional world of Westeros are peasants who have no role in the decision-making process, and they’re the ones who suffer no matter which direction the people in power like to think they’re punching. That’s a problem to a certain extent even in the modern era (which is frankly why I’m personally skeptical of this whole Punching Up vs. Punching Down concept in general), but especially true when the society you’re dealing with still practices feudalism.

More importantly, advocates of Punching Up like to seem to ignore the “if you have a big enough hammer” problem entirely; to them, presumably, when you partake of political violence (but only against despicable targets who totally deserve it), your hammer always remains just the right size; big enough to hurt your enemy, not big enough that the strain of carrying it takes a toll on you. Sadly, Tyrion Lannister is not real, so I will never have the joy of explaining this Magic Hammer idea to him and seeing what kind of incredulous expression he would make.

In Game of Thrones, using violence as a solution is a problem not because there are no deserving targets of violence, but because of what it does to the mind of the user. In Game of Thrones, a woman can be a power-mad tyrant, and a world ruled by women is not necessarily a peaceful one. Good motives can decay, and the most righteous causes (like eradicating slavery) can provide the best cover for tyranny. For people who are heavily invested in the idea that political violence can be used surgically against the right targets, or invested in the idea that loudly advocating for egalitarian policies surely inoculates one from corruption, Daenerys and her messy, punching-mostly-sideways world are more than just a little disappointing; they’re threatening. It’s a lot easier to accuse the show of delivering a bad ending than to grapple with the possibility that it reveals bad ideology.

*I have disagreed with Hudson before. I’m not a fan of her work, but I do appreciate that she points out arguments that I disagree with more clearly than other people I disagree with, if that makes any sense.

Welcome To Starbucks Westeros

In the latest episode of HBO’s popular medieval fantasy series Game of Thrones, a disposable coffee cup was visible on screen during a feast at Winterfell. Most viewers thought this was simply a production goof, however, those of us who have read the books and all of the other relevant literature and apocrypha know better. Fans have theorized for decades that Starbucks locations exist within Westeros, and with Season 8, Episode 4, “The Last of the Starks,” it’s safe to say that these rumors have been proven true.

Of course, a Starbucks in Westeros would not be the same as a Starbucks in say, Albany; there’s the local culture to consider. For that reason, as an enlightened scholar who has read all the books and other materials, including a discarded notebook that George R. R. Martin left on a bus one time, I’m going to share with you what Starbucks is like within A World of Ice and Fire. Before you leave a comment in disagreement, please keep in mind that this is now strictly canonical and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Beverage Rules:

–You must give your full name, including the name of your House, to the barista when you order. This is a nuisance, but on the plus side, if anyone misspells your name, you can have them drawn and quartered before dawn.

–If you give a Bastard surname like Sand, Snow, or Waters, in theory the whole menu is available, but you can only order decaf. Regular is not for the likes of you.

–The lowborn can only order plain drip coffee, no lattes or other specialty drinks; plus, the coffee tastes about 5x as burnt as Starbucks coffee normally does. Not recommended.

–If you answer the request for your name with “A man has no name,” your latte will be at least 90% cyanide.

–If you claim ancestry from the First Men, you may have dairy milk. If you claim ancestry from the Andals or the Rhoynar, you may have soy milk. Those who ask for almond milk are weak and will not survive the winter.

–If your noble birth qualifies you for milk in your coffee, but you don’t want it, you have several options: you can order your coffee black “as a Trueborn Baratheon’s locks,” black “as a Dragonglass Dagger,” or black as “The Dread.” You can also request coffee that is “dark and full of terrors,” but there’s an excellent chance that you will end up with a cup full of scorpions.

–Giant’s Milk Frappucinos only available at locations North of the Wall.

–Anyone who demands that their espresso shots be poured over the foam in their drink, specifically, will be ritually burnt at the stake. Not as a sacrifice to the Lord of Light, but just because they obviously deserve it.

–If you say “Dracarys!” while your drink is being prepared, that’s a cue to the barista that you want it Extra Hot. They won’t actually make it Extra Hot, because scorched dairy is gross and everyone should know that by now, but they’ll imitate dragon screeches out off the side of their mouth and pretend they’re doing it.

–You can try asking for your drink “Kissed by Fire” if you want it with cinnamon. However, that’s a stupid idea since this is a Starbucks, and everyone knows that the cinnamon is located at the Condiment Bar: put it in yourself.

Food Rules:

–All pastries and breakfast sandwiches are made with 100% Free-Range dragon eggs.

–Bagels are only served with cream cheese, not with butter. In addition, anyone who asks for jelly on a bagel will be flayed alive until they are the color of said jelly.

–If you order anything gluten-free, you must swear on the Light of the Seven that you actually have Celiac Disease and aren’t just a trendy-ass motherfucker.

–Anyone who orders quiche will be disembowled out back. No one knows why, this is simply how it’s always been done, and what’s good enough for our ancestors is good enough for us.

–Lemon cakes are available, but only for young girls who have been forced into political marriages with dwarves or sociopaths.

General-Purpose Rules:

–Eunuchs receive a 50% discount because really, they deserve something.

–Anyone who leaves garbage or crumbs at their table, regardless of birthright, will be castrated. On the plus side, see above.

–Once you claim a table in the cafe area, only you and your trueborn offspring may use that table. Illegitimate children can sit at your table, but they have to sit in that awkward, half-the-butt-hanging-off-the-chair position.

–Lighting other tables on fire to increase legroom is not just allowed, but encouraged.

–Starbucks Westoros is not legally responsible for what will happen if you attempt to ally with guests from other tables for any reason.

–You may get up and go to the bathroom at any time, however, once you return, the political situation will have changed so much that you won’t know where you’re sitting.

–If you sit down at your table with a laptop and begin working on a novel, you must finish the goddamned novel. If you open a browser or a video game instead, you will be forced to run naked behind a stallion until you die.

–Sex in the cafe area is allowed, but only as long as you narrate your entire life story during the act. Anyone making love silently will be asked to offer the appropriate amount of exposition or leave immediately.

–Gender-neutral bathrooms are available, but only in Dornish locations. On that note, popular “Orgy Thursdays” are only available in Dorne (and occasionally Highgarden, but only if you know who to ask.)

–Fire exits are only guaranteed to work for regular fire, not Dragon fire. Once the dragon shows up, it’s safe to say that no one’s getting out.

