Accel World – Two Worlds, One Problem
September 25, 2012 3 Comments
Accel World was a mixed bag, bringing together some brilliant fight sequences, along with exposition heavy episodes that often ended in tedium, and topped off with problematic characters that never quite managed to stay entertaining throughout. Although this is not strictly true, there were numerous characters that were great to watch, providing some interesting insight into a world that at first appears overly simplistic, but soon turns into something that may be too complicated for its own good. However, one of the central, if not the biggest flaw with Accel World is the lack of proper antagonists. As a series it lacked that all-important element, an antagonist that is both entertaining, while also being as evil and nasty as possible. This coupled with the protagonist often dissolving into angst and tears could make various episodes and sections painful to watch.
The story has certain fascinating elements, exploring the idea that the virtual world may be more important to many people than the real world. Such an idea, while slightly odd at first does bring up some interesting questions about our relationship with the Internet and the people whom we interact with on it. The Internet in its current form is nowhere near as advanced as the virtual world portrayed in Accel World, however, there are similar issues and attitudes that both share. With the rise of social networking and the importance that many place on online message boards, Twitter, Facebook and so on, we are now in an age where the Internet and who we interact with on it matters. There will be people who dismiss such a notion, suggesting that the only ones who use the internet like this are either geeks or those ‘without a life’, and yet the interaction with virtual avatars and online personas is steadily becoming an integral part of daily life for many.
Accel World explores these issues and how the virtual world may become a refuge for many who wish to escape from the real world. Haruyuki is a central character who initially hates his life; constantly bullied at school he retreats into an ‘inner sanctum’ of a virtual squash court, taking out his anger and frustration in the virtual world. He views the real world as a place full of hardship and pain, somewhere to escape from, whereas the virtual world, or at least his small part of it is a place where he can truly belong. Chiyu his childhood friend on the other hand disagrees with him in this respect, telling him that hiding in the virtual world will not make the pain go away, nor will it change his real world circumstances. Haruyuki’s use of the Internet is in stark contrast to others, who use it as a place to socialise and meet up, despite living apart. The virtual world in Accel World is therefore a place that mirrors the real world, and while everyone’s avatars may be exotic compared to their real life looks, they are still a representation of who they truly are.
Chiyu’s avatar is a cat girl for example, perhaps suggesting that she has a playful, cat-like personality, while Kuroyukihime has a very refined avatar with butterfly wings and a parasol. In both cases the avatars reflect something about their user, they are not exact or perfect representations, but they help to show their characteristics and personality. On the other hand Haruyuki has a fascinating avatar that replicates his feelings of depression and repression from the real world. His little piggy avatar, while cute and about as adorable as you can be (except perhaps for the mini red dinosaur/dragon avatar later on), still retains certain characteristics from the real world. No matter which world Haruyuki is in he remains short and fat, thus suggesting that while he may find temporary sanctuary within the virtual squash court, nothing necessarily changes. The Accelerated World adds another dimension to this complex relationship between the real and virtual worlds by introducing real advantages of competing and being successful in what is effectively a virtual fighting tournament. The ideas of real world benefits from your virtual world performance, along with the importance of the global net taps into ideas that series such as Ghost in the Shell explores. While Accel World clearly does not explore these ideas in the same detail, depth, or with the same brilliance that Ghost in the shell does, it still manages to look at them in specific and potentially interesting ways.
While these ideas are interesting, the problems come in the form of the characters, and their relationship to the real and virtual worlds. Haruyuki in particular may put many people off the show due to his weak willed nature along with his short and fat appearance. Such an appearance is clearly deliberate, with Haruyuki standing out from every other character in stylistic as well as mental/emotional terms. It could be argued that his appearance in the anime is not entirely accurate, and rather than being his true appearance may be a simple stylistic device to mark him out from the crowd. Whether or not this is accurate is not necessarily important, although it does potentially add another element to his character. Haruyuki finds something as a Burst Linker that he sees his real life self-lacking; he finds courage, strength and resilience. At the same time, his duel avatar is sleek and silver, quite unlike his real world or normal avatar’s appearance, further suggesting that this element of the virtual world acts as a refuge where Haruyuki can become someone else.
Haruyuki is not the only character in Accel World to create a different persona between the virtual and real worlds. Kuroyukihime in a similar way to Haruyuki has two personalities, one from the real world, and the other embodied in her dangerous looking duel avatar with blades for hands and legs. One of the central relationships in Accel World is that of Haruyuki and Kuroyukihime, it is a relationship marked by repressed feelings and the power that the Brain Burst programme has over them. They are a very odd couple, one that in many respects should not exist, largely because of the pressures that each place upon the other, and themselves. Kuroyukihime is clearly in love with him, even going so far as to confess right before saving him from the crazed Araya. For his part Haruyuki loves the idea of being close to her, wanting to stick by this girl who he idolises and considers her a goddess in human form.
Kuroyukihime is far from free as her butterfly avatar may suggest, she is in fact chained to the game, constantly pushing forward into the darkness to discover what lies on the other side. There is a sense of helplessness about her character, partly shown through her desperate attempts to conceal certain horrible truths about what she has done from Haruyuki. In many respects Kuroyukihime has become a prisoner of the Accel World, constantly pushing towards achieving her goals or die trying. Her fear therefore is that such a goal will break up her relationship with Haruyuki, and that his goal of supporting her will utterly consume and destroy him as well.
