Reviewby Theron Martin, Feb 1st 2007
DVD 1 - East Side Showdown
Minami “Ikki” Itsuki, middle school student and leader of the East Side Gunz gang, lives with the four Noyamano sisters – adult Mikan, high school student Rika, middle school-aged Ringo, and elementary school-aged Shiraume. A chance discovery of a pair of Air Treks (aka ATs, roller skates with powerful miniature motors built into the shoes) at the house leads him on a wild excursion into the world of Storm Riders, AT enthusiasts who gather into gangs to challenge each other and have set up an elaborate ranking system based on prestige and ability. Already imagining himself to be something of a tough, Ikki gets his education in the ways of the Storm Riders as he flirts with the free-spirited Simca and gets into skating duels with multiple gangs, while discovering that the young ladies he shares his house with are actually members of the prestigious Storm Riders team Sleeping Forest.
The extreme sports craze of recent years gets its own anime in Air Gear, a silly mix of gang battles and ridiculously extreme motorized roller skating that is as hopelessly formulaic as shonen series come. It does very little that isn't done in innumerable major shonen series. Brash young hero who quickly discovers that he's a prodigy at a new activity he's introduced to? Check. Said hero learning the rules and ways of the new activity as the viewer is introduced to them? Check. Overblown action scenes? Check. Heavily caricatured characters? Check. Special named moves and powers? Check. Veterans of said activity amazed at how quickly the hero is mastering said activity? Check. Cute, flirtatious love interest? Check. Girl hero lives with who secretly has a crush on him? Check. Said hero getting bashed around for his real or perceived perversities? Check. Organization within said activity that has various named ranks which a participant must rise through to be considered top-rate? Check. Gangs of masked flunkies? Check. Only a few clever moments (most notably the shortcuts taken in a police break-up of a Storm Riders meeting in episode 1) and the new subject matter keep it from feeling completely unoriginal.
The real question here, then, is whether or not the whole skating thing, and its accompanying underground scene, is enough to justify dealing with the formulaic delivery. That depends largely on how cool you find the ATs and the death-defying things Storm Riders do with them. Sure, lots of neat tricks are on display, but they quickly become too incredible to be even remotely plausible. It also doesn't help that few of the major characters are particularly original or interesting. On the plus side, the series does do a good job of capturing the exciting, adventuresome spirit of extreme sports and gradually introducing the rules and culture of AT riding to the viewer as the hero learns them.
The artistry mixes a broad variety of normal character designs with extreme caricatures, especially in its squat-headed, incredibly thick-lipped portrayal of Ikki's friend Onigiri and the shopkeeper Jabba. (A Star Wars reference, perhaps?) The most appealing designs are unquestionably Ringo and the flirty Simca, but they are clearly intended to be the show's main eye candy so that's no surprise. The whole thing with Rez-Boa-Dogs's masks (can you say “Quentin Tarentino movie homage?”) is amusing, and the series uses some fun visual gimmicks, like having one huge guy who wears skates with tank tread-like wheels being transposed with an actual tank while chasing people down. Although the series does offer a bit of fan service, interestingly it limits the actual nudity only to the adult Mikan while the nudity of the other Noyamano daughters is just strongly suggested.
The visual emphasis is on the animation and portrayal of the numerous action scenes, which are done with numerous shortcuts but otherwise animated satisfyingly well, but the strongest visual aspect is actually the great and exceptionally detailed background art; in fact, Air Gear ranks among the best recent TV series in that category. The character renderings, which use significantly brighter color schemes and sometimes contrast sharply with the backgrounds, are a distinct step lower in quality but still good. The series also makes very effective use of CG visuals, especially the first-person perspective shots of zooming through the cityscape on ATs.
The sound of the series is as good as its look and fits well with the extreme sports theme. “Chain” by Back-On, the rap-rock opening theme, really rocks, and the great electronica-heavy closer “SKY-2-HIGH” sounds exactly like what you'd expect a number by a group named skankfunk to sound like. Musical themes in between are varied, inventive, and as juiced up as the series itself is. Few soundtracks out there are more distinctive or less likely to bore. The only quibble, which is probably a production issue on ADV's end, is that the 5.1 surround sound track is boomingly loud compared to the norm for anime titles. If you are playing this on a surround sound system, you may want to dial the volume down 10% (or more) from the norm before you start.
The English dub varies the vocal styles from what is heard in the Japanese dub and adds in a wide variety of accents, including a British one for Spitfire and a thick Russian accent for Jabba, while John Gremillion has an almost indecent amount of fun hamming up Rez-Boa-Dog's leader Inuyama and Monica Rial is at her playful best with Simca. In fact, that's the impression the whole dub gives: the VAs recognize how silly all of it is, so they just have fun with it. The English script uses slang, mild profanities, and wording more suitable to American speaking styles but does retain the full essence of the original script. While the vocal gimmickry may displease diehard sub fans, the English dub definitely contributes to the series being an overall fun listen.
Extras are limited only to clean opener and closer and company previews, although the cover art has some nice foil effects. It does appear that ADV has the completely uncensored version rather than the partially edited Japanese broadcast version, however.
Although a fun and occasionally amusing series, whether or not Air Gear ultimately works for you depends entirely on how much you buy into the “cool” factor of the Air Treks. The first few episodes look and sound great, but the very formulaic story execution is discouraging.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C+
Animation : B
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ Exceptionally good background art, captures the spirit of extreme sports.
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