Sword Art Online sits in a weird place with me. I first watched it when I was about 15 and I remember really enjoying it, particularly in it’s first arc. Then season 2 came out and even though I was only a year older and had yet to really develop any want or ability to truly analyze entertainment I really disliked it. I actually dropped it while it was airing and only came back to it when it was nearing it’s conclusion. After it’s completion it didn’t really stick in my mind too much. If that was the end of the story though I wouldn’t be talking about it right now.
My next interaction with the show was through Digibro’s analyses of both seasons and it made me retroactively rethink my position on the show. Being that I was now beginning to analyze shows I could look back and see where the show had obviously been lacking. In my mind however I never really managed to come around to the idea that it was a bad show. I could clearly in my mind see that it wasn’t but it never inspired me with that “bad show” feeling others do, that it’s own second season did. I felt this was because I actually enjoyed it when I watched it and that even if my conclusion had changed my feelings hadn’t.
So I decided to rewatch it recently so I could settle it for myself once and for all. Of course I didn’t want to make my time watching it feel like a waste so I decided to write a post about it. There’s been so much SAO bashing that I didn’t want to make one just about how bad it is if I did end up hating it. That’s not really my style anyway, I usually take a more specific aspect of a series and focus on it, commenting on other things as I go. So I decided to analyze it’s merits as a self insert fanservice show being that that’s how I originally enjoyed the series myself being all of 15.
So I’ve rewatched it now. How does it hold up? It’s…….a mixed bag. I saw a lot of things that were really awful, particularly how poorly drawn a lot of the still frames are. I saw many logical inconsistencies. But I knew I’d be getting that coming in so I just ignored them. What really surprised me is how inconsistent it is as a self insert show. In regards to this it does some things really bloody well and others….poorly. But it’s not even the execution of these self insert moments or themes (would you call them that?) that struck me as poor it was some of the baffling decisions made in regards to it. By the end of season 2 the show drops all narrative stakes and basically just becomes an outright harem with no other elements to it, so I was convinced that it had always been angling towards that, just with the added facet of also being a power fantasy. Some of the decisions made though actively harm both of those aspects of the show and they just strike me as odd. So I’ve set it upon myself to break this shows merits as a selfsert show for no discernible reason other than I can. (Yeah I just invented a new word, what the fuck you gonna do about it).
What makes a “good” harem?
Or more generally a good selfsert show? I’ve written before about my use of anime and visual novels as a means of escapism so I actually do have a certain fondness for harem comedies. I don’t often think very highly of them but I do “enjoy” them to a certain extent. Occasionally I’ll find one I legitimately like but it’s very rare. Before we talk about what makes a good selfsert/harem show let’s give ourselves a rough definition.
It’s a show in which vicarious existence through the main character is the point of the show. The show is also ultimately positive, some shows use our projection onto the main as a way to get across negative emotions more effectively (looking at you Koi Kaze). This is meant to enable escapism, too many negative emotions are a no go. This means that usually (though there are exceptions) these shows are harem comedies. We’ll get into more specifics later but let’s just stick with this for right now.
There’s a really easy way to discern if a show is a selfsert in my mind. Can you tell me anything about the main character not pertaining to their relationships with the rest of cast? If the answer is no or just a couple of fairly vague traits then you have a selfsert show. If you can’t put the character in any given situation and extrapolate about how they would uniquely react to it then you probably have a selfsert. This is of course intentional, with such little going on internally it’s much easier to imagine that it’s you and fill in the narrative with your own spin on things.
Based on that I present to you a list of shows I have completed that I feel meet these criteria:
Boku wa Tomodachi ga Sukunai
Date A Live
High School DxD
Highschool of the Dead
Ichiban Ushiro no Daimaou
IS: Infinite Stratos
Kiss x Sis
Kore wa Zombie Desu ka?
Ore no Imouto ga Konnani Kawaii Wake ga Nai
Papa no Iukoto wo Kikinasai!
Re:Zero kara Hajimeru Isekai Seikatsu
Seireitsukai no Blade Dance
Some of those are lacking updated scores so I’ll be focusing on two shows in particular with regards to establishing what makes a good harem and in comparison to SAO. These shows will be Infinite Stratos, my least favorite of the bunch and Trinity Seven, my favorite.
So obviously the most important part of a show attempting to be a selfsert is of course our main character. So as we discussed he needs to not have a too much going internally but there are some other crucial aspects to a harem protag. Whilst being the most powerful character in the show’s universe like Kirito is not a necessity we should never feel like our protag can lose, no matter how dire a situation is we should feel like he will pull through. Usually this takes the form of our protag having tremendous potential in whatever is prevalent in the shows world (magic, swordsmanship, light novel authorship) whilst still being inexperienced. It allows the show to eat it’s cake and eat it too by not having our character be the strongest straight away so while having a reason for him to pull whatever he needs to out of his ass to win in the end.
