Disclaimer: This post contains heavy spoilers for Sword Art Online: Alicization. Specifically for episode 10. If you have yet to watch this episode and do not wish to be spoiled, I’d recommend giving this one a miss until you do so.
Warning: There’s also some graphic images in here. Sorry.
So after quite the lengthy wait, the Sword Art Online Anime finally received it’s third season this year in the form of Sword Art Online: Alicization, a show that, as an avid fan of the original Light Novels, I’d really been looking forward to. After all, in the books the Alicization arc is where Kawahara really started to change things up for the better and began to address the most common criticisms that people often threw at the previous arcs which is what made it the best arc in the series, in my opinion. Yes, even better than Aincrad.
But of course, this is a new season of Sword Art Online we’re talking about and as I, and likely many others, expected the series has once again been the subject of a lot of negative and unfair criticism from a very vocal group of Anime fans who just can’t seem to get over the idea that maybe the show just isn’t their cup of tea. Since episode 1, the snarky comments about the show being “badly written”, “poorly animated” (lol) and “having an underdeveloped setting”, to name a few, started cropping up as expected.
But the negative criticism of Alicization reached all new heights after the airing of episode 10, due to a particular scene involving the attempted rape of two female characters in their teens. Not only was the subject matter of the scene pretty gruesome on its own, but the way it was shown was also pretty graphic. Especially for Sword Art Online. The series has never been afraid to dip its toes into more “dark” territory on occasion, but for the most part, due to its whimsical video game setting and the gameified elements that come with it, Sword Art Online has never really been “disturbing”.
Yet, here we are, with a sexual assault scene. And no, this isn’t some “Silica gets fondled by a giant plant” scene or an “Asuna gets groped by tentacles” scene. This is a scene where two human men attempt to rape two innocent girls. Who are teenagers. For the sole purpose of tormenting the main characters.
And naturally, this scene became the subject of a lot of negative criticism. In an all too familiar turn of events, people began mounting the moral high horse, labelling the scene as “shock factor” that had no narrative purpose and the show itself as “immoral” and “deplorable”. And of course, fans of the show were unfairly labelled as bad people who support rape. Y’know, it’s this narrative again. I’ve spoke about this before. Many times. Ad nauseam.
And I get it. Outside of labelling fans of the show, or Kawahara himself, as bad people, this reaction is pretty understandable. The scene is very unsettling. It’s a graphic depiction of a sexual assault, made even worse by the extremely violent and bloody murder that is inflicted on one of the abusers in an attempt to stop them. It’s some truly gut wrenching stuff, especially for a show like Sword Art Online that has never really crossed into this kind of territory before.
However, that’s not the criticism I have a problem with. The criticism I have a problem with is that people who didn’t like the scene are under the impression that the scene was nothing but pure shock factor. That it had no narrative significance other than to be “edgy” and to make the audience hate the big bad rapist villains, Raious and Humbert. That the show was being a “tryhard” Seinen and was using rape as a form of emotional manipulation to make you feel things.
And I’m here to explain why the scene isn’t any of those things and why it actually has a significant purpose in the narrative. I’m here to tell you why this criticism that it’s “nothing but edgy, tryhard shock factor” is, to put it bluntly, a load of horse shit.
Still with me? Good.
The world of Alicization, “Underworld”, isn’t quite like the other virtual worlds that we’ve previously been exposed to in the Sword Art Online universe. While worlds like Aincrad, Alfheim and Gun Gale Online did their best to emulate realism as much as possible, it was still very clear that what Kirito and his friends were experiencing was a simulation. It was gameified. The characters were somewhat limited to the mechanics of the game. For many, these virtual worlds were preferable to reality. Even Aincrad, which simulated death itself by actually killing off players who died in the game in the real world, still aimed to be the ultimate escapist fantasy that Akihiko Kayaba so desperately dreamed of. So much so that the likes of Kirito and Asuna, along with many others, were able to create whole new lives in these worlds that were far happier and more rewarding than anything they’d have ever experienced in their real lives.
