YenPress’ First Audiobook Lives Up to the Hype || Sword Art Online Vol. 1: Aincrad Review

A brief spoiler-free review of the “Sword Art Online Volume 1: Aincrad” audiobook, narrated by Bryce Papenbrook, written by Reki Kawahara, recorded by Hachette Audio, and released by YenAudio in August 2021. A review copy was provided to me by YenPress following its release.



Revisiting Kawahara’s Famed World of Swords

Ah, Sword Art Online, one of my favorite titles in anime that always seems to get dumped on. Thankfully, the most recent anime adaptation for Alicization (wow, it’s been so long since I got to say that word online!) was able to “redeem” reception for the series overall, despite its own issues. But, as much as I prefer the newer content for SAO than the old stuff, today’s review is about returning to Aincrad—and in its shiny, new audiobook form, no less.

Before getting to the actual experience of SAO in oratory form, I wanted to spend a minute reflecting on this first volume. Unless you’re just now embarking on this franchise for the first time, it’s likely that you haven’t read this first volume in years. Trust me, I had to dust off the cobwebs of my own NerveGear as I jumped back into Kawahara’s famed world of swords. And you know what, I didn’t find it nearly as cringeworthy as my memory served.

As a refresher, Aincrad is the impossibly large, floating castle of the VRMMORPG (impressed that I still remember this ridiculous acronym) Sword Art Online in which nearly 10,000 players are trapped, including Kirito, Asuna, and their allies. Each of the death tower’s 100 floors contains unique terrain—medieval cities, forests, caves, lakes, deserts, mountains, etc.—in addition to a sprawling labyrinth called the floor dungeon. Defeating each floor’s dungeon boss is the only way to unlock the stairway to the floor above, thus progressing the game. It’s already an enticing premise, as each floor typically brings with it new in-game items, quests, places to explore, and above all, a momentous step closer toward the game’s completion. And best (or worst) of all, author Kawahara clearly loves this game world as much as its notorious creator, Kayaba Akihito.

One of my favorite aspects of this novel is the way Kawahara describes the experience of the game world itself. The opening of chic menu windows via “swiping through the air,” the calculative measuring of recovery and reaction times in perilous battles, and even the “shattering of precious polygons” upon the loss of a character’s life are all repeated incidents which Kawahara intently focuses on. The time Kawahara spends fleshing out Kirito’s thought processes as he explores the relationship between the castle and its coding is rarely overdone. If anything, his language can be truly beautiful and inspiring, and his romanticization of Aincrad as both a prison and a palace for gamers immediately appeals as this first volume’s most popular motif. Much to their initial chagrin, Kirito and Asuna slowly start to warm up to the virtual world’s vast beauty, and so does the reader. Aincrad is a colorful fantasy setting, but Kawahara’s inclusion of stylish sci-fi interfaces and comprehendible coding make SAO a fascinating blend of both genres. Additionally, his lyrical prose is amplified by the audiobook format.

Now, as a story, the biggest (and often most criticized) issue with the novel is its pacing. Because the plot begins on day one and caps off at over 2 years of being trapped in the game, many parts of Kirito’s narrative are obviously cut, reordered, or diminished. For example, since we are already acquainted with Lizbeth the blacksmith, Silica the beast tamer, Sachi the guild mate from other parts of the franchise, we find that their omission in this novel really cuts down on the female representation, specifically. I didn’t realize how male-centered this novel was until Bryce Papenbrook (Kirito’s English VA and the audiobook’s narrator) started reading for Asuna’s part. It’s not bad to be missing those characters per se, but I think the masculine gaze is still a valid area for critique.

