Sword Art Online II Ep. 15-17 (Caliburn Arc): Bluh

If SAO as a whole is a story that caters to the latent wet dreams of teenage nerds, then the Caliburn arc is a story that caters to the latent wet dreams of teenage nerds who also happen to like SAO. That’s truly about as niche of an audience as you’re going to get here, and perhaps SAO understands that. This arc is, to put it simply, a retrospective of the world and characters that SAO has taken a show and a half to create. It’s meant for people who already like SAO enough to admire the setpieces, the character archetypes, and the potential of the world around them. As someone who fits none of those qualifiers, my lack of understanding as to how I can enjoy this show can be plainly summarized as “this just wasn’t made for you”. Yet, I feel as though this is because of how the Caliburn arc is set up in the context of the rest of the franchise. The arc felt trapped in a formula that I’ve seen all too often in a particular subset of anime movies. Perhaps you know what I’m talking about.

In 1999 I, along with my older brother of 1.5 years, went to the movie theater to watch Pokemon: The First Movie. Back then, at least for me, moviegoing was a lot simpler in terms of actually enjoying myself since the sole purpose of me going to movie theaters was to enjoy myself. And hell, I watched enough the Pokemon cartoon, due to hours worth of my parents not being available to entertain me in the TV’s place, to understand that this movie was going to be the greatest thing to happen to me since I discovered the taste of Nutella about a year before. The movie didn’t disappoint, in that regard. I had my fair share of “oh yeah”, “oh no”, and “oh no you didn’t” moments with Pokemon: The First Movie. All the non-clone pokemon getting caught in those janky-ass pokeballs. Team Rocket’s comic relief. Pikachu in tears. My memory of that screening is hazy because hey, I was six years old back then and I have trouble remembering anything from that time period anyways. However, I do remember how the other children cried when Pikachu cried. And the fact that the audience’s combined tears somehow saved Ash was nothing short of magical to six-year-old me. Back then, with my priorities, this was the perfect movie.

Fifteen years later, my anime club thought it would be a good idea to watch it again and made its screening the primary purpose of one of our meetings. It transpired almost exactly as you would expect a peanut gallery full of nerds to react: with ridicule and additional commentary, from the recognition of all the cringeworthy localization changes in the English dub to the tears of our combined laughter reviving Ash. Despite that, we enjoyed ourselves. It was still the perfect movie, just for a completely different and possibly unintentional reason. And this time the illusion was completely broken. Nobody had the desire to revisit the movie ever again.

You could also say it was an educational experience, knowing what my parents must have suffered through when taking their innocent little children to the movie theater to watch empty kid’s movies. I don’t even know how they were able to do it. We would watch the most terrible movies imaginable and my parents would be held hostage to their seats and the crippling expectations of their own spawn. Would you, as a parent, have accepted the challenge of sitting through the likes of Scooby Doo, Kangaroo Jack, and The Master of Disguise for the sake of your kids’ shitty taste in movies? My dad let it slip a couple times that he didn’t enjoy himself when we watched those movies on VHS together, and as I learned more about his own preferences and priorities  with movies (The Mission, Indiana Jones, The Gods Must Be Crazy) I started to shift in taste. Nowadays I’m not quite so simple to please, like I was all those years ago. Pokemon: The First Movie and other cashgrabs like it became something I actively avoided when I could.

SAO II’s Caliburn arc reminds me of these movies in a few ways, and that encapsulates why my attempts to lampoon it led to my subsequent exasperation, confusion, and, eventually, ambivalence. Not unlike a certain critic’s impression of Pokemon: The First Movie. I had, at first, planned to do my usual routine of spelling out my minute-to-minute thoughts on each episode, but the farther I got into each episode the more difficult it became to stay serious about that goal. I had not second guessed my own assertions about this show as much with the rest of the show as I had with this arc alone. I’ve often stipulated in my regular impressions that maybe, just maybe, this show just isn’t meant to entertain me at a base level, so it gets harder for me to feel like I’m being fair when I talk about my impressions. What the hell am I going to accomplish talking about Caliburn in the usual manner? I don’t really know. And I’m not going to try.

That’s because Caliburn is ostensibly a filler arc. Hell, it has all the elements of a franchise filler movie even though it’s set across three TV-length episodes. Being a filler arc often means that you’re limited in what you’re allowed to do with the characters and the setting. What’s even more limiting than that, however, is that the main purpose of a filler arc is to be completely and utterly inconsequential. This means  no significant plot developments, no meaningful developments in the setting, pretty much no development altogether. And you’re supposed to make a story with all these established setpieces with that idea in mind. It seems like it could be the easiest or hardest thing to do for a writer, honestly. Even fanfiction seems to have more freedoms with what they could do with the narrative than a filler arc can.

