During the Sword Art Online Alicization Premiere Event in Los Angeles on September 15, I met up with Bryce Papenbrook backstage following the screening to talk about his role as Kirito going into Project Alicization as well as some of the big questions regarding his character from the SAO and Toonami Faithful communities.
We were also joined in by Aiko, a representative from Aniplex who helped us out in getting this interview together, so we thank her for her assistance.
Editor’s Note: This interview contains a few spoilers from the first episode of season 3 as well as some minor spoilers from the arc in general. We’ve taken the liberty of spoiler tagging the more major spoilers, but for those who want to go into Project Alicization completely blind (especially for those who will be waiting until Toonami airs it in the potential future), we advise viewing at your own risk.
Daniel: Hey, everyone. I’m Daniel Limjoco (@AnimeSavior) from ToonamiFaithful.com and @ToonamiNews, and I’m hanging out with Bryce Papenbrook, the voice of Kirito from Sword Art Online, as well as Attack on Titan’s Eren Jaeger, Blue Exorcist’s Rin Okumura, and…probably hundreds of other roles.
Bryce: Yeah, I talk a lot, but that’s a great intro.
Daniel: I was about to say over 9000. *Everyone laughs.*…so, first things first…wow, what an episode. I was like “What?” when I saw that ending…
Bryce: I was blown away. I mean, I don’t know much about this arc, so I’m kinda coming in blind, and it’s really cool to see where they’re going. Sword Art Online kind of has its way of changing itself every single arc and I feel like this could be the biggest sort of shift. I mean the anime sort of looks different, did it look different to you?
Daniel: Yeah, quite a bit when I think about it.
Bryce: Yeah, it looked really beautiful. So I’m excited. Really excited.
Daniel: Definitely can’t wait for you guys to start working on the dub, and can’t wait to see it on Toonami.
Bryce: Fingers crossed. It’s kind of rare that we know that we’re going to be part of a show, even a show that’s long running like Sword Art Online. Usually we’re kind of just hoping for a call, but I feel like with Season 3, they didn’t play any games, they let us know ahead of time that yes, this is gonna get dubbed. We just don’t know when. So I’m very eager to start work.
Daniel: Well hopefully it’ll be sooner rather than later.
Bryce: Yeah, fingers crossed. Fingers crossed. I’m sure that a lot of people are really excited about SAO.
It’s been 5 years since Sword Art Online first made its debut on Toonami and 5 years since you got the role to voice Kirito. Looking back to when SAO first aired, did you expect that this franchise (and by extension, your career) would be the way it is today?
Bryce: How could I have known? I felt like this show was something really special but I never would have guessed it would have been like this. It’s literally taken me around the world to meet fans at different conventions all around the world. You know, I didn’t think this franchise would go on for so long and have it become such a huge part of my life, but I’m just so happy it has.
Daniel: I’d have to agree. For instance, I never knew who you were, who Cherami was, and half of the cast for that matter until you all got cast to be in SAO. And now, I see you everywhere.
Bryce: He-he. I feel like Sword Art really brought me in front of the masses. I mean, Blue Exorcist was on Toonami, and Durarara was on Toonami [Technically Adult Swim action before Toonami was revived] before Sword Art, but I feel like Sword Art Online really was seen by a lot more people, and anime in general has gone from this sort of growing subculture of sorts to a mainstream phenomenon. And it’s really exciting to take part of that.
Daniel: I’ve been contributing to Toonami News for 5 years and watched the block since its revival, and I’ve definitely kind of felt that with the growth of Toonami, the streaming services, and the distributors. Things are definitely looking up.
Bryce: It’s been a great time to be a part of this industry, and to have a role like Kirito, to see…even in episode 1 of this new season, we were saying “Oh, I got some work ahead of me.” And hearing the rumors of how long the new season might be, it’s very exciting.
Aiko: 4 cours…
Bryce: 4 cours, that means like 50 episodes?
Daniel: Yep. So, speaking of that. Project “Al-i-ci-zation” or “Al-i-zation”, I have no idea how this is pronounced…
Bryce: “Al-i-ci-zation”. Actually, we practiced it a number of times. Cherami and I were the MCs at the SAO panel at Anime Expo.
