Air Anime Review
US Release By
13 25-minute episodes
2005-01-06 - 2005-03-31
What's In It
- Doe-eyed girls
- Unexpected real-world issues
- Semi-emo haircuts
- Pseudo-custody battles
- Annoying head-butts
- Convenient ancient curses
- Violence: 2 (moderate)
- Nudity: 1 (mild)
- Sex: 1 (mild)
- Language: 1 (mild)
A young man named Yukito Kunisaki wanders into a small seaside town, seeking nourishment in the form of ramen. He also seeks the girl with wings, a person of legend his mother spoke of and whom he has decided to find in her place. In the town he meets three girls, one of whom may be the one he searches for. While attempting to discern which one is the girl with wings he is caught up in the mysterious and sometimes supernatural events present in their lives.
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Air establishes a mellow atmosphere almost immediately, one that recalls the carefree feeling of summer. Though the way the story builds its setting and characters is slow-paced in the initial episodes, the story arcs for the three main female characters begin to unfold and explore surprisingly serious real-world issues such as miscarriage and suicide, with varying amounts of supernatural elements mixed in. It looks very nice--the small-town scenery in particular--and has a solid Japanese voice cast. Sadly, the tropes of modern female anime characters are clearly evident. Worse, the final arc feels like it's more concerned with manipulating its viewers' emotions than tying the story together, and male protagonist Yukito goes from being one of the best parts of the show to an obstacle shoved aside to focus on weepy drama.
Air is nice to look at, has a pleasant-sounding premise, and is even funny at times. The show could have gone somewhere interesting, but it ends up wasting its potential and attractive visuals when it devolves into tear-fishing.
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Pleasant is the word that immediately came to mind when I started watching Air. It establishes a mellow atmosphere almost immediately, one that recalls the carefree feeling of summer. Though the way the story builds its setting and characters is slow-paced in the initial episodes, there are hints of otherworldly elements when puppeteer Yukito Kunisaki shows he is able to control his puppets telepathically, as opposed to using strings or his hands. There's a sense of follow-through on these hints as the story arcs for the three main female characters begin to unfold and explore surprisingly serious real-world issues such as miscarriage and suicide, with varying amounts of supernatural elements mixed in.
As Yukito learns more about the people who live in the town he's wandered into, the tropes of modern female anime characters are clearly evident: one girl is clumsy and earnest, another is soft spoken and ever-pleasant, juxtaposed with a smaller girl who is brash and antagonizing, and so on. However these tropes are not immediately alienating as the characterizations feel compatible with the seemingly light tone established in the opening episodes. Also, in a show where the female characters are the selling point, it's all too easy for the male protagonist to be entirely milquetoast; Air, to its credit, gives viewers a male protagonist that is fairly likable. His annoyed comments and tone are worth a chuckle or two. There's also fun to be had with the loud-mouth, booze-loving Haruko, whose antics are made all the more entertaining by Aya Hisakawa, recalling the Kansai accent she used in Cardcaptor Sakura.
Yukito's dry, observational personality is probably what kept me going with the show, despite the ever-growing disconnect I felt watching the way the events unfolded. The weighty issues Air touches upon, and more importantly the solutions presented, feel overly simplistic, vague or even non-existent. I was also feeling put off by Misuzu, who is clearly the most important of the girls. Her character is childish to a fault, using mascot-like speech patterns and always asking Yukito to "play," a term that most actual children quickly find passe. Her use of "gao" as a catch-phrase feels particularly unnecessary, as the show already has a weird-looking dog that says "piko" as its mascot.
When Misuzu suddenly broke down crying while shuffling a deck of cards I was concerned, but for the wrong reasons. Air informs us that Misuzu has an "illness" or "condition," but the way it played out did not seem to have any basis in medical fact and felt forced. None of this affected the show to the point that I thought it was terrible, but the execution felt hollow and I was coming to the conclusion that maybe Air wasn't quite my kind of anime. However, a lead-in to a flashback story arc showed potential for an interesting resolution by exploring themes of reincarnation and finally revealing more about the mysterious "girl with wings," who had only been alluded to up to that point. Unfortunately, when the story came out of the flashback arc and moved to resolve Misuzu's story, the show simply exceeded my patience.
Without getting in to major spoilers, the final arc feels like it's more concerned with manipulating its viewers' emotions than tying the story together. Misuzu's "illness" is linked to an ancient curse that just happens to affect her in ways that make her as pitiable as possible. The script makes a concerted effort to regress Misuzu to an increasingly infantile state, all in the interest of trying to force feelings of sympathy and protectiveness from the viewer. Instead, I could only feel increasingly irritated at the show's ham-fisted storytelling, rolling my eyes and even cursing at my television.
Worse yet, the final story arc is detrimental to Yukito. He was the most interesting character, but was apparently regarded as an obstacle. The way his story is "resolved" is one of the most absurd things I have ever witnessed, anime or otherwise. Yukito's whole mission winds up unresolved, which I found incredibly frustrating. It's the sort of thing that puts a damper on the entire show, including the parts that I liked.1
As out-of-whack as the storytelling may have went, Air is very consistent in its technical aspects. The animation is good throughout its run, with well-timed editing, fluid motion and characters that are consistently on-model throughout--an unfortunate rarity in animated TV series. The backgrounds are particularly effective in establishing the town's calming atmosphere. More often than not there is something interesting to look at, whether it's the clouds in the sky, birds flying, or beautiful sunsets. While the wide-eyed female character models are not surprising, Yukito's design helps keep things engaging. The funnier facial animations and comedic movements usually involve him.
