Air Gear: Roller Skating to Defeat God
Air Gear is not a household name. Many people might have missed it in its original run, or might only know of it as the poorly adapted anime. I am here to explain why Air Gear is my personal favorite manga of all time, and why you should read this obscure masterpiece.
Penned by Oh! Great, Air Gear is a manga that begins with a group of high school delinquents squabbling over turf, and ends with a high speed descent from space in order to save the world. Detractors criticize this, saying that it ruins the immersion or is just the telltale sign of a runaway plot. However, I would argue that the insane scope of Air Gear is central to its main theme: actualization of one’s dreams.
In Air Gear, things largely revolve around a more advanced version of inline skates called “Air Treks”, mostly referred to as “A-T”. While it may seem like a silly concept, A-T let the user perform crazy feats that far exceed the limitations of regular skates, such as skating up a wall or leaping over buildings. Most A-T riders band together and form groups, who use their emblem as a way to tag their territory and as a wager for violent team battles.
The rules of A-T battles vary, and matches between teams range from straightforward races to all-out beatdowns, all for the purpose of taking the other team’s emblem and disbanding them. Throughout the series, however, as the stakes begin to rise, Oh! Great reveals very compelling characters who bring to light the consequences of the A-T battles.
Air Gear follows Itsuki Minami, also known as “Ikki”, “Crow”, and “Babyface”, by friends and cohorts. Ikki, whose parents are almost entirely absent from the narrative, is adopted by four sisters — later revealed to be members of a legendary A-T team called Sleeping Forest.
Ikki begins riding A-T after a chance meeting with Simca, a character from the former “era” of legendary A-T riders that begin appearing as the story progresses. This begins a series of events that propels Ikki from an A-T beginner into the forerunner of the new era.
Through Ikki, Air Gear shows us the increasing scale of the A-T world as a whole, beginning with small turf disputes in order to acquire members for when he forms his own team, Kogarasumaru, and then Kogarasumaru’s own journey in becoming established and going head to head with the legends.
Ikki’s journey, however, is particularly entwined with the overarching theme of the work — chasing your dreams and finding your own way.
In Air Gear, there is a lot of specific vocabulary that overlaps between the sport of Air Treck and the riders who employ it. “Stormriders”, users of A-T, develop their “Run”, which is a more baseline version of A-T, until they are able to specify their style, known as their “Road”. One’s Road is tied both to their A-T skills and also their personality, these are developed through growth but have traits intrinsic to the owner.
For each Road, there is a “King”, the person who is most powerful or prolific in their specific type of Road, equipped with “Regalia”, a legendary part for one’s A-T that provides superhuman abilities and denote one as a “True King”. Much of the series is Ikki and friends developing their Roads against the established Kings of the generation prior, who eventually become either a mentor or an adversary, sometimes even a combination of both.
This is an integral part of Air Gear, and adds an interesting dimension to the story of self-actualization, where instead of simply leading to character development, self-actualization is what success as a Stormrider in the A-T world hinges on.
The Kings of the original generation, all scattered to the wind, become crucial parts of the Air Gear story and appear in all kinds of unique iterations. Some, such as Rika, Ikki’s eldest guardian, have given up A-T entirely, scarred by the violence of throne-seeking. Others work behind the scenes to engineer the new generation, using them as soldiers in order to right the wrongs of the original generation.
As Ikki can only be the King of one Road, he must form a team of friends and defeated enemies in order to challenge the legends. This is another point where Air Gear truly shines, team Kogarasumaru is a genuinely captivating and sometimes very heartrending group of characters. With Ikki at the helm, the hot-headed team Kogarasumaru shakes up the established order with every single battle, and is one of the most enjoyable, unpredictable teams of any series I’ve read.
Kazu and Onigiri, Ikki’s childhood friends, are both transformed from simple lackeys to full-fledged riders throughout the story. Both are simply appendages of Ikki at first, but Kazu in particular has an excellent character development that cements his own place not only on the team, but also as a worthy friend and rival to Ikki.