–Other than the aforementioned penalties and legalized executions,  violence, war and genocide are not permitted at Starbucks Westoros locations. Starbucks Essos, on the other hand….

Sword Art Online Alicization: Episodes 6 & 7

Lifesong:

Sword Art Online episode 8 comes out tomorrow and so I’ll try to keep this post on point as I rush through it. Truth is we didn’t have the time to dedicate our usual group blogging post and so I’m writing this up to bridge the gap.

To recap: In episode 6 we learned more about Underworld, the MMO like world that Kirito is stuck in. In episode 7 we got a two year time skip showing us what Kirito is up to in the world. Basically world building outside the game and world building inside the game.

It seems that Kirito is undergoing therapy in Underworld. I’m not sure if I trust Kikuoka, but for the time being Asuna and has no choice. As an audience we have little reason to question it. He is stuck inside for healing purposes as best we can tell.

Much of episode 6 revolves around explaining the difference between a top down AI versus a bottom up AI. I’m not an expert on AI in the real world, but I can say I find the concept interesting. The terms top down AI and bottom up AI are not new to me. I’m curious to see where Alicization intends to take them.

I suspect Kikuoka explained most of what we will need to know about AI to appreciate where the story is going. There are a few takes away that aren’t immediately obvious that I find worth pointing out.

Kikuoka said that they couldn’t copy the human soul of their staff in a successful way. Once the copy learns it’s a copy it breaks down. There is possible exception and we did get a quick hint at it in the episode. Kayaba Akihiko left his ghost behind on the internet or inside the seed that all modern VR games use as a base.

I’m not sure how exactly how internet ghosts work, but some part of Kayaba Akihiko is still around. His ghost probably knows about it’s own death. What that means for the story I have no idea. Kayaba Akihiko’s ghost may have even made a brief appearance toward the end of the episode. At this point it’s more of a tease than a fact.

The current dilemma for the JSDF is that their AI people are too perfect and have a hard time breaking rules. They need to be capable of breaking rules to think more like real people. Asuna asks if Kikuoka is looking to make AIs that can kill people. The application for how isn’t explained but I can make sense of the general process.

Kikuoka says early on in his explanation of Underworld that he is using it to make a general purpose AI. An AI that can’t understand why people break rules isn’t going to be very useful for law enforcement. A militant AI that can’t understand why someone is breaking rules isn’t going to be any good at combat. The big take away is that Kikuoka hopes to find combat application for the AI.

Overall the the pacing and world building of this episode make a lot of sense to me. If anyone has specific questions or points they are curious about feel free to comment and ask. I know it can be hard to find answers from someone who hasn’t read the light novels and won’t spoil the story.

My favorite part of the episode was Asuna’s counseling session with Koujiro Rinko. I could write a whole post on the moral dilemma in that scene, but for now I’ll say that it was a beautiful moment. It helps explain Asuna’s perspective. She can’t bring herself to hate Kayaba Akihiko because his sin was part of her fondest memories.

Episode 7 was… Well it was more world building at a breakneck pace. It seems like they skipped a whole tournament arc. As someone who hasn’t read the novels I’m not too bothered by it, but it does make the episode feel lackluster. Like it ran out of steam and deflated a minute into the episode. The animation quality even feels like it took a hit.

Most of this episode felt mechanical. Like it was going backward from point a to move us all to point b. The two big things caught my attention. Kirito’s new sword won’t allow him to use a 5 hit combo. Is that the system stopping him? Or his own cognitive function?

The other point of interest got mentioned in passing. Kirito said that this world can basically turn confidence into power. That allows someone to become stronger than their stats. His sword teacher senpai is one such example. Part of her excellence at combat is because she imagines it and believes in herself.

I’m curious to what degree imagination ends up a power source in Underworld. I suspect it isn’t part of the JSDF’s plan. They wouldn’t want AIs running simulations based off make believe. I’d think that has no purpose in real world military application. That makes me curious if this is something that’s always been a part of Kayaba Akihiko’s game design. Have we seen hints of it as early as Aincrad? Does he know something the JSDF doesn’t? That seems likely based off my quick speculation, but there is a lot we still don’t know.

Next episode is hyping up a duel between Kirito and some top ranking student. Lets hope we get to see this duel in all it’s animated glory. No more time skips please! At least, not so soon after the last one…

That Time I Got Reincarnated As a Slime, Episode 6

This episode really surprised me. When last episode introduced the idea of Shizu as Rimuru’s “destined” person, I thought the show was probably going to take a roundabout route to get to her. Maybe Rimuru and Shizu would meet on different sides of a big conflict, multiple comical misunderstandings would ensue, and it would take about ten episode to clear everything up so they could have a proper heart to heart. Instead, the show skipped all of that tomfoolery and the two of them got to connect almost immediately, with no complications.

You would think that would be an example of boring writing, but in this case, I think they made it work. Especially since the show has already shown that Shizu is part of Rimuru’s destiny, why stall on what’s clearly already a foregone conclusion? If anything, I found it refreshing that the two characters were able to find each other and communicate so clearly without having to deal with arbitrary obstacles placed in their path.

“What fresh hell is this?” wonder the tired adventurers. Plot hell, my friends. You are joining the main plot.

But more on that later. First, the adventurers we met in episode 2 have apparently been having a rough time of it. Their job was to confirm the absence of Veldora, which means their showing up right when Rimuru was leaving the cave wasn’t a coincidence, which it seemed like at the time. Now they’d like to take a little rest from adventuring, but apparently the Adventurer’s Guild owns their asses for life, because they’ve been commanded to go back into the wild and…do what, exactly? It seems like they’re supposed to monitor the monster activity has changed in the post-Veldora landscape.

So they’re assignment is basically “Keep track of how many monsters try to eat you, then report back.” I would not want to be a member of this particular guild; something tells me the benefits are not that great.

Shizu, who we first met waaaaaaay back in the opening scene during the WWII flashback, finally shows up. It’s about time! We still don’t really know what she’s after, but she’s willing to team up with the info-gathering party temporarily, so at least she’s more than just a face in the shadows now.

Total Badass has joined your party.

