We had the chance to conduct an exclusive interview with Mr. Kazuma Miki, CEO of STRAIGHT EDGE Inc., which is in charge of editing Sword Art Online. This interview focuses on Mr. Miki’s thoughts about the activities of SAO outside of Japan, as well as the message he has for fans around the world.
— Please tell us about your first encounter with Sword Art Online.
Mr. Miki: Between 2002 and 2003, Mr. Reki Kawahara – the author of SAO – published the series on his own website. After seven years of work, he finished everything up to the Alicization Arc.
After that, Mr. Kawahara submitted another title to the 15th Dengeki Novel Prize in 2008. That title was Accel World, and it ended up winning the Grand Prize. I became the editor for the series, and that’s how I met Mr. Kawahara. Accel World was released as a publication from Dengeki Bunko in February 2009.
I had a meeting sometime around October 2008 before Accel World went on sale, and there I learned that he had previously written incredibly well-known novels as an amateur writer.
And so, I sent him an email about the scripts others than Accel World he wrote that were rumored to be rather famous. I also asked him if he would let me read them. Mr. Kawahara responded, “Brace yourself. I have tons (laughs).” He actually had the equivalent of 4,200 pages of Dengeki Bunko pages, which was enough to fill 16 novels… When I printed out all the world files that I received, the stack was as tall as my face when I placed it on my desk. This happened one week before my next meeting with Mr. Kawahara, and I thought I should read through everything before I saw him again. After a nearly sleepless week, I finished it all, and that’s how I first encountered Sword Art Online.
— Sword Art Online became a popular topic for discussion in Japan after it was released through Dengeki Bunko. When did you start to feel the passion that people outside of Japan had toward the series?
Mr. Miki: Building on the part about people outside of Japan, we received an offer from Korea to have SAO translated before Mr. Kawahara even made his debut. It’s something that’s quite rare, really. Things didn’t work out because he didn’t make his debut yet, but we ended up choosing the same company as our official licensed translator for the business version of SAO later on.
In Japan, the first volume was released on April 10, 2009, and new volumes were released every four months. It wasn’t like a breakout series that was immensely popular from the very beginning, though. Instead, the impression I received was that it was a mid-level series that had plenty of diehard fans.
At the time, contemporary stories – such as those involving schoolyard action – were at their prime. The market wasn’t right for titles that sounded or felt like fantasies, and it didn’t allow such titles to become very popular. Moreover, we were also concerned that the “Online” part of the title might lead some to believe that the series was based on a game. Because of this, we advertised it as an original series as much as we possibly could on the cover, the description, and other places, too.
After three years of continued publication, we received translation offers from all around the world. We were contacted by those in Taiwan, China, Korea, Southeast Asia, and more. Once the SAO anime series started in July 2012, we began to receive offers from other areas as well.
Because novels are considered to be more minor than anime and movies, it’s only able to reach a limited range of people. Anime, on the other hand, is the media type with the most promotional strength, and it allowed us to introduce the series to fans around the world. In the US, translated versions of the novels are now available, and they’re doing very well in the Barnes & Noble sci-fi rankings. All of this made me feel that animation is truly the most powerful media form.
— I see. As the series continued to expand, were you thinking about the possibility that it may become popular overseas?
Mr. Miki: No, not at all. To be honest, I think it became popular overseas by chance. I wasn’t thinking about it when we were working on the title, and even now, I still don’t think about it (laughs).
— Event began to be held as SAO increased its popularity outside of Japan. Did you attend any events?
Mr. Miki: I attended Anime Expo in Los Angeles, US. I was also at Japan Expo in France and Sakura-Con in Seattle. Ordinal Scale premiered in Los Angeles this year, and I was there as well.
— What did you think about the energy from the fans outside of Japan when you were at those events? Are SAO fans outside of Japan different from those in Japan?