Yet, none of these virtual worlds came even remotely as close to simulating reality as Underworld does. You see, Underworld isn’t a video game. It’s not aiming to be an escapist fantasy. It’s a near perfect simulation of reality, and is it’s own living, breathing fantasy world. And unlike the world of Alfheim where you can be anything and do anything, it’s a harsh one full of hardships, corruption and unfairness. Just like the real world.
This is first put on display during Kirito and Eugeo’s first encounter with monsters, when they fight the group of goblins in episode 4. Normally, such an encounter would be a breeze, but in Underworld, the fight was a brutal challenge that the boys barely managed to come out of alive. The injuries were very real, the mental strain on the boys was ever present, with Eugeo being literally paralyzed by fear, and blood and guts were spilled as Kirito cut his way through the monsters. This wasn’t a fun, virtual reality battle, this was a battle for their lives, complete with all the trauma and violence that comes with such a battle in the real world.
And this scene is yet another way of driving home this point: That Underworld is a brutal world where bad things can happen, that is full of unfairness, hardships and corruption. Just like the real world that it’s trying so hard to be a simulation of.
You can argue that the goblin battle and other subsequent events already drove this point home pretty well, but the setting of Underworld being harsh and rife with corruption is one of the biggest themes and focuses of Alicization’s narrative, and it’s instrumental in the future events that are going to take place as the series progresses, which I’d love to spoil for you, but… I won’t. Because you deserve to be surprised.
But if that doesn’t convince you that this scene has some value, there’s something else that makes this scene incredibly important, and a huge turning point in the narrative: What it means for one of the main characters, Eugeo, how it develops him and how this development ties into the core theme of Underworld being a corrupt, twisted world.
You see, unlike Kirito, Eugeo is a resident of Underworld, and as such he’s spent his entire life being taught that the world works a certain way. Who he is as a person, his beliefs and his entire reality, are all based around the principles and teachings of Underworld’s society: the sacred Taboo Index. Eugeo’s entire existence, the person he is, is shaped by the beliefs he’s spent his entire life following.
“You can’t reduce the ‘life’ of other people through physical violence. That’s a sin.” “Killing people is wrong, no matter how dire the situation.” Yet, right in front of him are Raious and Humbert, attempting to sexually assault two of his closest companions, something that isn’t against the teachings of the Taboo Index, so long as their ‘life’ isn’t reduced. And Eugeo can’t physically stop them because he’ll break the Taboo Index if he does.
Not only does Eugeo need to go against everything that he stands for as an individual to save his two friends, but the very people he’s trying to stop are completely free from harm because of his beliefs. Beliefs that, based on everything he’s been taught, have been put in place to make the world a better place and keep everyone safe from harm.
So what does Eugeo do? He casts his beliefs aside, and everything that defines him as an individual, and murders Raious alongside Kirito to save his friends. The often kind-hearted and honest boy brutally and violently murders them in a furious rage and becomes a completely different person as a result.
Not only does this further emphasise how corrupt the seemingly “perfect” world of Underworld really is, but it also serves as a significant turning point for Eugeo’s character. He’s essentially turned his back on the Taboo Index and it’s teachings, and as a result, everything that’s defined who he is up until this point.
If that isn’t significant to the narrative of Sword Art Online: Alicization, then I don’t know what the heck is. That’s about as significant as you can bloody get in any story and to misrepresent this scene as “lazy writing” or “mere shock factor” is incredibly shortsighted and dismissive in my opinion.
Sword Art Online has never been a perfect series, and Alicization is far from one as well, but it’s scenes like this, in spite of shocking they are, that really make this arc the best one in the series in my opinion.
People have criticised the series for it’s handling of sexual assault in the past, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that this scene is in the same vein as those from the previous seasons. This isn’t just another case of shocking fan-service or a poor attempt to make the audience mad and want to see the rapist villain brutally murdered. This is a very powerful and emotionally effective part of the narrative with the intention of developing one of the shows main characters and the setting of Underworld itself.
But sure. Keep telling yourself that it’s just “the same old Sword Art Online”. Whatever sells your “Sword Art Online is the worst Anime ever made and is a 1/10″ narrative, you absolute unit.
…It’s good to be back, everyone.