Finding Your Strength — Sword Art Online Progressive: Scherzo of Deep Night
The previous entry in the Sword Art Online film series began the cinematic adaptation of the “Progressive” spinoff light novels, where franchise creator Reki Kawahara began a more detailed retconning of the main story, which originally jumped from Floor 1 of the floating castle Aincrad inside the titular virtual reality death game (if a player’s character dies in the game, that person dies in real life, their brain fried by a microwave inside the VR headset they wear to play) all the way to Floor 74 and the end of that adventure. Shifting focus somewhat away from regular protagonist Kirito (Yoshitsugu Matsuoka in Japanese, Bryce Papenbrook in the English dub) to his fighting partner and eventual girlfriend Asuna (Haruka Tomatsu/Cherami Leigh), the first movie introduced new characters and fleshed out Asuna’s backstory to provide a more complete profile of how a seasoned gamer and a complete newbie became allies. If there was a major flaw to be had, it was that the back half of the film was essentially just a new, shinier coat of paint on something that had already played out in the TV anime series, with very little new information once we got to the rehashed material.
Just over a year later (coinciding with the 10-year anniversary of the anime and the in-universe launch date of the game), the second “Progressive” edition, Scherzo of Deep Night debuted in Japan, and it’s finally available stateside after a four-month wait. For the most part, this sequel continues with the positive aspects of the last film, with a deep focus on how Asuna comes into her own as a swordswoman and gamer, while also wrapping up the major plot threads introduced in the earlier movie. On the whole, I think this one comes in slightly better than the last one, though there is one structural flaw that prevents it from reaching the highest of heights.
That shortcoming is accessibility. If Aria of a Starless Night was basically just for the most hardcore fans, then Scherzo of Deep Night has even less of a mass appeal, because there’s almost no solid story connection between the two adventures. That said, there is a lot of clunky exposition that feels like it’s for new viewers, but given how this is set up, it won’t land at all, because the focus of these bullet point updates is more to establish the time setting. Anyone coming into this as their first exposure to the franchise will have basically no idea what’s going on, and will only be more confused by what the movie decides to focus on to set the parameters of the story. If you’re a die-hard like me, this is absolutely fine, because the dialogue is telling us where we are.
And that’s sort of important, as I had assumed we’d be picking up where we left off, with Kirito and Asuna entering Floor 2 of Aincrad and beginning the next story. But the superfans will note the subtitle and see what’s going on. In the first “Progressive” novel, the story for Floor 2 was Rondo for a Fragile Blade (all of the individual stories in this part of the series have been named for types of classical music pieces), and we’ve now jumped to Scherzo, the story for Floor 5. Instead of exploring the second floor, the film opens with the clearing of the fourth floor, so the expository lines are more a means of catching up for those expecting a straight continuation. Again, that works perfectly fine for people like me, but it would leave a newcomer completely lost, and probably frustrated as they tried to get their bearings.
I confess I was a little disappointed by this development, as I mentioned in the review for the last movie that I was looking forward to the introduction of one of my favorite characters, Kizmel the Dark Elf, into the anime canon, but she comes in at Floor 3, meaning we’ve ostensibly skipped her. However, since watching the movie I have checked with official sources, and because that story arc hasn’t fully completed in print (supposedly it will end on Floor 9, at least two more volumes from where the series currently stands), they decided to focus purely on continuing with Asuna’s arc, though they do plan on making a film for the “Elf War” story once it’s complete. Yay for future me!