Mr. Miki: I think every country has its own colors, and the difference between those in Japan and those in other countries is enormous. I could see how fans in other countries enjoyed the festivities with their entire body. The way they call out from the crowd – saying things like “Kawahara sensei!” – looks like a lot of fun! The same kind of enjoyable atmosphere is available in Japan, but I think many of the fans tend to have fun in more quiet ways where the fun is internalized. You would think that fans in other parts of Asia – such as Taiwan and Hong Kong – would be the same, but their degree of festivity is different. They make tons of noise. Fans in North America and Europe also make plenty of noise.
Also, I feel like there are a few differences in the fans’ senses in terms of what makes them laugh and what moves them emotionally. There are times when scenarios that we think are perfect for striking at the fans’ heartstrings or lines that we think are fantastic end up as laughingstock for the fans (laughs). I watched it all happen at the premier from the back, and what I saw was very different from Japan.
— Do you feel any differences in how fans react to SAO when you visit places overseas many times, such as the US?
Mr. Miki: The fans have been very welcoming from the start, and the popularity of the series hasn’t changed. Some fans have all the latest information from Japan, and the sharpness and strength of their questions make me wonder if I’m actually in Japan. For example, there are times when I receive questions about content that was available online but has yet to be published. Of course, we didn’t have translations of the content available, but I think there must have been volunteers who translated things so that others could read it. There are overseas fans who know as much as Japanese fans do, if not even more.
— You said before that you wanted to bring a title that you worked to Hollywood. How do you feel now that your dream has come true?
It made me believe that kotodama (mystical power in words) really exists (laughs). It also made me think about how important it is to keep talking about your goals and other things. In my opinion, bringing a title to Hollywood is a part of a media mix. Many titles that start off as novels have evolved into different forms of media such as anime, games, and comics. But in the end, I think the sole purpose of all other media forms is to raise awareness about the novels that Mr. Reki Kawahara has written. In terms of the methods we use, larger scales, higher amounts of investment, and greater degrees of richness leads to a bigger audience that we can deliver our content to.
I think the most powerful method that’s currently available in the world is to promote through Hollywood movies and dramas. Even for heavily invested open world games, Hollywood is a very valuable media channel. Movies and dramas offer video content that can reach the general audience at a low price. I spoke about Hollywood because I thought it would allow us to introduce SAO to even more people.
— It certainly seems like SAO has reached even more people now. Could you please tell us why you think the series is so well-received by fans residing overseas?
Mr. Miki: If I knew the answer, I think all the titles I work on would be best-sellers around the world (laughs).
This is all based on my analysis after everything happened, but there are two main reasons. First, I think the fact that this title differed from other light novels was a significant factor. Nowadays, some may consider SAO to be an example of what light novels should be. However, what I had in mind when we published the novel was the complete opposite. In fact, I was worried because it wasn’t anything like a light novel. Why? Because the protagonist and the heroine got together at the very beginning (laughs). In love stories, what comes before the hero and the heroine get together are usually what’s interesting. Also, although this only happened in the game, the two of them went “all the way.” I thought it was appropriate to say that the series isn’t like other light novels.
The second reason has two parts: the fact that it’s a fantasy series and also the fact that we were concerned about it being misunderstood as a game novelization. Although there are plenty of novels based on games that are currently available, something like SAO was rare at the time. Take a title about a high school baseball team aiming for the Koushien national competition as an example. The readers know how hard the characters have worked over their three years in high school, and they also know that the team would be eliminated if they lost even a single game. Because of this, they have empathy toward the characters. But if we were looking at two players who played against each other in a baseball video game, the result wouldn’t matter as much anymore, would it? Even when one of the players loses, they can do whatever they want and even invite the winning player to dinner (laughs). The attachment and the connection that’s present is different. There were concerns about how people would think that games could be reset. In my opinion, I thought it would be better for the characters to struggle in the real world instead of inside a game. I couldn’t get myself into the idea of using a world inside a game.
Having said that, because SAO is a death game, it’s necessary for players to give it everything they’ve got in order to survive. That’s what separates SAO from other novels based on games. There were also a number of other developments in play. People in their 40s and 50s began to think that gaming was something natural for people to do, and the MMO category became one that was easier for people to understand. SAO happened to catch up with multiple trends, and that may have also contributed to its gain in popularity.
