The Other Side of Animation 247: Sword Art Online Progressive: Aria of a Starless Night Review

Heads up: I was able to watch this film before its recent release via a screener sent to me by Funimation. I got no other form of monetization other than the screener. Thank you, Funimation.

Sword Art Online is one of the most popular and depending on your own personal viewpoint on the franchise, one of the most infamous. And to be clear, it’s infamous among anime fans and not something you would hear outside of anime fans. It’s one of the most profitable franchises around, and is a punchline for being popular and profitable. Granted, a lot of the franchise is not well-written or well-made, but hey, if people enjoy it, so be it. Just don’t be malicious or toxic about loving or hating it. Anyway, you know what also made a lot of money and got a ton of acclaim? The Evangelion Rebuild films. Do you know what industry took note of that? The anime industry. You know what franchise is attempting to do what the Evangelion Rebuild films did to the Evangelion franchise? Sword Art Online! Sure, most franchises do recap films, but Rebuild is different, as it is telling the overall story in a different way. Will Sword Art Online The Movie – Progressive: Aria of a Starless Night do the same? We will have to see. Oh, and before any of you hardcore fans of the franchise get at this review, yes, this is technically a film version of the light novels of the same Progressive name, but since they are essentially a retelling of the original story that expands upon some things, the film is pretty much doing that with recapping the story up to a certain point of the original experience. So, yeah, still a recap film. 

Directed by Ayako Kono, written by Reiki Kawahara, and produced by A1 Pictures, this film retells the story arc of the first floor within the VRMMO Sword Art Online. Our main story for this first film, however, follows Asuna Yuuki, dubbed by Cherami Leigh. She’s an honor student who loves to spend time with her friend Misumi Tozawa, dubbed by Anairis Quinones. One day, Asuna decides to log on to the newly released Sword Art Online, and ends up discovering that her friend Misumi is in the game as well! Sadly, the discovery comes at a cost as every player logged on to the game can now not log out. The game’s apparent creator arrives and explains that he has made sure no one can leave, and if they try to log out and take off the VR helmet, it will fry their brains and kill them. Everyone is now stuck in the game and is tasked with beating the entire game and the main world’s dungeons. The only other catch is if you die in the game, you supposedly die in real life. Can Asuna make it to the top with her friend? Who is this mysterious insert male power fantasy character they run into? What’s his story? 

So, if they were going to go the route of the recap/Rebuild-style retelling of the anime, where do you start? For the first half, they went with building up Asuna and her friendship with Misumi. It’s rather impressive to see a show that is known for not having the best characters in anime, taking its time to really build up the friendship, the betrayal, and the heartbreak between these two. Most recap anime try to get through as much of the show as possible. Usually, they tend to cover the first major arc of the show and then call it a day. They sacrifice the smaller character moments so they can get to the big moments that you all know and love, but hopefully have some of that theatrical animation budget to make them all look good. By the time the first major shift in Asuna and Misumi’s relationship happens, you are heartbroken with what happens, and that helps drive a little bit more of the drama. It’s been a hot minute since I’ve seen the original series, but the film definitely shifts the focus away from the franchise’s male lead Kirito, to Asuna, and it’s for the better. They pretty much make Kirito the side secondary character until the first major raid/the third act when he sadly steals the driver’s seat and takes over the film. 

The problem with making male power fantasy characters your lead is that unless you are careful with how you tackle the power fantasy by either making the characters themself massively flawed in some way or go the One Punch Man route and do some meta commentary on the power fantasy trope, they make for bad lead characters. With how many VRMMO and fantasy anime tend to make the leads ‘boring as tar’ power fantasy for male viewers, why wouldn’t you shift focus to someone else who could actually carry the story, and the story not suffer due to having to contort to the whims of the power fantasy? What also helps here is that they don’t try to do too much at once. With how much focus the relationship between Asuna, Misumi, and Kirito unfolds, they only cover the first two episodes, while filling out those two episodes with the time to have the characters bond. It also lets the stakes rise when the story needs them to, and we aren’t forcing our way to get from point A to point B to point C to point D at a rapid rate. It makes perfect sense for the film to make the first floor raid the third act conflict. It’s not a perfect journey to get from the beginning of the film to the end, but considering what this could have been, it should be admirable with how the director and writer took to retelling the story of the famous franchise. 