Anyhoo, in the intervening three floors since the Assault Team took down Ilfang the Kobold Lord, two major player guilds have emerged: The Dragon Knight Brigade, led by the charismatic Lind (Takeo Otsuka/Howard Wang), and the Aincrad Liberation Squad, led by the hotheaded but democratic Kibao (Tomokazu Seki/Derek Stephen Prince). The two have a rivalry where they seek to be the beacon of hope for the lower-level players who can’t fight on the front lines to clear the game, and their egos force them to one-up each other and try to hog glory (and items) from the likes of Kirito and Asuna, as well as their friends, the buff axe-wielder Agil (Hiroki Yasumoto/Patrick Seitz) and the petite information broker Argo (Siori Izawa/Kimberly Anne Campbell). Still, given that it took over a month to clear the first floor, and they’ve beaten three more in the span of just a couple of weeks, the guilds have decided to set aside their differences for a New Year’s Party on Floor 5 in just two days’ time. Having volunteered for the heel role of “Beater,” being a former beta tester, Kirito has not been invited to join the festivities. Gotta have some teen drama in this somewhere.
While exploring the Floor 5 catacombs for treasure, Asuna falls through a trap door and is separated from Kirito. Even worse, her main weapon, a high-level rapier, is stolen by a scavenging monster. In her quest to track it down, Asuna overhears two other players conspiring to drive a wedge between the DKB and ALS in hopes of sowing enough discord to get the individual members to fight and kill each other. This is the genesis of the PK (Player Killer) guild, Laughing Coffin, which has ripple effects throughout the series canon well beyond Aincrad.
The plan is to goad the ALS into confronting the Floor 5 boss alone, thus winning a highly-valuable rare item as their reward, one that would firmly establish them as the alpha guild. Seeing no other way to prevent catastrophe, Kirito and Asuna take it upon themselves to form a small group to beat them to the punch, with Kirito continuing his voluntary martyrdom of being a lightning rod. In hopes of bolstering their chances, Asuna reunites with Mito (Inori Minase/Anairis Quiñones), her real-world friend created specifically for this film series, who still has deep regrets about leaving Asuna on her own in the last movie.
All of this drama effectively serves two narrative arcs begun last time out. One, it resolves Mito’s story in a way that can either be satisfactorily left as is or brought back in future installments. Two, it solidifies Asuna’s independence. From the very beginning of the franchise, even with Kirito as the hero, there has been an emphasis on the fact that Asuna is likely the superior player all-around, possessing an inner strength and outer skill that no one can equal. But given that she had never played an MMORPG before SAO, it somewhat beggared belief that she could go from newb to goddess in such a short space of time. The “Progressive” series, both in print and on screen, have been about showing just how Asuna finds her drive and confidence, and this movie in particular showcases the balance between her vulnerability and resourcefulness, demonstrating how she evolves and learns to depend on herself just as much as she depends on others. It’s really well done, and once again highlights why Asuna is one of the best characters in all of anime.
Not to be outdone, the quality of the animation is on a whole other level compared to previous outings. Between the TV show and the movies, there’s always been a good balance of 2D animation and CGI. But the series has cleared their own bar this time with the climactic boss fight, integrating large scale 3D effects in a way that makes the game environment feel that much more like a living, almost interactive, virtual world. The art team has really outdone themselves on this one. And if nothing else, after reading her exploits for years, actually seeing Argo finally break out her Wolverine claws and fight set my nerdy heart aflutter.
So yeah, while Scherzo of Deep Night digs its heels in even deeper to make this cinematic edition of SAO even more niche for its dedicated audience, on the whole it improves on the ambition of the last outing in just about every way that matters. There are still plenty of avenues to explore if the franchise wishes to continue in movie form over the next few years (hopefully at least until the current arc in the main story is ready to be adapted for the anime), but if this is where the series ends in a purely visual format, they’ve tied things up enough so that fans won’t feel shortchanged. It’s like a deep dive video game in that respect. If you’re a completionist, you’ll be dying for more and more content in any format you can get. But if you just want a satisfying end to this adventure, you not only won’t be disappointed, you’ll be pleasantly surprised if we get any more. I wish there was an easier entry point for the casual viewer/gamer, but when you improve upon every other minor defect, you can’t really complain about a lack of perfection.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Are you as into this series as I am, and if so, who are your favorite characters? If you were trapped in this game, do you think you’d survive it? Let me know!