Sword Art vs. Evangelion

Sword Art vs. Evangelion


Although the title says this post is about Sword Art Online and Neon Genesis Evangelion, and I will be talking about each of these series, the real topic of this post is “Popular vs. Good Anime.” I simply felt that title would have been a bit to vague.

SAO is my example of a popular anime that isn’t exactly good, while NGE is my example of a good anime that isn’t as popular as one might expect. So why aren’t the highest rated anime also the most popular (or vice versa)?

While there are many cases of good anime also being popular, there are just as many cases of the opposite being true as well. In fact, if we just look at the top five highest rated and top five most popular anime on MAL, only FMA: Brotherhood makes both lists.

Popular Anime

SAO is the third most popular anime according to MAL, while NGE is #48 on the list. What this means is more MAL users have watched SAO than NGE, the numbers are roughly 923,000 and 366,000 respectively.

While their positions on the list may not be too far off, we can see that the number of viewers is vastly different. So why is SAO so much more popular if it’s considered to be worse?

First, let’s take a look at what NGE has going against it. For one, it was made back in 1995 and so many new anime fans may be turned off from the series simply due to its age. There’s generally a stigma against old series because the idea is that old series don’t hold up over time.

The second issue NGE has going against it is that there is currently no legal way to stream it in the United States (and possibly elsewhere outside of Japan). The inability to be legally streamed is a huge hurdle for any series to overcome.

But just because NGE has things holding it back from becoming one of the top few most popular anime, that doesn’t explain how SAO has risen so high up despite being worse as a whole. In fact, there are many better anime which are new and legally available, but can’t compete with SAO.

Content is key. SAO is an anime about virtual reality video games which aired at a time when these sorts of games were becoming possible in the real world.

That alone would make it popular simply because it’s relevant, but gaming in general is also an extremely popular pastime and thus makes SAO easily accessible for many people who are new to anime. We don’t have giant robots, and so the plot of NGE simply doesn’t seem as relevant on the surface.

SAO is an anime which takes advantage of the “beginner” anime market extremely well. By this I mean that it attracts those who aren’t already in the anime community, and brings them in. Because of this, its rating simply isn’t as important as it is for other series.

Kirito and Asuna from the anime Sword Art Online
Kirito and Asuna (Sword Art Online)

Good Anime

While ratings may not be very important for anime targeted towards new anime viewers, that isn’t the case for older anime, or those targeted towards the community at large. NGE is by no means the highest rated anime on MAL, but it is significantly higher rated than SAO.

NGE is ranked in position #233 with a score of 8.32, while SAO is ranked in position #1,260 with a score of 7.64. I know, 8.32 and 7.64 don’t look like they’re that far apart, but keep in mind that most ratings on MAL generally fall between 6.00 and 9.00 (only 16 anime broke the 9.00 rating).

While as far as popularity was concerned, NGE had things going against it separate from the things SAO had going for it, that isn’t the case when it comes to ratings. Essentially, anything NGE does well, SAO does poorly, which is why they’re ratings are so different.

You can look at the general plot, character development, internal consistency, use of taboo topics, basically everything that matters story wise, and NGE will come out on top. SAO simply has access to more modern animation technology, but even the best looking series are bad if they’re written poorly (SAO is not the best looking series by any means).

To illustrate this, I’ll simply use the example of the female leads for each series.

In SAO Asuna starts off as a strong female character, something we need more of in anime. This is great, except by the second half of season one she’s been downgraded to your standard “damsel in distress”, and then is further downgraded by becoming a cheap form of sex appeal with a rape scene or two thrown in to “show how helpless she now is.”

I think it’s fair to say this isn’t how to write a good character.

Asuka from NGE, on the other hand, similarly spirals downward, but not in the same way. She starts off as an aggressive, volatile character who then becomes even more unstable as her depression and various other mental disorders worsen over time.

However, Asuka’s helplessness isn’t the same as being a “damsel in distress,” but is instead a manifestation of her psychosis. Even when Asuka is relegated to the role of a sexualized object, when she’s (technically not?) sexually assaulted by Shinji, the scene is there to make Shinji (and the viewer) look bad, not Asuka.

It’s differences in the writing and direction of an anime which really separate the good from the bad.

Asuka Langley Souryuu from the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion
Asuka Langley Souryuu (Neon Genesis Evangelion)


So what’s more important, highly popular anime or highly rated anime?

In reality, they’re both important and a balanced anime diet should include both types. Popular anime, even those that aren’t the best such as SAO and Death Note, serve two extremely important functions for the community at large.

First, they bring in a very high number of new viewers into the community. Second, they become a shared experience for the community at large. If everyone has seen SAO, then they all have a common reference point when viewing other anime, and they have something in common to discuss.

While popular anime are often referenced, highly rated anime are often referenced as well. After all, NGE is probably one of the most referenced anime to exist. So by only watching good anime, or only watching popular anime, you’d be missing out on half of the references.

What may be even more important for highly rated anime, however, is how they influence the anime industry and community in other ways. NGE was so impactful that it caused anime after it, such as Cowboy Bebop, to be censored due to violence.

Speaking of Cowboy Bebop (another series less popular than SAO), this series was probably the single biggest thing to happen to anime in the West. Without Cowboy Bebop, anime might still be a very underground thing in the United States, and yet, SAO is more popular even here.

So, as I mentioned, both highly ranked and highly popular series have their places within the anime community. There are occasionally series which are able to bridge this gap such as FMA: Brotherhood, but really viewers just need to be conscious of both sides.

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