Animation-wise, this is where it starts to fumble a little. Not that the animation is bad, because it’s not. It just doesn’t look as good as other anime franchise films. It’s not its fault it doesn’t reach the visual overload and drip of Evangelion Rebuild, but when you are going from show to film, there should be a much more noticeable upgrade. Still, the animation is mostly smooth, there are a few very pleasant shots, and when the action kicks in, it ranges from action-packed to intense, depending on where you are within the story. It’s not the biggest upgrade from show to film, but it looks solid enough. You can turn back the clock and look at much older anime recap films and see how they just didn’t do a dang thing with going from show to film. If you need proof, go find the old Cyborg 009 recap films or the Tatsunoko stuff. In some ways,we are in a much better place than we were back in the day with anime franchise films. The music by Yuki Kajiura is good with some pretty rocking fantasy RPG beats from the training montage to the raid battle having the accurate musical tracks. It sounds a lot like Dot Hack and or something similar to the Demon Slayer series, but that’s also because Yuki helped compose music for both series. The English dub is rather good as usual, and any issues I have with the story are not because of the English voice actors or the Japanese voice actors. Bryce Papenbrook returns as Kirito alongside Cherami Leigh as Asuna, and they do help elevate some of the rougher parts of the script. The other actors are strong as well, and if you are sad other characters and their respective voice actors don’t make an appearance, don’t worry, they will probably show up in the next film. Still, Cherami Leigh and Anairis Quinones carry a lot of the drama on their shoulders, and they do a good job at making you feel connected to their friendship. 

Sadly, the problems keep coming up when you remember that this is Sword Art Online, and 2013 was almost a decade ago now when the original series came out. When Kirito shows up, the story does then turn into more of the typical fantasy/video game action anime that you would expect. The third act falls flat due to a few storybeats that don’t feel properly executed with how the major fight unfolds, and it’s not fully Kirito’s fault that he’s the poster child for boring power fantasy characters, but he sure did reinforce the tropes and how many anime after the original show came out would want to be like Kirito. Asuna also suffers after his introduction to the story, because she becomes less interesting. It’s also a shame that they didn’t change too much else with the story up to this point. They may have cut out some filler pieces, but it sure does feel like this franchise is stuck in the past, figuratively and literally. It’s hard not to dread how little the franchise has changed going forward as well, due to how it all unfolds within this movie. Will the next film not change much? Nostalgia is a very sinister force right now in how our media is crafted, going right back to pandering to the most common denominator. Sorry for the snobbish side of this review coming up, but when you watch the Evangelion films and how much they changed and improved upon the overall story of the original, you can pick up how this one might not go the distance, but we will have to see. It’s not really fair to judge this film due to how we don’t know how the upcoming sequel will turn out, but it’s also fair to point out that while some major changes happened within this film’s take on the original story, not much else has changed either. Like, how did no one at the game studio not know about this creator basically doing a Battle Royale experiment without them knowing? Yes, the game industry is in a really bad spot right now in real life, but if your drama is going to revolve around one individual causing the ruckus, then there better be a good reason he was able to make all of this unfold and happen. 