Meanwhile, Rimuru is testing out his new powers. He uses his imitation skill to turn into a giant Tempest Wolf, then uses his Black Lightning skill. Apparently, when he’s in Tempest Wolf form, the effect of the lightning is amplified, thus it’s super-powerful. Do all of Rimuru’s skills become several times more powerful when he’s in Tempest Wolf form? Because if so, that seems a little broken, even for him. At this rate, a Water Blade from Giant Wolf Rimuru will be able to decapitate entire enemy armies.

Some time has passed in Goblin village, and I’m so glad the show decided to gloss over it to keep things moving. The dwarves are doing their thing, and the village is expanding, and that’s all good but I really don’t need any more details. More interesting is the arrival of 500 Goblins from surrounding villages, who heard about the Goblin Naming ritual and are hoping for their own power-up. I like the common sense characters display in this world. “Wait, you mean the guys in the next village over got to become super hot just by pledging allegiance to some slime? How do we get in on that action?”

Yaaay, more cute Goblin kiddies!…oh, wait. Fuck.

Unfortunately Rimuru grants their request and goes on another Naming spree (wisely not shown), which kind of sucks for me; I was hoping we’d have more cute little-kid type Goblins running around. Now they’re all adults with killer bods and my maternal instinct is left with nothing to hang onto! Well, except for Rimuru himself, I guess; that little motion he does before he transforms is adorable.

Back to our human friends, they’re running for their lives from giant insects because…reasons? Well they give a stupid reason, but the real reason is that the show needs to give Shizu some monsters to beat up so we can all see what a total badass she is. A pretty cool fight scene follows– not quite up to the level of Kirito vs. Head Goblin Dude in Sword Art Online Alicization 4, but still, pretty well-animated. Shizu both viciously stabs things and lights them on fire, which shows a kind of thoroughness that I appreciate. Upon seeing Shizu’s face, Rimiru recognizes her as the girl from the crystal ball and muses that he wasn’t expecting to meet her this soon; you and me both, pal.

Shizu in Action: A Story in Two Parts. Part One.

~fin~

Back in Goblin Town, Rimuru makes a Dragon Quest reference that Shizu laughs at, confirming his suspicions that she’s from his world. At first I thought that was illogical, since Shizu is supposed to come from a time decades before Dragon Quest existed, but they clear up later that she heard about it from another Japanese person, so that’s okay. I can buy that Shizu would have glommed on to any other Japanese immigrants to SlimeWorld that she found and got as much info out of them about her home country as possible.

Then there’s a truly magical scene, where Rimuru shows Shizu how Japan recovered after World War II after she was summoned out of the world in the midst of the Tokyo firebombing. When people talk about “wish fulfillment” in anime, it’s always said in a very dismissive way, like it’s immature and shameful to use media to fulfill wishes. This scene features a very mature kind of wish fulfillment: the desire to somehow connect with people who suffered the worst of the brutalities of history, and show them that the world really did get better after they died. To show them that even if they weren’t lucky enough to experience it, their friends, relatives, and countrymen got to see a much better tomorrow. That the world didn’t end in fire and pain and darkness, because that’s not all there is to life.

I really didn’t expect something this beautiful from this show, and I’m still processing it. I think there’s maybe a broader point here about the isekai genre not necessarily being as escapist as a lot of people think it is, but I have to ruminate on that.

Anyway, just when we thought we had gotten all the info on Shizu we were going to get for one episode, the show gives us her “origin” so to speak. There’s several interesting things going on here: for one, Veldora told us that summons take groups of mages, yet as far as we can see, Shizu was summoned by one guy. Were the other 30 mages just hiding in the shadows, or is this one guy simply that powerful?

Secondly, Powerful Mage Guy gives Shizu to an Ifrit, saying she might “have an affinity to fire.” At first I thought the dude had a screw loose, because look, the poor girl has had part of her skin burned off from the summoning. If she’s flame-resistant, she’s sure chose an odd way of showing it. I thought about it later though and came up with this: Mage Guy was trying to summon a host for a fire being, and Shizu just happened to be completely surrounded by flames. Considering there seems to be a computer-like intelligence running this world (see: Great Sage), maybe the Computer thought. “Human +fire= host with fire affinity,” when in reality, Shizu just had the bad luck to be in the middle of a burning city when the summoning was going down. It makes sense if the intelligence behind the summoning was ticking boxes and didn’t understand the broader context.

This was…surprisingly terrifying. I think the Final Fantasy games have given me warm and fuzzy feelings toward Ifrits that are quite frankly dangerous. Ifrits are NOT your friend.

If assigning Ifrit to her was basically a mistake, that would explain the health problems she seems to have in this episode; maybe she isn’t better suited to being a host for Ifrit than anyone else, and it’s taking a toll on her body. Or maybe hosting Ifrit is just that arduous, I don’t know. In any case, I’m interested in finding out if my guess about the mechanics of Shizu’s summoning is correct.

So, wow, that was some episode. This show would have to jump the shark pretty darn hard to lose my allegiance after that Rebuilding After The War scene, but I once said that kind of thing about another show, which then proceeded to jump the shark exactly that hard. (It was Amanchu, by the way.) So there are no guarantees, but for now at least, I’m impressed.

Sword Art Online Alicization: Episode 5

Karen:

Since this episode focuses on Asuna, this seems like a good time to take a step back and look at what a cool character she’s become. During the Aincrad arc, she was an immature kid– which was totally understandable, since she was a sheltered teenager drawn into something huge that she couldn’t have anticipated. Nevertheless, she did seem a little whiny and self-centered to begin with. But she’s grown to the point where, by the time of Mother’s Rosario, she not only felt like an adult, but she essentially became co-protagonists with Kirito. That set-up pays dividends here, where the whole episode can be Kirito-free and it never really feels like we’re missing out on the “main” character.

She also functions similar to Kirito now, using the same kind of hands-on approach to problem solving. Part of that is because she hasn’t been his girlfriend for years without learning anything, and part of that just goes to show why they work so well as a couple to begin with. They aren’t together for only superficial reasons; they both have an almost pathological need to right injustices. On a more basic note, we now get Hero! Asuna rescuing Damsel! Kirito, and that’s a nice change of pace.

In terms of the larger story with Rath, I’m wondering about Kirito’s overall significance to the Underworld project. Obviously Rath wants Kirito’s consciousness in there because they expect his presence will cause the AI to grow in a certain way, but does it necessarily have to be Kirito in that role? I think it’s less that Kirito has super-special soul juice or whatever, and more that he just happens to be the person who was integrated into the system first, so Eugeo and Alice have memories of him. If it turns out they need Kirito because he is just that special of a snowflake, I’m going to be a little disappointed.

