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Andrew Osmond says, if you like that, you might like this…

In a decade or so, the central shock revelation in The Matrix may look as hopelessly analogue as spaceships on strings or creaky Flash Gordon serials. Keanu Reeves is told that all humans spend their lives in electronically-created virtual worlds, oblivious to the reality outside them. Keanu looks suitably blank. “Yeah, dude… and?”

In contrast, both Summer Wars and Sword Art Online are made for a generation who’ve grown up with and within virtuality: social networks, video streaming, games without borders or ends. Both anime are adventures about things going wrong in cyberspace, but neither are technophobic; on the contrary, they’re all about hugging the avatar. Summer Wars is about a Frankenstein’s AI monster menacing a network which the heroes must access the old way, through keyboards and handheld consoles. Sword Art Online is set in the near-future, where VR helmets give players the full in-game experience, including the opportunity for bad guys to turn “Game Over” into “Life Over.”

Real online networks in Japan have the same problems they do anywhere, an abundance of trolls, bullies and thugs. Anime made in the net’s earlier days often took a jaundiced view of the World Wide Web. Perfect Blue showed a web full of murderous sub-human fanboys; Serial Experiments Lain populated it with the ghosts of teen suicides. But Summer Wars projects a lighter, almost Disneyesque vision of the Net, proposed completely unironically by director Mamoru Hosoda. The film’s opening brilliantly displays a whimsical cyberspace where Pokemon-style sprites race round an infinite shopping-mall/theme-park of mile-long shelves and soothing pastels.

When this blog interviewed Hosoda, he suggested the net had been unfairly maligned. “Do you think our world has become worse and more uncomfortable after the rise of the internet? We cannot imagine how much more convenient and comfortable our lives have become in this IT era. I think considering the internet as just a bad technology is nonsense today.”

In Hosoda’s film, a predatory program called the ‘Love Machine’ invades the virtual world then extends its claws into the real one. But the humans can fight back on the virtual turf, even importing the solidity of the real world into it. In one striking scene, a medieval Japanese castle is built in cyberspace, old traditional Japan shoring up the new computerised one. In the film’s finale, millions of people across the world unite to lend aid to the heroine, a cyber-magic girl.

As we noted above, the Summer Wars characters have to ‘enter’ the world through keyboards and handheld consoles. In Tokyo, one of the most ubiquitous daily sights is of train commuters playing games on their mobile phones. These games are often networked multi-player fantasies, where you fight ‘beside’ allies who may well be sitting on another commuter train on the other side of Tokyo.

Sword Art Online draws on this genre, though its next gen of players are lying under VR helmets rather than tapping mobile phone keys. The series starts as thousands of youngsters dive eagerly into a brand-new, multi-player, computer fantasy adventure game with immersive VR graphics. Once they’re all gathered, the players receive a surprise message from the game’s creator. He’s fixed it so that if anyone tries to disconnect them from his game, they’ll die. If they get killed in the game, they’ll die. The only way out is to win through all the game’s levels, where treacherous players are as dangerous as the monsters…

It’s a goofy, brilliant high concept to rival Death Note’s; just imagine a Joss Whedon remake! At the same time, Sword Art Online is part of a genre that goes back before the internet. For example, you could compare it to Westworld, a 1973 SF film in which tourists go to fantasy theme parks full of robot gunslingers and medieval knights… only for the droids to start behaving with deadly realism.

But as a series, Sword Art Online can spin out its story much longer, with a narrative that spans years. The trapped players do ‘gamey’ things like forming guilds to fight monsters and find treasures, but they must also acclimatise to living in fantasy. Sword Art Online may be a quest adventure, but when you have a lot of young people of both sexes together, might there be other things they can do? Granted, the show’s time-outs got lots of fan flak, but at least it tried to take its concept past straightforward sword and sorcery.

As followers of the show will know, it changes considerably through its four-volume run, with new worlds, characters and monsters all coming into play. It’s arguably better to think of it as two series, with the second two volumes sequelling their predecessors. The later episodes have more exchange between the real and virtual worlds, and more identity confusions as the characters don game personas. (There’s a pairing in the later episodes which has the potential to be massively awkward, in a very anime way).

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It’s notable, though, that while many of the game players in Sword Art Online act atrociously, and the Big Bads use the technology for monstrous ends, no-one thinks of condemning the games themselves, of just pulling the technology’s plug. Indeed the online adventures are already on their way back. The date hasn’t been confirmed, but expect Sword Art Online II (subtitled “Phantom Bullet”) to hit Japan sometime this year…

Sword Art Online, part four, is out now on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.

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