Still, I would say that the content of this novel holds up even now in 2021. Aside from a couple jarring time jumps and the overt masculine focus of the novel (Kirito, Klein, Agil, Kuradeel, Heathcliff, and others vs. Asuna), the story manages to maintain a compelling hold on what matters most to Kirito in SAO: Asuna. I often find myself comparing the young gamer couple to popular Shakespearean lovers, as Kirito and Asuna’s struggles in SAO are truly accented by the fact that they charge into the darkness together. The honeymoon glow is undeniably one of the cutest parts in the entire series, and as someone who strongly dislikes Yui, I’m glad that I can once again enjoy their love without the annoying fairy AI child that the franchise endorses.

The First “Anime” Audiobook

Let’s get right to the technical aspects of this audiobook. The review copy I was provided by YenPress (thank you!) had a code for Google Play Books, which I’d actually never used before. After downloading the app, it was as simple as redeeming the code and hitting the play button. Google Play Books divides the novel’s audio files by chapter, and you can even bookmark certain areas. Also, the app has a buffer that automatically reloads the previous second or two when you pause it for a while. As someone who frequently had to “put the book down” to attend to other activities, this was extremely helpful.

Now let’s talk about the most interesting part: the audio narration. Bryce Papenbrook, who plays Kirito in the show’s English dub, has a naturally raspier voice. This presents a few obvious challenges when it comes to portraying more soulful or smooth-toned voices. As such, I placed my earbuds aware of my skepticism. As it turns out, however, Papenbrook is still a pro, and there was truly little for me to worry about even as early as 10 minutes in. He manages to have a secure hold on SAO’s overall tone and all its characters far better than most actors would for their projects. I could especially sense Papenbrook’s care in his lines where Kirito experienced loss of any kind. Instead of it coming across as edgy and cringe like the first anime does at times, Papenbrook’s Kirito in the audiobook has a remarkably deep sense of fear and anxiety, which is more than fitting given this first novel’s overwhelming sense of isolation and loss.

Not only has Papenbrook improved in voicing Kirito’s nuanced sarcasm and wit, but also he surprised me in his ability to portray the entire cast with stunning depth. How he was able to match Klein’s enthusiastic, wannabe hero just as well as the actual English VA’s performance was amazing. The same could be said for Agil’s deep suave, Heathcliff’s principled disconnection, and Kuradeel’s wheedling insanity—Papenbrook goes beyond simply changing his vocal register and gives all these characters defining vocal quips, variations in breath, and unique tones. Flipping between these characters must’ve been exhausting. But hey, I suppose that’s why they hired a voice-over artist for the job—and one who knows and loves the franchise enough to put care into delivering the whole story, even in its most questionable moments.

Also, can we talk about Bryce’s Asuna?? Like, how did he make her appear in my mind just as the original text and Cherami Leigh’s performance does? Given Asuna’s importance as Kirito’s other half, I figured that hearing Kirito’s own voice for both of them would’ve been the novel’s biggest turnoff. I think I was able to enjoy his performance so much because he does more than “try to sound like a girl” when voicing Asuna. Asuna’s personality is defined by her dual presence—the tough and cold “Asuna the Flash” and the warm, vulnerable Asuna that invites Kirito to her apartment—and Papenbrook’s acting for both is starkly different. He retains Asuna’s character by portraying these traits first, then putting the higher vocal pitch behind it, and the result is that she blends seamlessly into the narrative rather than obnoxiously standing out.

A New Outlet for Anime AND Bookish Fans

What is gained through the SAO audiobook—widened accessibility, “new” content, and a closer relationship to Papenbrook as an actor/fan of the franchise—comes, of course, at costs in the visual department. For one, we lose all of abec’s fantastic artwork that accompanies the light novel. His early stuff isn’t necessarily impressive, but I couldn’t imagine the series without his artwork for GGO and Underworld later down. That said, Kawahara’s “Afterword” is preserved in the audiobook, which was a pleasant surprise.

