Monday, January 7, 2013

Kawahara Reki

Kawahara Reki
If there is a man in the anime related industry for whom the year 2012 was especially lucky, that would be Reki Kawahara. He is the author of the Sword Art Online and Accel World ranobe series, both of which were animated in 2012. The rule of thumb is while only the most popular ranobe series get animated, sales of the light novels rocket when the anime adaptation is announced. You can also guess that one successful series would naturally draw attention to the other series from the same author. Yet, to think that a single person as a writer could simultaneously occupy both the first and the second place in the list of top-selling light novels in Japan with two different series - that's an extremely scarce situation. That's Reki Kawahara for you.

My policy is to never read anything (implying manga and ranobe) that has a good chance to be animated in the foreseeable future. Basically, I prefer to watch anime adaptation first and then read the original. It's just that anime as an art form currently has a higher priority for me than manga and ranobe. Even though, originals often left better overall impression than anime adaptations. Speaking of Reki Kawahara, I've read the first four volumes of both SAO and AW barely managing to resist temptation to continue, due to a hope for the second seasons of both shows. I think that I grasp the general idea of what that man is doing.

Kawahara Reki is actually a man who sold the same thing twice. Both of his series revolve around single phenomenon scientifically called brain–computer interface (BCI). And also, both of his series are about games. Virtual reality massive multiplayer online games to be precise. The genres would be VRMMO RPG for Sword Art Online and VRMMO fighting game for Accel World. A peek into the distant future of the current computer gaming. There are ongoing debates on imageboards and anime forums on whether SAO and AW set in the alternative worlds or just in the different timelines (events of SAO begins in the year 2023 while AW describes the year 2046). But the technologies involved are clearly the same. I must note that Kawahara-san obviously have neither even the slightest technical background in neurobiology, nor the knowledge of the computer science. He does have experience in the MMO gaming, though. He understands and appeals to gamer's psychology to the degree only insiders could do. If that's the case, one could guess that gamers are Kawahara's natural and most faithful audience. I have an impression that it's actually quite the opposite. Gamers are people who understand better than anyone else how roughly and incompetently Kawahara's virtual worlds are made. The real Kawahara's audience is much wider and way less meticulous, fortunately. And his strength lies in his ability to depict humans, not computer games.

Sword Art Online Volume 1 cover
If there is a single main idea or better said message in both Kawahara's works, from my point of view that would be "there is no such thing as the other side". It's hard to imagine VR-related series not having the contrast between the virtual reality and the real world as one of its primary themes. And then, there can generally be one of the following conclusions or morals: either that real world is always better than any VR simply because it is real, or that good enough virtual reality may be actually better than the real world. What I really appreciate about Reki Kawahara is that he states neither of those. He instead underlines that VR (namely games) is basically a part of the real world and you always stay yourself whether you're acting in VR or IRL. So any experience one can receive while being in VR and any relations one can build there are by no means "virtual". As a former hardcore gamer, I'm absolutely sure that Kawahara-san does actually believe in what he writes. Also he uses completely different plot devices in SAO and AW to expose those ideas. And because of it, the series have completely different touch and atmosphere. Also, I should note that while AW is smooth and solid, SAO actually consists of very distinct story arcs, which have pretty different touch and atmosphere themselves. From what I've seen, most people find the second arc pretty disappointing compared to the first one (which is especially bad because the SAO anime stops at the end of the second arc), but praise more recent volumes. As for me, I'm more disappointed by the fact that the first arc isn't nearly as strong as it could have been; from my point of view it had nearly endless potential in terms of atmosphere and emotional drama, but Kawahara-san decided that the mood of the story shouldn't be too dark.

Accel World Volume 1 cover
Looking at the year 2012 ranobe sales, SAO does nearly three times better than AW both in cumulative sales and sales per volume. When in comes to Blu-ray anime sales, SAO did more than four times better for the first volume and I have a strong feeling that this gap will increase for the volumes yet to come. That's the situation in Japan and as for the international anime community, judging from MyAnimeList popularity rating and average scores, SAO are clearly far above AW. Naturally, you can consider that between the two Kawahara Reki's series Sword Art Online is definitely the primary one. As for me, I can't really say that I like SAO more than AW or that I see Accel World as a "secondary product". And neither do Kawahara-san, judging from the fact that he steadily refuse to drop AW (volume 13 scheduled to be released on February 2013) in favor of SAO, despite immense difficulties of running two popular series at the same time.

As for the recent anime adaptations, I'm going to review both of them in the near future. Right now, I would say that Sunrise did a great job, making the Accel World anime an example of what can be called "perfect adaptation". Staying 95% faithful to the original, omitting only the most insignificant details and reworking a couple of scenes into those with the same meaning but even stronger touch. Unfortunately, I can't say that A-1 Pictures did a good job as well animating SAO. They didn't cut any scenes (for the first story arc at least), but they lose tons of important information, especially regarding character's thoughts, emotions and motivation. They also simplified the composition, inserting side stories from the second volume into main plot in  chronological order. As a result, the SAO anime turned out to be extremely messy and spasmodic, leaving very confusing impression. So, if you have interest in Reki Kawahara's stories, I strongly recommend to go with the anime for Accel World, but as for Sword Art Online reading the books is the only choice.

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