Listen, it’s not this film’s fault that it came out the same year as the final Evangelion Rebuild film. It’s not its fault that it’s not as good as that last movie. It’s not its fault Sword Art Online is an overall flawed franchise where the spin-offs were more interesting than the main series. However, it is its fault with how this film feels like it’s only going halfway with its retelling of the story. What would have been interesting is if they pulled a Marvel What If?, and killed Kirito in this film or didn’t have him to let it focus solely on Asuna. Sure, that wasn’t going to happen, due to how the creator of the franchise wanted to make sure their vision was going to go as planned and any major changes needed to be decided by them, but when Sword Art Online has been out for almost a decade now, times have changed, and the anime scene is much different for both good and for bad with this film being released. It’s not the worst animated film of the year, nor is it the worst anime-related film of 2021, but when your competition is Evangelion, Demon Slayer, and My Hero Academia, then you had better come to the front lines with something worth investing into. It’s a shame, because the first half of this film was really compelling and interesting. Once the film is available to watch, maybe give it a rent first, but if you are a huge fan of the franchise, you will probably want to buy the blu-ray when it comes out. Now then, we come around the corner to the end of 2021 and next time, we will be talking about Bob Spit: We Do Not LIke People


Thanks for reading the review! I hope you all enjoyed reading it! If you would like to support my work, make sure to share it out, and if you want to become a Patreon supporter, then you can go to patreon.com/camseyeview. I will see you all next time!


Rating: Rent it!

Spring 2021 Anime Season Impressions Part 2

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(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com/camseyeview. It would help support my work, and keeps the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)


Here we are with part 2! Let’s do this! 



Drama



Higehiro: I Shaved and then Brought Home a High School Girl (Crunchyroll) 

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Based on the novels and manga by Shimesaba, the anime was directed by Manabu Kamikita, written by Deko Akao, and produced by Project No. 9. I am so frustrated with this show. Not because it’s one of the worst shows this season, but because it has a decent idea. While the base idea is already a bit uncomfortable, you see how the show unfolds and it turns out to be this drama about young adults and the baggage that they carry with them. They do talk about it and interact with one another like real individuals. It’s uncomfortable, but at times, it’s uncomfortable for the right reasons with these characters coming to terms with what they carry with them and how they interact with friends and people they are close to. On the flip side, it’s also filled with fanservice and the show keeps using shots to leer at the young girl and the women in this show, and it can’t seem to balance out what it wants to be. Does it want to be this adult drama that tackles uncomfortable elements and the emotional baggage you carry? Or does it want to be a fanservice show? Granted, so far from what I have seen, it doesn’t want to entirely be about the fanservice, but it’s distracting enough to make the experience of watching the show a tough sit. I think I’m more disappointed with how it handles its themes and story than downright mad. Still, I wish it focused on just the drama. 




86 (Crunchyroll) 

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Based on the light novels and manga by Asato Asato, this A1 Pictures-produced series is directed by Toshimasa Ishii and written by Toshiya Ono. What this anti-war drama gets right is what might be the biggest criticism aimed at it right now with how it handles its commentary and themes about discrimination and war with the carefulness of a sledgehammer. It’s very blunt about its beliefs and its story about a society of people who use “AI”-control mechs to fight, while in reality, the “AI” are humans that are of different races than the ones who sit back and do something. Normally, this would be a major issue since everyone loves to scream and rave about subtly while missing films and shows with subtle elements. I’m fine with them being blunt about the show’s themes and commentary. Sometimes, you need to tell them upfront what you are about. Luckily, the comradery between the 86 team members is constantly entertaining and feels like they are real friends. The action does use a lot of CGI, and while it comes with some of the typical clunkiness that is seen in none MAPPA and Studio Orange-produced CGI series, it’s a lot better here than in other anime from this season or previous seasons. However, the action is handled well and is intense. They also find a great balance in the drama, the action, and the moments of lightweight wholesomeness. It’s not subtle, but it’s a good anti-war drama that I think is one of the highlights of the season. 