In Trinity Seven it’s a standard enough demon king setup but IS has our MC being the only male IN THE WORLD capable of piloting advanced mechs and as such he is sent to an all girls school. In their attempts at being selfserts IS’s set up for it’s main character is actually better, allowing for a very wild fantasy. This is the last time it will be on the podium for anything in this post.
Apart from those things the only remaining standard critter is that he must be loved by every pair of tits or tits to be in the show. More on that in a second.
So with a fairly stringent structure for a harem protagonist there’s not much room to change them for better or for worse. Like I said before they are mostly shaped by their relationships with others. So that brings us to….
Thicc Anime Girls
Unquestionably the most important aspect of a show like this. We want to be loved by the ladies but not just any ladies, the right ones. It’s high risk high reward, on the one a show could go for a cast of really memorable cute (read thicc) girls and if they succeed you should have a smash hit on your hands. In the event you fuck it up however your show is doomed to failure. Just one really off putting girl can ruin a harem show, especially when there are so many to choose from. One of the girls in a given show annoys me and I’m off to find a different one.
Included in this is the main characters interactions with the girls. It’s all well and good to have 7 of the fattest fatties you’ve seen in 2 dimensions but if “you” aren’t acting on that at all. This is where Trinity Seven does well and IS falls so short.
A lot of shows will play it safe by not having their main realize that the girls want his cock (and this is the most infuriating way to do it) or by having him in a position where he cannot choose one girl. The first line of thought is epitomized in the worst possible way by IS. Our main here is so oblivious to the girls it’s infuriating and it’s with one particular girl that it becomes infuriating. Charls Dunois (pictured above) is living in the same room as this guy and constantly makes advances at him. Either he doesn’t know that she’s into him which is bad or he knows and is actively not fucking her, which is somehow more unbelievable. Now Trinity Seven on the other hand has it’s lead be very aware of the sexual nature of those around them and embraces it in as realistic a way as I think you could given the context. He acknowledges his attraction to the girls around him but isn’t actively pervy (spying on the girls, stealing panties etc). He’s also never forced into a position to choose one of them which suits the show well given it’s likable cast.
So the girls need to be cute and they need to be interacted with the right way, but what do they need to be like as people. The answer is they don’t, they don’t have to act like humans and, in the case of Monster Musume, they literally don’t have to be human. Again they are usually vague enough, it’s so you can fill in the details perhaps with your idea of the perfect girl or with someone you know that also possesses that trait in your mind. If a girl is too distinct then you are relying on the audience to like them specifically which inherently narrows down the amount of people capable of liking her and thus the show. This can be done but usually in harem shows that have a more romantic edge to them (think OreImo) your “crossover hits” if you will.
When these girls are as shallow as they are you can run into a problem, overused character archetypes. A decent show strikes a good balance between keeping it’s girls vague whilst still just distinct enough that they’re not just a trope. There’s a disticnt difference to the audience seeing a character and going “Oh look it’s the tsundere” and them learning that she is one and ascribing that trait to here. The girl needs to own her trait and have other things going other than just that. In the case of a tsundere in particular I feel like just having her remain hostile for long enough usually works, you make her go dere to early and it feels cheap but keep her tsun for long enough and her eventual turn around feels more earned by us the audience. I’m not a fan of tsundere’s usually but one of my favorites is Mira from Trinity Seven.
And finally the amount of female characters is important. Just two and you have a love triangle. 3 females will usually see either one or two of the characters left in the background in service of a true main girl. Four or more and you’ve probably got a definitive harem. Again this is a fantasy, why not go all out.
Any harem selfsert show can survive with thicc girls and a servicable main character. Any nuances it may add after that are welcome but not necessary. So with that we’ve established the framework for what would make a harem show work for me and for many others, so now it’s time for the main event.
SAO As A Harem
Starting off the show serves as a pretty strong self cert show. Kirito is the strongest character which means that we can have stakes whilst not feeling endangered. We get a decently sized selection of girls to choose from (4) and they are all pretty cute. The very fact that he is referred to by a nickname and not his actual one even makes projection all the easier. This arc though contains a couple of decisions that struck me as odd.
Episodes 1-9 provide a pretty decent harem experience with only one real hiccup. We get an episode a piece with Silica and Lisbeth and a few with Asuna and our harem is growing strong. They’re all relatively vague with Asuna getting the most development by virtue of screen time. The only slip up (not including the single episode where it decides to become a detective show) is Sachi, the fourth girl. As a member of the harem in her own right she’d be fine, she’s meant to be the little sister character, the who looks up to you without being 100% dependent on you (that’s Silica). The problem is what happens to her. She dies.
Now I’m going to argue that her death is an effective one but also detrimental to the show as a harem. Because I’ve been projection someone onto her, when she dies I feel sadder than I really should. I don’t feel sad for Sachi but for whoever she is to me. This would be OK potentially in a regular action show but it’s clearly not that. From this moment forward not a single other person close to Kirito dies, in fact so many fake outs occur afterwards it shocks me. I truly expected Sachi to be revived by the item Kirito tries to collect. I don’t want my bitches to die, it’s a confusing part of the show that seemingly serves no purpose in my mind to either the harem or action/drama aspects of the show. It is however only one misstep which can be corrected and by episode 9 it had been banished from my mind.
