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"Air": Series Boxset and Movie Are Both Under-Oxygenated

by on April 29, 2009

Yukito Kunisaki is a man on a mission. He is wandering the Japanese countryside, trying to fulfill the last wishes of his deceased mother while doing puppet shows on the street to earn food money. His goal? He must find a winged girl in the sky, a goal his mother didn’t manage to complete. He ends up settling down in a small town for a bit after running into Misuzu Kamio, a clumsy girl who seems to be a bit of a loner for someone so bubbly and friendly. While in the city, he also meets some other odd and mysterious girls, including Kano Kirishima, who wears a scarf around her wrist as it will supposedly endow her with magical powers, and Minagi Tohno and her friend Michiru, whose mysterious origins would be a huge spoiler to reveal. In fact, it’s kind of tough to talk about the story because there are several major revelations throughout the series, which actually isn’t that bad for a 12 TV + 2 OVA episode show. (Or should I say “13 + 2”? More on that later.) What I can say is that everything odd in that town seems somehow connected to the girl in the sky, and that if you’re looking for a happy ending, you’re out of luck. Air builds you up with a couple of positive outcomes for certain characters, but the main arc ends on a tear-jerker. Well, I didn’t cry, but I got a little misty-eyed.

Now, if you’re already a big fan of Air via the original visual novel by Key, you can ignore this review. This anime delivers just about everything you could want from an anime adaptation of one Key’s visual novels, and you should pick this release up if you haven’t already bought it before. However, I imagine if you’re already a big fan, you might have bought the singles when ADV first released it, or you might have even been so hardcore as to buy the expensive but unquestionably gorgeous Blu-Ray release direct from Japan. So, with the license having moved from ADV to Funimation, and this round of marketing obviously shifted towards a more general anime fan audience, is it a series worth buying? Yes and no.

The story starts out following the visual novel’s flow and pace almost too closely: the storyboarding in the early episodes regularly lifts scenes directly from your typical visual novel with characters basically talking at you from the center of the screen. In fact, you could almost make a drinking game out of it if you were so inclined. After a few episodes, the show breaks itself of that habit (or it just gets past introducing characters), but if you’re the kind of person who picks up on tropes and is driven up the wall by them, Air‘s gonna drive you nuts at points. Once the story gets rolling, it may still remind you of how a lot of visual novel-based/visual novel-styled anime flow. The episode-to-episode pace makes it a cousin to series like When They Cry (and in fact, watching Air gave me a new appreciation for just how brilliant When They Cry is conceptually, but I digress) and to a lesser extent shows like Melody of Oblivion. For some, that might be more off-putting than interesting. In fact, if Air‘s mysteries didn’t do such a solid job of sucking me in, I probably wouldn’t have gotten past the first couple episodes. It was a bit of a clunky start for a show that turned out to have so much going on.

For a series based on a visual novel with adult content, it’s almost as clean as a Saturday morning cartoon, barring some drinking, a dose of violence later in the series, and a single scene of relatively mild comedy fanservice in the OVA, so if you’re coming to this expecting a sexy bishojo title, you’re better off snagging any B-grade harem title. (Personally, I really respect that they kept it clean rather than going for cheap service.) I’ll also the say the OVA should probably be watched between episodes 8 and 9, as it fills in some information, though honestly, it’s somewhat superfluous. You’d only miss out on a few gags by skipping it all together.

You can’t really fault Air on its animation, as, once gets out of visual novel mode, the fluidity, background design and color palette make it almost entrancing to watch. I mean, I could nitpick and say “Well, there was a scene or two where the compositing was a bit weak, and maybe a scene or two where the character animation was a bit odd,” but the rest of the show is so superbly animated (vastly better than the Air movie, in fact) that I can’t really complain. Even the crying (and there is plenty of that) is smoothly and beautifully rendered. The show is rarely static, and the few cheats in play are used to a cinematic benefit, not to cover a lack of budget. I suppose the only real issue is that at couple points it really looks like it was downscaled from a high def source (which it is was, but done right that’s a non-issue,) with some odd aliasing showing up in the line work at those points. That’s probably a DVD issue, or maybe even just an issue with the masters provided to Funi by Kyoto Animation, not an animation problem.