It was nice to see everyone working together as a team; even something as simple as Klein driving Asuna around in his car shows that in the real world, they all have different roles and can contribute in different ways. Considering one of their team members is a nigh-omnipotent AI, things feel a little bit stacked in their favor, but I guess it’s a little bit late to be complaining about that? It just goes to show, if you ever find a down-on-her-luck orphan, be nice to her: she may turn out to be a Goddess AI who can hack government databases for you! Always a useful tool to have in one’s back pocket.

I may be the only one here who doesn’t care what happened to Kirito’s assailant. Until the show gives me reason to believe otherwise, I’m going to assume 1)Asuna called the police and 2)he’s in jail; the end.

Finally, I’m interested in the fact that Kayaba Akihito had a lover; they may have revealed that before, but this is the first time I remember it coming up. It would be easy to assume that Akihito was an angry loner who was lashing out at society, but the show has always portrayed him as more nuanced than that; granted, the dude straight-up murdered 4,000 people and viewers should always keep that in mind, but I appreciate what an interesting character he is regardless. It’s interesting how he, and his dream of an imaginary castle in the sky, continue to affect the world of SAO even years after his death.

My early reservations about this season have pretty much evaporated by now; now I’m interested to see how the Underworld plot is going to interface with Asuna’s plot. I don’t see any reason why Asuna couldn’t just visit Underworld in a dive, but in some ways, it might be more interesting if she remained separated from Kirito and had to fight her battle on a different front. We shall see.

LB:

Originally, I enjoyed this episode until the last five minutes or so– though, now that more has been explained to me, I’m finding myself coming around on it.

The big issue I had when I first watched this episode was that at the very end of the episode, Asuna was able to fool top-level security checks, multiple times mind you, simply by having Yui switch the database profile photo with hers. That seemed WAY too easy for me to buy at first, but since I’ve watched this episode I’ve been told by multiple people that this is a perfectly viable way of hacking the system and it’s made even more plausible due to the fact that Yui is like a God-level AI. So yeah, never mind I guess?

Other than that, I really liked that we’re getting a break from Underworld to see what everyone else is up to. The lingering question in my mind, however, is all about the initial attack from the Laughing Coffin member that put Kirito in a coma. Was that attack pre-meditated by RATH in order to get a great test subject? Or was it just one big happy coincidence? That’s an answer that I’d really like to have about now but I’m guessing that if we ever do find out the answer, it’s not going to be for quite a while. *sighs*

Lifesong:

Japanese military is not what I expected when I asked to see the outside world, but it makes enough sense to me. I don’t know how well known the idea of an AI arms race is for most people. If you’ve never heard that term, take a moment to google it. It fits Sword Art Online and might give you some interesting thoughts to chew on.

Alicization appears to be Japan’s answer to an AI arms race. It brings a dozen new questions to the table, like what does Japan’s military want to do with these AIs? I’ve been speculating that Underworld is some sort of immortality project. Now that I know the government is behind it, that’s only one of many possibilities. Immortality doesn’t seem to be the focus.

For now I have more questions than answers about Japan’s AI goals. I can’t speculate past the political and economic powers of developing an advanced AI. It’s an interesting topic. Its inclusion elevates my curiosity for more world building. How do the rules the AI in Underworld live by fit into the larger goal of this military project?

The military twist is cool, but the real MVP this week is Asuna. Not only did Asuna manage to hack a Japanese government database with the help of her own AI, she located and infiltrated the naval base holding Kirito faster than he figured out how to cut down a tree! Who’s the OP one now?

Episode 5’s portrayal of hacking was fantastic. Step 1: Change the picture in a database. Step 2: Walk in and pretend like you belong until you do your thing. I appreciate how down to earth that is. No fancy pseudo-science hacking magic, just some plain old BSing.

Speaking of BSing… Whatever happened to the guy who stabbed Kirito? The story hasn’t acknowledged his existence beyond what he did in episode one. Did Asuna go into berserker mode and beat him senseless? Did that stab wound from Kirito somehow take him out? Maybe a wild AR Pokemon hacked into his brain and put him into sleep mode until the plot remembers his relevance? I don’t need that explained now, but it feels odd that it wasn’t mentioned.

I felt like this episode did a great job of bridging Kirito’s stabbing and catching us up with Asuna and friends. I wonder if Asuna will be able to jump into Underworld? But I need more information to speculate the purpose of Underworld. Developing AI makes sense, but why is Kirito needed? Maybe that’s Kikuoka’s whim more so than anything else? The episode title for next week leads me to believe we will get some more answers ASAP. I can speculate more after that.

That Time I Got Reincarnated As A Slime, Episode 5

After last week’s lackluster episode, it was a nice surprise to see the show mix things up this week. Rimiru gets put into situations where his Godlike combat abilities don’t really help him, and it’s interesting to see him muddle his way through problems where there’s no easy win button.

Unfortunately, we start off the episode still inside the Elf Hostess Club, so there’s a little bit more about how boobs are just the greatest thing. Look, if you’ve read anything on this blog before, then you probably know I’m not against fan service on general principle; it has a role to play. If an entire scene is just fan service and has little else going on though, I start to get bored. This whole Elf bar is basically just Rimiru thinking to himself “OMG I really like boobs,” and it’s old already. There are seriously like 40 characters pictured in the OP who haven’t even been introduced yet, we don’t have time for this nonsense.

Anyway, finally we move on from cleavage when one of the Elves offers to tell Rimuru’s fortune, using a crystal ball, and shows him the one he’s “destined to be with.” I could complain that having a fortune teller introduce the female lead this way seems like lazy writing, but let’s see what happens; maybe not all is as it seems. It could be that Rimiru is “destined” to be with this girl in a different sense than the one he’s imagining. In any case, the girl we see is likely the girl who we saw in the first scene of the anime during World War II, so I’m glad the show has remembered that she exists. I really am curious what her deal is.

To quote Deadpool, “That’s just lazy writing.”

