Warning: this review contains major spoilers. If you don’t want to be spoiled, go watch the episode, and be sure to come right back to this review.
So… wow. I’m not sure what I was expecting from this episode, but I definitely was not expecting it to be one of the best episodes of the entire SAO franchise and one of the most enjoyable anime episodes I’ve seen all year. As you may or may not have noticed, I didn’t review the last four episodes of this season, partly because I’ve been busy but mostly because I just haven’t felt particularly inspired to talk about the last few episodes. They were fine and even had some interesting moments, but they were ultimately bogged down with inconsistent pacing, absurd amounts of exposition, and a lack of focus on any clear protagonist. However, this episode puts the season back on track, properly focusing on the unique storyline War of Underworld has to offer. With the perpetually overpowered Kirito still out of commission and real-world terrorist Gabriel finally heading up the combined forces of the Dark Territory, the show is able to immerse itself fully in the world of Alicization, as Alice and the other Integrity Knights are forced into their most desperate battle yet in order to defend their world. Although we’re only at the halfway point of this season, it seems like the remaining episodes might be entirely devoted to this particular battle. That prospect has me super excited to see what kind of action the next few weeks have in store, and I’m still hyped for the long-awaited and oft-teased return of Asuna.
Although this episode could potentially lose itself within its virtual world and revel in high fantasy spectacle, there are still a few sharp reminders that all of this action is taking place between real people unknowingly trapped within a video game, albeit one with huge consequences. Deusolbert’s small but sweet flashback of his wife, brought back from last season, is an effective reminder of the personal stakes in this conflict. Even though Deusolbert has still not discovered the identity of his wife, the promise of a potential purpose for his life makes this world worth protecting, even if it means his death.
Along with Deusolbert’s personal character moment, the best scene of this episode is hands-down the standoff between Integrity Knight Fanatio and the king of the giants. Because we as an audience are so accustomed to seeing fantasy creatures get slaughtered by heroes, it’s easy to get lost in the excitement of well-executed fantasy action. But the giants’ king’s sudden terror and his subsequent glitch and berserker rage are an uncomfortable and jarring reminder that even the fantasy monsters are fluctlights or human souls trapped within the game. Watching Fanatio and the king both succumb to fear and bloodlust suddenly becomes terrifying rather than epic, as their very human reactions demonstrate that these fantastical characters are actual people putting themselves in harm’s way for the amusement and use of unethical military and government officials. It’s scenes like this one that keep SAO from feeling like every other generic isekai anime out there, where the real world is only a vehicle to get to an epic fantasy world. SAO has always had a strong narrative balance between the real world and the virtual one, and this episode is no different, maintaining that characteristic tension between fantasy gaming and real violence and providing subtle yet effective commentary on the ethics of virtual reality.
While I’m on the subject of Fanatio and the giant king’s duel, I have to mention the standout moment of the episode, which was Dakira’s sacrifice. Her dying to protect Fanatio was surprisingly emotional, for a character who’d barely had any screen-time or dialogue, and the animation and sound effects during that scene were particularly effective. The cracks and blood spurts as each joint of her body broke under the strain of the king’s hammer were visceral and gruesome and perfectly portrayed the violence and brutality of this virtual world. Although I’m sad we won’t get to see anymore of Dakira, she at least went out in style, providing one of Alicization’s most memorable fights.
I’ve talked a lot about the horrific and brutal violence of this episode, and while I certainly enjoy critical depictions of warfare, I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a part of me that loves to watch anime violence and fighting. I love shonen duels as much as the next person, and I’ve always wanted to see an anime depict a hectic melee with thousands of combatants. This episode delivered that in spades, dedicating over twenty minutes to an unexpectedly huge scale battle. While there are of course one or two awkward CGI moments, the animation knocked it out of the park this week. There are no cut corners, as we get a whole episode focused on one battle that manages to be fast-paced and exciting the entire time, which is no easy feat. If the next few episodes can maintain this level of quality, we’re looking at potentially the best SAO arc yet.
Lastly, the soundtrack this episode was perfect. From epic electric guitar during hectic fights to intense and majestic orchestras, the music elevates every scene, coming to a beautiful conclusion with this season’s haunting ED “unlasting” by LiSA. That song gets better every time I hear it and more than makes up for the still mediocre OP “Resolution” by Haruka Tomatsu.
Seriously, if you’re not watching SAO this season, you’re absolutely missing out. Episode six promises an amazing turn for the series, and I couldn’t be more excited for the new episode this weekend.
Sword Art Online: Alicization – War of Underworld is currently airing on Saturdays on Crunchyroll.