I think the biggest concern facing the SAO audiobook is the sheer number of female characters to come. (Literally, Volume 2 introduces FOUR new female side characters.) Papenbrook might’ve been able to handle Asuna well, as she is somewhat tomboyish in her own actions, but I wonder if he would also portray Lisbeth with the same natural nasal that her English VA has, or if he’ll attempt to go falsetto voicing Yui. OR, it could be a possibility that the torch will be passed onto another VA from the dub to read Volume 2. After all, Cherami Leigh is credited along with Bryce for the second volume’s listing. (It’d be cool if this became a sort of full-cast project once it gets going!) I suppose we’ll find out what they do when Volume 2 releases on October 18.

Seriously though, I continue to respect what Bryce Papenbrook does with the black swordsman throughout their run together, and I’m genuinely curious (assuming that Yen goes this far into dubbing) as to how he might play Eugeo, Kirito’s friend, foil, and one of the franchise’s most beloved characters.

For now though, I would definitely say that the audiobook is worth listening to, especially if you have a friend who is convinced they want to get into the series but they don’t care for anime. As for if I personally would want more SAO audiobooks in the future—absolutely, bring it Yen! On an entirely separate note, I’m particularly excited for The Miracles of the Namiya General Store and how that story will be read. I’m entirely optimistic about this whole project of inviting VAs to read our favorite light novels, and if Yen is willing to send me review copies in the future—Well, let’s say that I’m all ears for more.


Afterword

Special thanks again to YenPress and YenAudio for sending me an audiobook review copy of Sword Art Online Volume 1: Aincrad. (I love the project so much, and I apologize that this review came a month past the audiobook’s release!) To my readers, what do you think of the idea of light novel audiobooks? Also, would you consider revisiting the original Aincrad story in this new format or are you content with the books and/or the anime? Let me know down in the comments! Thank you so much for reading, and till next time!

– Takuto

These audiobooks based on Yen Press content will be available wherever downloadable audiobooks are sold, across platforms including Apple Books, Audible, Audiobooks.com, Downpour, Google Books, Libro.fm, Kobo, and more. This volume retails for $25.98 USD ($19.99 or less in some shops) and is approximately 7.5 hours in length.

Reflecting on the Rebuild of Evangelion Before 3.0+1.0’s Release

FINAL THOUGHTS BEFORE THE END

Hey guys, I’m back with a different kind of anime-related video. As you know, Evangelion has had a profound effect on my life, and I’m absolutely stoked to ring in the end of this epic franchise spanning over 25 years with Hideaki Anno’s final big Evangelion film in the Rebuild series, Evangelion 3.0+1.0: Thrice Upon a Time, which will be released globally on Amazon Prime in matter of hours!

But first, we gotta reflect back on the three masterpiece films that precede 3.0+1.0, which would be Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone, Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance, and the most divisive of all, Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo.

I love the Rebuild films. This is a video recapping my emotions toward them, as well as my hopes for what the true end of Evangelion will bring!

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Thanks for watching~!

– Takuto

STUDIO PONOC’s Modest Heroes (& Tomorrow’s Leaves) || Summer Film Spotlight #8

CELEBRATING STUDIO PONOC 🌱

Hey guys! Welcome to the eighth Summer Film Spotlight! Today we are taking a look at STUDIO PONOC’s 2018 film Modest Heroes, which was released by GKIDS. The film is actually comprised of three short films—“Kanini & Kanino,” “Life Ain’t Gonna Lose,” “ and “Invisible”—each of which are about 15 minutes in length and focus on the different heroes we may encounter in our daily lives.

I hope you’ll continue to join us on this summer journey through film. See you next Saturday with another Summer Anime Film Spotlight!

Interested in more anime, manga, or K-pop content? Subscribe to stick around 🙏

Thanks for watching~!

– Takuto

The Stranger by the Shore || Summer Film Spotlight #6

THE BOYS ARE FINALLY HERE, MY FRIENDS

Hey guys! Welcome to the sixth Summer Film Spotlight! Today we are celebrating the streaming release of Akiyo Oohashi’s “Umibe no Étranger” or “The Stranger by the Shore,” which is now available on Funimation. This 2020 shounen-ai romance film explores the cute relationship between aspiring novelist Shun and the spry young Mio. This film is FULL of love, and I can’t wait to listen to the English dub! 🌼

I hope you’ll continue to join us on this summer journey through film. See you next Saturday with another Summer Anime Film Spotlight!