— Please tell us about the direction that you want Sword Art Online to move toward overseas.
As an experiment, we’ve recently been working with ASCII on a project called SAO Future Lab. We work with companies performing research on Japanese futuristic technologies to produce SAO merchandise. We also have plans to produce and monetize items that would likely exist if we were able to bring the world of SAO to reality. Our developments are incredibly exciting as they bring us that much closer to the SAO world. For us, SAO is the image we have of a future that is possible if we push our boundaries a little bit more. In a world of advancements in AI, VR, MR, and other technologies, having items that express SAO in different ways produced through the latest technology is a tremendous blessing for the original title. I would be very pleased if we could move forward from Hollywood to produce VR items and others as well.
— Based on our conversation, it sounds like the SAO media mix is a tool for selling the novels. As an editor of the series, what kind of thoughts do you have toward merchandising?
Merchandising is basically about giving emotional attachments a tangible form in the merchandise that’s provided to the fans. I think that’s a defensive approach, though. It may be important to do so, but at the same time, there should also be more offensive approaches made in merchandising.
Let’s use the SAO Future Lab again as our example. It allows us to share SAO with venture companies, and it allows SAO fans to learn about products, manufacturers, and also brands. If we can come up with proposals that benefit all parties, then we don’t have to worry about any demerits.
— SAO merchandise also sells very well overseas. Could you please tell us why you think that is the case?
I think a sizable parental body – or source – must be available in order for merchandise to sell since fans mostly likely purchase the merchandise because they’ve watched the anime first. There are differences in each series that can determine whether or not fans will want to purchase anything, though. For SAO, the core fans were the ones who got things going. If they are considered as the influencers, then I believe there are many people around the world with the same attributes.
— What kind of SAO-based merchandise would you want to see?
Mr. Miki: (Without any hesitation) 1/1 scale Yui! Not as a figure, though. Yui is a form of artificial intelligence, and I would like to see her as a genuine product where she can sit on your shoulder like a pixie in Ordinal Scale. It would be even better if you could interact with her. For example, she could be really disciplined in models geared toward children. I think it would be nice if there were different versions of Yui for different people.
— Can you please tell us about the characters that you particularly like?
Mr. Miki: Can I give you a deep answer? (Laughs). I like an orc called Rirupirin who appears in the Alicization Arc. Although he’s a bit unattractive because he’s an orc, he’s considered to be a handsome prince in the orc clan. He has a crush on Leafa, who falls into the Underworld and appears as if she was a goddess. Although he’s the most handsome orc, he becomes depressed because he didn’t know that such beautiful women could even exist. The difference between his appearance and Leafa’s is what’s great. Another character I like is Rirupirin’s fiancée, a princess knight orc who gave her own life for the sake of others. She looks just like a pig, but her performance made her beautiful. I found that to be rather charming.
— About the Weapon-Based Computer Glasses by Tokyo Otaku Mode, which model do you recommend?
Mr. Miki: From the three available, I would have to say Kirito. The dual blade style on the black frames is great. I’ve never worn glasses before, but they were really easy to wear. They seem perfect for regular use.
Sinon wears glasses in the series, so I think her model is a good match. She’s quite popular in the US. So popular that even Palmer Luckey’s – founder of the Oculus Rift – wife even cosplayed as Sinon (laughs).
— To wrap up, could you please provide a message to all the Sword Art Online fans overseas?
Mr. Miki: Thanks to your support, the movie has been incredibly popular and very well-received. We worked extremely hard on the movie, and we’re very grateful for the positive result. Please be assured that your voices have been reaching our staff members. We look forward to sharing our new development with you in the near future, and we hope you’re looking forward to learning about it!
The Alicization Arc of the SAO original novel series – which is the longest arc – has reached its conclusion, but Mr. Kawahara is already working on the sequel. Following the sequel, there are plans for a brand new series. Newly written content will be available in the future, and we hope you will look forward to the newest SAO content from Mr. Reki Kawahara in 2017.
[SAO x TOM] Sword Art Online Weapon-based Computer Glasses: https://otakumode.com/projects/sao_computer_glasses