Buccha is the first enemy to join the team after Ikki defeats him for control of their school. Buccha is a bully-turned-monk whose nature contradicts the hotheaded members of his team, and serves as a grounding presence who provides wisdom about A-T. He is also given a fair amount of development despite his quiet nature, taking a different route than Ikki in his more abstract search of self instead of becoming a King.
Agito is the cream of the crop as far as characters go, even rivaling Ikki in the popularity polls, and for good reason. Another enemy-turned-ally, Agito is a deviation from this standard trope in many ways. Loud, brash, and violent, Agito is a user of the Bloody Road and is second only to Ikki within Kogarasumaru. His catchphrase, “FUCK!!”, describes his character perfectly. However, Agito’s body also houses another persona called Akito, who is the total opposite: a sweetheart pacifist who abhors violence.
Agito, who is a product of the violence that the upper levels of A-T churn out, is rescued from his life in a cage by Ikki and given a chance to discover himself.
Every character gets development, but Agito is special because this is the first time in his life that he is able to choose his own destiny.
The slow transformation of Agito from enemy to tenuous ally to friend is an incredible journey, and is the standout amongst a crowd full of standouts in Air Gear.
Last but not least, Ringo. Ringo is my personal favorite character, an integral part of the story all the way throughout. While mostly used as comedic relief in the beginning of the story, she later becomes an integral character, second only to Ikki himself.
She loves Ikki, but is also the heir to her eldest sister’s title and Regalia, and must stay at arm’s length from Kogarasumaru because of her allegiance to her own team, Sleeping Forest. As the story proceeds, we see her more and more torn between Ikki and her pre-existing bonds while she trails her friends starting their own team.
Ringo’s flux between mentor, friend, rival, and enemy is deserving of its own writing, and I greatly enjoyed the dynamic between her and Ikki, as well as her relationship to the complicated world of A-T. Ringo has little to no interest in being a part of the politics of the A-T King dichotomy, she simply enjoys it for love of the sport. This illustrates a further issue within the world of A-T, showing “destined” riders (such as Agito and Ringo) who have been groomed for A-T are almost completely adverse to it, and that their own journey requires addressing the circumstances that chain them to A-T.
Character writing is truly one of Oh! Great’s strong points, even the villains of the A-T world are sympathetic figures for the most part, a majority are simply people caught in a web of violence or misguided by their mentors — a surprisingly common theme in this manga. Members of the old generation in particular are shown as legends first and foremost, but as more former Kings enter the fold, we see that they are the same flawed human beings as everyone else, and that their stories are as full of failure as anyone else, with consequences that reverberate from generation to generation.
The plot of Air Gear deserves its own section, if not for the complexity than simply for the controversial span of it. The story of Air Gear is ridiculous, full stop. It is the nature of Oh! Great’s work, and cannot be simply compounded as good or bad, it is just the way that he writes. As a result, however, people either love it or hate it.
What starts as a relatively simple story about A-T and the youth culture world of fighting for emblems soon becomes apparent as just the tip of a much larger iceberg. Wheels of fate have been churning for a long time before Ikki’s story even begins, and it becomes clear about halfway through (after a narrative curveball that I won’t spoil) that the conclusion of both the old and new generation will come to a head in one final battle.
The things that happen in the second half of the manga particularly, after the tonal shift, are where Air Gear truly veers off the rails.
At one point, when America gets involved in the world of A-T, a character who is essentially Barack Obama, “Jon Omaha”, becomes an important side character.
Not only that, but he is bodyswapped with Adachi, one of Kogarasumaru’s posse. John Omaha uses the body of a high school girl to learn A-T and join the team. Yes, this is actually what happens, with not a hint of irony.
There are other bizarre moments within the story that will shake off readers who aren’t into the almost surrealist style of Oh! Great, such as a fight on moving airplanes, or an entire impromptu arc about the “Tuners” of A-T, but I personally think these only add to the amazing chemistry of the numerous moving parts in Air Gear, and that the story is better for having them. There are over 300 chapters, so if risks weren’t taken then the story would likely have become stagnant over time.
