Judge William Lee senses doomed love is in the air.
Those who fall in love are the most susceptible to its inevitable pain.
Air began as a Japanese visual novel, a kind of computer game for adults, in 2000. It was reissued for various gaming platforms in versions that included or excluded some adult sexual content. The story was also developed as a serialized manga and then an anime, Air: The Complete Series, that was televised in 2005. That same year, Toei Animation released the theatrical feature Air: The Motion Picture. Without prior exposure to the other efforts in the franchise, I watched the movie to learn what all the fuss was about.
Facts of the Case
A young traveler named Yukito arrives at a sunny, seaside town. He hopes to ply his skill as a puppeteer to make some money at the upcoming summer festival. Unfortunately, Yukito has arrived too early and must find a way to fill his days (and his stomach) while waiting for the festival. He strikes up a friendship with Misuzu, a bubbly but mysterious local girl, who offers to let him stay with her and her mother.
Misuzu has missed an entire year of school, but her teacher agrees to let her work on a field project during the summer. Researching the town's history, Misuzu learns about the legend of a winged woman who was imprisoned there, forcibly separated from her daughter, in the 10th century. Princess Kanna was forbidden to see her mother and lived her life under guard within a walled compound. The tragic romance between Kanna and her guardian, Ryuya, suggests a poetic parallel to the friendship between Misuzu and Yukito.
Based solely on Air: The Motion Picture, it's not easy to imagine what it was that captured the attention of so many fans and warranted its reinterpretation on different media. The television series and this movie were produced at about the same time by rival studios so there's an indication of how many people wanted to get their hands on this property. Perhaps in its original form the characters were more fully developed and their world more richly detailed. Reduced to the tragic love story of two characters—and their 10th century counterparts—this feels like a short story idea stretched to feature-length proportions.
Maybe the movie plays better for fans who are already familiar with the world of Air and are simply content to see it receive the big screen treatment. For them, subtle character traits and small hints to remind them of the deeper complexities of the story might be enough to take them into this world. For new viewers like me, it feels like a little too little.
Certainly, the character development is greatly streamlined in this shortened version of the story. Yukito is too cool for my liking. His love for Misuzu is unconvincing and it seems more like he's befriending her out of pity. When he talks about his dream to find a Girl with Wings, it almost suggests a bigger mythology to emerge from his story but, alas, that doesn't materialize. Furthermore, it isn't clear that Yukito's using telekinesis for his puppet act, leading me to initially think that his string-free puppetry was just lazy animation.
It's also annoying that Misuzu is made out to be such an enigma when her secrets aren't all that interesting in the end. Suffering from an unnamed illness, Misuzu is full of life most of the time—her symptoms are mostly depicted off-screen—while supporting characters whisper ominously about her condition. There doesn't seem to be a real connection between Misuzu and Kanna aside from the romantic notion that the experience of a lonely, sick girl is like that of an imprisoned princess.
While the story and characters feel shortchanged in this movie interpretation of the material, the DVD shows off a strong technical presentation. The picture is clean and colors are vibrant throughout. The audio is mixed in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround in both original Japanese and an English dub. Both audio options sport strong dialogue that's balanced nicely with music and sound effects. The mix favors the front channels but there is good use of directionality and the rear channels are used effectively for environmental effects. The English-language dubbing is well above average compared to the typical example of the re-recorded, translated track.
This DVD release from Funimation does not feature any extras related to the movie. That's too bad, because I'm curious about this story in its other forms. A few supplements would have been a big help for viewers new to this material.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One of the unique aspects of Air: The Motion Picture is its visual style. Though their movements are limited, the character designs are nicely detailed. While there are moments where the animation and editing might cause viewers to think the filmmakers are just cheating—a heavy reliance on black frames, for example—there are some notable results as well. The insertion of concept drawings within scenes is an interesting technique and it could have been more effective if it was done with more consistency. Many of the lighting effects are also striking in how they convey a brilliant (almost blinding) glow to scenes. The blending of CG backgrounds with hand-drawn elements works very well and is often gorgeous.
There's more to Air than can be contained in one movie. Perhaps the filmmakers were wise to cut back the story details instead of cramming every minute with deep, essential meaning. Still, stripped to the basic core of a doomed romance, Air: The Motion Picture feels a bit insubstantial. The movie looks and sounds good so established fans will likely enjoy this very lean retelling of the story regardless. Viewers sampling Air for the first time may have trouble seeing what makes it so special.
Our decision is still up in the air on this one, sorry.
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