Reviewby Carlo Santos,
Itsuki "Ikki" Minami is getting pretty serious about the high-powered, airborne-skating sport of Air Treck. He's decided to form his own team of riders—even if that means including some of his less talented school pals (and one of the emotionally unstable ones). Their first challenge comes when they find that a rival gang has already tagged Ikki's own school, and it's time to take back the territory! But will inexperience and insecurity be their downfall? Apparently, one of the Noyamano sisters thinks so—big sister Rika, Ikki's legal guardian, confiscates his skates after deeming him "incapable" of trick riding. However, she might have another reason as well...
In many ways, Air Gear reads like a typical boys' sports tale. The protagonist with uncanny natural ability. The challenges of facing tougher and tougher opponents. The friends who team up with our hero and guide him along the way. (The girls who fall for him even if he's a bit of a lout.) But in other ways, the series is carving a path all its own, with its street-gang attitude, over-the-top stylishness, and of course, brazen flashes of fanservice. Volume 5 sees Ikki continue to grow, as he officially teams up with friends on his quest for Air Treck superiority, but more than that, it also develops the characters around him. What makes Ikki's pals stick with him through thick and thin? Just how much do the Noyamano sisters know about him? The answers to such questions lie in this book.
But first, a sporting interlude. No issue of Air Gear is complete without a dose of Air Treck action, and the middle chapters contain just that. While previous events have been a showcase for Ikki's individual talents, this volume's challenge—between Ikki's "Kogarasumaru" team and the rival "Sabeltigers" [sic]—is the first to stress the value of teamwork and friendship. (Shonen cliché, incoming...) Unfortunately, this story arc shows the series at its most mundane: the one-on-one race format around the school is just tedious, and the arrival of a masked savior midway through the battle is way too cheesy and obvious, even if delivered with a satirical wink. The pacing picks up once Ikki's pal Kazu takes his turn, but overall this is a disappointing and predictable action segment. Even the talk of Air Treck mythology—"Trophaeum" and the "Sky Keeper" and the "Eight Roads"—doesn't do much to spice things up; the idea that Ikki might have some kind of legendary destiny sounds ridiculously out-of-place compared to the series' urban flavor.
Fortunately, the outer chapters add some new wrinkles to the story. Kazu, forever in the shadow of Ikki's ego, gets a chance in the spotlight as he explores the struggles of always being Number 2. This character arc reaches its dramatic conclusion when Kazu takes his turn in the race; it's pretty much one of the few high points in that humdrum event. At the tail end of the volume, the return of big sister Rika (absent since Volume 1) and the confiscation of Ikki's skates add a new layer of conflict—especially when Ikki learns the real reason why she doesn't want him getting into Air Treck. Character moments like these help to expand a storyline that can easily get stuck in the guy-must-get-better rut.
Much of the series' appeal comes from its macho, street-gang attitude—just think of how the Air Treck matches are played out—and the art goes a long way in demonstrating that attitude. This volume's racing scenes may be deficient in the excitement department, but there's still enough visual pop from the heartstopping, acrobatic maneuvers. Distorted perspective, insane angles and soaring two-page spreads are all in a day's work for Oh!great; he's also not afraid to throw in some visual symbolism and metaphor (most notably in Kazu's run). However, this virtuosic style sometimes defeats itself—pages will get crowded with panels and dialogue because everything, including backgrounds and debris and minor characters, has to be drawn in. Clearly, this is not the series to be reading if one wants to relax. Otherwise, it's a great destination for those who seek eye-popping sports action and flashes of buxom fanservice (which, surprisingly, isn't quite as intrusive this time around).
While the translated dialogue does a good job capturing the slangy street talk of the characters, it's also a case study in how to go too far on both ends of the scale. Some Japanese expressions are left untranslated and only explained in the glossary, which makes for a lot of unnecessary work—the better solution would be to use a substitute English expression and then explain the real thing in the back. Conversely, there are the random sprinklings of Internet-ese, including "WTF" and "STFU"—which may very well be actual lingo in Air Gear's world, but still looks unprofessional nonetheless. Sure, the characters may rough-talking teenagers, but this translation needs more polish and restraint. At least the sound effects are done right: the dynamic, graffiti-styled characters are left alone in all their glory, and small, unintrusive translations are placed alongside them. In the back, readers will find a comprehensive glossary that explains Japanese culture and slang, as well as the occasional parody reference.
This volume of Air Gear isn't so much a turning point as it is a stepping stone in the series. It's fun to watch Ikki pull his team together and see one of his friends reach a personal revelation; however, the sports action this time around isn't as thrilling as it's been in previous installments. Visually impressive tricks and poses still abound, but there's just something kind of dull about racing around the school five times. Where's the inventiveness, or the sense of peril? To see Ikki's life in real danger, you'll have to wait until the last couple of chapters—and even then, those are more about story development than pure action. So let this stepping stone continue to move the characters forward, but don't expect the greatest acrobatics this time around.
Overall : C+
Story : C
Art : B+
+ Dynamic, action-packed art; puts some of the side characters in the spotlight.
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