Daniel: Yep, we were there.
Bryce: And it was so funny, because we had sort of a demo script and Cherami and I totally butchered it the first couple of times and I was sort of teasing her on stage like “You gotta say it, good luck.” It’s Alice, like the character Alice, Alice-i-zation.
Project Alicization will be a 4 cour story arc, or around 48-52 episodes. Part of the reason for this is because series creator Reki Kawahara gave extra time to developing the Underworld (the game world for this story arc) and this arc’s characters. This is something many wish could’ve been done with Aincrad although to be fair he is rectifying that with the Progressive series. When one of my colleagues (@Sketch1984) asked Alex Von David his thoughts, he just replied “uh-oh”. Do you feel like you guys are up for the challenge?
— Alex von David (@alexvondavid) September 10, 2018
Bryce: Absolutely. I’m really excited that they made the decision to go into detail like that. I definitely agree that Aincrad was too fast. It’s still one of my favorite arcs of the show, and it’s exciting that he’s writing Progressive and diving deeper into what happened in Aincrad. You never know, maybe we’ll have a Progressive type Aincrad flashback anime or a reboot like what they did with Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood, something like that could happen in the future. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.
Daniel: I feel like they’ll start working on Progressive once they are done with Alicization, but we’ll see…
Bryce: It’s hard to say, I’m just speculating, but it’s exciting knowing that we’ll have lots of SAO coming up.
There’s been a lot of sour grapes from detractors saying that the show “doesn’t deserve its popularity”, “has no business airing on Toonami” and “Berserk, Log Horizon, Konosuba, Re:Zero, and Overlord (among others) are far superior shows and deserve to be on Toonami instead”. Yet, SAO continues to remain as popular as it is and the previously mentioned shows haven’t even sniffed Toonami airwaves (at least for now). Why do you think SAO continues to succeed despite such backlash?
Bryce: I mean not every show is for every single person. But I feel like the people who love Sword Art Online, and there’s a lot of them, I feel like they really love the show. And I’m one of the people in that group. I am a big fan of SAO and I’m glad a lot of other people feel that way. I know there’s a lot of other great shows out there and what needs to happen is the whole community should group together and support every anime that’s out there, especially the ones that are on Toonami. Get the ratings up, introduce their friends to shows like Sword Art Online, and maybe the block will get extended even further and we’ll get more shows like the ones you mentioned on the block also.
Daniel: I just mentioned those shows in particular because it feels like the most vocal SAO haters tend to come from those fandoms.
Bryce: I feel like those are shows that are in the similar vein of Sword Art, they are all based around games and tech, and I think there is a huge community of people who love those type of shows, so maybe if Toonami sees that Sword Art Online is popular and they bring it back on the block, and it gets huge ratings, then they’ll be interested in other shows like it. So for the people who are kind of hating on Sword Art, support it anyway if you want to see more shows like it. I think that’s the only way the community will continue to grow the way it has. So I understand not everyone likes every show, but I’m a big supporter of it, I feel like SAO’s success can pave the way for other shows. So we should all back it.
Aiko: That’s true, and to add to that, there’s only so many spots and I would say it’s not some title taking another title’s spot on Toonami, that Log Horizon isn’t because SAO is. What he’s saying is that you need to focus more on expanding Toonami and the fanbase so other shows can have a shot.
Bryce: Also, I think Anime has this resurgence going on. There’s so many great stories coming out of Japan, and I think they deserve more attention and more spotlight, so what I’m hoping is that Sword Art Online is one of the shows that helps pave the way for a bigger expansion of anime.
Daniel: Well we’re getting an expansion of Toonami on September 29 with Boruto.
Bryce: I saw that, and it’s really exciting. Hopefully that’s just the start of it.
Kirito has been called things like a “Gary Stu”, “Harem King”, “More OP than Goku and Saitama combined” and many other bad things we can’t necessarily say here. Yet despite this, Kirito is often in the top of many character popularity polls and his relationship with Asuna is also among the top ranked anime couples (and personally one of my favorite fictional couples). What do you think makes Kirito so endearing and yet so hated at the same time?