The DVD is pretty light on extras. On the discs, you get creditless OPs and EDs, and you get trailers. In fact, this boxset drops the recap episode from the end of the TV series, which while sorta useless, was probably to some a thoughtful include on the original ADV release, and considering there is space left over on the OVA DVD in this re-release, it’s an omission that seems odd. This brings me to the tough part of the review.

I like the show, vastly more than I expected to; Air sets a high bar both in visuals and story for future visual novel adaptations. Alas, I can’t recommend this release. I suppose if you’re not buying online, this boxset will be the best way to get the show in stores, and considering the brick and mortars seem to be selling it for about 35 bucks, it’s a good deal relative to its contemporaries. (To put it another way, there are much worse ways to spend 35 bucks on anime.) However, rightstuf has the original ADV singles for 7 dollars a disc, totaling up to 28 bucks + shipping, and the singles do have more content, technically speaking. I guess if shelf space is at premium, it’s another reason to go with the thin pack boxset, but even then you could just thin pack the single releases yourself, and still come out ahead.

Maybe Funimation has just pushed this release out a little too soon, but with the singles still available, and less expensive than the boxset, this release isn’t the way (at least at the moment) to get a breath of Air.

* * * * *
Air: The Motion Picture has the same basic plot as the series, barring a few liberties that actually make it a lot less like the visual novel. It rearranges the main story’s flow, for instance, removing side stories and reworking characters. (Though they do manage to wedge some of the characters they’ve cut into background shots. How thoughtful, yet unrewarding.) Somehow, despite condensing the story, it’s actually less engaging than the TV series, and almost lulled me to sleep at points. This is in spite of some risqué content carried over from the original game, though the results still deserve nothing more than a PG-13 at most. (The violence, which was also in some ways more graphic than in the TV series, is more cause for concern.) It never feels like it’s missing anything because of the abbreviated storytelling, but it lacks emotional punch. If the Air anime made me misty-eyed, Air: The Motion Picture made me annoyed and sleepy.

The animation is also significantly worse than that in the TV series. This is totally unacceptable for a theatrical anime, and isn’t excused by the fact that Toei Animation isn’t as good a studio as Kyoto Animation. Visuals are loaded with distracting, poorly handled cheats, and even the most fluid movement seems flat compared to the TV series. The storyboarding, which doesn’t have the smattering of annoying, right-from-the-visual-novel shots the TV series featured early on, still manages to be boarded poorly, with some of shots just looking amateurish and weird. Attempts mimicking the visual novel’s striking use of color fail so badly that they even jar you out of the viewing experience. The effects and 3D animation seem at best poorly stylized. And if the character designs deviate from the TV series and visual novel (which keeps the film from repeating a couple of the series’ animation mistakes) it still results in a much more bland, generic look. Moe design maybe a bad trend for anime as whole, but it is part of what gives Air its character and charm, and its absence is felt. Even the footage itself seems at times dated beyond its years, looking sometimes less like a 2005 theatrical release and more like a restored late-1980s OVA: a look compounded by the odd water-color and pen stills that look like they are straight out of Mobile Suit Gundam or Fist of the North Star. To put it another way, your average Pokemon movie has better animation all around than Air: The Motion Picture.

While the dub and original Japanese voice acting is just as lovely as the TV series, the soothing soundtrack from the game and the TV series disappears in favor of a more orchestral sound with awkward cues that don’t fit the content and are clumsily punched in at points, as if trying to draw the viewer into an already poorly paced scene. It strikes me as an outright bizarre choice to replace such a notable soundtrack with something less fitting and less effective.

If Funimation was unwise to reissue the TV series so soon, it was unwise to reissue this movie at all. It doesn’t even really hold up on its own, let alone as an adaptation, and it’s not like the DVD has some kind of amazing extras that make it worth picking up. (It’s just as lacking on extras as the original ADV release. You don’t even get a reversible cover.) My advice? Skip it. Skip the reissue, skip the leftover copies of the original ADV release on dirt cheap clearance, and even skip it if you can rent it or watch it on-demand. Buy Kanon (the Kyoto Animation version) or Rumbling Hearts or Diamond Daydreams or some other good anime adaptation of a visual novel. Even if you’re a hardcore fan (or perhaps especially if you are that) Air: The Motion Picture isn’t worth it.

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