Tokyo Revengers (Crunchyroll) 

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Based on the manga by Ken Wakui, this delinquent school drama with a time travel twist was directed by Koichi Hatsumi, written by Yasuyuki Muto, and produced by Liden Films. What seems like a first in such a long time, we have an honest-to-god school delinquent story. It takes a few creative twists about its setting and how the lead can go back in time to try and prevent the death of a girl he dated in the past. I think what works about the show are the character dynamics. I found the lead way more interesting than he came off at first, and when he meets one of the future gang leaders, it sets off this chain reaction of relationships that I admired. Maybe it’s because it’s been a while or what feels like a long time since we have seen a school delinquent anime, but it feels new and fresh. Now, granted, I was not fond of the first episode. I found it a bit too try-hard in showing how pathetic our main character is, his friends from middle school were obnoxious (even if they were middle school boys, they were a bit much), and it was a bummer that the girl that our lead is trying to save gets relegated at first to being an object of a goal. However, as I went through the episodes, the friends got better, the lead got better, and it has turned into one of my favorite shows of the season. I hope it can keep the momentum up. 






Those Snow White Notes (Crunchyroll) 

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Based on the manga by Marimo Ragawa, this show is directed by Hiroaki Akagi, written by Kan’ichi Kato, and produced by Shin-Ei Animation. This is hands down the best drama of the anime season with its focus on finding your sound aka your way in life through the power and mastery of the shamisen. Outside of gorgeous production values, solid comedy, and a more introspective take on the character’s arc, you have music that was supervised by the famous Yoshida Brothers, and it does make up for how much their talent was wasted back in the Summer 2020 season on 2020’s worst anime, Gibiate. The shamisen music heard throughout the show brings so much emotional depth that I was instantly hypnotized by the stand-out moments of each episode when a character would play the stringed instrument. It’s a show that truly stands out and so far, I have no real complaints about it. Now, if I continue watching the show and I find faults with it, maybe I’ll do quick little anime reviews going over the overall season of the show. 

Action/adventure

Combatants Will Be Dispatched (Funimation) 

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Based on the light novels by Natsume Akatsuki, this adaptation is directed by Hiraki Akagi, written by Yukie Sugawara, and produced by J.C. Staff. Well, it might be from the same author as Konosuba, but it is not by the same anime team that made Konosuba the smash hit that it was. This show is very confused about what it wants to be. Is it set in a sci-fi world with fantasy? or is it a fantasy world with sci-fi elements, because by episode three, they pretty much dispatched the sci-fi elements in favor of fantasy offerings. What also doesn’t have that thing that made Konosuba work are the characters. Instead of having Konosuba‘s chaotically likable idiots, Combatants has characters who have none of that energy or drive that made the other property so fun to watch. What you get here are an annoying lead, a robot girl who looks like a young child, and a harem of quirky characters that don’t have much going for them outside of their one personality trait. The jokes are also not funny. Some got a mild chuckle, but the exact kind of jokes you would find in such a show are all here and accounted for. The one thing missing is any of the major jokes being funny. It’s a shame that I didn’t like this show because it makes me wonder if the Konosuba anime just got lucky it got a director and team that understood the goal or if the author of both this anime and Konosuba were not good. Maybe the source material is better than the adaptation, but as of right now, I do not want to watch these combatants be dispatched! 



Seven Knights Revolution: The Hero’s Successor (Crunchyroll) 

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Based on a mobile game we can’t even play in the states, this anime adaptation is directed by Kazuya Ichikawa, written by Ukyo Kodachi, and produced by Liden Films and DOMERICA. It’s a real bog-standard action fantasy RPG with characters and a story you have seen before. Even the monsters look painfully generic. It’s always amusing how we get these anime for games we don’t get access to, because if you don’t know about the game, then why would you watch this show? It’s fine if you don’t play the game, but since I’ve seen this whole premise and cast of characters before, it doesn’t add anything to my experience that I couldn’t get with other action shows this season. When the action does kick in, it’s fine, but you can do a lot better this season than this anime. 