Bryce: We’ll It’s true he’s extremely overpowered…inside the game. I mean, it seems like he is the perfect player, which I think Reki Kawahara paints him as. So he is just a cool character. It’s cool to play someone that powerful and that confident inside those spaces, but then you have this real love story that’s happening between Kirito and Asuna. It’s funny that you mention the harem, one rule that I kind of have around Kirito is that “all ladies love Kirito”. He always finds this way to have…the ladies kind of find him and fall in love with him. But I think him and Asuna are the true couple. And you can see in the story that their love is growing even deeper and that’s really cool to see. So why is Kirito sort of popular and hated, it’s hard to say. I am a fan of the character, I love playing the character, but not everyone’s gonna love him. Not everyone’s gonna love every character. So I think you see more sort of haters of this show because there’s more people that like the show. And as a show gains more popularity, more haters come out also. But again, it’s so easy to not watch Sword Art Online, just turn your TV off and you don’t have to deal with it.
Daniel: That’s what we tell them…
Bryce: But I hope that with the new season people come around and check it out. It’s really cool.
Light novel readers will tell you that during Project Alicization, Kirito will be experiencing many hardships that he hasn’t experienced since Aincrad as will Asuna as well. Detractors have regularly complained that Kirito has been become too OP for his battles to become memorable, so what do you think about this?
Bryce: I think it’s great. If a character is too strong, it’s kind of hard to create any sort of drama. But I think Sword Art has done a really good job at that. And I’m interested to see where they take it this season. It’s going to be exciting.
We just saw the first episode just now [when we had this interview], so what are your thoughts on the Project Alicization story arc so far? What are your thoughts of the Underworld? Your impressions of Eugeo and Alice?
Bryce: It looks so cool. One thing that the story has always seemed to do is stay one step ahead of where technology is going. Like when Ordinal Scale came out, they dealt with augmented reality. And it was right around the time when Pokemon GO was getting popular and these AR games were emerging. And now we see these things like the Oculus and VR kind of picking back up. So it’s really interesting, I’m wondering if there’s any sort of truth to the tech behind this, or if it’s something so imaginary and obscure that it could never go that way, but it’s really interesting. The new characters also seem cool, we haven’t found too much about them yet. It kinda just drops you into this new world and I can’t wait to find out more about it. I also love that they bring the crew back and drop you…without spoiling anything for the people that haven’t seen it yet, they drop you into a game that they’ve been in before, and its right into battle and it’s exciting and fun and I can’t wait to work on it.
Aiko: Quite a few cheers.
Daniel: Yeah, that scene had fans reacting very positively during the second half of the hour long episode.
Shirou Emiya from Fate/stay night once said “People die when they are killed.” Yet with the exception of Caesar Zeppeli in JoJo’s, pretty much every one of your characters do not die when they get killed. Eren got eaten a few times, Kirito got stabbed a few times and lived to tell the tale, and Fate fans know all about Shirou…
Bryce: And actually there are more coming that seem to die but don’t actually die. You know, I like this trend, I want to keep it going because that means a little more job security for me.
Daniel: I kind of make a joke when I live tweet Toonami during moments where that happens to your characters, I tweet “Bryce Papenbrook voiced characters don’t die when they are killed.”
Bryce: Most of the time, fingers crossed that those casting choices continue.
Daniel: Of course, that got a little awkward when we got to Caesar’s final moment in JoJo’s…
Bryce: As you watch Caesar get smashed.
Daniel: Guess his luck ran out. Then again, Joseph may have inherited Caesar’s immortality powers considering how much he escapes death. Anyways, back to my question…
…Hell, Project Alicization basically starts with (Highlight for major episode 1 spoilers at your own risk): Kirito getting stabbed with poison…again. What makes your characters so immortal?
Bryce: You know…I…can’t answer that, I wish I knew but I’m not complaining. You know, these casting choices are done by numerous different casting directors at different studios at different times. And if I knew how I was cast as these characters, I’d probably get cast as even more. It’s totally random. The voice over industry is insane. It’s highly competitive and I’m just extremely grateful that I’ve had sort of my lot in the industry and the luck to fall into characters that continue come back and don’t die. Because death means unemployment in this industry. So it’s great to be part of these kind of roles, and I hope it continues. So hopefully Kirito didn’t die in Episode 1.
