I think, when people get invested in a medium, they tend to forget. They forget what it’s like to not have such a critical eye, to not have a well-defined taste, to enjoy the positives in spite of any negatives. When you keep consuming more and more, it’s difficult to remain “pure” and unjaded, or even take the mindset of such. I’m not immune to this, I just last week made a video basically complaining about Nagi no Asukara for ten minutes, but I also have little doubt that if I’d have seen the series three, four years ago, I probably would have had a much better time than I did today. I probably wouldn’t mind the flat characters as much because, as long as they’re believable enough, who cares? I’d probably find it prettier because I wouldn’t have much of a personal baseline, or even the knowhow to really differentiate anything more than great versus terrible animation. It’d be a medium-sized fish in a fairly small pond, and I wouldn’t have a broad enough perspective to realize that.
As usual, this article is provided in video format and transcribed directly below. I always recommend watching the video rather than reading the transcript, but I especially do in this case.
However, this is in no way a bad thing. That’s where we all start — no one pops out of the womb muttering “Legend of the Galactic Heroes is the best anime ever”. No, they’ll say Naruto is the best anime ever, Dragon Ball is the best anime ever, Attack on Titan is the best anime ever… Sword Art Online is the best anime ever.
And that, about four and a half years ago, is exactly where I stood. Sword Art Online, my first anime ever, was at the time enrapturing. Despite all its flaws, it ignited a passion and interest in a medium that previously I’d never looked twice at. It made me want to rewatch episode after episode (practically the entire series), go and read the over a dozen light novels... and it did this, to some extent, for millions of people. It broke into the public consciousness, at least among geeks, at a speed and size that puts many, many of its betters to shame.
I won’t be trying to analyze exactly how or why SAO got so popular — a cursory Youtube search reveals a number of videos that already seem to do exactly that — but speaking to my own experience, many of its apparent “flaws” are what drew me in to begin with, because it differentiated itself so far from what I had come to expect out of my entertainment. The pacing, which in hindsight seems fast and disjointed, ensured that I was never bored, because I was constantly being fed new scenarios, people and action setpieces. The romance that today seems rushed and half-hearted felt satisfying and fresh, because to think, when the moment was right, the main couple actually hooked up? Hell yeah. The video game world with its lazy or unexplained elements — I didn’t care. It was a video game. I liked video games! The tentacle rape… I-I’m drawing a blank on that one, but the point being, it was cool. It didn’t need to be the best thing ever, it just needed to be so new and fun that it might as well have been. Could another series have filled that gap? Absolutely — but how many were popular enough that I, completely divorced from the medium, would even know of them? And short enough that I could give it a shot on a whim, in a weekend? At the time, there was Titan, SAO, maybe a couple series with lasting popularity like Death Note… and not much else.
There’s a certain value in that, the ability to extend past the normal community boundaries and pull in new voices, a quality that goes beyond whatever criticism more experienced viewers may have. Without exaggeration, were it not for Sword Art Online, I would likely not be talking to you today. My entire life could be taking a different course, at least in the type and volume of content that I consume.
I guess what I’m getting at is that gateway anime can feel undervalued by the community, and not just SAO. Whenever something gets popular, there’s going to be backlash against it, dissonant voices shouting that it’s bad, it sucks, it doesn’t deserve the hype — and these critics will often make valid points — but the more I think about it, the more I can’t bring myself to feel the same disdain. I’ll joke about the latest light novel adaptation or ecchi high school harem, but I will never truly malign an anime getting popular. I might be disappointed when one of my favorites goes unloved or underappreciated, but I will never be upset that another series overshadowed it — because while I love many specific anime, I also just love anime. In the past five years, no other medium of entertainment has even come close to the amount of time, thought, emotion and effort that I put into it. And the more people that are exposed to it, the more people that have the chance to discover that same love… in my opinion, the more the merrier.
Obviously, I’m not saying it’s wrong to dislike Sword Art Online, or that popular anime should somehow get a free pass from criticism just because they’re popular. I’m currently watching Naruto Shippuden and it’s a slog. Likewise, I couldn’t honestly defend SAO against most of the hate; it’s filled with terrible characters, terrible dialogue, terrible pacing, terribly good music… but I think it’s worth keeping in mind how these series can look to a casual viewer who just wants a good time, and acknowledge the importance of that element in the growth of the medium as a whole. I no longer feel that Sword Art Online is the best anime ever, but were it not for SAO, I (and many more) would never have discovered Rakugo, or Cardcaptor Sakura, or Nana, or Ashita no Joe, or Gintama, or Mushishi, or Hyouka, or Hajime no Ippo, or Legend of the Galactic Heroes and all the rest — and as good as all these series are, very few can hope to fill the huge shoes of Sword Art Online.