Cestvs: Roman Fighter (Crunchyroll) 

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Based on the manga by Shizuya Wazarai, this anime is directed by Toshifumi Kawase and Kazuya Monma, written by Toshifumi Kawase, and produced by Bandai Namco Pictures and Logic & Magic. While we might not have an Ex-Arm this season in terms of bad CGI animation, Cestvs almost hits that mark. While it has better CGI animation with weight behind the movements and actual lip movements, the show suffers everywhere else. The main character is way too whiny, the aristocrats are pushed to an unlikability that’s not tolerable, and the side characters are boring. However, it then also pulls the stunt of being a mix of 2D and CGI, and while it’s better implemented than Ex-Arm, the show suffers by not fully going the route of CGI. Also, this whole gladiatorial combat stuff has been debunked by historical findings, so seeing some of the inaccuracies pop up that are only there to drive the story is humorous to me. It has a few interesting characters, and it doesn’t 100% fail at brushing the horrors of slavery under the rug, but even after going 4 episodes deep into this show, I can’t find myself going back to it. The only real reason to watch this show is the combat, but when there are so many anime this season with great action set pieces, then why would you go for the weaker shows in the action category when you can get something better? I would personally skip it unless you are curious about seeing a boxing anime that takes place in ancient Rome. 





The World Ends With You: The Animation (Funimation) 

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Based on the cult-favorite video game from Square Enix, this adaptation is directed by Kazuya Ichikawa, written by Midori Goto, and produced by DOMERICA and Shin-Ei Animation. Well, it’s an anime adaptation of a video game. You get all of the cutscenes, but none of the fun of actually playing the game. It’s an extremely dense three episodes as we go from story beat to story beat with no time for stopping to take it all in. It got better by the third episode, and I would consider this to be one of the better action shows of the season. It’s not better than some of the other anime out this season, but I can see myself wanting to see how this show ends. 




Mars RED (Funimation) 

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Based on a manga by Bun-O Fujisawa, this action drama is directed by Kohei Hatano and Shinya Sadamitsu, written by Jun’ichi Fujisaku, and produced by Signal.MD. This show set in 1923 and dealing with an elite unit to take care of a blossoming vampire problem was one of the first shows of the season and one of the first to get a dub. I’m not entirely sure why, but I found myself enthralled with this vampire drama. It’s not doing anything unique, but I think having the characters be adults let the scenes that have them contemplating about their vampire nature be handled better here than most stories that deal with the blood-sucking monsters. There are some truly heartbreaking moments in the show and I was compelled and pulled into their stories. The action is more grounded, but it has some small fantastical elements sprinkled in that make for some truly great visual moments. Speaking of the visuals, Mars RED is one of the most gorgeous shows I have seen this season with perfect linework, expressive animation, and the designs and world overall feel cohesive. I can understand why some people aren’t as into this show as others, but I see myself getting back into this show once I’m done writing this article. 


Joran: The Princess of Snow and Blood (Crunchyroll) 

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Joran is an original anime this season directed by Susumu Kudo and produced by Bakken Records. It’s an anime version of the Lady Snowblood films mixed with Blood+, and turn-of-the-century technology (the late 1800s maybe early 1900s). I compare it to these elements because it has a stellar female lead who slays shapeshifting demons while wondering what is going on with the shady underbelly of the organization she works for and the targets they go after. It has pretty great animation, and when the power sets are turned on, the animation takes on an entirely different visual style that is so much fun to watch. It has great characters, intriguing plot twists, and lots of creative action that has impressed me within the five episodes I had watched.





To Your Eternity (Crunchyroll) 

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Based on the manga by Yoshitoki Oima, this adaptation is directed by Masahiko Murata, written by Shinzo Fujita, and produced by Brain’s Base. Without a doubt, To Your Eternity has made one of the biggest and best first impressions out of any anime this season. The first episode would have been amazing as its own little short film. Then you realize it has more story after that first episode! They threw a lot of talent and resources into this show if they got Utada Hikaru to do the theme song. It’s an ambitious story about life and the human experience as we follow our lead character as it interacts with the characters it meets. It’s a show that has a lot of enticing dialogue, creative world-building, and the individual the story is revolving around actually does become the main focus as the story goes on. Still, if you are against shows that have a sort of passive main character that traverses the story, you might not like this, and some story beats might be a bit much. Still, I have enjoyed the story and admired the ambition that this show has. It’s easily one of my favorite shows of the season so far. Now, will it stay that way, who knows? 