Nowhere are the female anime tropes more evident than in the voice acting, but the Japanese cast play their characters with enough conviction that the voices do not sound phoned-in. Sadly that doesn't leave much room for standout performances, but there are a couple of highlights. In addition to Hisakawa, Daisuke Ono plays Yukito with a dry sarcasm that is appealing and his comedic timing is good, creating some genuine laugh-out-loud moments.
The music, for the most part, feels like an underscore, enhancing but never overpowering the relaxed tone of the early episodes. Once the manipulative elements come in to play the music is right there with it. One sequence where Misuzu is apparently being afflicted by the effects of her tantr... I mean curse, was particularly overbearing. It was as if I could feel the pressure against my head of the show saying "This is sad. You are feeling sad, sympathetic, protective. Cry, damn you, cry!" The OP/ED songs are fitting, though the opening animation feels more like a roll call than anything else.
I am not a heartless man. I don't have a problem with a sad movie or show as long as it has the kind of writing that feels genuine. Anime can be genuinely emotional; Air is not. It's nice to look at, has a pleasant-sounding premise, and is even funny at times. The show could have gone somewhere interesting, but possibly due to the short length or the writer being preoccupied with emotional manipulation, it didn't. Instead Air ended up trying to generate emotional drama with contrived plot devices. It's a shame such commendable artistic merits were wasted on a show that ended up being so pointless and irritating.
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Obviously those who enjoyed Air would be well-served to check out the other Key game adaptations produced by Kyoto Animation: Kanon and Clannad. I can't quite think of any other shows that are a close match to Air. Chrono Crusade creates more effective emotion as the resolution to its story feels organic. It helps that Chrono uses the supernatural to tell its story instead of just flirting with supernatural elements to wrap up a story arc. Boys Be... recalls the laid back and nostalgic feelings of all four seasons and doesn't get bogged down with pseudo-tragedy.
Notes and Trivia
Although Air's run is comprised of 13 episodes, the story is complete after the 12th. Episode 13 is a recap of Misuzu's story arc, though it touches on the other story-lines as well. After the initial 13 episodes, two follow-up episodes were aired a few months later that expand on the events in the flashback arc. The episodes don't add a whole lot, and the animation for the new scenes can get a little choppy. Regardless, episode 13 and the follow-up episodes are included on both versions of Air's R1 (North American) release.
Air represents an increasingly common trend over the last decade of anime series based on visual-novel-style games. Air was originally an adult game developed by Key and released for the PC. General release versions without the explicit content were subsequently released for PC and a variety of consoles. There was also a short manga adaptation created around the same time as the anime.
Air is one of three "season" visual novel franchises developed by Key, and is meant to represent the season of summer. Kanon and Clannad are the other two titles, representing winter and fall, respectively.
A film version of Air premiered in Japan around the same time as the TV series, produced by Toei Animation and directed by Osamu Dezaki. It's an alternate version of the events of Misuzu's story-line. Hikaru Midorikawa, who originally played Yukito in the game, reprises his role in the movie.
Footnote 1: This is a fairly major spoiler; in the game there is a good ending and bad ending for Misuzu, and the anime seems to have been essentially shafted with the bad ending. Any gamer will tell you that if you get the bad ending of a game, it doesn't feel complete and you're inclined to try again. The good ending sounds like it would have been a bit more emotionally satisfying had it been adapted to the anime.
US DVD Review
The original R1 DVDs were released across four volumes by ADV Films, with the second volume offering an option for a sturdy collectors box to hold the rest of the series. The DVDs feature very good-looking anamorphic video and 5.1 audio for both the English and Japanese tracks. Extras only consist of creditless opening and ending sequences. Due to various circumstances the license for Air (and several other titles) was transferred to FUNimation, so the ADV version is out of print.
The FUNimation version is a very low-priced three-disc set. It should be noted that for logistical reasons the DVDs in the set were still produced by ADV's production arm and likely feature the same audio and video streams authored onto fewer discs. In other words the quality should be comparable, if not identical, and aside from different logos the discs still feel like ADV releases.
There is also a Blu-ray version in Japan. Air is actually one of the first anime series released on the format. The set is pricey (shocker) and the video transfer is upscaled to 1080i. Air was digitally animated in standard-def and can therefor never be presented in true high definition (at least not without going through a process that costs about as much money and time as animating the show again from scratch). The audio, however, is presented in a lossless high-def format. The BD includes more special features, such as the opening sequence re-animated in hi-definition, but of course there are no English translations.
Notes on the objectionable content for parents.
Violence: 2 - Some sword fighting during the flashback arc.
Nudity: 1 - A bit of fanservice towards the end, oddly enough.
Sex/Mature Themes: 1 - The relationships are rather platonic, though some attraction is implied.
Language: 1 - Not much that I can recall.
Available in North America on bilingual DVD from Funimation as a box set of the entire series, including the two bonus episodes. Was previously available from ADV on four individual DVD volumes or a set of the whole series.