‘Sword Art Online: Progressive – Aria Of A Starless Night’ Film Review

by Sage Ashford

Sword Art Online is the definitive anime franchise of the 2010’s. Despite the polarizing nature of the first series, it spawned dozens of copycats, ranging from “stuck in a game” series to the more broad isekai where people are transported to alternate worlds. The franchise itself has been a part of anime discourse since 2012, with plenty of sequels, side stories, and video games. Most recently A-1 Pictures finished the multi-season epic, Sword Art Online: Alicization, where Kirito and Asuna were once again trapped in a virtual world.

Now the latest addition is Sword Art Online Progressive: Aria of a Starless Night. This focuses on the original SAO storyline, where 10,000 protagonists are trapped in the world of Aincrad, with the only way out being clearing all one hundred floors of game. Losing in the game means dying in real life. A film based on the Progressive light novels from series creator Reki Kawahara, Progressive can be perceived is a retcon that adds in lots of new details. This makes the film easy to get into even if you’ve never watched any of the previous storylines, so if your anime-loving friend drags you into checking this out this weekend, there’s no chance of being lost: they begin even before the beginning.

This time around the film’s protagonist is Asuna, the female lead of the main series. Rather than jump directly into Aincrad, the opening spends more time in the real world building up her life outside of the game. We get a glimpse of her pampered home life that’s strained by her mother’s unrealistic expectations. We’re shown Asuna’s school life, where she’s both beloved by her classmates and one of the top students there, portraying her as an overachiever. While this part of the film can feel slow, it’s a welcome change that helps ground the series and develop one of the franchise’s most important characters. As an aside, Haruka Tomatsu’s performance as Asuna manages to convey the complex emotions the character experiences in her journey from confused schoolgirl to determined adventurer, whether it’s the despondence of being trapped in the game or the simple joys of finally being allowed to take a bath.

Asuna’s school is also where Misumi Tozawa, or Mito, is introduced. Tozawa is another of Asuna’s friends, who shares a friendship with her unlike any Asuna has with her other classmates.For people who only watched the original series, Mito is a new character to the story, and serves as Asuna’s introduction to the world of Sword Art Online. Because this takes place so much earlier than everything else, Asuna isn’t the major player she is in the show, where she’s second-in-command of the biggest guild in Aincrad. Instead, much of the film is about her journey to get to that point, a bumpy journey that keeps Asuna on the first floor for the duration of the movie.

For the first half, Asuna and Mito’s relationship carry the film. In the same way that Sword Art Online: Alicization relied on the same-sex friendship of Kirito and Eugeo for it’s first half, once again I felt like I was being bludgeoned with queer subtext. There’s so many adorable ship teasing moments for the first half that I got sick out of concern of what might happen to Mito given the series’ handling of Eugeo. Without spoiling, I can say that the way their relationship developed was a surprise, if not necessarily a happy one. Still, despite how much she’s in the story, it’s hard not to question why she’s there, since she’s anime-original and wasn’t present in the light novels.

On another note, the brutality of Aincrad is still in full view here, for anyone who was concerned. The one thing Sword Art Online initially sold its viewers on was the harshness of the fantasy world it introduced. Sword Art Online presents viewers with a world where one wrong move could mean the end not just of you, but your entire party. It’s this environment that made so many of the tragic early episodes of the original series possible, and Progressive manages to echo that same hopeless sentiment without becoming mired in it. It’s just enough to make every decision made by characters understandable, yet heartbreaking.

It’s refreshing to have Asuna as the lead protagonist for once, but of course most fans are going to wonder where Kirito is. Not to worry, the original Stock Light Novel Protagonist makes his presence known throughout the second half of the film. But he’s never overbearing in a way that takes the spotlight off of Asuna—this is her story from beginning to end, and all the other characters are only in supporting roles. This is a welcome change, as Kirito can often feel inscrutable, particularly since he happens to be good at whatever the story needs from him at a given moment. Asuna has always come off just as capable, but this film shows the origin story to that.

So much of this film is built around Asuna, and her finding the resolve she needs to make it out of Aincrad and go back to the real world. But by the end, her reasoning to get stronger might not be what some anime fans want to hear. Sword Art Online has always had some…questionable elements to it’s universe: every season has to somehow bring sexual assault into things, and so many of the universe’s hyper-capable women often wind up relying on a man…generally the same man. Sword Art Online super-fans will likely not have a problem with any of this because they’re inoculated to it all, but people trying this as a starting point might be put off by the ending, even though there is some room for nuance in the ultimate interpretation of Asuna’s character at the end of the film.

By the end of the film, I was reminded of why I keep coming back to this imperfect franchise. A-1 Pictures has created a visual showcase unlike any other in anime. As a lore geek, it builds out a massive world that feels bigger than the protagonists even if Kirito is usually the solution to every problem. There are plenty of high fantasy anime, but few design their worlds as well as SAO does. That combined with the incredibly animated fight scenes are worth the cost of admission. And that’s the best compliment I can give: this is a fun way to spend an hour and forty minutes, and hopefully the next film maintains this same level of quality.

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