In the few episodes leading up to this one we’ve been spending a bit of time with Asuna and it’s done pretty well. 9 episodes is an appropriate amount of time in my mind to finally go dere for Asuna and some of the scenes provide some great escapist material when extrapolated on (the sleeping under the tree one in particular makes me feel relaxed).
Then out of nowhere the two have sex and Kirito proposes to Asuna. I’m going to say something potentially odd here but whenever I play a visual novel I usually stop playing as soon as the first sex scene comes around. As a replacement for social interaction I feel like I’ve reached my “goal” by the time that happens. Sex feels like the punctuation on things like this, or in the pg-13 shit I’m used a kiss suffices. So that was jarring but would be fine if this show was to become a romance about Asuna. Spoiler: It’s not but we’ll get back to that, we’ve got bigger fish to fry right now.
Sponge bob meme
Okay. WHAT PERSON IN THE TARGET DEMOGRAPHIC WANTS TO GET MARRIED?! I don’t think it’s insane to say that damn near 100% of people who enjoy this show do not have marriage on the mind. I don’t want to get married and I especially didn’t want to when I was fifteen.
Fine, even at this point you still have Asuna, who at this point is becoming her own person more and more. If you really like Asuna then I could see this actually being a turn for the better. You know what 15 year old boys want even less than a marriage? A kid to come along with it.
This is not a piece about how much I hate Yui even though I hate her, because even just as an idea Yui makes no sense for this show. She’s never presented as a romantic interest, she’s you surrogate daughter and again who wants that. This arc in the cabin was the first time I was really not enjoying the show on the first viewing but we swiftly returned to the fighting shit.
But not for long as we are swiftly moved out of Aincrad, through the real world and into Alfheim. The Alfheim arc is mostly stagnation but the two things it does add are awful for haremining. The sister in concept isn’t that bad because Kirito is never shown to be interested in her, I mean you would want you sister to like you, probably not in that way but you might be flattered, I don’t know. Look just don’t fuck your sister. Don’t be Saeki, don’t be Kyouske and definitely don’t be Masamune. Moving on from that tangent. The problem here is that she is presented as the only new girl for Kirito, something we know is not attainable. The contrived manner of this doesn’t help but that notwithstanding I have a real problem with the differing appearances of the girls and there game counterparts. When we get the sister as her blonde avatar I never felt like that was a real attainable girl. It’s the show trying to have it’s cake and eat it too in the most contrived of manners.
So we don’t really get a new girl, well that’s OK because all our old favorites are still here. Except they’re not. Except we don’t. We have an entire arc about trying to save your girlfriend whilst flirting with (who you are unaware is) your sister. Those things should be mutually exclusive. So on top of these conflicting aspects there is of course one thing that really makes this so much more awful. Now, nearly no 15 year old wants to be married and have a kid but if they have to be married THEY CERTAINLY DON’T WANT TO WATCH THEIR WIFE BE HELD CAPTIVE AND RAPED. This arc added a non factor girl, took away Silica and Lisbeth and just has another guy rape the remaining one. It really makes no sense to me.
Despite this I finished off season one relatively satisfied. When I joined MAL I gave it a 7, after retrospection I downed it to a 5 and re rating it now it’s probably a 4. I went into season 2 with decent expectations. Now I was 16 and had not quite yet begun to take a real analytical look at things but even so season 2 felt off to me from the start. So not only do the side bitches stay sidelined but the girl who was so built up as main girl is also fucking sidelined. This surprised me because I had assumed that the way things had gone in season one, they had been going for a a romance with some light harem elements. NOPE.
Sinon’s existence along with the sidling of the rest of the girls makes it very clear this is a harem. We get just one girl again and…..wait, that’s not exactly true. Kirito himself becomes a girl or at least very girl like. Now, I have no problem with a crossdressing protagonist in theory but in a harem it doesn’t appeal to me. This also limits the appeal to a much smaller group of 15 year olds and the worst part is how half assed it is, he’s just like this for one arc which satisfies no one.
I actually loved Sinon’s design but again it’s that in and out of game thing. Asada in real life sucks. This entire arc is solely about you liking Sinon after it spent the last season trying to get us to care about Asuna. I don’t want to talk about this in detail just know that every time they cut away from the boring ass GGO tournament to the rest of the girls I just got annoyed. Just think about how little time Kirito has really spent with any of the girls so far. The most time he spent with any individual girl was his sister.
When I came back to the series after dropping it the first time I found myself enjoying it’s fourth arc. I remember very little about it other than I enjoyed that it dropped any notion of not being a harem show and brought all the girls to one place. That’s pretty much all it is and it’s far more tolerable than the two preceding arcs.
As a selfcert harem show SAO hold up very unevenly. With one above average arc, one average one and two very poor ones. And that’s just as a harem, not anything else. I don’t want to see the movie…..
Thanks for reading,