Then we meet evil minister Vesta, sworn enemy of Kaijin, Rimiru’s Dwarf blacksmith friend. Vesta is making a big show of being annoyed that Kaijin dared bring “a monster” into such a fine drinking establishment, then dumps his wine over Rimiru’s head as an insult. What’s worse is, he does it with no regard for the Elf girl who’s lap Rimiru is currently sitting on. It’s good to know that Vesta is the kind of guy who’s mean to people in the service industry for no reason, because that means I don’t need to have any sympathy for him whatsoever. Kaijin tries to argue later that Vesta actually isn’t such a bad guy, and Rimiru and I are both like “I’m going to stop you right there.”

Thankfully, Kaijin is even more offended by this behavior than I am and punches Vesta hard in the face, twice! Rimiru advises Kaijin “Not the face! Go for the body!,” which made me laugh out loud, because that’s exactly the kind of advice my Mom used to give me in case I ever needed to beat someone up in school. Look, there were bullies, okay? It was self-defense. Realizing he’s probably just ended his career in Dwarf Kingdom, Kaijin offers his services as a craftsman to Rimiru, who’s of course all for it. That’s awfully convenient for our favorite slime, but if it keeps the plot moving (and gets us out of the friggin’ Elf bar), I won’t complain.

The camera slows down just to make this punch extra satisfying. Thank you, Mr. Director.

Apparently you can’t just go around knocking out political officials in this world, or anywhere really, so Kaijin, Rimiru and co. all get thrown in jail. Kaijin exposits about Vesta’s dark history with the Magisoldier project, which looks like some incredibly messed up piece of quasi-demonic engineering. Seriously, this episode of That Time I Got Reincarnated As A Slime became Evangelion for about five seconds there, and I was confused, but pretty into it. Anyway, Vesta is still steamed that he failed in creating Eva Unit 01 and blames Kaijin for it, hence their beef. Interesting world building, although I’m not sure it entirely jibes with everything we’ve seen so far. For one thing, they have lab coats in this world? Seems kind of anachronistic.

Our heroes get thrown into a ridiculous kangaroo court, where even their representation has been bought off, and it looks like everybody is about to sentenced to decades of forced labor. I think the Dwarven Kingdom is supposed to be relatively advanced compared to the rest of the world in this anime, but damn, their justice system still needs some work. It doesn’t end up mattering though, because the Dwarf King, Gazel Dwargo, sees through all the nonsense and changes the sentence to simple exile, which allows Kaijin and co. to start a new life away from Dwarfland and their stupid shadow- military-industrial complex. Yaaaay monarchy! This may seem like proof that Dwargo is benevolent, but as we soon learn, Dwargo knows who Rimiru is; it may have been a defensive move. Because if he and his friends got unfairly sentenced like that, I really can’t think of anything that could stop Rimiru from Water Blading everyone in the room to death.

Gazel Dwargo is kind of like one of those grand kings from Game of Thrones, only– you know– competent.

I really like the fact that actions have consequences on this show, even seemingly small ones. Apparently Dwargo was clued into Rimiru’s significance by the fact this random slime just conjured a bunch of 100% effective healing potion effectively from nothing; people should take notice of that sort of thing. In most anime, I think creating that bucket of healing potion last episode would have been completely forgotten, but not here.

Minister Vesta gets his just desserts, since Dwargo is on to him and is pissed off that his relationship with Rimiru, Slime God, got off on a bad foot because of all this silliness. Maybe Vesta will learn to be nice to waiters now, but I doubt it. Anyway, since Kaijin’s friends are all coming along for the ride, Rimiru has accomplished his goal of acquiring Dwarven craftsmen, and is ready to head back to Goblin Village.

Damn, the first five minutes of next episode are probably going to be spent on the dwarves ogling the curvy female goblins, won’t they? I really hope not, but I think I know which show I’ve signed up for by now. I’ll have to steel myself to resist this shameless pro-boob propaganda.

Sword Art Online Alicization, Episode 4

LB:

Finally!

That’s all I could say to myself as I watched the latest episode of SAO. Finally we got the action sequences that fans have come to expect from this series, finally we saw the damn Demon Tree felled, and finally, we saw our heroes embark on what I’m certain will be an epic journey. At least it had better be, or else I’m going to be one unhappy puppy. I quite liked this episode since it moved the story along so strongly. Things actually happened in this episode which made me want to pay attention to all the things.

There are still a ton of questions that need to be answered (many of which were originally raised by the opening animation rather than the episodes themselves, which is strange). My prediction is that eventually, we’re going to get to the big city and learn that Alice isn’t dead but has actually been drafted into the Integrity Knights. I have no idea what is going to happen beyond that (and I don’t even know if I’m correct or not) but I know that for the first time in a couple of weeks, I’m genuinely excited to find out.

Karen:

Wow, this episode did everything but give you a mug of hot cocoa and a backrub after it was over. A cool fight, everyone now remembers the stuff from episode one, significant plot advancement, and the demise of The Tree That Could Not Be Cut? What more could you ask for?

I do have a bit of a problem with reminding myself that the violence is not “real”– that is, even though they’re in a very realistic virtual world and Kirito feels pain, they’re still not in reality. I kept thinking during the fight that Kirito shouldn’t be able to take as much punishment as he was taking and still be able to keep fighting at full strength, but when you remember that it’s a virtual world, it makes sense; in most games, as long as you have 1 HP, you can function as though you’re perfectly healthy. Kirito may have been down to about 250 HP out of 1128 or something, but he didn’t die, so he was still functional.

We know from Ordinal Scale that Kirito is limited in Augmented Reality compared to full VR, so it makes sense that his battle performance in this setting is that of his video game avatar, since this is a full-dive situation. However, the fact that he has such detailed sensory input makes it more akin to AR than his previous VR fighting experience, and I hope that’s something that the show explores in more depth.

On the subject of the battle, that was some quality fight choreography and animation. It’s easier to forgive the talkiness of the last two episodes knowing that the show had such an ambitious action scene coming. Now, after this season, I could do with never seeing any frickin’ goblins ever again, but if I have to see goblins get beat up, this is the kind of style I want to see it in.

One thing that I found interesting was that Eugeo remembered Kirito when he was on the brink of death. The implication is that Artificial Fluctlights have the same “life flashing before my eyes” experience that real people do when they’re approaching death. If Eugeo’s memories of the Kirito of his childhood were overwritten by the System (which appears to have been the case), this is another example of the human soul overpowering computer programming. We saw this as far back as Aincrad, when Asuna was able to shake off a status effect through sheer force of will to save Kirito, so this is something that’s always been part of the show, for better or for worse. In fact, I wonder if this arc is going to take that aspect of the original SAO story (which many viewers saw as a weakness), and fully develop it.