Interested in more anime, manga, or K-pop content? Subscribe to stick around 🙏

Thanks for watching~!

– Takuto

Ride Your Wave || Summer Film Spotlight #5

SUMMER ROMANCE IS HERE 🏄‍♀️💙🏄‍♂️

Hey guys! Welcome to the fifth Summer Film Spotlight! Today we are celebrating GKIDS’s beautiful dubbed Blu-ray release of Masaaki Yuasa’s Ride Your Wave. This 2019 romance drama film tests the effects of grief and mourning on the human heart with the relationship between summertime lovers Hinako and Minato. Themes of acceptance, friendship, and self-discovery also make waves in the lives of those deeply impacted by tragic loss. 🧡

I hope you’ll continue to join us on this summer journey through film. See you next Saturday with another Summer Anime Film Spotlight!

Interested in more anime, manga, or K-pop content? Subscribe to stick around 🙏

Thanks for watching~!

– Takuto

Children of the Sea 🐋 || Summer Film Spotlight #4

MYSTERIES OF THE SEA 🐠🐋🐠

Hey guys! Welcome to the fourth Summer Film Spotlight! Today we are celebrating GKIDS’s beautiful dubbed Blu-ray release of Ayumu Watanabe’s Children of the Sea. This 2019 film adaptation of Daisuke Igarashi’s famed manga explores the fascinating relationship between nature and the human mind. Contemplated is the relativity of existence, and how we’re not so different from the stars shining above us—or the creatures lurking deep below the ocean’s depths.

I hope you’ll continue to join us on this summer journey through film. See you next Saturday with another Summer Anime Film Spotlight!

Interested in more anime, manga, or K-pop content? Subscribe to stick around 🙏

Thanks for watching~!

– Takuto

Miss Hokusai || Summer Film Spotlight #3

THE UNTOLD STORY 🌊✍️

Hey guys! Welcome to the third Summer Film Spotlight! Today we are celebrating GKIDS’s beautiful dubbed Blu-ray release of Keiichi Hara’s Miss Hokusai. This movie is full of important artistic values, from finding creativity in everyday life to balancing family life. O-Ei’s tale continues to inspire me as an artist, and I want to share it with you guys.

I hope you’ll continue to join us on this summer journey through film. See you next Saturday with another Summer Anime Film Spotlight!

Interested in more anime, manga, or K-pop content? Subscribe to stick around 🙏

Thanks for watching~!

– Takuto

Tokyo Godfathers || Summer Film Spotlight #2

IT’S CHRISTMAS IN JULY ✨🎄✨

Hey guys! Welcome to the second Summer Film Spotlight! Today we are celebrating GKIDS’s beautiful dubbed Blu-ray release of Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers. Although it is neither Christmas nor July, I thought it’d be fun to kick off the summer with beloved anime movies that fans have been loving for years, and Tokyo Godfathers is just that kind of film!

I hope you’ll continue to join us on this summer journey through film. See you next Saturday with another Summer Anime Film Spotlight!

Don’t forget to read the original blog post ➡️ Finding a Place to Belong: Tokyo Godfathers & the Gift of Kindness | OWLS “Miracles”

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Thanks for watching~! –

Takuto

Fate/stay night: Heaven’s Feel I. Presage Flower || Summer Film Spotlight #1

SUMMER AT THE MOVIES BEGINS! ☺️

Hey guys! Today begins a series of weekly videos that will highlight an anime film I recently watched! First up is Ufotable’s Fate/stay night: Heaven’s Feel – I. Presage Flower, released by Aniplex of America. I love me some Fate, always, and it’s about time I figured out if all the hype surrounding these movies is worth it. (Spoiler alert, it is.) 🌸

I’ve been wanting to start a project like this for months now, and I finally have the time to sit down and talk about my favorite anime movies. I hope you’ll join me on this journey through film! Oh, and regular posting should resume again soon now that I’ve graduated from uni (more on that in an update forthcoming). See you next Saturday with another summer anime film spotlight!

