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Air - How Does It Hold Up?

by Matthew Roe,

Air is many things: a slice-of-life detailing a girl's summer vacation, a coming-of-age journey set against the fading dreams of a young man's mother, and a supernatural tale around generations of winged beings — and that's just the main arc.

Air is a 2005 anime series produced by Kyoto Animation, based on the romance visual novel of the same name released by studio Key for Windows in the year 2000. Even if you haven't played Key's games, you've probably encountered their more recognizable IPs, such as Little Busters! and Rewrite. But their first three projects — Kanon, Air, and Clannad — are considered their most iconic, with each evolving into massive multimedia franchises.

Now, while I did read some of the original Air visual novel after watching the series back in the day, it was a rom-hack downloaded off Limewire with a half-translated script in broken English that probably gave my mom's computer malware — so I lack qualifications to compare and contrast. We'll come back to adapting visual novels later in the video, but I am looking at this anime solely as a stand-alone story. I will also not be including the feature film, released in the same year by Toei Animation, as part of this retrospective. But before the nitty-gritty, let's waltz on through the general plot.

Air initially focuses on the shenaniganry of traveling telekinetic puppeteer, Yukito Kunisaki, as he arrives in a small ocean-side town looking for food, work, and a mysterious "girl in the sky" which had been the lifelong obsession of his late mother. After waking from a hunger-induced stupor, he meets Misuzu Kamio — a happy-go-lucky teen with penchants for weird juice and growling like a dinosaur — who's set on making this summer the best one ever. Their individual pursuits inadvertently conjoin through their interactions with several other minor characters, which force them all to come to terms with the realities they've denied to themselves, the supernatural forces which bind them together, and the roads they must traverse in order to find an inner peace.

The series is bookended by an ethereal narrator — most likely Yukito's mother — laying it on fairly thick that the story you're about to witness (or have just experienced) is an important intergenerational one. And whoo boy, does it make you believe it. Air is an anime that is completely defined by emotions, and this series provides it all: joy, loneliness, acceptance, abandonment, rejection, and — most notably — the fear of loss.

These characters are bundles of nerves and insecurities, trying their best to stay positive as they search for something to fill in the cracks of their broken lives. However, what they end up needing the most is often diametrically opposed to what they had originally hoped. Whether possessed by an angelic entity, mistaken as a dead sibling by an amnesiac mother, or suffering from a condition that literally kills you if you make friends, Air has levels of drama so soapy that only the most callous can make it through and not feel something — which I guess means that I'm not completely desensitized yet. So, yay.

This focus is strongest in the main storyline surrounding Misuzu, who is a character so tragic that even Captain Walker from Spec Ops: The Line would think that she had it rougher. Okay, that last bit was hyperbole, but the hand that fate dealt Misuzu forces her to suffer profound self-loathing along with her isolation, feeling that she burdens everyone important in her life, ultimately driving them away. While we come to see that there are supernatural forces at work which contribute to this scenario, we can easily empathize with her pain and isolation as she degrades over the course of the story — and on the flip side, when she's at her emotional heights, it's hard not to smile. I was legitimately elated for her happiness when it came around. And this can be said of every supporting character as well — especially Minagi Tohno.

But what is unquestionably Air's greatest strength, is also its largest pitfall. Aiming for the most emotional resonance for the scene at hand is an admirable focus, but this element is so heavily leaned into that the moment-to-moment experience becomes hampered by weak characterization, awkward worldbuilding, and an ending that ties everything together so nicely it cheapens any catharsis the filmmakers were striving to create.

I will say that by the time we're through the first bundle of episodes, and Misuzu's condition is only getting worse, I was nearly screaming at the screen for them to take her to the goddamn hospital. Yeah, we (as the audience), eventually are given the metatextual connection that Misuzu's fate is a generational curse, but the rest of the characters don't know that. And even if she tells them that, who in their right mind would believe it without some kind of evidence? You're still letting a minor with clear cognitive impairment determine her medical choices with no rational contest — oh, and when her legs stop working, you still carry on like business as usual.

Even after you all run into an actual angelic entity that was possessing one of your schoolmates, and manage to basically exorcize her to save her life, y'all don't ever consider there is a way out for Misuzu? Or maybe there exists another path which may keep her alive and finish the curse at the same time? Even if there isn't one, and even if we're supposed to travel along this path in order for the loop to end — for the girl in the sky to finally be at peace — there isn't any effort made to keep the inevitable from happening. While I don't fault Air for the ending presented — because when it hits, it's well constructed to the point of pain — I consider the thumb-twiddling of all of the seemingly responsible characters while her health throws itself into a gutter downright irritating. I just wanted one of you to lean over to the other and ask, "What the hell is happening?" I'm all for getting the world fleshed out as you move the plot along. But when confronted with ambiguous, sometimes reality-defying reasons, and there's only simple acceptance with not a shred of doubt, the characters become increasingly superficial to the point of blandness.