Daniel: Little spoiler…he won’t.
Bryce: Okay, good.
Daniel: Some of these next few questions might be a little spoiler-ish, so I apologize in advance, but I think these things should be said…
Bryce: Sure, try your best not to spoil me because just to let you know my method is that I really try to stay with the release of the anime because Alex von David, the director, has already started reading the light novels and he said that Episode 1 has departed just slightly from the original story, so there’s always little differences. So rather than “know a plot point and connect to it”, I try to stay spoiler free and only connect to things like this. So I know just before I go in and record sort of what’s going to happen, hopefully I’ll be recording this soon. There’s times where I get it a little ahead of time, but I try to stay away from spoilers.
To misquote Benjamin Franklin, nothing is certain in life besides death, taxes, and Kirito cheating on Asuna. The previous two seasons brought at least one girl to his “harem” each arc and once again, Project Alicization will introduce more girls who will fall in love with Kirito (including Alice), as well as a bromance with Eugeo. Is Kirito going to be expanding his harem until it engulfs the entire universe, or is he gonna quit with the cheating antics at some point and just marry Asuna already?
Bryce: We’ll, Asuna has new tech to make sure he doesn’t cheat. But we’ll have to wait and see. I think they are the right couple. I think as a character, Asuna really challenges him and you can see that there’s true love there between those two characters. And as much as we love to joke and say “Kirito has a harem” I think he truly cares about Asuna.
Aiko: *After a few seconds of silence*. Let’s hope so…
Bryce: Let’s hope so. I’ll say this much.
Daniel: Whenever I see or read Kirito having these “moments” with other girls, I’m like “Come on, Kirito…” But I agree, Kirito loves Asuna, and it’s great when we have great romantic moments between the two.
Asuna mentioned back in Aincrad that “When I get to the real world, I’ll fall in love with you all over again.” Yet for most of the time since, Kirito’s been busy being more of a “playa” and seemingly forgetting his relationship with Asuna even happened. Of course, that’s a common analysis by many of the show’s critics.
Bryce: I think he has other sort of “friendly” relationships with girls in his so-called harem, but I don’t think he feels the same way about those girls. I think the way he acts around Asuna is drastically different. And in Episode 1, we see him attempt to take the relationship to the next level when he invites her to come with him on his next journey. So it’s sort of yet to be seen. I mean they are very young.
Aiko: And he put the ring on it.
Bryce: He did put the ring on it.
Aiko: And the other thing I would say is that it’s really funny that Bryce has to do some splainin’ for Kirito’s bad behavior…
Bryce: Yeah, you’re acting like it’s me doing this.
Aiko: We’ll have to take it to Kawahara-san…
Bryce: But in real life, I am happily married. My wife was actually here today enjoying the show also.
A major criticism about the show is that since the show begun the Fairy Dance arc, Asuna for the most part has been reduced to a “damsel in distress figure” and her role has been basically hit or miss ever since. Without going too much into spoiler territory, let’s just say that Reki Kawahara got a lot of criticism for shoving aside Asuna for quite a bit during Alicization although during the story line she’ll be actively trying to get Kirito out of this mess. Some blame Asuna falling in love with Kirito as the impetus for being turned from a strong feminist personality to being a weak and useless character and the symbol of all the show’s problems. What are your thoughts on this?
Bryce: I totally disagree, I think Asuna is an extremely strong character and that the “damsel in distress” perspective, I don’t really understand because she was, yes, trapped in a cage, but in that entire arc, she continued to fight all the way up until the end. She never gave up. So I don’t see her as a weak character even through that arc. And the fact that she falls in love in someone doesn’t make her any weaker in my opinion. I think she maintains a strong role throughout the entire show. I’ve always seen Asuna as an extremely strong character. So I disagree, everyone’s gonna see the show a different way, but in my opinion, Asuna is a very strong character.
Back at Anime Expo, I remember you were jokingly fearful about potentially getting re-cast because Kirito will be starting out as a “kid” during the first few chapters of Project Alicization. While normally, the character would get re-cast for those specific parts, we have seen you voice kids before, like Eren when he was a kid. Seeing the first episode just now, do you think your kid voice will be good enough?
