Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jun 12th 2009
Episodes 13-27 Streaming
Maki—AKA the Air Master; named such for her gymnastics-based fighting style—is on the rise. As a fighter that is. She's a terrible student; a perpetual delinquent who hangs out with a posse of fun-loving kogals (and one bazooka-breasted lesbian socialite). But she's an awe-inspiring fighter. After her pro-wrestling match with Kai Sampaguita, a mega-strong female wrestling up-and-comer, she finds herself under the scrutiny of Fukamichi, the guy with the laptop and dorky earmuff-things that occasionally sits in on her fights. He's scoping out new fighters for the Fukamichi Ranking, an elite free-form ranking of street fighters, and he wants Maki to join. He also contacts many of her former opponents, and the injection of new blood like Kinjiro, Kai and Julietta Sakamoto soon has the Ranking roiling with healthy pandemonium. As foes new and old vie for the chance to ground the Air Master, the streets of Tokyo become a battlefield, the ultimate testing ground for Maki's newfound abilities.
Like its protagonist, Air Master has muscles for brains. Its plot is nothing but nonstop brawling, and its humor is vulgar and its characters cartoony. It's full of false starts, dead ends and side plots that never really go anywhere, and drops characters for long stretches only to pick them up again at the most random times. Visually it's all over the place. Characters go off model, the artificial and the gritty are slammed together with unbalanced glee, and the animation switches from stunning to sloppy with no apparent logic. It's a big, cross-eyed mess, with all the focus and intelligence of a gorilla on speed. And somehow, it works beautifully.
Air Master is a fighting show. Pure, with no dramatic baggage or unnecessary complexities to get in the way of its elbow-to-the-head thrills. The closest it gets to studied intent is to give the fights room to build up and expand out before exploding into acrobatic, face-smashing violence. Somewhere in the maze of comically crisscrossing characters, the fighters and their friends pick up enough personality to be fun and likeable, but only inasmuch as it's necessary to make the fights matter and the downtime enjoyable. Any structure the second half has comes from the Fukamichi Ranking (the first half was all independent fights separated by bizarre filler episodes), which does little more than provide a loose framework for chaining together as many all-out street-fights as possible.
As focused as the series is on its fights, the random mess of strange humor and post-Tarantino coincidences surrounding them is often just as fun. Characters boil around the city, meeting up in odd ways that sometimes result in unpredictable battles, sometimes in crazed slapstick, and often in both. One of the second half's best episodes has Maki and Sakiyama (dressed as a giant cockroach) beating the holy hell out of a series of unsuspecting actors at a sentai stage show in front of a thousand weeping children. Talk about pure gold.
But ultimately it's all about the fighting. Air Master's masterminds chose to do one thing exceedingly well and they chose early on. There was no doubt from episode one where Daisuke Nishio and his co-conspirators' energy was directed. The uneven character designs tighten up the minute they enter battle, becoming bold and oft beautiful dervishes. The animation evens out, growing smooth and detailed, timed with deadly precision. The music pushes at the action, spiraling upward along with its protagonist. Maki's fighting style is among the most cinematic ever to grace a fighting anime, and Nishio exploits its visual possibilities with the eye of a still-vital veteran (which he is—one doesn't direct ten years of Dragonball and not pick up anything). He taps into a huge and wild variety of fighting styles, smashing them against one another—gymnastics vs. pro-wrestling, qigong vs. kick-boxing, street brawling vs. precision throwing—to exhilarating, often deeply weird effect.
For all the seeming imbalance of it—with every resource it has being channeled into its action, often while badly neglecting less violent aspects—the series comes together strangely well. No matter how many pointless off-branches it follows, the series is always building to a new match; just when it seems to be flailing in place, some silly, fillerific plot twist will prove to be the onset of a skull-cracking match. Nishio blends humor and violence with a verve and skill seldom seen outside of the very best of One Piece, and with a hard, ruthless edge even more seldom seen. But never so ruthless that the action stops being slam-bang fun. You can thank both the off-the-wall humor and the strange mix of bloody violence and cartoony characters—with their half-moon eyes and hugely exaggerated expressions—for that. And all of those random meetings, dangling side-plots and rivalries that go nowhere? They do a remarkable job preventing you from guessing who will fight who. Plus they're an endless mine of goofy humor. Even the lopsided budget begins to make a strange kind of sense after a while: Like Maki, Air Master is only truly alive when it's fighting.
You can think of Air Master as a huge anime blender filled with whacked humor and action, set to liquefy. It looks and feels like chaos, and entertains like the love child of Mohammed Ali and Jerry Lewis. Renge, strange little creature that she is, often rubs raw nerves, and the emotions are blown so far over the top that they can easily trigger the snark alarms in viewers' heads, but by god knows what alchemy, in context it all dovetails nicely. The bad, the good, the overblown. The stupid and the even stupider, the goofy and the merciless, the lazy and the virtuosic. So nicely, in fact, that it's a bit of a shock to see it completely self-destruct in the final two episodes. But by then the damage is done. No lapse into bombastic fantasy-fu can erase the hours of runaway fun that preceded it.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : C-
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B+
+ More high-flying martial-arts action than you can poke with pointy stick; great opening and closing themes.
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