Of course, there’s a danger of an overly optimistic/Care Bears sort of message here, like “not even computer programming is powerful enough to overcome the will of the HUMAN SOUL!!!!!” but I trust Reki Kawahara (at least at this point in time) to be a little more nuanced than that with his writing. I think the struggle of the Artificial Fluctlights to gain control of their lives is going to end up being more complicated than “Believe in yourself,” or rather “Believe in the computer code that makes up your soul!”

Otherwise, it was interesting to see how the villagers reacted to the unexpected felling of the Demon Tree. I thought they’d be scared of change, but for them, the task of evaluating anything has been outsourced to the Taboo Index, so it doesn’t even occur to them to be scared of change. I mean, if cutting the Demon Tree down a few hundred years early was a bad thing, it would have said in the Taboo Index “don’t cut down the Demon Tree early,” right? I’m interested in seeing more about how judgement and morality works in this world where all their rules are put down in black and white.

Yes it is obviously similar to real-life religion, but different in the sense that there’s no possibility for dissent. Every text-based religion (that I’m aware of, anyway), has it’s own disagreements in regard to interpretation, but as far as we can tell, there are no Rabbis arguing over the true meaning of the Taboo Index; it’s simply taken completely at face value. I wonder what it says about me that in an episode devoted mostly to hacking the limbs off of goblins, my main takeaway is “Ooooh, it’s like the age of the Great Rabbis without Talmudic Commentary!”, but whatever; I’m enjoying myself.

Lifesong:

Episode four wrapped up the “leaving home” stage of Eugeo’s adventure in style. The goblin fight was fantastic. The ebb and flow of Kirito crossing swords with the goblin leader and his hoard made every hit exciting. And hey, Eugeo is actually important after all. He may have almost died, but in the scheme of tragic Sword Art Online moments? It felt good to see him make it through the fight.

The hook for Alicization is finally in full bloom, and now that it is I’m excited to see where it goes. Sword Art Online has had moments in the past where it felt like an adventure, but never like this. It’s given supporting characters important roles, but again, not quite like this. Eugeo is the hero and Kirito is taking on the role of mentor.  It’s neat to see SAO breaking away from the new-heroine-of-the-week style if only in a small way.

The way Underworld is hyper realistic in tangible sensation, but still gamey at it’s core is interesting to me. Kirito’s injuries during the goblin fight are a new kind of problem for him because of the pain. Ultimately the injury isn’t such a big deal; same for Eugeo. He takes a hit that should kill him and some durability sharing fixes the issue. As realistic as it all feels, this world runs on numbers in the end.

Now that Kirito and Eugeo have launched their adventure, I want to see things from Asuna’s perspective. I hope we get to see more of what’s going on outside of this virtual world. The timing is appropriate; Kirito and Eugeo’s adventure is off to a strong start. Now please tell me why Kirito is stuck in Underworld. Asuna did promise to follow Kirito anywhere. She also knew a whole lot about the origins of Alice in Wonderland. Tragic tone setting or subtle foreshadowing? I’m not sure yet.

Perhaps the most satisfying element of this whole episode was the end of our dear friend, the Demon Tree. I didn’t realize how much I wanted that thing gone until I felt like standing up to cheer when Kirito finally landed a good hit on it. The story even gave Eugeo the role of finishing it off. It was his task, and he handled it.

I know it’s a popular thing to act like SAO’s storytelling hasn’t improved since the Fairy Dance arc. I disagree, but will admit Gun Gale Online and Mother’s Rosario were both far from the death game promised in Aincrad. I can argue till I’m blue in the face that even SAO’s worst arc still hits good emotional notes, but… that doesn’t and won’t make it what people wanted or expected from the series.

Alicization seems to be building on the themes it explored in Mother’s Rosario. Especially in the sense of finding ways to create a virtual reality fantasy that is more than a game. It’s what I want from SAO, but I wonder how other long time fans feel about this narrative focus? That’s become a more interesting question as the direction of this arc becomes clear.

If nothing else I feel good about the storytelling of Alicization. Episode four had a great fight and hit all the right emotional notes. I can’t wait to see where it goes next. I hope other fans are enjoying it as much as I am.

That Time I Got Reincarnated As a Slime, Episodes 3 & 4

Episode 3

Last time, I said that Rimiru could just take on all the Direwolves himself while the goblins just hang out, and that’s…basically what happens. Except instead of defeating all of the wolves, Rimuru kills (and then eats, of course) their leader, and the rest of the wolves pledge allegiance to him. You’d think King Direwolf’s son would feel some anger towards Rimiru for killing his father, but there’s no indication of that. I’m guessing Daddy Direwolf must have been an abusive parent and general-purpose asshole that no one liked.

The fate of all who go up against Rimiru, the Slime God. Daddy Direwolf really should have picked a more reasonable opponent, like a Leviathan or the Antichrist or something.

The “battle,” for what it’s worth, does give us a chance to see some more of the skills Rimiru’s picked up, but I’m concerned about something: that Water Blade skill is lethal. It seems like as long as Rimiru has Water Blade, all of his other skills are kind of unnecessary. I mean, Rimiru is supposed to be overpowered, that’s kind of the point, but it’s not as much fun if he can just behead any opposition with the same attack whenever he feels like it, you know? Unless you really like seeing monsters beheaded, then I guess it’s pretty fun?

I wonder if this little girl is thinking “Great, I get to have boobs now!”

With peace established, Rimiru combines the Direwolves and the Goblins into one tribe, which seems like a risky plan– I’d still be kind of worried about the Direwolves eating the goblins, personally– but because Rimiru is literally worshipped as a God at this point, he makes it work. Then he names them all, and the way this show handles names is interesting to me. There’s the videogame-aspect, which is that a named monster in a JRPG will almost always be more powerful than a generic one, and the show pays homage to that. But there’s also the whole Old Testament angle, with names (and language in general) being imbued with the power to create the world. Since Rimiru’s effectively a God now, he doesn’t just name the Goblins, he creates new creatures by virtue of naming them.

It’s a little hard to explain. It’s not that this story is making any kind of deep point about religion or anything like that, but I like the fact that it runs on a few levels at the same time.