Romance/Comedy



It’s Too Sick to Call this Love aka Koikimo (Crunchyroll)

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Based on the manga by Mogusu, this anime adaptation is directed by Naomi Nakayama and produced by Nomad. This is an age gap romance where a man who is obviously in his 30s, is falling for a teenage girl, and the anime only seems half of the time aware of how creepy this premise is. You can spew all of the “well it’s a different culture and age of consent” comments as you want, but when one side of the party is not okay with the guy hitting on her constantly, then any defenses become null and void. The show only calls out the fact the guy is a creep half of the time! The other half is everyone gaslighting the high school girl that “hey maybe he’s not that bad” when all he does is stalk her, send her presents, and then does the bare minimum of a guy being nice and kind. Maybe this anime adaptation would have been better if it was leaning more on the dunking on the male lead and the animation was better, but it’s not. Alongside Burning Kabaddi and that Battle Athletes reboot, this is one of the cheapest-looking productions this season. The designs might be okay, but the animation is downright mediocre. It’s stiff and lifeless, and that’s saying something when you can say “Hey, The Way of the Househusband, a motion comic, is better animated than three of the shows in this anime season”. The opening and ending songs for Koikimo are okay, but that’s about all the kindness I have for this show. If I were ranking these shows, this would be right at the very bottom. I can’t see myself wanting to see how they gaslight the girl into loving the guy twice her age. 


The Romcom Where The Childhood Friend Won’t Lose (Crunchyroll)

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Based on the light novel and manga by Shuichi Nimaru, this adaptation is directed by Takashi Naoya, written by Yoriko Tomita, and produced by Doga Kobo. This might be the one anime this season where I don’t honestly don’t know where I stand on it. I enjoy it way more than Koikimo, but I don’t know if I downright love this show. On one hand, the first episode has a lot of ideas that rub me the wrong way. A high school boy is getting revenge on a girl because she is going out with another guy, and a girl who was crushing on our lead teams up with him to get revenge on the girl. But then you get to episode 3 and so many twists happen that it turns into less of a revenge fantasy with some rom-com elements, and more of a dysfunctional rom-com of teenagers who are in love and have no real idea of how to handle these emotions. The production values are okay, and so far, the cast is only okay, but something about this show grabbed me as I went on through it. Maybe I’ll pick it up again, but I will have to see if I do want to return. 




Don’t Toy with Me, Miss Nagataro (Crunchyroll)

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Based on the manga by Nanashi, this series is directed by Hirokazu Hanai, written by Taku Kishimoto, and produced by Telecom Animation Film. Who would have thought about a rom-com with a bullying fetish would be good? It’s not something I’m personally interested in, but the comedy is well-executed. Now if you aren’t into bully fetishes, then you won’t enjoy the titular character’s antics with the male lead. However, Nagataro herself is a sadistically delightful character who has some of the most expressive animations out of any character this season. While some of the teasings can lean a little too hard on being mean, there is this sincere kindness and teenage awkwardness under it all that makes it a delightful show to watch. You can tell she isn’t meaning to be a jerk, and she’s being more of a doofus crushing on the lead character who doesn’t get how to approach him respectably. The male lead isn’t the most interesting character at first but becomes more interesting as the show goes on. It’s a show I was wary about with how it would turn out, but I ended up enjoying it quite a lot and I can see myself wanting to finish it up alongside Dragon Goes House Hunting as my two comedies of the season. 

And there you have it! The Spring 2021 Anime Season watch is complete. I am burnt out on anime, and I need to take a small break before I can fully dive in and enjoy more anime when the summer season heats up. Still, even if most of these shows didn’t pan out, I was happy enough with the ones I loved. 

Thanks for reading the review! I hope you all enjoyed reading it! If you would like to support my work, make sure to share it out, and if you want to become a Patreon supporter, then you can go to patreon.com/camseyeview. I will see you all next time!