This is most prevalent within Yukito's character, which is ironic, since he gets the most thorough backstory. He starts as a smartass wanderer, without a clue of how to put on a proper puppet show, eventually becoming a moon-brained white knight archetype with Misuzu being his damsel in distress. Their relationship only sees some legitimate evolution in the final sequences of his character, even though they understand the context of their relationship earlier on, when their combined dreams start augmenting one another. That doesn't mean they don't share some touching moments, especially when Yukito discovers Misuzu's condition for the first time — the pacing, direction, and design play out as close to picture-perfect as it can get, given the context. And when he finally vanishes, a sacrifice to ensure her happiness with assurances that he will always be near, we're supposed to accept a lot fairly quickly. But if we start questioning the timeline, or the utility of the crow character Sky when he adds a late-game retcon to the story, it's hard to see the purpose. Especially since it's Haruko and Misuzu's new bond as a family that ultimately breaks the curse.

I know the cumulative events of that whole summer are supposed to set the girl in the sky free, but when the minor characters we spend so much time with don't even show up once to see how Yukito is — let alone finding out and caring for the wellbeing of Misuzu — it makes the ending ring a bit more hollow than it probably needed to be. Not one of the people who Yukito aided in reshaping their lives even weeps for him (save Misuzu), which cheapens any lingering aftertaste of his character. This is compounded by the overly rushed final leg of the Haruko redemption arc. Though, this is less due to what the proxy mother/daughter combo gets up to, and more to do with the inclusion of Mizusu's absentee father.

Besides Misuzu's dad being the biggest piece of sh*t in the whole story, his importance is even smaller than his screen time. Now, I like how the seeds are planted early, and subtly, that he actually has been involved in some manner in Misuzu's life more than we had originally supposed. It's clever, and easy to brush off if you aren't on the hunt for small details. But when he finally becomes a large part of the narrative, his utility only serves as a late-stage crisis for Haruko after she finally accepts Misuzu as her daughter. He's just a final boss of sorts, and the small moments peppered with him earlier on do not provide a large enough narrative foundation to elevate him beyond a fleeting third-act foe who leaves just as quickly as he arrives. If we use a macro lens to look at his involvement, in context to the whole story, his participation isn't a bad narrative decision. But if we look closer and see how he was fairly ignored throughout almost every other stage of Mizusu's journey, he's just a typical melodramatic cliche. He shows up after ten years to gaslight Haruko, claiming her to be unfit to mother his child, while later claiming that Mizusu only grew up to be who she was thanks to Haruko's efforts. You could have skipped his part entirely and you wouldn't have lost a shred of efficacy from the rest of the ending.

But the shoddiness of how Mizusu's father was used in the story may not be necessarily due to the faults of writer Fumihiko Shimo, who would go on to helm the writing staff for the Kanon and Clannad anime adaptations — both of which have a lot of love from fans, me included. It may be because Air is a massive story to adapt. Those of you who watch my videos for ANN know I talk a lot about the challenges and compromises which come along with adapting a story into a different medium, and how those compromises can affect our appreciation of the outcome. And one of the most common issues which occurs when adapting visual novels into anime is simply the density of the source material. According to the good folks over at Kazamatsuri, who sadly closed shop in 2019,

"[Air] clocks in at about 49,188 lines of dialogue, with our vague estimate of reading time at around 40 hours."

Of course there are fast readers out there who don't wait for all the voicelines to finish, but for the sake of discussion let's say that this estimation is accurate. The Air anime (without the OVAs), with an average of 24 minutes per episode, is just under 5 hours — that's a hell of a lot of compression, even if we trim narrative fluff and the hentai scenes from the original source material. This becomes most evident when we go through the minor character arcs in the first half of the anime — major plot points are comparatively sprinted through while the main arc with Misuzu severely drags its feet, making little (if any) headway. Not to say that the slice-of-life attitude of the first act is a poor choice against the plot-intensive arcs playing out at the same time, but that the extremes of these pacing shifts give a strong impression that we're missing a lot of context. Air is unable to sell me on the supposition that these events are occurring naturally, rather than being experienced in vacuums with a sun-drenched clothesline the only thing linking events together. That is until Misuzu is the only one we haven't wrapped up yet.

While there are a ton of great projects out there which tell stories propelled by coincidence and chance — my favorite of which being Satoshi Kon and Keiko Nobumoto's Tokyo Godfathers — in this instance, it comes across less like a story driven by spontaneous coincidence, and more a trail of contrivances. That doesn't mean getting from one plot point to the next has jumps in logic or anything, but if each minor character had been introduced more gradually, or had at least been interwoven with Misuzu's main story a bit more, it would come across more organically, rather than a seeming bull-rush through the "other choices" from the visual novel. What makes this distinction more evident (and worse) is how the minor characters which make such profound impacts on us in the opening moments of the story, are either severely underutilized, or completely forgotten. The connections made, the emotions shared, the impacts felt, are all shrugged off after each minor climax, with their lasting impressions to the larger story feeling inconsequential by the final episodes.