Just when we were beginning to think Rimiru’s crazy God Magic was limitless, he runs out of magicules and needs to take a breather for a few days. While he’s unconscious, all the cute kid goblins level up (thanks to the naming) to become incredibly ripped and/or curvy adult goblins. I’m kind of torn about this; I mean, I know the internet is happy that we’ve got smokin’ hot goblin babes for waifu purposes now, but I liked the little kid goblins! I wanted to cuddle them and tell them bedtime stories. They grow up so fast….

Give Peace a chance, especially if your ancestral enemies are actually dogs that wag their tails when they’re happy.

One of my favorite bits is when Rigur, the chiefs son, asks Rimiru why he has commanded the Goblins not to attack humans, and Rimiru responds “Because I like humans.” I wish he’d just left it at that, but being a reasonable sort, Rimiru goes on to give an actual explanation. It just seemed like a really good place to go with “Because I said so.”

Episode 4

I’m going to go through this one kind of fast, because I wasn’t that keen on this episode.

Since goblins are terrible at carpentry and tailoring, for some reason, Rimiru needs to head off to the Dwarf city to find some craftsman to improve conditions at Goblin village. I think I would have liked it better if goblins could do these things before, but after they transformed, they no longer have the dexterity to do detail work with their giant sausage-fingers; oh well.

This party of adventurers proves a challenge for our hero, hah hah no they don’t they’re useless cannon fodder. The imagery is cute though.

No matter how ridiculously OP Rimiru is, he still looks like a weakling monster at first glance, and this continues to cause him problems. So there’s a big tiresome fight at the front gate of the Dwarven city, he and Gobta get arrested, and so on and so forth. Rimuru wins the affections of the Dwarves by creating healing potions, but I’m confused; didn’t Rimiru use up his supplies of healing potion by healing all the injured Goblins in the last episode?

CURIOUS!

With how over-detailed this show has been on mechanics, I kind of expect to know exactly how many healing potions Rimiru has available at all times; one problem with constantly giving all of this game-esque status info is that the audience starts to expect it…or maybe that’s just me.

Then there’s a whole boring part where a blacksmith needs to make swords, and Rimiru can make swords for him in exchange for craftsman coming back to Gob village, blah blah blah this part is so boring. I mean, I kind of like the idea that Rimiru’s early game “grinding” ended up being so useful– basically, he broke the world by overleveling early, which is what I usually do in a JRPG– but I just don’t care about the Dwarven military cause or whatever.

Then to reward Rimiru for all his help, the Dwarves take Rimiru to an elf brothel, I mean, bar. It’s a nice touch that all of Rimiru’s fantasies of elven girls in this episode look like they come from ’90s OVAs, which is when Rimiru’s human form would have been a teenager and hence discovering sex; impressive attention to detail. However, I’m not sure I’m too keen on the introduction of Elven sex workers, that just seems kind of depressing.

Wait a minute though– isn’t assuming the elves are unhappy because they’re sex workers inherently anti-feminist? If they have agency, perhaps they’re making the choice to work in this industry, and are reasonably happy in their chosen field? Perhaps I’m the real sexist for condescending to feel bad for them in the first place? I’M SO CONFUSED.

Hopefully, next episode will deal with Rimuru eating more cool monsters and their friends, and less blacksmithing and weird sex stuff.

 

Sword Art Online Alicization, Episode Three

LB:

First off, let’s address the elephant in the room: What is Japan’s obsession with goblins right now? They’ve appeared in at least three series this season alone. Is this Japan’s new shiny toy?

Getting to the actual episode, I have to admit that this season of SAO is moving way too slow. I realize that they have over fifty episodes to fill this time around, but can we please get some action sequences that don’t involve a big tree? The only time Kirito has held a sword this season is to attack wood, and that just doesn’t have the same impact as when he’s in a real fight against another person.

The whole story with Alice and Eugeo is proving to be a slog in the early going. I’d love to say that my endless love for SAO can get me through this early bit of story set-up, but the sheer amount of exposition we have to sit through is proving to be a bit much.

Here’s to hoping that things turn around quickly.

Lifesong:

Good lord, Kirito take down that tree already, I’m sick of looking at it! Better yet, Eugeo should take it down. That’s the better path forward, and the one I hope this arc takes if we have to spend another minute staring at the thing.

Sure, if Kirito goes into OP Jesus Mode and takes down the tree like it never mattered, that’s a lame end for the tree. But who cares about the tree? Okay, so half the anime fandom will work itself into a frenzy if Kirito kills that tree with a single sword skill. My opinion? Worth it.

Even if Kirito does take down the tree in a single hit on his way back to town, you won’t hear me complain. “But Lifesong,” you say, “we don’t want to see Kirito be all OP, OP protagonists are boring!” No, you’re wrong. Not about OP protagonists, but about the way this story is treating Kirito.

Kirito isn’t the hero character right now. He might take over that role at any point…that point might even be episode 3. I hope not, but it could be. If we look at the typical hero’s journey flow chart for a story, then Eugeo is the hero and Kirito is the mentor. However, I’m not sure if I buy that yet myself. I can see it with a heroine, but with a male character?

There is nothing wrong with the wizard working his magic. In this case the wizard is Kirito, Eugeo is the hero and we even have a replacement damsel for Alice; Selka steps up to fill the role for her too-removed-from-current-events-to-act-as-narrative-carrot sister. The comparison to Sugu makes me think about how forgotten Sugu is in the greater narrative. Maybe this is preparation for her return to relevance? Or maybe it’s a repeat storytelling tactic to bridge a boring part of the story to a more interesting one…

I find myself in an annoying spot with this Alicization story line. From a storytelling perspective, it’s doing fine. I like epic fantasy stories that start from humble origins and snowball into something massive. Alicization is hitting all the right notes to do that; It’s just doing it in short bursts over the length of a month. The pacing is an issue, but only because I can’t watch more now.

Imagine waiting three weeks to get through the into segment of The Hobbit. You know, the part where Gandalf convinces Bilbo to go on an adventure with the dwarves. Spending two hours on the lead in to an adventure is okay; in fact, I like stories that start this way. It gives me an easy in to invest in the characters naturally, without forced urgency. But spending three weeks on this is hard to take.

Looking back on this arc once everything has aired, my complaints will likely be gone. Right now? Well, at least we have hints that something might happen next week. Who knew I’d be so happy to see some goblins show up? How will Kirito and Eugeo get out of this predicament? Maybe the goblins just happen to have a magic axe that kills demon trees while they’re at it? I’d accept it.

