Sword Art Online is a very popular Japanese light novel series with more than 20 million copies in print worldwide. It has been made into two series of anime, and various other adaptations have been released including manga, spin-off novels, and even an upcoming American live-action television series. An animated film featuring an original story recently premiered on 18 February 2017.
This article contains spoilers for the Aincrad Arc (up to Episode 14) of Sword Art Online.
In this article, I’d like to draw attention to the final episode of the first arc of the anime ‘The End of the World’ (Sekai no Shuuen) and the key final part of the first volume of the original light novel series. It is the highlight and fundamental part of the whole story, with protagonist Kirito winning and finishing the game of VRMMORPG ‘Sword Art Online’ that drastically changes his fate. Let’s take a look at the scenes where Kirito finds out that Heathcliff is actually Akihiko Kayaba and finally wins the game after their fierce battle.
Omitting the original lines
It is extremely hard to show everything written in the original novel visually, even though the same can be said for any anime series adapted from light novels. The background scenery as well as the characters and their physical movements show up as images, but I’m afraid it is almost impossible to show all the psychological characterization and descriptions visually.
For example, let’s look at the scene where Kirito realizes that Heathcliff is actually Akihiko Kayaba. After defeating the 75th floor boss monster, The Skull Reaper, by a narrow shave, Kirito and his party members collapse on the floor, completely exhausted. Among them, Heathcliff alone stands firm showing no signs of weariness, and Kirito catches what’s shown in his eyes – Heathcliff is not viewing them as his fellow members, but looking at them from somewhere high above like a god plenteous in mercy. This realization leads him to see the pieces of the puzzle coming together, rapidly connecting the two dots – Heathcliff and Kayaba – and concluding that the two persons are indeed one and the same.
In the anime, Kirito realizes something after looking at Heathcliff standing firm, and then suddenly sees a flashback of the past where Heathcliff showed his incredibly fast reactions in their duel. Kirito assumes Heathcliff is Kayaba and assaults him with his sword.
On the other hand, the original story describes that Kirito thinks back over his past with Heathcliff and at his actions in the past, and comes to confirm his identity. The light novel spends more than one page on that realization. It describes Kirito’s psychological subtlety by reasoned deduction, and successfully gives us readers a sense of tension.
That tense feeling in the novel with all the psychological descriptions got lost in the anime adaptation. However, that feeling is an essential part of the story. The anime adaptation of the scene is not bad per se, but as far as this scene is concerned, I believe you can enjoy it a lot better if you read the original novel.
Transcending the game system
In the last half of Episode 14, Kirito’s health point bar is fully drained by Heathcliff’s attack and Kirito faces death in-game systematically. However, Kirito transcends the game system with his burning anger and stabs Heathcliff in the chest with Asuna’s rapier. This very important scene, that closes the curtain on the game ‘Sword Art Online’, is also very different in the original work.
In the novel, Kirito’s health point bar is completely depleted by Heathcliff’s attack. As his avatar starts to shatter, his burning anger is described very extensively. His anger is not pointing at Kayaba. It is aimed at whatever exists further behind him – the will of the system that dominates and controls this game and mercilessly treats the players.
Kirito’s rage towards the SAO system itself freed him from the system. He voluntarily walks with his health point bar missing and stabs Heathcliff in the chest with Asuna’s rapier that had absorbed her last will.
That is, Kirito’s anger is even fiercer towards the SAO system than towards Kayaba, although he was of course probably very mad at him too. As a result, his grievance drove him to transcend the system itself.
However, the anime adaptation does not describe his anger towards the game system at all. I’m afraid that anime fans who don’t read the original work might think that Kirito managed to transcend the system only by being angry at Kayaba and killing him.
Both the anime and original series show Heathcliff having a quiet and gentle smile after being stabbed by Kirito, but you will certainly have a very different impression from his smile if you know Kirito’s anger towards the system.
This is the biggest highlight of the game ‘Sword Art Online’ in the story, and I, as someone who read the novel, wanted the anime series to focus more on Kirito’s character development within himself.
(Next Page: Anime’s original expression)