First we must deal with the sad fact that "Air" began life as a "bishōjo" computer game that rewarded its players with scenes of the hero having sex with underage lasses. That's a bit of culture that remains strictly Japanese.
The sex has been thankfully removed from the 12-part anime adaptation, and the ages of all involved are made intentionally murky, yet there's still the residual ick of an older guy making friends with so many too-young girls. Here, I suppose, it belongs squarely to that safer-than-it-looks "shojo" genre where adorable gals swoon over hunky fellas, a genre that seems to fill up two-thirds of the manga shelves at my local bookstore.
The first few episodes have been described elsewhere as a slow start, but they're really the series' best moments - it's all downhill after. There's a gentleness to these opening chapters that's both relaxing and engaging, the story enjoying a delicate pace in introducing us to the characters and their quirks. Later, when the melodrama of the plot kicks in, the series gets too shameless in its unsubtle approach, jerking tears in increasingly graceless fashion.
Yukito is a traveler (which is a more romantic way of saying "drifter") who's spent his whole young life moving from town to town, making whatever money he can entertaining kids with a telekinetic puppet show. His mother was on a continuing quest for a mythical "girl in the sky" - a winged, magical beauty who dwells in the heavens - and now he's taken up the search.
Hungrily stumbling into a seaside village, Yukito befriends Misuzo, a clumsy but friendly girl who invites him home, offering food and a place to stay for a while. Her mother, Haruko - who doesn't look much older than Yukito, lending to the age-vagueness that abounds here - is a drunkard and a partier, eager to have someone help watch over Misuzo for a while.
The next morning, he meets Misuzo's energetic classmate Kano and her dog Potato (who yips "Piko piko piko!!" as if he's a lost Pokemon); later he meets another classmate, the overly quiet Minagi, and her lone friend, the playful, bratty Michiru. All of them become good friends as Yukito takes a job at a clinic run by Kano's older sister, and for a while, all their friendly summer adventures have a warm, inviting tone to them.
It's not to last. The story drops a collection of increasingly ridiculous problems upon the cast. One would be enough for the series, and yet we get one for each girl, plus various family members, which weighs down the whole thing. First, Misuzo is given a mysterious illness that sends her into convulsive tears whenever she makes a new friend. I get what they're attempting here, a comforting tale for young girls who may themselves feel they're too emotional to function, but the script instead uses it as a cheap way to build fake conflict: Yukito eventually decides he must leave before his presence makes Misuzo's illness worse. (Seriously?) It's a weak turn designed to drum up instant emotion when no authentic moment will do. And it's only the first in a long series of melodramatic mishaps for the girl, who will later learn secrets about her family and then, when the series really needs one last tearjerker moment, it pulls out the old "kid in a wheelchair" bit, for maxiumum manipulation.
There's also the matter of Misuzo being a reincarnation of the last winged woman, killed a thousand years ago after being cursed by monks. Again, this would be more than enough for any series - even one that, as this does, spends three full episodes on an overlong flashback to the tenth century, where we see in detail the fairy tale that has the winged woman get cursed and killed. By the time we return to the main story, we've forgotten where we were. (After the series wrapped, a mediocre two-part special, titled "Air in Summer," was broadcast, offering a "missing" extended story from this flashback.)
But here, where overkill is seen as a prime objective, we're also told that Kano's own mental illness (split personalities and suicidal tendencies) springs from having once touched a cursed plume, which left her possessed by the soul of a mother who killed herself centuries ago (cue more flashbacks!) in order to save her baby. And then we learn of Minagi's own family secrets, involving ghosts made real and a mother so struck by grief she's forgotten her own daughter.
It's no wonder Yukito chose to leave town.
The final story arc, presented upon returning from the three-episode flashback, offers a little hope in returning us to interesting storytelling. We're shown the first couple episodes again, but this time from Misuzo's point of view - with a few changes, including the arrival of a mysterious crow who befriends the young girl. There's some clever work done here, with the producers choosing specific angles that hide and emphasize certain things. But just as we think we're back to an engaging tale, up comes the cut-rate drama to wrap things up. The final episode is one that shouts its emotional intentions at you, enough to give you a headache.
Much of "Air" is lushy animated, as expected from an anime project of this sort. And yet the producers take some awkward shortcuts that distract us from the story, most notably when, to cut down on production efforts, characters are drawn without eyes. (They're often partially obscured to keep us from noticing, but notice we do anyway.) Other times see characters turn their heads in clumsy directions, their backs to us, just so the animation staff doesn't have to draw faces, never mind which way they're walking. There are moments of great artistic beauty in this series, and yet what sticks out most are the cheats.
In addition to the popular computer game (which was later re-released with the sex bonuses removed), "Air" has spawned a respectable franchise, including several manga anthologies, a CD collection of radio-style dramas, and a feature film (reviewed here), which curiously premiered during the series' initial broadcast.
FUNimation collects all twelve episodes and two specials onto a three-disc set "Air: The Complete Series." The discs are housed in two slimline keepcases, which fit into a glossy cardboard slipcover.
The episodes are included in original order. They are:
Disc One: "Breeze", "Town", "Whisper", "Plume", "Wing", and "Star".
Disc Two: "Dream", "Summer", "Moon", "Light", "Sea", and "Air".
Disc Three: "Air in Summer Part I: Mountain Path" and "Air in Summer Part II: Universe".
Video & Audio
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen is mostly gorgeous, with bright, bold colors and outstanding detail. But every now and then, we get jaggy edges on a few pans and tilts, interrupting the smooth flow of the story.
Both the original Japanese soundtrack and FUNimation's top notch English dub are presented in 5.1 surround. The crisp sounding dialogue is kept squarely up front, while music and effects have a lush, full sound to them.
Optional English subtitles are included in two flavors: one track presents complete translation of dialogue; another delivers translations of the theme song and on-screen Japanese signs only.
The lone bonus is a set of "Textless Songs," presenting the opening and closing theme sequences without credit texts.
A batch of previews for other FUNimation titles is also included. Trailers also play as each disc loads; annoyingly, you can't skip past them.
The series falls apart too early, and efforts at over-the-top dramatics come off as strained, not touching. Fans of girl-centric anime might find enough in the early episodes to make it worth a rental, but the rest of you will do fine to Skip It altogether.