This is all well and good, but as the series progresses the incessant angst of Haruyuki starts to get overbearing, he learns, and yet always bashes himself down again. Yes his character is supposed to have low self-esteem and generally portrayed as worthless, yet to constantly reiterate that on a weekly basis becomes tiresome. Furthermore, his progression is somewhat marred by the nature of his problems and his inability or unwillingness to ask anyone for help. Such characteristics are fairly normal when it comes to these sorts of protagonists, especially in stories that are effectively about wish-fulfilment and the ability to change who you are in the real world. However, the constant nature of Haruyuki’s angst starts to grate on your nerves, coupled with the immense amount of exposition and terrible ‘antagonists’ and we have a series that often gets it stuck in the metaphorical mud.
The exposition is particularly annoying at times; at the same time there is often a need for it due to the overly complex nature of the Accelerated World. There is an awful lot of information in the series, linking to abilities, avatars, the history of the Accelerated World and all those who fight within it, along with the powers that many are capable of manifesting. Much of this information is useful and necessary in order to explain why something is happening, but at the same time the Accelerated World starts to become overly complicated and complex. At the beginning you could sketch some sort of spider diagram or family tree detailing how specific elements link together, however, towards the end of the series this diagram would look more like a mangrove thicket. There is simply too much information, with whole episodes taken over by exposition, with every character currently in the virtual world, only to stand around while something is explained. The story and the Accelerated World becomes to complex, too vast, and with every new rule or story told the whole setting becomes ever more preposterous. This is a great shame since the setting and the various elements that Accel World explores are all fascinating, especially the relationship between Haruyuki and Kuroyukihime.
But, we now come to the biggest problem with Accel World, the lack of proper antagonists. Much like Natsuyuki Rendezvous, Accel World is a series with two distinct halves – the first where Haruyuki learns about being a Burst Linker, and the second where Noumi is introduced and everything begins to fall apart. A good antagonist is as important as a good protagonist; they are both necessary for a balanced plot along with feeding off of each other in what is often a particularly twisted relationship. There are numerous approaches to and variations on antagonists, with some series having a specific character that is present throughout the series, whereas others have numerous antagonists. Ghost in the Shell for example has an antagonist that is not necessarily bad, and also has no physical body, instead acting as a mere presence throughout the film. This is effective due to the mysterious nature of the Puppetmaster, along with the knowledge that Section 9 doesn’t really know what or who they are dealing with.
In this respect the antagonist is simply an existence or presence akin to a force of nature. In Canaan there are numerous antagonists, although the most prominent and also the most important to Canaan is Alphard Alshaya. In this case the antagonist is someone from Canaan’s past who she wishes to vanquish, or perhaps save. But then we come to series such as Macross Frontier or Tasogare Otome x Amnesia, where the antagonist is not immediately obvious, but instead exists as a force that ultimately becomes something entirely different towards the end. In all these cases the antagonists are central to the series, although in some cases the viewer isn’t entirely sure why or how. In part you continue to watch the series to see how the final conflict between antagonist and protagonist will end, with the entire series leading to that point. Furthermore the antagonist is interesting to watch – they may be incredibly nasty vicious (such as Alphard working as a terrorist), but they remain entertaining or fun to watch – they are an engaging character.
Accel World has none of this, and Noumi, the series’ sorry excuse for an antagonist is horrible to watch, ending in the urge to simply skip parts of each episode until your at a point where he doesn’t appear. He is nasty, a character who is selfish, petty, arrogant and ignorant of the world, he is wrapped up in his own self delusional state and will happily blackmail anyone if it allows him to get his own way. But, he is not an interesting character, nor is he particularly engaging, he is the antithesis of Haruyuki, with all the angst, pain and repression, only working in the opposite way. He is unpleasant to watch and lacks the charisma or fascination that good antagonists have – furthermore, his constant tirades at the futility of opposing him, along with the incessant gloating at his own greatness become tiresome and quite annoying. The second half of the series is sadly taken up largely by Haruyuki and Taku’s struggle against Noumi, while Chiyu has apparently betrayed them (although this is obviously not the case). The problem here is that the angst and other problems evident in the first half of the series are concentrated and magnified, adding to the unpleasant feeling that Noumi brings to the series.
It has become clear from both Accel World and Sword Art Online that Kawahara Reki cannot create proper antagonists or ‘bad guys’, none of his main bad characters have the charisma or brilliance necessary to keep them interesting. Furthermore, he has a habit of introducing a potentially interesting plot point or new antagonist only to abandon them for a few volumes – such as the sudden disappearance of chrome disaster. Noumi is merely a plot device – and an unpleasant one at that – designed to engendered feelings of hate and distrust in the characters and viewers. The problem is that his character makes the majority of the second part of the series unpleasant to watch, thus spoiling what little interest that can be gained from the series.
Overall Accel World was a disappointment, yes it has some fascinating elements, but it never really explored them, and instead focussed on a fighting game that apparently has world changing consequences. The ideas surrounding the importance of the virtual or online world are all but forgotten in the heat of battle, and while the first half explored the relationship between Haruyuki and Kuroyukihime, it was utterly forgotten during the second. Some of these problems are clearly due to the ongoing nature of the Light Novels, but at the same time, the lack of proper antagonists, along with the pushing the interesting elements to one side in favour of exposition ultimately leads to a messy and often very boring series. I wrote a lot about the relationship and the attitudes towards the virtual world because they interest me, but in the end Accel World abandoned those elements rather quickly and ended up as quite a messy series that spent far too much time on often wooden and quite dull dialogue. It certainly had its moments and was not a terrible series, but neither was it a particular good one.