Ironically, that doesn't mean that their individual contributions to the larger themes of Air go unnoticed. Each of these interactions feed into the central theme of going back. Going back to the start of things, to correct wrongs and misgivings, to start fresh with one more time to get things right. But you can't go back. You don't know how much time you have left in order to set things right, and if you even manage to do it, you may not be able to enjoy it for very long. This thematic cohesion makes Air's final episodes about appreciating the joy we are able to attain and give others — while also accepting the seemingly boundless sorrow that life will dish out as well. You take the good with the bad, and you make a life as best you can. You can't take back the poor decisions, but a life with regrets isn't necessarily a bad thing. It means you've lived, that you've experienced what life has to offer. We need the pain to really appreciate the happiness we snag for ourselves and for others. Heartbreaking as it may be, it is also a wholly beautiful message to send home with us.

Air may be the most mixed bag out of any anime I have covered for Anime News Network, because the heights and depths are so extreme. What elements the filmmakers got right are genuinely amazing. First and foremost, with any KyoAni production, we have to take a gander at the absolutely breathtaking visuals. The art direction by Joji Unoguchi is downright gorgeous, providing a sea of vibrant color palettes and bold combinations which pop against one another with brilliant efficacy. Though this is the only anime I have ever seen where every character's eyes look like they're behind a greasy bathroom mirror. I didn't find any reason for this in the interwebs, so if anyone out there actually knows the origin of this decision, I'd love to know, because it's weird. Not awful. Not distracting, necessarily — just weird. A few moments of badly-aged 3D CG animation withstanding, the animation overall is solid and cohesive; I was never stumbling to follow a scene.

These artistic decisions are buttressed by the brilliant Tomoe Aratani's crisp character designs which all manage to stand out from one another through unique, nuanced details, while also keeping them homogeneous enough that if any stylistic dissonance exists, I didn't catch it. Are they all instantly recognizable? Not if you throw them in a lineup with other studio Key characters, but most are strong enough to leave a lasting impression. This is helped in large part by the voice acting — usually. Whether the original cast or the English dub, the quality of the performances and of the written dialogue dip and soar like a heartbeat. Sometimes we're treated to some absolutely sublime acting backing up a strongly-constructed scene that hits every note that we need. Other times we get levels of cheese and ham so strong that even my rose-tinted nostalgia goggles couldn't be put back on. Some moments I remember loving as a teen have become polluted with flimsy manufactured sympathy, and I cannot see past it any longer.

Except every moment with Potato the dog is amazing and he deserves his own spin-off. Like, picture Chi's Sweet Home, but with Potato. I'd watch it — hell, I'd fund it — who gets my money? From his design, to his animation, to Hiromi Konno and Tiffany Grant's delightfully playful performances, Potato is this anime's best character. I will not be hearing any opposing views on this matter. Discussion closed.

In a big change of pace, I don't have much to say about the musical score, as a lot was lifted from the visual novel (and definitely it sounds like it), and my relationship with it echoes my sentiments of other elements I've gone through, so as we wind things down, let's take a look at the OP and ED for Air. Both opening and closing tracks by the artist Lia are cascades of piano chords, background synths, clattering hi-hats, and beautiful vocals. They both were originally recorded as the opening and closing tracks for the visual novel, and became large hits in Japan with the collective success of the Air franchise — it's easy to see why. Besides the utter mid-2000s feel of the music (echoed in the heavy layering and visual sugar poured into the accompanying animation), they're among her better tracks that have been used for anime. Though my favorite remains the OP for Angel Beats!

So how exactly does Air stack up all these years later? Well, as you can tell, I'm pretty damned conflicted. Just like Misuzu, Air has some soaring heights: its art direction is jaw-dropping, its animation can be stunning, and the overall journey is heartbreakingly beautiful — even on a surface level, you come to care for at least some of these characters and their evolutions. But the anime also has equatable lows: its moment-to-moment pacing is a mismatched mess between a hundred-meter sprint and a lazy stroll on the beach, and after minor arcs are concluded, the friendships cultivated by the supporting cast remain loose ends which tie little into the larger experience. There is a lot to love here, and a lot which needs considerably more time and polish to tell the story the filmmakers wanted to convey.

You absolutely should watch Air for those amazing moments which the fandom have praised for the past 17 years, but also prepare yourself for times where a slog through cheery colors and vapid dialogue is your only option. I still love Air for helping the awkward teen that I was to better accept himself, but if I hear another person to tell someone clearly going through an emotional crisis to just "keep smiling," I'm going to wring someone's neck.

Thank you to everyone who's watched this video to the end, y'all deserve a cookie. I had some fun going through this one; something a little different but still nostalgic, and I hope that you liked it too. If you enjoyed (or have taken issue) with my review and analysis of Air, leave a comment down below to let me know. Subscribe to the Anime News Network — we release new stuff every week, so be sure to hit that bell. And be sure to check out my personal channel, Criticlysm, for similar content, linked below. I appreciate your support and feedback. Until next time.

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