Sword Art Online is now as infamous an anime/manga series as it is a popular one, having gained just as many haters as it has fans. Despite this criticism, it’s continued to be incredibly successful, making creator Reki Kawahara one of the most prominent light novel authors. Strangely enough, it’s not nearly his best work, with another franchise being a far better showcase of his talent.
The Isolator is another light novel series from the maker of Sword Art Online, though it has a much different premise. It’s also considered to be far superior in writing quality, though this hasn’t exactly translated into similar success. Here’s a look at why even SAO haters like The Isolator and a possible explanation for its more muted reach.
The Isolator Is the Best Series from the Creator of Sword Art Online
Starting in 2014, The Isolator tells the story of Minoru Utsugi, whose life was changed forever after home invaders brutally killed his family. Surviving by hiding away, Minoru would become one of many humans who were later implanted with mysterious alien orbs. These give their hosts incredible powers based on their greatest desires, with Minoru simply wanting to protect himself from harm. This manifests in a protective shield, though this is far less malevolent than the abilities used by far crueler individuals who also gain alien powers.
The Isolator began publication five years after Kawahara’s Accel World and Sword Art Online, and it shows in the writing quality. There is a lot less of the power fantasy element present in The Isolator, thus making the stakes far higher. One interesting element is that the villains are showcased just as much as heroes such as Minoru, which is something the author didn’t do in Sword Art Online. Minoru himself is a rather complex protagonist, having far more depth than Kirito ever did. This moral ambiguity also makes his victories have more gravitas, whereas things are simply handed to Kirito, and he’s praised all the more for it.
The themes are also quite strong, especially the central concept of isolation. Many other characters such as Suu have abilities that reflect their turbulent emotions, and these powers likewise reflect how they deal with trauma and grief. When combined with the worldbuilding, it’s one of the best “superpower” light novels stories and arguably puts franchises such as My Hero Academia to shame. It helps that it’s a hard sci-fi series, giving it more of an edge and sense of maturity when compared to other light novels that simply handwave away certain concepts.
Focusing on Sword Art Online Has Taken Away From The Isolator’s Progress
Unlike Sword Art Online and Accel World, there’s no anime adaptation of The Isolator, and the manga version was incredibly short-lived. This likely stems from one big reason: there’s simply not enough material to adapt yet. Despite running for almost a decade, The Isolator currently only has five volumes in the original light novel series. When compared to the 27 volumes of SAO and the 26 of Accel World, it’s merely a fraction of their story length, especially given how much of a slow burn The Isolator can be. More than likely, the breakout success of those other franchises has made Kawahara prioritize them instead of the less popular third series. Add in the fact that it’s only now that light novels are catching on outside Japan, and it’s understandable why it didn’t immediately take off. Given the titles of many modern manga and light novels, the name of Kawahara’s third series definitely doesn’t stand out.
It’s an unfortunate situation, as The Isolator is easily better than the author’s other works. It shows just how much a writer can improve by engaging in more of their craft over time, and the books’ setting and themes also allow Kawahara to break out of his familiar mold. Given the premise, it could easily tie into the superhero craze that’s taken over even manga and light novels, as well as have a bit of crossover appeal with fans of shonen/seinen battle anime. Unfortunately, it needs a lot more material published before an anime project could be produced to give the series a mainstream boost. It seems that in a world of isekai light novels and anime, The Isolator simply hasn’t reincarnated into a true success.