I just got back from a screening of the first 4 episodes of the new Anime series from Sentai Filmworks known as Log Horizon.
It was actually MUCH better than I expected, and I must admit, having seen all of the original SAO and a bit of "Dot Hack", I walked into the theater a bit jaded and cynical, doubting that I'd like much of what I was about to see. I have to admit I was wrong. Log Horizon was good--really good. The characters in particular were very likeable and memorable, and their chemistry together really hooks you and makes the show enjoyable to watch. Some immediate differences between SAO and Log Horizon, Log Horizon drops the SAO pretense of "if you die in the game you die in real life"...the characters ARE indeed trapped in their favorite MMO after a new DLC upgrade. But if they "die" (run out of hit points), they simply re-spawn in the temple of the territory where their character was originally created. It's not the end of the world, but it can be an enormous pain in the ass. The world of Log Horizon is said to be exactly 1/2 the size of planet Earth. Towns that are 8 km apart in the real world are only 4 km apart in the world of Log Horizon. There is eating & drinking in this MMO, but the food is bland and all tastes the same, regardless how it looks. The story is very vague about how the characters came to be stuck in the new DLC version of their favorite MMO, or why they can't log out, or what's "really" happening to their bodies in the "real" world. They don't seem--at first--to be the victims of any wider conspiracy, there's no all-powerful Dungeon Master who controls their fate, it's just more like an accidental glitch that's preventing everyone from logging out and nobody knows why or how they're supposed to leave the game. Also, the "jump gates" of the former game world no longer function in this 3D VR version, so all transport must be done on foot or by beast of burden. Horseback is fine, but eventually our heroes upgrade their ride to Griffins and stuff. The game in this world of Log Horizon (ログ・ホライズン Rogu Horaizun?) actually goes by the name of Elder Tale (エルダー・テイル Erudā Teiru?).
The story focuses on main character and protagonist Shiroe (シロエ Shiroe?) who is best known as "Shiroe the Strategist" or the "Villain in Glasses" (腹ぐろ眼鏡 Haraguro Megane?) from the Elder Tale game. His real name is Kei Shirogane (城鐘 恵 Shirogane Kei?). After he finds himself in the upgraded version of the game and rather nonplussed as to how he got there or how to get out, he decides to check his friend list and at least hang out with someone he knows. He meets up with Naotsugu (直継 Naotsugu?), who is Shiroe's best friend and was also a member of the now disbanded Debauchery Tea Party group. His real world name is Naotsugu Hasegawa (葉瀬川 直継 Hasegawa Naotsugu?). He's a bit of a shameless horn dog and always lusting after the ladies. Shiroe also adds to his burgeoning party Akatsuki (アカツキ Akatsuki?), a trained assasin whose skills he's very familiar with from past raids & alliances. However all this time, he never realized that Akatsuki (アカツキ Akatsuki?) is actually a girl. She asks Shiroe for a transformation potion and manages to use it to change her in-game avatar to be female and conform with her biological and mental gender. Although her in-game avatar looks like the body of a young teen girl of perhaps middle school age, she's actually in her mid-to-late 20s, same age as Shiroe who is a graduate student in Engineering in the real world, on the verge of earning his Master's degree.
My favorite character by far in the first 4 episodes is the mysterious Nyanta. Nyanta (にゃん太 Nyanta?) is a werecat Swashbuckler and a bit of a ladies' man himself, though far more of a "smooth operator" than lumbering Naotsugu. He's voiced by newcomer Jovan Jackson in the English dub and I was very happy to hear a black actor voicing this anime character...It's been a personal gripe of mine that there's not enough diversity in Anime voice acting. Some of this is the fact that many Japanese anime stories do not include black people or other ethnicities. Nyanta is a large "cat-man", so some artistic liberty was possible and I'm glad that they took the risk and cast a black actor for this role. It basically makes Nyanta the bad-ass SHAFT of the show and I love it. I remember getting into a bit of an argument with an anime voice actor who is also a casual friend, complaining about the production of Moonlight Mile where an obviously black character was voiced by an obviously white actor, yielding a performance that was downright cringe-worthy. My friend's argument was along the lines of "dude, they try, but there's just not that many black VO actors out there."; My contention was and is they don't try hard enough, so I salute this bold move from Sentai Filmworks and hope it is a sign of better things to come. Many of the cast and crew were in attendance at this screening and Jovan Jackson was a crowd favorite generally, but especially among the black fans who were thrilled to hear his character, and I was thrilled for them.
Some white voice actors are able to pull off a black character voiceover...I'm thinking Chris Sabat as Garterbelt in Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt, say. Or the voice of Dutch from Black Lagoon. White men with deep enough voices and acting chops can pull it off. But Jovan Jackson's Nyanta is on a whole nother level and it's fantastic.
While I'm probably not going to rush out and buy this anime as a new release, I do think I will be adding it to my collection eventually, maybe as a birthday present to myself next year, say, after the first or second price drop. It really was a pleasant surprise and I look forward to continuing the story of these characters and learning more about the strange online world they're trapped in and how they cope and try to find their way back to reality.