Another oft-cited problem for Air Gear’s critics is the way that A-T fights warp science in order to suit their needs. There are some ridiculous applications of pseudoscience within Air Gear for sure, Kings can literally shoot fire out of their skates or skate on air with enough convenient scientific reasoning. However, I think this is a strange complaint since most famous shonen have no grounding in reality whatsoever (which is absolutely fine), so it’s especially weird to try to pick away at something that at least attempts to explain these things, even if logistically they are not airtight.
If you are put off by “imaginative” stories then perhaps Air Gear is not the manga for you, but I personally greatly appreciate an author who isn’t afraid to take risks. To bridge the gap between a loose sports manga and seinen is an incredible feat, but definitely comes with the caveat of a few moments in the middle where Air Gear is struggling to decide which way to go. This is an acceptable consequence to me, I think that pivoting with such a complicated and sprawling narrative naturally will create a few bumps in the road. It seems only natural to have to endure a few unsure or ill-paced moments in a series that gives almost every character a bit of spotlight and development while pushing its own central narrative simultaneously.
Despite some tone shifts and curveballs, the actual story never loses sight of the most important thing: the theme of finding one’s own Road.
The “Sky” is another reoccurring term, which seems to translate into “potential” more than anything.
Air Gear is not only about reaching one’s Sky, but specifically the journey in order to get there. Hard, defined goals are rare for Air Gear’s characters, most of the time they are simply overcoming the next hurdle in their way on their own personal journeys.
Overcoming hardships usually requires not only addressing the problem within, but subverting in a way that makes it a strength. The way A-T intertwines with the true self creates unique problems that are almost always philosophical in their conclusion.
Each battle is not only a literal competition betweeen two Stormriders and their teams, but also a high-stakes moment of personal development. With each team defeated, Ikki and co. are confirmed or denied in following their own path. Characters from earlier arcs often return, changed by their victory or loss, further reinforcing the importance of potentiality. The interconnectedness of the cast means that for every character who wins, there is a character who loses, and both of these have important effects on their respective stories.
Air Gear personally left me with a lot of lessons to take into my own life, and I think that for anyone reading it there is plenty of wisdom to be gained no matter which characters you connect with. The style, bravado, and genuine spirit of the series has propelled me forward on my own Road, and has always been something to fall back on when I feel directionless. It doesn’t just happen to the heroes too, it is integral to their growth to overcome these things. I think to look for one’s own Sky is the ultimate goal of Air Gear, but particularly knowing it is usually right in front of your face, you simply have to give it your all and chase it.
If these have not convinced you that Air Gear is worth reading, perhaps the art style will. Totally independent of the story, Oh! Great’s abilities as an artist are impossible to deny. Air Gear manages to capture the same fun, alternative 2000’s era swag that similar media like Jet Set Radio or The World Ends With You build off of. Each character has their own unique style and taste, and as the Kings of the series start to appear, their designs are more and more unique, befitting of their legendary status.
One particular facet I love with Air Gear is the chapter cover art. The chapters are called “Tricks”, rather than chapters, and almost every single one is worth stopping and looking at. Throughout the chapter covers, Oh! Great experiments with numerous different styles and permutations of characters, and you are able to see his tenure as an artist. Oh! Great never ceases to amaze with beautiful illustrations that also manage to reinforce the spirit of the characters and series overall.
The art of Air Gear notably picks up as the series grows older, as one would naturally expect during a 10 year series, but even in the rougher beginnings the style is charismatic and charming. I’ve noticed with a lot of long-running series, particularly shonen, that the illustrations can become more streamlined as popularity grows, but Oh! Great has never abandoned his unusual style in any of his works, and Air Gear is no exception. Despite the source material drawing from a lot of fashion and street style, it is still uniquely Oh! Great’s vision that glosses over the entirety of it without lapsing.
If you have read this far, I implore you to try Air Gear. Some of the beginning chapters can be kind of dicey, but once the story gets going it is a one of a kind adventure. In addition to telling an amazing story, Air Gear has helped me a lot with my own determination and drive and I think there is valuable insight within for anyone who chooses to read it. But at the end of the day, the most important thing is to be yourself, and to always keep searching for your Sky, wherever it may take you.