The Kyoto Animation "Holy Trinity" is an unofficial term that refers to three anime adaptations of Key visual novels. Among them is Kyoto Animation’s most famous work, Clannad, which has become one of the most beloved anime of all time. The second member of the Trinity, Kanon (2006), lacks the overwhelming acclaim that Clannad has, but remains relevant with a respectable cult-following. Unfortunately, Kanon and Clannad often soak up the spotlight and overshadow the third member, Air. Even so, Air serves an important role in the Kyoto Animation Holy Trinity by laying the foundation for some of Kyoto Animation’s greatest works.
Anime studios usually do not get do-overs. In a way, the trifecta of Air, Kanon and Clannad are repeated attempts at making the same anime. They all have the same goal of being a touching story about love and family that pierces the heart. What varies among the Trinity is their execution and how effective the result is each time. This means Air, in a sense, is Kyoto Animation’s first draft. So, if Air was Kyoto Animation’s first attempt at its ideal tale, what was its influence and impact, and does it bring enough to the table to stand on its own?
The first ingredient in a melodramatic novel adaptation is an iconic main girl. Misuzu Kamio has long blonde hair, a cute catchphrase, and a soul filled with moe. Perhaps the goal was to have a childish main girl, but she really is just a child. Still, she is a good enough character to fit her role. She also has enough hobbies and quirks to distinguish herself from similar leads. Despite being nothing like Kanon’s Ayu Tsukimiya (excluding having a catchphrase), Misuzu bears an uncanny likeness to Clannad’s Nagisa Furukawa. In fact, Nagisa is Misuzu done perfectly. Clannad looked back to Air when trying to figure out where the line was between "child" and "like a child." Misuzu not only succeeds as the lead female of Air, but also as a character model for Kyoto Animation’s newer anime.
It should go without saying that many of the characters of Air—not just Misuzu—serve as prototypes for the casts of Kanon and Clannad. The remaining main characters are Minagi Toono, Kano Kirishima, and Yukito Kunisaki. Out of the main cast, Minagi is the most forgettable, mainly because of her cut-and-paste personality. In a nutshell, she is the quiet girl. Over time, Kyoto Animation tried to create a better girl of the same type, and Kotomi Ichinose from Clannad was considered a satisfying result. Kano is slightly more memorable than Minagi as she does not embody a particular trope, but she does not have the development to make up for her lack of defining characteristics. Yukito, however, is a huge success. At first, the only things about him that stand out are his silver hair and snark. Very little about his past is revealed, and all of his development comes from his interactions with the other characters. Having a lead male that is a blank slate is a perfect idea for this kind of anime, and this strategy is implemented to great success with Tomoya Okazaki and Yuuichi Aizawa, the lead males of Clannad and Kanon, respectively.
While not executed well, a particular plot device in Air gets reused in both Kanon and Clannad. A good name to describe it would be "The Disappearing Supporting Character." Be warned for mild spoilers for those that have not seen the whole Trinity. In Air, there is a very bubbly girl named Michuru who hangs around Minagi. Until episode five, Michuru is just there as a sidekick, but it is then revealed during Minagi’s arc that she is a spirit who manifested itself in the form of Minagi’s dead sister. After the conflict in Minagi’s arc resolves, Michuru vanishes. The sub-plot of a cast member being a spiritual manifestation of some sort—followed by their disappearance—was so unsuccessful that Kyoto Animation had to try the same thing again with Kanon to see if they could get it right. What resulted was Makoto Sawatari’s arc, and while it was one of my favorite parts of the Trinity, it is still a hit or miss. The third attempt at “The Disappearing Supporting Character” is Fuko Ibuki’s arc in Clannad, and it is absolutely flawless. It does a wonderful job balancing character introduction with plot-progression, and the way it ends lacks the abrasiveness of Makoto’s and Minagi’s arcs. Kyoto Animation showed passion for its work by taking what was perhaps the worst part of Air and perfecting it.
Have you ever heard someone say that sometimes, less is more? While Air is a melodramatic slice-of-life, it is also packed with supernatural elements. Despite Yukito performing a puppet show with telekinesis in the first episode, I was skeptical about how supernatural Air would actually get. Air ended up having as many supernatural elements as the initial premise would allow. This is not "bad" per se, but the decision to turn Air into something that borders on being a deconstruction costs it a lot of merit. Without proper execution, such a collision of genres tends to alienate fans. An even bigger shame is that three tries were not enough for Kyoto Animation to determine the proper way to execute supernatural in slice-of-life. Kanon has double the amount of episodes Air has, and is slightly less convoluted, but it is very hit-or-miss, depending on the audience. After forty episodes of Clannad, fans started to think Kyoto Animation had gotten it right, up until one of the most controversial endings in all of anime. Despite Kyoto Animation’s greatest efforts, the perfect balance between reality and supernatural was never achieved. Even so, the mark left by Air’s experiment became one of the defining characteristics of the Trinity.
Serving as a guide for its successors is commendable, so it would be a shame if Air did not have enough merit to stand on its own. This is not the case for Air as it is very good, and there may even be people who would prefer it over its successors for a multitude of reasons. There are themes of family in Air, such as a single mother raising a child. Air’s story also went beyond its initial premise by diving deep into the history of the main characters. However, the best part of Air and its role in the Kyoto Animation Trinity is how abstract it is. Air’s storytelling is much less straightforward than that of Kanon and Clannad, allowing for much more interpretation.
Without Air, we would not have the legendary trifecta of anime called the Kyoto Animation Holy Trinity. Not everyone will enjoy Air, Kanon and Clannad, and few will love them to the extent I do. Even so, the Trinity’s fame is undeniable. Hopefully, more fans will come to recognize the importance of Air, as it was the spark that led to some of the most beloved anime of all time.