Sword Art Online: Alicization and franchise fatigue

Alicization Franchise
Forever is hyperbole, but I feel Kirito’s frustration

[This post is in a way a spiritual successor to an earlier one about procrastinating favorite anime]

I like Sword Art Online. I really do, even if this post’s title might seem to indicate otherwise. With just a little teasing, I enjoy a bit of comforting adolescent mediocrity from time to time and nothing does it better than Sword Art Online. But… (and isn’t there always a “but?”) I don’t know how to keep pace with the series any more.

The franchise has produced so much material that I could never hope to dig through it all. Going by the Wikipedia page, it has more than 20 volumes of light novel, more than 30 volumes of manga, 11 video games across various platforms, an animated movie, two seasons of anime totaling 49 episodes, and the “Alternative” spin-off series with 8 volumes of light novel, 2 volumes of manga, and a 12 episode anime series of its own.

To top it all off, this fall 2018 season has introduced Sword Art Online: Alicization, a four-cour behemoth of an anime that will air for almost a full year from October 2018 all the way to September 2019. I expect to enjoy Alicization but… (that ominous word again) oh my… a year is a long time. The simple thought of engaging with such a long piece of media makes me feel a sort of preemptive fatigue. Instead of hyping up the new series, the feeling leaves me wondering: can I even finish something so long?

My early fatigue reminds me of a despairing quote from the Romanian-French writer Emil Cioran. Meandering through a tangent during a 1994 interview, Cioran complained of the impossible volume of writing in the modern world:

Why should one write anymore… and why write at all, why always want to add to the immense number of books? …These days, too much has already been written. We live in a period of absurd and completely unnecessary overproduction.

To those who know Cioran’s sardonic style, the quote simultaneously comes across as the sincere opinion of an arch-cynic and the deadpan joke of a self-hating hypocrite: Cioran himself contributed over a dozen rambling books to that “absurd overproduction” (I can only imagine how he would lament the excesses of blogging!). Cioran’s hypocrisy makes him hard to ever agree with and I don’t share his absolute pessimism. But with Sword Art Online, I may feel a bit of his curmudgeonliness. After watching the double-long first episode of Alicization, I already wanted a break from the series.

To be clear, my fatigue has nothing to do with the actual quality of Alicization. Sure, the first episode included one of the dumpiest exposition dumps I’ve ever dumped my eyes on (how long did Kirito explain “fluctlight” and whatever else in that cafe…). However, the show probably did need to slow down and explain its premise after half an hour of in media res that confused me to the point of boredom. With dozens of episodes to go in the season, the exposition will eventually give way to the real action, and when that happens, I expect to enjoy Alicization as much as I have any other arc (except for Alfheim. It can’t be worse than Alfheim). By the standards of the franchise, the first episode was at least “good enough.”

Instead of any griping about quality, my hesitation has more to do with my television consumption habits. In an internet-connected world with even greater “overproduction” than in Cioran’s day, some new piece of media will inevitably coax me away from Sword Art Online. Sure, I can keep up with Alicization for a while at the leisurely pace of one episode a week. But at some point, some new game or book or show will steal away my attention for a weekend. That distraction will be sufficient: I’ll forget about Alicization for weeks until I rediscover a dusty browser bookmark reading “last accessed two months ago” and binge series back up to the present. I may repeat that cycle a few times until I hit some unceremonious prime-number episode like “37: Kirito Saves the Day!” and lose track of the whole thing for good. I worry that Alicization will go the way of similarly long series like Hunter x Hunter, which I stopped not for dislike, but because I simply forgot that I was watching.

I know that the publishers won’t stop for my sake. With a brand-name as popular as Sword Art Online, they are practically sitting on a money press that will remain profitable for years to come. But I feel like the franchise is escaping me, expanding beyond that lovely little first arc I stumbled across on Netflix years ago. In that way, Sword Art Online may begin to resemble other massively successful series like Warcraft and Star Wars and Harry Potter, all which I once adored but have slowly lost interest in as they ballooned beyond what this one casual fan can consume. To borrow an example from Star Wars, if the cinematic universe continues to pump out a movie a year until the end of time, how can I remain excited? The series loses its charm in a web of reboots and spinoffs and unexpected continuations while my distracted mind wanders off to explore more novel things. At some point, the sheer immensity even enjoyable media franchises makes them difficult to follow.

Maybe the magic is just wearing off as I get older and have less time to engage with ongoing stories. Plenty of friends, especially those younger than me, remain devoted to whatever favorite franchise they swear to. But oh my… a year is a long time. Having barely begun, Sword Art Online: Alicization already seems daunting.

The solution? Press on, I suppose. I should ignore my fear of never finishing and “enjoy the journey before the destination” as the cliche goes. So be it if I stop on episode 37. I will have enjoyed the series that far. Press on, to follow the franchise’s money press!

…if only I can remember to dust off that bookmark every week. I like Sword Art Online enough to give it a try, but oh my. A year is a long time.

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