This week, a show about murder, gore, and the "other"; a show about ... more murder and gore, and one about luck.
Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Oct 1st 2006
To say that Itsuki Minami leads a good life isn't exactly accurate, but he does live an interesting one. His buddies know him as "Babyface", the strongest punk in his school and the fighting linchpin of the Eastside. His parents are gone, but he lives with the four Noyamano sisters, an arrangement that any hot-blooded young man might envy, were it not for the outrageous abuse they heap upon him. Overall, not a bad life. That is, until the day that his routine existence is turned on its head after some rival punks sic a very nasty gang on him. Afterwards, while at the end of his proverbial rope, the Noyamano sisters extend to him an unexpected helping hand, introducing Itsuki to a new technology with unusual hand-to-hand combat applications: Air Gear.
How about that? An extreme sports fighting manga. Perhaps it was inevitable. At first glance, Air Gear is far from promising. The premise is positively laughable, and the author isn't exactly renowned for his deep characterization. Indeed, any description of the manga inevitably comes off as either an advertisement for a non-existent extreme sporting craze, or as a cynical attempt to cash in on current sporting fads. And, strictly speaking, neither impression is wrong. There are plenty of ad-like "Do the Dew" moments, and you can be sure that no one who greenlighted this project was averse to the way it exploits the extreme sporting movement. Given this, the question that begs asking is: Why is it so damn much fun?
The answer most certainly doesn't lie in the narrative content. This isn't to say that it's bad, simply that it's... undistinguished. Itsuki is indistinguishable from hundreds of other cocksure, hard fightin', rough but basically good-hearted shounen heroes. The plot structure (hero is beat down, comes back and emerges both victorious and stronger than before) is indistinguishable from any other fighting manga, anime, or show (including, interestingly enough given Oh! great!'s apparent affinity for it, pro-wrestling). And the Noyamano sisters are indistinguishable from a checklist of fetishes. There's the statuesque, motherly eldest sister Rika. The (relatively) flat-chested, extremely ill-natured middle sister Mikan. Then there's shy, busty, bespectacled Ringo (who is also the requisite "childhood friend who harbors secret feelings for the hero" character), and finally the dark, creepy, precocious youngest daughter Ume. The set-up leaves much to be desired, and yet it still succeeds. Why?
The short answer is, and this will surprise no-one familiar with Oh! great!'s previous work, the art. Or, more precisely, the integration of the story-telling and the art. Oh! great!'s art is, in a word, fantastic. He's a master of drawing cool poses, stylish clothing, violent impacts, and—of course—gorgeous women. The art is detailed and expressive without ever being crowded or confusing, the paneling is simultaneously inventive and easy to follow, and thankfully Oh! great! knows when to slow things down with some empty space or a carefully composed full-page illustration. Backgrounds are similarly rendered, providing crucial spatial information and atmosphere even in the aerial combat sequences. The aerial sequences in particular are impressive, heavy on one and two page spreads that allow the reader to feel the adrenaline, the freedom, the wonder, of flying through the air.
Of course, there are plenty of other works with fine art that fall flat on their cliché-laden rears, but Air Gear succeeds where these fail due to the skill with which Oh! great! combines his art with his narrative. On its own the narrative has all the appeal of the aforementioned pro-wrestling match, and likewise the art alone is little more than pretty pictures. You can go to a museum if that's all you want. But put them together, and you get something entirely different: a visceral, involving story. The book is peppered with moments where the two elements combine to startling effect. A two page illustration of Itsuki when he is first confronted by the Skull Saders gang pauses the action long enough to convey his shock and fear. Itsuki's insecurities take on physical form while flying high with Ringo as she transforms into an airborne grim reaper complete with skeletal air treks. Itsuki's ingenuity is demonstrated as a battle climaxes in a series of five vertically oriented panels. In an absolutely beautifully composed two-page illustration, Itsuki's buddies regain their faith in "Babyface" as they watch him save a nest of baby birds. The list goes on. Whether this will be enough to sustain the series in the long run is an open question, but in the first volume it's more than enough.
Del Rey goes the extra mile to preserve the artwork for this title, presenting the introduction on six glossy pages in all its untranslated, color glory, with the translated pages—in black and white—following. The binding and printing are all fine. Extras for this volume include the standard Del Rey untranslated preview of the next volume as well as extensive translator's notes and some conceptual sketches with accompanying character descriptions.
Make no mistake, Air Gear isn't high art (in either the literary or artistic sense). Nothing with the phrase "the Noyamano jiggly jugs special" in it could ever claim to be. What it is, is entertainment. And sometimes that's all you need.
Overall : B
Story : C
Art : A-
+ Great artwork and visual flow push the story up a few notches.
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