Caliburn manages this by shortening the scope of its plot and staying within known territory. Put simply, Kirito and his posse must acquire the Excalibur in ALO. It sounds epic enough at first, but it’s irrelevant to the show’s long-running themes of virtual reality and escapism. SAO, ALO, and GGO all have narratives that expand beyond the parameters of the game itself because the focus was never explicitly the game. Actions taken in the game and quests accomplished in the game always had a bigger picture in mind, whether you approve of the direction the show goes or not, and always had implications outside of the game. In this case, it’s just a bunch of gamers vying for an in-game quest. In a game you’ve already played before. You can see, with just a few seconds into this episode, that this arc is not interested in treading new ground.

Given the type of show SAO is, I suppose that’s not really a bad thing. Sometimes (read: all the time), SAO takes itself so seriously that it obfuscates the inherent fun I imagine would be present in playing, or just plain being in, a VRMMO. No one actually plays the games in SAO for their in-game rewards, it’s always tied to some other, nobler cause. Win to escape the death game. Get to the final level to save the princess from a hentai prince. Win an online tournament to conquer some trauma that so conveniently popped up for just that arc. For all intents and purposes, I get the feeling that this arc is just meant to be a breather until we dive into more of that stuff. I don’t know why a story would necessarily need that sort of thing, especially if it encroaches into the show’s airtime, but maybe, just maybe, I could find something interesting to latch onto besides the show’s usual failings. Many of my complaints about SAO are pretty much when it’s in serious territory, so maybe a more inoffensive and harmless plot can get me more focused on the characters instead.

However, the characters aren’t really allowed to grow either. There’s this strong undercurrent of referential humor that’s present in this arc, stuff that you’re supposed to recognize from previous arcs, that basically drives the characters throughout the story. They exist as these standalone moments that make you go “oh yeah, that character did that thing I recognize once” before hitting you with another one with a different character and only really stops with the end of the Caliburn arc. It’s much less a development of characters as it is a celebration of what’s already established about them. One moment you’ll have Lisbeth being snarky as usual, and then Kirito is doing a totally cool and undiscovered technique and everyone is in fucking awe about how little old him was able to pull that off. Klein still has his Kirito’s Male Best Friend antics going on, Asuna is relegated to healer status until a critical moment where she’s forced to remind the audience that she used to be a fencer, Silica just does moe moe uguu things, and Sinon is basically about as chuuni as you remember her being from the last arc, except this time she’s a catgirl. It’s all very, very superfluous, which isn’t in itself what keeps me so uninterested about this arc.

The weakness of such a formula is that, obviously, it banks on your interest in the cast as a party of archetypes rather than sufficiently fleshed-out characters. And as you may have guessed, I have very little interest. Even things like the addition of Jotunheimr into the ALO storyline and Kirito eventually acquiring the Excalibur for himself feel tacked-on at best because of, again, how inconsequential it is to the main storyline. Adding new regions and legendary items in worldbuilding is supposed to be more than just a new locale, it has to be relevant to the main narrative as well. But Jotunheimer has no significance in ALO, it only serves as setup for the current arc and to make the process of finding the sword a much faster effort than usual. Things like Leafa’s affection for Tonkii because “it was being bullied” are merely things that exist for the sake of repeating established character archetypes and very little else. Kirito finding the Excalibur is meaningless because he’ll never have a storyline that intersects with his ALO account ever again. Yet I imagine that other people give these little interactions a lot more importance than I do. I can see why, at least. It’s doubtful that most of these characters are going to play a major role in the story anytime soon, so I get the feeling that this arc exists to give them some time in the limelight until we eventually forget that they exist.

I think that’s sad, honestly. Perhaps you’ve noticed with the images already, but the only things that caught my attention during the entire arc were Klein, Lisbeth, and their interactions together. Mostly, if only, because they’re my favorite pair of the bunch despite only being defined by their trope-y personalities. They had some nice interactions and some nice standalone moments, but that’s all they really amount to and I’ll never get to see anything between them fulfilled because of it. And I get the creeping feeling that this is entirely the point of Caliburn as a whole: just a bunch of insignificant character moments strung together to make the characters feel validated as part of the franchise again. But it’s not actual validation. It’s a repeated statement of where they stand in the story and that statement doesn’t bode too well for their futures.

So back to my disinterest in going in-depth about this arc, there ARE a lot of moments that I could make fun of, but I’m almost certain that they are supposed to be made fun of. And there’s no fun in pointing out things that a show intended to do when it comes to humor. And, perhaps to the detriment of my own character, that’s certainly not why I have stuck with this show for so long and written so much about it. Bring me back to the bullshit again, SAO. I’m ready to drink the tears.

Addendum

  • You’d expect, then, that the animation would get a considerable bump to compensate. Nope. This is where the budget went to die.
  • You’d also think I’d be happier about Literally Best Girl having so much screentime, but really, at this point, it doesn’t matter to me anymore.
  • I totally ship Lisbeth/Klein.
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