Sword Art Online Progressive: Aria of a Starless Night

Last night I was lucky enough to see Sword Art Online Progressive: Aria of a Starless Night in theaters. Directed by Ayako Kōno, this film takes place in the same world as the acclaimed anime series Sword Art Online. The film is specifically based on the light novel series, Sword Art Online: Progressive, written by Reki Kawahara (who also created the primary SAO light novels).

If you are unfamiliar with this series or need a refresher, the initial events of SAO take place in 2022 in Japan (the anime series first aired in 2012). The main cast consists of a handful of teenage gamers who meet within a virtual reality massively multiplayer online role-playing game (VRMMORPG) called Sword Art Online, which is set in a fantasy world called Aincrad. The players log into the game by wearing a NerveGear helmet, an electronic device which covers most of their skull. The players exclaim, “Link start!” and are instantly logged into the game. The NerveGear helmet transports their consciousness into the game, while their real body remains motionless, as if comatose. Like any good fantasy RPG, the SAO players can collect items, level up their characters and fighting skills, explore vast words, and amass an arsenal of weapons, which mostly consist of medieval weaponry like swords, rapiers, scythes, and axes.

An animated young woman wears a large helmet that says NVG NerveGear (Asuna Yuuki in Sword Art Online)
Asuna prepares to log into SAO for the first time.

On the day of the game’s release, the first major twist in the story occurs. The players are all teleported to the same location, and a massive, cloaked figure manifests in the sky. The cloaked figure is an avatar for the game’s creator, Akihiko Kayaba (Kōichi Yamadera). He informs the players that they can no longer log out of the game, and if their NerveGear helmet is removed or they are defeated within the game, the NerveGear helmet will send a powerful microwave through their brain in the real world, killing them instantly.

Kayaba tells the gamers that several players’ family members and friends have already tried to remove the NerveGear helmet while players were still logged in, resulting in hundreds of deaths. He proves this by displaying several recent news headlines regarding “malfunctioning” NerveGear helmets and the subsequent deaths. Within a month of the game’s release, almost 2,000 people are dead, and the rest remain trapped within the game. According to Kayaba, the players must fight their way through Aincrad to free themselves. These events are almost exactly the same in Aria of a Starless Night, but as the film progresses, there are more deviations from the original storyline.

A hooded figure wearing a red robe hovers over dozens of people assmbled in a town square (From the animated film Aria of a Starless Night)
The Kayaba’s ominous avatar informs the SAO players that they cannot leave the game.

Prior to seeing this film, I did very little research beyond watching the trailer, as I didn’t want to spoil any of it. However, once I was sitting in the theater, I was initially confused about when exactly the story was taking place and what events it was going to depict. Early on in the Sword Art Online TV series, Kirito (Yoshitsugu Matsuoka) and Asuna (Haruka Tomatsu) briefly join forces, but then go their separate ways for a time. The TV series follows Kirito’s adventures, and when he eventually reunites with Asuna, she has become one of the commanding officers of the Knights of the Blood Oath. Going into the film, I assumed the story would detail Asuna’s solitary adventures during this interval, but I was wrong. It’s essentially a re-telling of familiar events in a parallel timeline or universe.

A girl with long red hair is facing a girl with purple hair; the sky behind them is a dark shade of purple, and the girl with the purple hair, Mito, has a concerned look on her face (from Aria of a Starless Night)
Mito/Misumi consoles Asuna in the world of Aincrad.

In general, I have mixed feelings about the narrative deviations from the original storyline and the film as a whole. On the one hand, Asuna is and always has been my favorite character in SAO, so getting the opportunity to glimpse a little bit of her life before Aincrad, as well as her first weeks playing SAO, was a treat. On the other hand, the story feels a bit bland, because it is a slightly different version of a familiar story. It was unclear to me as to why this particular story was not only being told, but was given its own movie.

In Aria of a Starless Night, there are some interesting bits of added dialogue, thoughtful conversations, and some extra scenes that are not included in the original TV series, but I wonder if the story (and the audience) would be better served if they were given an entirely new story, rather than a parallel narrative in the exact same world that is ultimately not that different from the original version of the story. At least, not yet.

Funny enough, at the end of the film I was reminded of the ending of the PS4 game Final Fantasy VII Remake. The remake closely mirrors the original game, but at the conclusion, it begins to deviate wildly from the original story, so much so that a few characters seem to be aware of the original iteration of the game. As a player, this moment came as a shock, but on the whole, it was pretty satisfying; the possibility of new stories and alternative outcomes was exciting.

In comparison, I felt like Aria of a Starless Night was barely getting started as it ended. I enjoyed it overall, but wish it had been more adventurous in terms of the story. I think more significant deviations from the original plot would have helped justify this film’s existence.

A girl with long brown hair wearing a white and red outfit holds a sword. She is surrounded by several monsters with large teeth that resemble carnivorous plants (Asuna battles the Nepthenes in Aria of a Starless Night)
Asuna fights a hoard of nepenthes.

That being said, if you love the show, I think you’ll love seeing this in theaters. The voice acting is impeccable, the animation is crisp and vibrant, and watching Kirito, Asuna, and Mito (Inori Minase) fight together on a massive screen while the SAO battle theme blasts in the background is worth the price of admission. There are also some unexpectedly silly moments, which lighten the mood and ease the tense atmosphere of the film.

If you’re familiar with Sword Art Online: Alicization, the battles might be disappointing, purely because the scale of the fights in this film simply pale in comparison. But it helps to keep in mind that this is taking place early on in the story, when things were significantly less massive and complex. Additionally, if you wait to watch this movie on your TV or computer screen, it will probably just resemble a long episode of the TV series, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I just wouldn’t want any SAO fans to miss out on the fun of a full-blown theater experience. So if you live anywhere near a theater screening this film, go see it while you still can.

Written by Daniel Siuba

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