P.S. The latest Dengeki Bunko MAGAZINE also had an interview with Kawahara, but after reading it, I discovered that it was nearly the same interview as this one, except that it had less content (did not have all the side talk) and had slightly paraphrased some of the questions and answers, so I don't really see the point in translating that interview as well.
"SAO movie" aiming
To fuse the real world and games——
——Could you tell us when you heard about the production of an SAO movie?
Kawahara Reki-shi (honorifics omitted henceforth): I believe I was told "We're doing a movie" during the final episodes of the 2nd season of the TV series. It was announced to the staff and cast at the closing party we had after the broadcast was finished.
——Kawahara-sensei, you have said that the movie has an original story written by you. Could you tell us when you began writing it?
Kawahara: I believe I began writing the initial draft for the story in December 2014 and the scenario meetings began in 2015.
——Were there any requests like "Please make a story like this" from the production staff?
Kawahara: Firstly, I was the one who made a proposal: "Which would you like more, making a new story set chronologically after the end of the TV anime, or rebooting the 《Aincrad》 arc with a new approach?". The answer I received was "Let's make a new story rather than a reboot.", so I then began writing an original story.
——An AR game is planned to be the foundation for the SAO movie; how did you come to this decision?
Kawahara: My very first idea was "Can't I fuse the real word and games?". Thus, I first began thinking of a story set in a VR game that recreated the real world Tokyo. However, mid-way, I thought "If I'm making a reproduction, why not just have everything in the real world?", and thus changing my mind, I came up with the idea of using an AR game as a new approach.
——Wouldn't there be a difference in character movements in an AR game as compared to a VR game?
Kawahara: In a VR game, just as Kirito and the others had been doing so far, you would be lying in bed while playing, but in an AR game, there is a necessity to make use of your physical body. Also, the issue of a method of movement, and physical strength came up, so I had to take those into account.
——When you considered bringing an AR game to the world of SAO, what was the reaction from the staff?
Kawahara: The expressions everyone had said they could not quite imagine it (laughs). As could be expected, due to the change from VR games, which they have been depicting thus far, to an AR game, they could not quite imagine how it would look, and were still fumbling around during the screenplay meeting phase. Actually, I myself could not quite imagine what it would look like at the time, and only after I saw the post-recording did it finally sink in, or more precisely, I felt "So this is what it would look like. I see."
——How long did it take for the idea to take shape since then?
Kawahara: I believe I rewrote it tens of times. If we include the plot, I started working on it from the beginning of 2015 and have been busy with it for an entire year, perhaps.
——Aside from the introduction of an AR game, were there any other changes from the initial draft?
Kawahara: Asuna had a considerable increase in importance. At first, it was a story of Kirito fighting against the mastermind's plot, but then producer Kashiwada (Shinichirou) said "more Asuna" at a meeting. Since then, Asuna's role became bigger and we decided to depict the relationship between Kirito and Asuna in more detail.
——So, you will be delving further into the relationship between Kirito and Asuna in the SAO movie?
Kawahara: Seeing as SAO is getting a movie, I wanted to express their relationship in more detail. When I wrote about it, thinking "Will this do?", and then saw the storyboard, I felt that it went further than expected (laughs). I am truly glad.
——And as a result, it was finally made into a scenario?
Kawahara: Oh no no, that is when I gave the script into Director Itou's hands, and the real work on the script began, so it was still the beginning.
——What kind of discussions have you had after switching to working on the script?
Kawarahara: When Director Itou saw the first manuscript that was being turned into a scenario, he said "There's not enough antagonists". In foreign scenario terminology, they call the main character "protagonist" and the anti-hero as "antagonist", and the story was apparently lacking the latter. So, following Director Itou's proposal, Eiji was born. Actually, he did not exist in the draft I wrote.
Seeing Yuna's, Shigemura's, and Eiji's
——Seeing as Eiji was newly added in, what kind of changes were made to the story?
Kawahara: Until then, even I was fumbling with how to have a PvP battle in an AR game. Even though the player's weapon was visible on the game's display, it did not have a material form. Thus, I was wondering whether to make the battles like shadow boxing…… but with the addition of the character Eiji, the portrayal of battles has reached a point where players could end up walloping each other during a serious PvP fight in the AR game.
——How were Shigemura and Yuna, the other original characters aside from Eiji in the SAO movie, came to be?
Actually, Shigemura is a character who was already mentioned, though only in name, in the original work, thus I already had an image of him to some extent from the start. As for Yuna, I was thinking "I want to have a diva character appear in the movie" from the very start. From there, I wavered on "How should I incorporate her?" as an AR idol and "How much human should I make her?" as a character.
——Shigemura's role will be performed by Kaga Takeshi, Eiji by Inoue Yoshio, and Yuna by Kanda Sayaka; Kawahara-sensei, have you had a say in their casting?
Kawahara: This was a decision made by Aniplex. I was told that these three fine people have been cast to draw the attention of more people to SAO.
——I have heard that you watched the post-recording; how was it?
Kawahara: It might be a thing of nuance, but I feel like there's a difference in the performance of movie actors and anime voice actors. Maybe it's because of the anime-like exaggerations, but it feels more vivid. Particularly, there is a scene where Kanda-san, playing the role of Yuna, sings during the movie, and it was amazing. As for the song, even I have not heard the full version yet. There is a scene in the movie where Silica sings Yuna's song in a karaoke. I have scene the post-recording of that scene and I still feel impressed by how Hidaka Rina sang it in Silica's voice. I am looking forward to hearing the real Yuna's song sung by Kanda-san.
——Aside from Matsuoka Yoshitsugu as Kirito, how was the performance of the other members of the established cast from the TV series?
