As the Light Novel Club discussed a few months ago, the original Sword Art Online vol. 1 skipped over nearly two years of events in Aincrad, jumping from the day people became trapped in the game all the way up to shortly before the death-game ends. Short stories in later main-series volumes helped fill in some of that time, and the Sword Art Online Progressive novels are a much more detailed retelling of the events in Aincrad. And this movie is…a retcon of the retcon? If the SAOP novels are a retcon the original SAO, then Aria of a Starless Night (sounds like a Castlevania title, yo!) must be a retcon of SAOP? Or something. I’m not really clear how the this series handles questions of canon and continuity. After all, characters from the movie Ordinal Scale showed up in the main anime series but not the novels.
This is the story of how players cleared the first floor of Aincrad, with Asuna serving as the POV character. In the scenes where Kirito shows up, the story mostly (with exceptions) follows SAOP vol. 1. However, since this story is following Asuna, there’s quite a bit of material that simply never appeared in the novel. The star of this new material is a girl named Misumi (who goes by Mito in-game). Excelling academically and athletically, she’s an aloof classmate of Asuna…who is also a hardcore gamer girl. And they bond over a shared fondness for fighting games. Through Misumi, who was a beta tester, Asuna learns about SAO. On the fateful day, when Asuna borrows her brother’s device and logs in to the game, she was hoping to run into
The friends do find each other…and then the death-game begins. For a couple weeks, things go relatively well for the duo, as Mito applies her knowledge from the beta to help Asuna learn to play and grow stronger. But amid a fierce battle, the two get hopelessly separated. When it appears Asuna is about to die (spoiler: she doesn’t), a distraught Mito leaves their party and flees in order to avoid receiving a death notification for her friend. After this split, the story mostly lines up with SAOP vol. 1, except with Mito added to several scenes.
I’m not sure how I feel about Mito overall, but her prominence in the film did contribute meaningfully to the scene where Kirito dons the mantle of “beater” in order to protect all the other beta testers. In the books, readers have only met a couple of confirmed beta testers by the time that scene happens (and one of those is Kirito himself). It’s a noble act, but it lacks meaning because “beta testers” are mostly a nameless, faceless abstraction. It’s easier to appreciate Kirito’s effort to protect other beta testers from lynch mobs when we in the audience have just spent an hour getting to know another beta tester (i.e., Mito) and she’s standing right there in the scene.
On another positive note, the music was excellent, just as I’ve come to expect from SAO‘s soundtrack. I also enjoyed the cameos included for sharp-eyed viewers; these are mostly just brief glimpses of the characters, but it’s fun being able to say, “Hey, that was Silica in that crowd shot!” and so on.
My main criticism regarding Aria of a Starless Night is the rough pace of the story. It’s somewhat smoother than the madcap dash that is Ordinal Scale, but I still got the feeling that the pacing was off. The break between Mito and Asuna and the subsequent climactic mid-battle reconciliation especially stood out on this front. It’s basically “We’re not friends anymore. Maybe? Oh, yay we’re friends again! Now back to the boss monster!” I exaggerate, but you get the idea. The creators did show some restraint, though: this film doesn’t even attempt to finish the lengthy SAOP vol. 1, instead contenting itself with covering events of the first floor.
If you like SAO, you’ll probably enjoy Aria of a Starless Night. If you don’t like SAO, you obviously won’t like this movie either. If you just arrived from a parallel universe where SAO doesn’t exist, well, I think it this movie would be perfectly understandable and reasonably fun, but you won’t get as much out of it as viewers who are familiar with the characters and setting.
Sword Art Online The Movie -Progressive- Aria of a Starless Night is currently out in theaters, including at IMAX.