SK8 The Infinity has two qualities I enjoy seeing in an anime: it's fun to watch, and it touches here and there on deeper things without getting lost in the weeds. Like many anime about some particular competitive discipline, whether shogi or piano playing or underwater basketweaving, it in time reveals another, bigger subject. In this case, it's the tension between people who do something competitive requiring great personal discipline because they want to beat all comers, and the people who do the same thing because it's fun and that's just how they want to fill their day. The fun-lovers win.

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© BONES, Hiroko Utsumi / Project SK8
Reki and his rivals (well, rivals at first, anyway).

Thrashin'

Here, the competitive discipline in question is skateboarding. Skaters participate in a massive underground downhill race (literally underground: it's an abandoned mine), where the braggadocio and beefs are as much the draw as the self-consciously theatrical skaters themselves. Among the players is Reki, still in high school and not the most accomplished skater, but who more than makes up in enthusiasm what he lacks in skill. He's the embodiment of the spirit expressed by the painter who was too weak to hold a brush and said "Just tie it into my hand."

One day a new face shows up at school: Langa, who grew up in Canada and got deep into snowboarding before his father's death put the kibosh on his own joy for the sport. He's the demure, repressed yin to Reki's brash, lust-for-life yang. But he senses, correctly, that being around someone like Reki is medicine for him — and further discovers that his experience with snowboarding can be applied, sorta-kinda, to skating. And no prizes for guessing that he too gets drawn into underground racing, where his rookie status makes his wins all the more galling to the thin-skinned.

At first the show seems to be setting itself up in a familiar vein of Reki and Langa vs. the other skaters, each with their own flamboyancies and skating styles: the face-painted Shadow, the elegant Cherry Blossom, the spoiled-brat Miya, and the Final Boss of the bunch, the outlandish Adam, alter ego of a young and ambitious Diet politician with a costume that makes him look like he just escaped from Persona 5. Then, after getting that semi-obligatory stuff out of the way (it's mostly there to further establish Reki and Langa, and to surround them with a Greek chorus), the real direction of the show takes shape: the way Reki and Langa, and Adam, all see skating as part of their personal identities.

Reki's deeply intimidated by Langa's natural skill, something he's not really contended with in the context of someone he's also had a deep friendship with. (It's easier to feel inferior to a rival, because you have no qualms about wanting to beat them.) Langa, likewise, has to deal with the way his rediscovery of something he took joy in has now come between him and the person who reawakened that in him to begin with. And Adam serves as a contrast to both of them: he plays to win, but has forgotten that there was a time when he played to just, well, play.

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© BONES, Hiroko Utsumi / Project SK8
The new kid, Langa, whose talents once awakened, become formidable.

All for the fun of it

This whole theme of the show — if character is who we are in the dark, creativity is what we do even when we expect no reward — landed with unexpected gravity for me while I watched it. I'm involved with a few different circles of creative folks, some old hands and some beginners, and an issue that comes up often is the question of motive: Why do you write novels, draw comics, program video games, etc.? If it's because you want to put something interesting into the world that wasn't there before, that's what matters most; wanting to wring attention out of the world for having done so is a distant second. Reki skates (and makes skateboards, and hangs out with skaters) even if there wasn't a single other extra thing in it for him, including winning.

Of course the show is a riot, even more so in its English audio version. My favorite bits are things revealed after the fact (e.g., Shadow, out of costume, is a pushover who works as a florist), or off in the corners (Reki's family with three sisters, two of them toddlers, explains a lot about him). The best gags in the show are interactional: I cracked a smile whenever Cherry Blossom and his archrival Joe locked horns and radiated "old married gay couple" energy in all directions. One could spin off a whole separate show about them alone, Hobbes & Shaw-style.

Most people would compare SK8 to something like FREE! (same director, Hiroko Utsumi), but the show that came to my mind was Barakamon, another series about someone who rediscovers the real meaning of the thing he does competitively, by way of someone entering their lives from left field. Both also use humor as a way to slip in the real theme of the show under the door, and don't expend so much energy on not being pretentious that they end up becoming precious as a result.

America's biggest export over the years has been its popular culture. Not just Hollywood movies or rock'n'roll, but the stuff that sprung up from the cracks, like hip-hop or (you guessed it) skater culture. Some of my favorite anime projects have been about the way those things have been taken to heart in Japan: BECK (indie rock), or Kids On The Slope (jazz), or Black Lagoon (a meta-love letter to Hollywood action films). SK8 is like those in that it has a lot of its chosen subject in it, but that's just the door through which we enter to bigger questions about what we really want out of our lives.

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© BONES, Hiroko Utsumi / Project SK8
What's bigger than winning? Having fun, or having everyone else lose?
Note: The products mentioned here were purchased by the reviewer with personal funds, or watched using the reviewer's personal streaming account. No compensation was provided by the creators or publishers for the sake of this review.


About the Author

Serdar Yegulalp (@GanrikiDotOrg) is Editor-in-Chief of Ganriki.org. He has written about anime professionally as the Anime Guide for Anime.About.com, and as a contributor to Advanced Media Network, but has also been exploring the subject on his own since 1998.