Karen:

I’m filling in my part of the post last this week, so I can see above that LB and Lifesong are both frustrated with the pacing of this arc. I’m not sure how I feel; I’m not exactly riveted, but I have faith that things are going to pick up soon. Part of that confidence is likely due to the fact that I’ve been hearing good things about this arc in the novels for years, so I’m willing to be patient for a while. If I had no knowledge of the source material, I wonder if I’d be as forgiving?

And yeah, can we just stop with the goblins already? First Goblin Slayer freaked me out with it’s terrifying goblins, then That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime healed my psychic wounds with helpless, adorable goblins. Now SAO is trying to give me PTSD again with cruel, human-trafficking goblins, and I’m just tired of this goblin morality yo-yo. Next thing you know Conception will introduce elegant, angelic healer-goblins or something, but who knows, that might actually make that show watchable? It could happen.

Back to SAO, I’m interested with what’s going on with Eugeo here. Back in the premiere episode, when Eugeo froze trying to save Alice, I thought he was struggling against his programming: he’s been conditioned (for lack of a better word) to follow the Taboo Index, only Kirito was urging him to rebel against the system, and it seemed like it was causing his Fluctlight into a Blue Screen of Death situation. At the end of this episode, Eugeo is freaking out again, but it’s not clear if he’s having programming conflicts, or if he’s just plain terrified of the goblins. Maybe both?

I think ultimately Eugeo and Alice are going to transcend being “artificial” Fluctlights and become real people (possibly other characters too), but there’s potential to do something interesting here. After all, the title “Alicization” makes it appear as though the arc is going to focus on a transition involving Alice, but wouldn’t it be interesting if the more important character was Eugeo, and Alice’s role is something else entirely?

Okay, I’m as bored with the unchoppable Demon Tree as everyone else, but I’m still intrigued with where the show is going overall.

Sword Art Online Alicization, Episode 2

Lifesong:

Kirito in Underworld works a lot better after hearing an explanation of the Fluctlight. I liked the flow of episode two; this place now has enough nuance to create a mysterious atmosphere. Kirito rediscovering it bit by bit was much more interesting than our introduction.

I found it interesting to note that Kirito can’t immediately spot the tell-tale signs of a digital world. You’d think he would know immediately based off the look and feel of it, but It takes seeing a digital menu to convince him that he’s in a virtual world. It isn’t hard to guess why someone might want to make a seemingly perfect virtual utopia like this. It makes the question of why they want to hide it from testers a more compelling mystery.

Connecting directly to the fluctlight in someone’s head gives digital worlds new options. The concept of transporting those light signals into a computer makes for good science fiction. Kirito’s theory that the NPCs in this world are too realistic is the clue. Imagine that as a company, you can offer a sort of digital afterlife. I’m sure that would find a market. The implications are fascinating.

Time passes faster in the virtual world than it does in reality. That means increasing the experiences one person can have during their life. Not only can you experience life longer, but you can potentially live forever inside the machine. That’s speculation to some degree, but it seems to be the general direction this arc of Sword Art Online is taking. If the company that made Underworld can copy a human soul and then host it in a human world without a human body… That’s basically immortality.

One last thing I found worth commenting on is the way Kirito is able to use a sword skill from Aincrad. Perhaps the base for this world is similar, but I suspect it’s more than that. Fluctlight is someone’s soul, right? It contains their memories and personality from real life. Wouldn’t it also contain their memories from time spent in other digital worlds? It may be more than sword skills Kirito that can use in Underworld. How long will it be before Kirito is flying around with magical imp wings, cursing himself for never learning any magic in Alfheim Online? Or you know, never bothering to fire a gun in GGO? I’m sure he’ll figure out a way to cope, but the implications are fascinating to think about.

Karen:

Though this arc is playing around with a lot of really interesting ideas, this episode was rather dull. Since Kirito doesn’t remember his original trip to Underworld, we’re stuck watching Kirito relearn all the things that we already know from Episode 1, which is a little frustrating. Watching Kirito put his deductive reasoning to work to figure out what’s going on keeps things from getting too boring, but I have to wonder if there wasn’t a better way to do this.

Speaking of boring, there’s poor Eugeo’s calling: hacking the same tree with an axe 2,000 times every day. I don’t know the significance of the Demon Tree to Underworld yet, but I took this as a commentary on the mind-numbing repetition of the kind of tasks you tend to take on in virtual worlds; daily quests you can repeat for years, killing the same monster over and over again in the hopes of snaring that .01% drop, and so on and so forth. One of the premises that the isekai genre is based on is “living in a world with video game mechanics would be hella fun”; here, we’re getting the opposite view.

And yet, Underworld isn’t supposed to be a game, as far as I can tell; there are no goals for the player. Yet it’s clearly based on games, and I would bet money it uses some of the same code from SAO, which is why Kirito’s sword skills seems to work in Underworld. It seems like Kayaba Akihito was the only one in the world who could program virtual reality worth a damn, so even years after the SAO incident, people are still ripping off his work. Kind of depressing, but certainly not unrealistic.

The most important thing we learn here is that Underworld is likely populated by Artificial Fluctlights– newborns that had their souls “cloned,” then raised from birth in this virtual environment. Huh. In Ordinal Scale, there’s some talk that the programmers have had enough with the “top-down” approach to AI; raising artificial souls from birth would definitely seem to be more of a bottom-up approach. It is a bit jarring that actual people are involved– I would have assumed that to make an Artificial Fluctlight, they would have just used algorithms or whatever to make a fake personality. Copying existing people’s personalities adds a whole ‘nother layer of ethical wtf-ery on top of everything.

I wonder about the role of the Church in this story. Unless the show does something really unexpected, wouldn’t the Church in Underworld be 100% right about everything? Their world really was created by a superior being (or beings), who watches over everything they do, and so on and so forth. Oddly, Kirito is a non-believer in the sense that he doesn’t have to believe; he knows. I’m kind of hoping that Kirito starts using prayer as a means to communicate with the developers, because I’m always interested when fiction explores inside-out religion; it’s one of my weird hang-ups.

Hopefully we’ve gotten all the (slightly painful) exposition out of the way and can move on to more exciting things now. There’s a lot of potential here, but it’s hard to be properly excited by it when most of the episode is taken up by two dudes talking under a tree.