Interested in more anime, manga, or K-pop content? Subscribe to stick around 🙏

It’s good to be back. Thanks for watching~!

– Takuto

Mushoku Tensei: A Jobless, Shameless Reincarnation || Review

A brief spoiler-free review of the 11-episode Winter 2021 series “Mushoku Tensei: Jobless Reincarnation,” animated by Studio Bind, directed by Manabu Okamoto, and based on the light novel series of the same name by Rifujin na Magonote.


Reborn in a World of Magic

A thirty-four-year-old shut-in has just about had all of life that he can handle. Even when he tries to do something heroic for once in his life, it ends in a tragic accident. Fate, however, has other plans for him, and the man awakens in another world as Rudeus Greyrat, the newborn baby of two loving parents.

With the memories from his previous life still intact, Rudeus quickly adapts to this new fantasy environment. The knowledge from his adult past allows him to latch onto the world’s magic system faster than the other kids, and before long, his parents hire a mage tutor named Roxy Migurdia to help hone his skills. Rudeus learns swordplay from his father, Paul, and makes his first friend in the beautiful Sylphiette. Although Rudeus is no knight right now, his time with the blade will come in handy when he eventually takes on his own young pupil—the fiesty Eris Greyrat—and her buff, beast-human guardian Ghislaine.

Granted a second chance at life, Rudeus endeavors to live in a way that his old self would be proud of. As Rudeus attempts to conquer the traumas of his past, he starts to believe that maybe, just maybe, there is love for him in this world after all.

Gonna have to spit this out there now, but I absolutely despise the isekai story-starter trope of reincarnation. Rarely is it explored to full effect in these shows, and often is the tragic death overlooked by episode 3. That said, Mushoku Tensei is different. Throughout the series, we receive direct narration of events not from the voice of young Rudeus, but rather that of his past self. At first, the cynical and snarky dialogue comes across as largely pessimistic and cruel. But, as Rudeus starts to make connections and brave his way outside the comfort zone, the narration slowly adopts a note of hope. And of course, Rudeus is a pervert both then and now, but you’d be surprised how well he fits the bill as “The Son of Paul Greyrat.”

THE GREYRATS ARE SCUM

I know he’s really a 34-year-old man on the inside, but boy is Rudeus a cutie. I mean, just look at that name ~Rudeus~ I love it. Although we know who he really is, no one else does, and so Rudeus plays the innocent young prodigy part remarkably well. A lot of viewers may not take to him because of this fact (plus that he’s a whole-ass pervert), but I like Rudeus, and I hope he does find that self-love and acceptance he was missing out on in his sad past.

The same well wishes cannot be said for Rudeus’ father, Paul. I won’t spoil what he does (or who he does, yikes!), but don’t let that knightly title lead you to believing that honoring and respecting women is a virtue he exemplifies. THIS MANS IS SCUM. Hell, ALL OF THE GREYRATS ARE SCUM. And yet, I still love ’em all, the horny bastards. Paul is lucky to have a charismatic babe like Zenith!

Although the kind and soft-spoken Sylphiette is who propels Rudeus to become a stronger mage, a character I believe most audiences would resonate more with is Roxy. A wonderful teacher and talented water mage, Roxy serves as a huge motivation for Rudeus. Rudeus’ graduation ceremony from Roxy’s teachings had tears welling in my eyes, and as a teacher of young students myself, I just really hit it off with her reserved yet inspiring teaching style. Roxy rarely yells, but rather guides, and her realizing Rudeus’ potential (which far exceeds her own) hit me in the feels. The prospect of eventually reuniting with Roxy incentivizes Rudeus to work hard at not only magecraft, but also other avenues of life.