Kawahara: Some time had passed since the end of the TV series, thus both Director Itou and I were worried: "Everyone, we hope you haven't forgotten your roles?", but the PS4/PS Vita game Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization had just been released in October and a lot of other games have been released, thus it seems that everyone had to use their character voices regularly. Though, in the movie, unlike the TV series, the characters will mainly appear as players rather than avatars, thus I wonder if everyone was made aware of this difference.
From VR games to an AR game
Exploring the new expressions
——An AR game is played in town, thus seeing that it is based in reality, what considerations have you made about the playing style and the game's system?
Kawahara: Naturally, as the game is played in town, you cannot play it on the road. Realistically thinking, I believe that you can only play an AR game that involves movement in a place with no people at night. Thus, we have decided to have the players gather in a park in late evening at around 9 o'clock to play. Actually, Pokemon Go was released during the creation of the SAO movie scenario and it also had people gathering at parks and the like in the evening to play.
——Seeing as various spots of the city will appear in the movie, have you conducted any location scouting?
Kawahara: No, I have not. For the movie, I chose locations that I have actually been to at some point and by looking at the map on the web for the others. Though, it was necessary to have data for the anime art, thus it seems that Director Itou and the staff in charge of drawing the battle scenes had actually visited the places. In that sense, I am glad that I did not have the story take place throughout Japan (laughs).
——Seeing as PS VR has gone on sale lately and VR games are experiencing a rush in popularity, do you believe that SAO will someday take on a sense of reality…… ?
Kawahara: I have also tried various VR systems; the leading edge technology is truly amazing. Even so, the current VR requires moving your own body, has the issue of physical strength and, with people around, it is rather hard to take running around the map and fighting against monsters seriously….. Also, the current VR technology requires moving in real life, thus I believe it is difficult to support the action of walking. Hence if I had to say, the VR games in the real world are similar to the AR game 《Ordinal Scale》 depicted in the SAO movie.
——In the currently released promotional videos, AR technology use in everyday life has also been depicted.
Kawahara: You could feel that AR technology was also used for shopping, chatting, and pervaded everyday life in other ways, rather than being simply used for games, right? Though, if such a display was actually used, I wonder if it wouldn't be too messy and feel depressing.
——If a game like 《Ordinal Scale》 was released, would you like to play it?
Kawahara: I do have interest, but it would be a pain to have to go all over the place (laughs). AR technology would be more useful if it developed to a point where I could write my manuscripts without bringing my laptop along, instead of using it to play games.
——As 《Ordinal Scale》 will have battles with the players using their physical bodies, have there been any concerns depicting it?
Kawahara: Just as I have mentioned with the "shadow boxing" thing , there is no material form for the weapon in an AR game, thus it is impossible to depict crossing or locking swords. Also, you can only feel a slight shock from suffering an enemy's attack, thus we had to refrain from using flashy monster attacks that could blow players away. Although the animation will probably depict it in a flashy way, the 《Augma's》 system provides little feedback to the player.
The first appearance of the bosses
And highlights full of action
——Including the new characters like Yuna, Kirito and the others also received new costumes; how did you like them?
Kawahara: Those were designed by abec-san from scratch. I did not give any specific description for them, but abec came up with the perfect design that neither looked too fantasy-styled, nor too sci-fi-styled. Despite being simple-looking, they really do make you feel "I'm going to fight now". Actually, after the designs were published, I received "Please show us the back of the designs" messages from cosplayers around the world on my Twitter and had to keep responding with "I'm sorry, but they will be shown somewhere in due time". Then, when the SAO Magazine Vol 1, released on the 24th of October, finally included the back of the designs, people reading the magazine said "That's the ticket!" (laughs).
——Seeing as this story will be a movie, and it could even be said to have an all-star cast due to all the characters that will appear, will there be any characters that will be particularly featured?
Kawahara: I was not aware of this while writing the story, but Liz's and Silica's screentime has increased. I even had 120 minutes to work with, so their screentime increased rapidly as I fleshed out the story. Particularly, Silica became a rather important key character.
——A lot of boss monsters will appear in the SAO movie; could you tell us more about how they were made?
Kawahara: I have received a "We'd like to make tons of boss designs befitting SAO" request from A-1 Pictures, the people working on the animation of SAO. In the SAO Progressive series, I have written up to the 5th floor of 《Aincrad》and a number of bosses have appeared in the series, so I tailored the bosses as an extension of those in Progressive, thinking "I guess the bosses should look something like this?". All the designs were great. Particularly, when I saw the design of the "climax one", I wondered: "How will this be animated? Hand-drawn? Or through CG?". But, when I saw the post-recording storyboard pictures (instead of the actual clip, it was a storyboard clip meant for post-recording), the boss's movements were really flashy, so I thought "This looks great."
——I have heard that not only the bosses, but even the character action scenes are amazing……
Kawahara: Compared to the TV series, there will be tons of action scenes. In addition to boss rushes, there will also be PvP battles, enough for me to worry whether they can all be animated; action scenes are a core part of SAO, thus I hope all the viewers will enjoy them. If the animators succeed in animating everything I saw in the storyboard, I believe it will all look great.
——Kawahara-sensei, looking back at 2016, how do you feel about the year?
Kawahara: The draft for the movie left my hands in 2015, thus if I had to say it, I feel like I was concerned with Accel World throughout 2016 the most. And as we wait for the release of the SAO movie in 2017, I feel like it might be a year of SAO. I hope to release at least two volumes for the novel series.
——To finish this off, could I have a message for the fans waiting for the release of the SAO movie that draws nearer by the day?
Kawahara: Right now, the staff is putting their utmost effort into the SAO movie. I am certain that it will be wonderful, thus I hope you will continue anticipating it!