Bryce: I think so. I think I’m ready for the challenge. It sounded to me like Mr. Matsuoka played Kirito younger, so I hope I can step up and do it also. Again, not my choice. If it was up to me, I would step right in and play that, but it’s yet to be seen. Until I actually get the call and go in and record, I don’t really know. So we always joke about that stuff and pray that it never happens. I thought it was going to happen before when Kirito was a girl in GGO, but I got to live my dream and play as a girl so hopefully I’ll get to play him younger also.
Here’s a fan question. @nimeSteve asks:
What is one thing you are looking forward to challenge yourself the most during this new season of SAO?
— @nimeSteve (@nimeSteve) September 14, 2018
Bryce: Not knowing what I am getting into. I know a couple things, one, Kirito is a kid so if I play him younger, it’s a different “voice” of the same character. In Season 2, I played Kirito in 3 different ways. Kirito outside the game, Kirito inside Gun Gale Online, which is slight affected, and Kirito playing himself as a girl and really playing that up. So I did three different voices for Kirito already. So to add a fourth one is definitely going to be a challenge but it’s something that I’m looking forward to. Also, I’m a big fan of Mr. Matsuoka, who plays Kirito in Japanese and I got to talk with him a bit at Anime Expo and he says this arc is extremely emotional and you can hear the screams in Episode 1, so I’m just preparing my vocal chords to blow them out again. Alex von David takes the recording very seriously, and he really is looking for something in particular. So when I first connected with the character in season 1, we would save the last 15 minutes of every session just to scream until we got the screams exactly right. So I feel that’s going to come with the territory in this season, and I’m looking forward to the challenge.
Where would you like to see Kirito, Asuna, and the series in general go to in the future? What’s on your personal wish list?
Bryce: It’s hard to say. We mentioned Progressive earlier, like it would be nice to revisit the Aincrad arc at some point. If they were to animate that it would be really really cool. And I’m just interested to see where this story goes. I don’t really know much about Underworld, so I’m just excited to jump in.
Aiko: A baby for Kirito and Asuna?
Bryce: Hehe, baby. We’ll, they have Yui. You just want to see a drastically different show, do you?
And we’re running out of time here, so my last question for this interview is: Do you want to see Sword Art Online return to Toonami?
Bryce: A Hundred Percent. I am a big fan of Toonami. I love the Toonami Faithful. There was a stretch of about 3-4 years that I had a lead on a show on Toonami at all times. And I would stay up and watch Toonami and hang out and livetweet with the fans. I would take over bars at conventions, I just recently did that at Matsuricon. Totally took over the bar to show Toonami on this giant wall and hung out with a bunch of people. I love watching shows on Toonami and I hope they bring SAO back.
Daniel: Same here. Jason and Gill, everyone at Toonami and Aniplex, if you’re reading this, we hope you can get it done.
Anything you would like to say to the fans or anything new we should know from you?
Bryce: Can I tell them about my social media? You can find me on Instagram and Twitter at @BrycePapenbrook, they can find me on Facebook at @ActorBrycePapenbrook. And I’d love to welcome everyone to check out the Unlocked app, it’s on iOS and coming to Android soon, and everyone should definitely check that out because I’ll be taking people behind the scenes and updating with what I’m currently doing there.
Daniel: Alright, so on behalf of everyone at Toonami News, the Toonami Faithful, SAO fans, and anime fans everywhere, thanks for meeting with me, and we’ll see you again next time.
Images are courtesy of Aniplex.
SAO Season 3 will premiere on Japanese airwaves on October 6 and will be simulcasting on both Crunchyroll and Hulu in North America and various other territories on the same day. We have no official word from Aniplex as of yet on when a dub of Alicization or Alternative GGO will be released at this time, and Toonami has yet to announce if they will be bringing back the series as of this writing. If you do wish to see Sword Art Online return to the block for Project Alicization, Alternative GGO, and perhaps even Ordinal Scale as well, or any show for that matter, we do recommend that you continue giving your support to the show and Toonami overall, and to send your show recommendations to their Facebook and Tumblr message boxes or even asking Jason DeMarco politely, as well as letting Aniplex know in their respective social media outlets.
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