When a series claims that it spins a tale that spans a thousand years of history, it's natural to be a little wary of problems with chronology - how exactly can you tell a story that takes place over such a huge length of time? As a regular anime viewer, I'm used to the odd childhood flashback (it's almost a staple diet in romantic series nowadays) but this is a different undertaking entirely.
Luckily, the story isn't as temporally confusing as it's made out to be. We start in the present, with the protagonist, Kunisaki Yukito, a travelling puppeteer who is on a quest to find a winged girl. He reaches a seemingly peaceful town where he meets Misuzu Kamio, an eccentric middle-schooler who dreams about the sky and spends endless amounts of time looking at it. Throw in some more H-game conversion girls, and you arrive at Air.
Perhaps that's a little unfair, though. Yes, Air is undeniably a H-game conversion (a popular title that put Key, the developers, on the H-game map), and it shows its roots frequently throughout the series... but then again, it's so much more than that. Because of the jumps in time, cycling back to a thousand years before to complete the plot's backstory, it's actually difficult to see how the outcome could ever have spawned from a H-game title. Despite the first six episodes, this series turns out to be nothing like Key's other blockbuster H-game conversions, Kanon and Clannad.
Why is this? Put simply, it realises its ideas. Reincarnation and familial relationships are two of the most important aspects of Air, and the plot seems geared towards that - every piece of action that takes place, no matter how small or how irrelevent it seems at the time, has far-reaching consequences.
In short, without this title, Kyoto Animation wouldn't be as hot property as it is today. While Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu propelled the studio to everlasting fame, the stunning work done on Air opened the public's eyes to what the studio could do. The skyscapes are amazing, with sunsets that have only recently been surpassed by big budget movies like Byousaku no 5cm. The colours are luscious and the scenery, although magical at times, is rendered realistically. Even the jump through time is handled perfectly, with period costumes and architecture well-judged in their portrayal.
The character designs are equally rich. The girls seem less homogenous than most "harem" series, all with rather memorable features. Though, it shows that this is one of Kyoto Animation's earlier works: the eyes are sometimes too large, especially when a character cries, and facial features are geared a little too much towards being as cute as they can be, without any offer of maturity. Also, while extremely lovable, I have always wondered how Potato could ever be classified as a dog.
What I love about the animation most, however, is how intimate it can be. Closeups of cicadas, camera angles that leave certain characters in the shade while others stand shining in the sunlight, homes actually seeming homely... the animation is so exact that the viewer can't help but have a clear sense of place in their mind's eye. And I for one find that very refreshing.
The soundtrack for this series has won a number of unofficial fan-nominated awards for being the best of 2005, the year of its release. And it's pretty easy to see why. I hate to use the word perfection, but there's no other way to describe Air's aural representation of the season of summer. Most scenes are punctuated with flowing orchestral music, the soft crackle of cicadas and the relaxing sound of the sea.
As for the voice actors, every one of them fits perfectly with their character. While Misuzu can grate occasionally, her catchphrase "Gao" wearing a little thin at times, her more intimate scenes with Yukito and with her aunt are worth their weight in gold. Her voice, when it falters, is one that can make your heart pause in sympathy, and towards the end, mutual pain.
In retrospect, while the 13 episode format prevents the anime from becoming stagnant (series such as Kanon 2006 and Lucky Star strained heavily under the weight of more episodes), it also means that some of the characters are left underdeveloped. I still haven't figured out why Michiru, Minagi and (my favourite character) Kano were included, because while their scenes are certainly interesting and enjoyable, they seem to serve little purpose, especially in the latter part of the series. Air allows few moments for the cast of side-characters to show their individual virtues, turning an otherwise interesting cast into mere vessels for the plot to sail in.
Having said that, Yukito and Misuzu are two characters that struck a chord with me. Yukito is surprisingly reticent, and spends a number of episodes seeming more disinterested than he actually is. The transformation that Yukito goes through later in the series also comes as a complete shock to the system - but surprisingly, it brings about an interesting secondary point of view on the series, where romance takes a firm backseat. Misuzu, on the other hand, is a rare commodity - a cute, weak girl that deserves to be protected, but denies any such help. In her weakness, she finds a strength that becomes central to the final few scenes of the series. As characters, these two are fleshed out beautifully, and their progression becomes the crux of the story - more so, in fact, than the original basis.
Air is a feast for the senses. Visually and sonorously stunning, the storyline will whisk you through its epic chronology-disrupting travels. At this point, I should probably point out that this is an anime you will need to muse over - it's very easy to get lost when the plot takes another turn down some unlikely path - but if you put the effort into being an alert, active watcher, it's one of the few series that will reward you for it. The rewatchability factor is high, as you'll pick up subtle hints you didn't notice first time round, and even though it's a couple of years old now, it still stands comparable to its newer counterparts in every department.
The only let down is its obvious H-game roots, but if you can survive some clichéd encounters, it's well worth the watch. The attention to detail is immense - and the ending is one of the greatest bittersweet endings in the history of anime.
The 'girl in the sky' is a legend passed down through the ranks of one special family. Armed with the magical puppet skills he learned from his mother, Yukito Kunisaki follows in her footsteps, traveling from place to place, ever searching for that girl in the sky, ever chasing after that legend. His journeys have led him to a small costal town where he meets a girl that has a peculiar interest in him - could she be the one? As events slowly start to unfold in front of his very eyes, Yukito finds himself amidst a story that spans a thousand summers...