Written by guest writer: aroosterillusion
Reki Kawahara’s Sword Art Online (or commonly referred to as SAO by the fans), was originally written as a light novel series and was originally published in 2009 with illustrations done by Abec. The series takes place in the future, where technology is highly advanced and virtual reality has become a popular tool for leisure. The original story, covered by the novel’s first volume, revolves around a new MMORPG called Sword Art Online. The main protagonist, going by the online name of Kirito, is a skilled player who is adept to many of the game’s elements. A significant factor to Kirito’s high skill in the game is his previous experience as a beta-tester prior to the successful launch of the game in the beginning of the story. After entering the virtual world of Aincrad and befriending a man by the name of Klein, Kirito and the other online players find themselves trapped in the world, unable to return to reality. The players are then informed that they must survive the challenges of the game and climb the many dungeons and floors of the world to return everyone to reality. A major element that is fundamental to the story is that the game becomes a new reality for the players, as they can experience many factors of actual life including the potentiality for death if they perished in the game. Due to this, Kirito and the companions he bonds with throughout the story must cooperate and grow together in order to return to their original world.
In looking at the original work, the main elements contributing to its popularity are the romance, action, and depth of the story. The idea of a virtual world being forced into becoming a new reality is not an exactly new idea, but is executed effectively for the story of “Sword Art Online.” As the light novel was the original adaptation, it was limited in visuals, but was detailed enough to draw in many readers. Due to the quality of Kawahara’s writing, the popularity of “Sword Art Online” increased significantly and several other adaptations were created. The first two adaptations to the novel were the anime and manga versions, followed by the recent RPG video game. The manga adaptation, illustrated by Tamako Nakamura, covers the Aincrad arc and stays more faithful to the chronological order of the original work, but is lacking in several details. The anime adaptation of the series, done by the A-1 Studios and licensed by Aniplex, covers the Aincrad arc within the first fourteen episodes. While the character designs and the art in the anime are very similar to that of the novel illustrations, the story modifies several events and rearranges their order to make it more linear. Upon analyzing both adaptations and comparing them to the original light novel, the anime adaptation could be considered superior to the manga adaptation due to its compelling deliverance and its methods of developing the characters and their relations. Although many fans would easily say that the original light novel for SAO far surpasses the manga adaptation, the same cannot be simply said for the anime adaptation.
The most significant flaw of the manga adaptation would have to be its quality of illustrating the characters and their actions. While the dialogue is essentially taken from the light novel, some details are purposely left out. As the original illustrator, Abec, played no role in the drawings of the manga adaptation, the artwork can be expected to be extremely different. Although the quality of the art could be debatable, it pales in comparison to the anime adaptation as it does not convey the emotions of the characters as well. Nakamura’s adaptation features illustrations similar to those of shoujo series, as most of the characters have a slightly more feminine look. While the manga series concluded after ten chapters, the quality of the drawings became significantly rougher as the chapters progressed. Despite the artwork not being a major selling point for the manga, it still delivers the main story and attracts the same demography as the other adaptations. With the slight resemblance to shoujo-style artwork, the manga could be targeting the teenage female demography a bit more. This adaptation manages to express the major events of the original story, but simply lacks the depth and development present in the light novel. Even with the lacking content, the manga is decent for casual reading and could be enjoyable if you enjoy the art style.
The anime adaptation of SAO was highly anticipated before the summer anime season of 2012. As of now, the style of the artwork is much closer to that of the novel, as Abec also played a role in the staff. The character designs and artwork featured in the anime adaptation could be considered to be fairly high quality and attractive to the eye. Along with having art and graphics of a high tier, the anime adaptation also features a notable soundtrack to add to the atmosphere presented. Unlike the manga form of the series, the SAO anime holds some distinguishing changes to the chronology of events and incorporates side plots presented in the second volume of the light novel. One change made in the anime is the slightly earlier introduction of the female protagonist, Asuna. This alteration in the story could be a way to draw in more viewers who are aware of the romance factor of the story, as one could deduce that Asuna may play a large role in Kirito’s experience in Aincrad.
Another change would be the anime’s integration of the many side stories presented in the second volume of the light novel. By incorporating the side events with the main story, the anime adaptation provides a more linear and chronologically understandable story. When watching the anime, the viewer is able to observe Kirito’s development as he meets new companions and cooperates with others to achieve new goals. The manga omits many of the extra stories of Kirito’s experiences in order to focus on the main story line. This main story only focuses on the character development of the two protagonists and explains how they freed all players from their imprisonment within the virtual world of Aincrad. By including all of the events within the light novel’s first two volumes, the anime adaptation allows the viewers to be immersed in Kirito’s world and better understand the psychological and emotional issues in which the side characters face due to the situation. Through providing more characters to observe and understand, the adaptation conveys the desperate struggle that many players go through as they try to escape the virtual prison. With such elements present, the anime adaptation is more suited for an audience that wants to be indulged with an intriguing story, while the manga is best for those who purely want to know the basic details on the adventures of Kirito and Asuna.
Unlike the manga, which is severely lacking in many details and events, the anime adaptation covers nearly every detail of the novel’s first two volumes. Along with this, the anime rearranges the events into a chronological order to emphasize the character development of the main protagonist, Kirito. By not omitting any major events and presenting the story in an easily understood manner, the anime adaptation can already be considered to be better than the original in many aspects. While the details in the light novels are superb, the lack of a completely linear story can be a tad difficult for average readers to deal with. The anime adaptation is easy to follow and captures many fine details with quality artwork and music. These aspects of the anime adaptation of SAO appeal to a wider and more casual demographic and sparks interests for those who enjoy anime, video games, and romance. By thoroughly explaining the setting and introducing the main love interest of the protagonist within the first few episodes, the anime series instantly attracts the teenage demographic that enjoys a good romance with heavy RPG elements. The manner in which the main story was introduced in the anime was fairly effective and provided a large surge in the popularity of the entire series. With such proper execution, the anime adaptation was well presented to its targeted demography and could not be adapted differently for better results.