Then we have Eris Greyrat, who comes in and stomps on all of Rudeus’ hopes and dreams. I kid, but she’s definitely a stubborn pain in the ass. As Rudeus’ charms slowly start to rub off on Eris, however, she becomes noticeably more tame, even likable to an extent. Were it not for Ghislaine’s overwhelming strength and presence to hold Eris back, I’m not sure how far Rudeus would have gotten in his mentorship!

Quality Character Animation

While searching for more information about the studio behind making Mushoku Tensei, it appeared to me as if this is Studio Bind’s first work—and to this, WOW, I’m quite shocked. The animation of the series keeps up with the spellcasting elements of the show just as well as the dumb ecchi-comedy moments. Specifically, it was the quality of the character animation that grabbed my interest. In fact, I had no plans to watch Mushoku Tensei until one of the sakuga-crazed Twitter accounts I follow retweeted a short animation of Roxy splitting a tree and then healing it. From that moment on, I looked forward to seeing Rudeus’ water magic develop just as much I wanted to see that perverted little face of his warp into a devilish smile.

If I’m being honest here, the whole production of Mushoku Tensei won me over far before the story’s premise. The series is accompanied by a wonderful fantasy soundtrack from the genius Yoshiaki Fujisawa. Likewise, all of the grassy plains, vast deserts, and medieval cities provide a pleasant background to the show’s relatively soft visual aesthetic. Lastly, since I watched this one subbed, I did want to toot the seiyuu voicing the project, especially Yumi Uchiyama’s cute lil’ Rudeus, Ai Kakuma’s fiery and passionate Eris, and Megumi Toyoguchi’s tough and throaty Ghislaine.

A Debauched, Self-Indulgent Comedy

Mushoku Tensei probably wasn’t meant to be this enjoyable, at least for me. The series blends ecchi and isekai elements (which I typically cannot stand) into a fantasy drama with ludicrous amounts of world-building lore and pleasure-seeking fun. In addition to the nice magic animation and memorable character design, the series also pursues themes of self-love, reclamation of youth, and goodwill to others with Rudeus’ narrative. You can tell by the end how much taller he stands, and how he’s already so much prouder of the chances he’s taken in this life than the scarring, regret-filled life of his past. With this first season, a man is finally starting to overcome his fears from being bullied and enjoy life under the sun for once. I hope he’s able to go even further in subsequent seasons.

However the story tries to move you, this dramatic character development doesn’t stop Rudeus—and all of the Greyrats for that matter—from being horny on main 24/7. The series is never afraid to have fun with itself, and it remains wholly dedicated to its cause of debauched, self-indulgent comedy. If you’re wanting an isekai fantasy series with perverse, no-holds-barred commentary (and a slice or two of redemption), step right up to the house of Paul and Zenith Greyrat—I’m sure they’d love to have you.


“The worse I am at something, the better I feel when I work at it and learn how to do it.”

Rudeus Greyrat


Afterword

I’ve spent the past weekend trying to finish all the Winter 2021 simulcasts I started months ago. It’s actually been fun seeing how some of these shows ended, and it was equally exciting to see the season two announcement for Mushoku Tensei already greenlit! While I’m guessing the story from here on will lean more on the serious side, you can bet I’ll be back for more Greyrat degeneracy when the sequel airs this summer. For those wondering, I’m welcoming Mushoku Tensei: Jobless Reincarnation as a “Cake” title here at the cafe, a show that’s not for everyone, but one that certainly scratches that itch you might’ve not have even known you had. I like the show when it’s both dumb and endearing, and that’s rare for even me to admit.

What are your thoughts on Mushoku Tensei? Do you think Paul Greyrat is scum or do you think he’s scum? Also, are you looking forward to more of this series or was this first season enough for you? Let me know your thoughts about the show or this review down in the comments! Thanks for reading, and ’til next time!

– Takuto