By Andrew Osmond.
Despite its hefty name (this is anime!), Sword Art Online Alternative Gun Gale Online is a simple series. It’s an adventure-comedy with a central sight-gag; a pint-sized little girl in pink, dashing and leaping around her larger foes, shooting heads, cutting throats, and blowing up the survivors with grenades. Before you envisage a Chucky girl from Child’s Play, we should specify that this tyke doesn’t kill anyone, or even spill blood. All the carnage is done within an immersive VR fighting game that’s entirely safe.
Gun Gale Online is watchable if you’ve not seen any other Sword Art Online (though there’s a summary of the original here). The spin-off takes place in Japan in the mid-2020s. That’s after the crisis in the first SAO story, when a malign game designer trapped thousands of gamers in a VR world. That’s history now; in Gun Gale Online’s time, such worlds – VRMMORPGs – are secure, and players use them to live out their fantasies in alternative identities. The future “real world” is no dystopia like Ready Player One; it’s dull and conformist like our world, while games let you go wild.
The characters are new and the story uncomplicated (though the series tells it slightly out of order – part 1 is a flash-forward). If you have seen the original Sword Art Online, you may be startled by the lighter comedic tone. In franchise terms, it’s like going from a disaster-laden Avengers to an Ant Man or Guardians of the Galaxy. While some of the death-game strategy is reminiscent of a show like Btooom!, the comedic elements, and particularly the contrasts between the real players and their virtual avatars, are nearer the comedy Recovery of an MMO Junkie.
We’re introduced to the heroine in her VR guise – Llen, pronounced Ren. She’s a diminutive pink assassin with limited strength and combat abilities, but she has massive speed, agility and killer gusto. The episodes in the first volume focus on her time in a “battle royale” where she pairs up with a conventional male soldier – a taciturn sniper called M, twice her size – to take out rival teams. Much of the fun comes from learning about these players – a few spoilers follow in the next paragraph.
Llen, we find out, is actually Karen in the real world, a college student with a complex about being tall, always towering over others (westerners in Japan know the feeling). That’s precisely why she goes for a cute in-game avatar, which she cares about much more than the game. Oddly, VR games doesn’t let players customise their characters, so she keeps trying game after game till she finds one that randomly makes her pint-sized. However, she then opts to stick with that game, which is the kill-your-rivals, combat-based Gun Gale Online. On levelling up, she finds she makes a good assassin; luckily the game’s bright-hued desert is just the right blend for her preferred pink, though she wears sensible colours in other territories.
Of course, it’s all an excuse for showing a cute little girl in Commando-style situations, using corpses as shields or finding preposterously small hidey-holes. It may seem very “anime,” but it’s not unlike turning Yoda into a badass swordsman in Attack of the Clones, (remember the audience cheers) or what happens in Disney’s recent Ralph Breaks the Internet, where the tiny Vanellope, who we first met in a cute Nintendo-style racer, finds her real home in a Grand Theft Auto-style game. Of course, Karen isn’t the only character trying to use VR to fix her self-image, causing more sight gags along the way.
The combo of cute girls and military hardware goes back to anime like Girls und Panzer and Dominion Tank Police. But the show also depicts gun fandom, initially as the preserve of scary male otaku like the one who begins the show’s tournament, but which eventually infects even Llen as she comes to Love the Gun. In America or Britain, it would be hard to imagine a series doing this without some political or satirical overtone. (Japan’s live-action Battle Royale, with its gun-toting schoolkids, was so near the bone in America that it wasn’t released there for a decade.) In Japan, gun ownership and gun crime are so low that Gun Gale treats firearms as innocent, funny wish-fulfilment.
Yet the last episode on this volume subverts wish-fulfilment too. The story suddenly links with the original Sword Art Online story in a cunning, indirect way; it shows how people, especially youngsters, can be so bored with their lives that they wish they could have been in a disaster. Hayao Miyazaki noted this in an essay forty years ago (it’s at the beginning of the book Starting Point). Japanese teenagers, he wrote, “may envy the situation… to live life to the fullest amid such tension, in such an extreme environment.” The situation Miyazaki was writing about: Anne Frank’s.
As with most Attack on Titan spin-offs, Gun Gale Online is a franchise sidetrack by a new author – in this case, Keiichi Sigsawa, who wrote the Kino’s Journey light novels from 2000, and is a gun otaku on the side. The anime was a “separate” creation too. Whereas the other SAO series were made by A-1 Pictures, Gun Gale Online was handled by the new-founded 3HZ studio, responsible for Flip Flappers and Princess Principal. It’s unlikely there’ll be any nod to this lighter side of the franchise in the in-development live-action Sword Art Online series, which will focus on the “central” adventures of Kirito and Asuna. But it’d be fun if there was…
Sword Art Online Alternative Gun Gale Online is released in the UK by Anime Limited.