In my review of SK8 The Infinity, I spent a majority of my time highlighting the production quality of Studio Bones’ strange take on the sports anime genre, and while that wasn’t necessarily wrong, it didn’t paint a complete picture of the series. The character designs are vibrant and lovingly rendered, the backgrounds are painstakingly detailed, and it is a visual delight when in motion. However, I made a serious oversight by not addressing the strength of its character writing and drama.
In all fairness, only three or four episodes had aired by the time I wrote that review, and I’ve been burned before by praising a show before allowing the story to run its course. It is just that my analysis of SK8 is incomplete without mentioning it.
Like many of the best sports anime, SK8 is a feast for the eyes and demonstrates passion for the sport it portrays. It might flout the laws of physics now and then, just so the animators can flex their skills, but there is genuine zeal in how the creative team depicts skating. That is reasonable, as it is actually rare for viewers of a sport to simply be invested in the sport itself. Humans love the stories of the people playing and competing even more than we like sports.
It’s the fundamental flaw of something like The God of High School, that a creative team can have buckets of enthusiasm and carefully craft a love letter to real life martial arts, but it means nothing if we are not invested in the players on the field. The authenticity of the choreography and the visceral fights mean nothing if the characters involved are just cardboard cutouts. SK8 bucks that by weaving character drama into high-stakes skating, and knowing how to balance an ebb and flow of realism with necessary dramatic license.
SK8 The Infinity follows S, an underground skating competition, through the eyes of Reki, a lifelong skating enthusiast, and Langa, a foreign transfer student. Langa quit snowboarding in his native Canada after the death of his father, but finds a fire lit inside himself for skateboarding, and even some transferable skills. He has to work out the kinks, and Reki has to engineer a special board so he can get used to his feet not being strapped down, but progress is swift.
The conflict of SK8 follows the struggles of two groups, both being antagonized by ADAM, a wealthy businessman and politician who was a pioneer in the early days of S. In his guise as a flamboyant matador, ADAM is captivated by Langa’s unorthodox skating style and passion for the sport. It’s deeply uncomfortable how this grown man is fascinated by a teenager, but I’m letting it slide because he’s voiced by Takehito Koyasu, and Dio can get away with anything. Reki, meanwhile, hates ADAM, both for injuring him in a race early on and for attempting to steal his friend, and this is where I need to put a caveat.
SK8 The Infinity is…pretty gay. That’s not anything weird in anime, yaoi is its own subculture in the community and even regular shonen anime plays around with gay stereotypes and imagery often. I feel the need to address it because SK8 walks the line of being yaoi very coyly, and it’s such a large part of the interpsonal conflict that I can’t ignore it in my analysis.
ADAM is searching for someone whose skating can rival and compliment his, his EVE, while Langa talks about the distance between him and Reki to his mom, making her believe he’s talking about a girlfriend. The director of SK8, Hiroko Utsumi, also directed Free and Banana Fish, so it’s not an unusual project for her, but the blurry line between friendship and romance in SK8 is almost a theme in itself, and I couldn’t ignore it without removing context from the relationships I’m attempting to discuss. Okay, tangent over, back to business.
The other conflict in SK8 focuses on the older skaters in the cast, Cherry Blossom and JOE (yeah, a lot of these names are capitalized for no reason other than being extra). The two of them were close friends with ADAM at the start of S, but he quickly cast them aside as his appetite for more daring skating grew. This rivalry has grown in intensity since ADAM’s abrupt return to the sport, and with the introduction of this tournament arc, things are only heating up.
Skateboarding requires near-constant trial and error, more so than many hobbies and sports, and SK8 is happy to demonstrate that. Langa attempts to perform a simple olly dozens if not hundreds of times before even getting it half-right, and the viewer gets to closesly watch every scrape and fall that he does. However, the story quickly switches perspectives from the fast-learning newcomer to the experienced skater reaching a plateau.
Reki’s character arc is something intensely relatable; watching someone do something you’ve done all your life, and be better at it. He has to cope with what it feels like to fall behind, not through any fault of his own, but that some people are just naturally on different levels. It’s a fundamental struggle with any skill, practicing and earning early achievements and milestones, and watching as they slowly trickle out as you rise higher, until you hit your ceiling.
At this point in the story, it seems as though Reki may not be able to overcome the deficit in natural talent between he and his rivals. He fails to reach the same heights (literally) as Langa, performing a jump underneath an overpass, and is turned into the butt of a joke by every antagonist. It feels as though he is being turned into an obstacle for antagonists to knock aside so they can prove that they’re a threat, before being defeated by Langa. It’s a common enough trope that the main character’s friend gets defeated before he has to come in and save the day, but we now see the story through that friend’s eyes.
In anime, perseverance is the most important trait, but that ignores how many people will just never do as well as the minority who have natural skill. Hard work is essential to doing well, but so is luck, and you can’t overturn the hand your genetics and circumstances hand you with a good work ethic, most of the time. This is a fascinating character arc that we rarely get to see; someone trying their absolute hardest, only to fail.
In the first season of One Punch Man, we see the villainous Deep Sea King destroy every superhero who comes against him, until we’re only left with the powerless Mumen Rider. He tries his hardest, valiantly fighting in spite of odds he can’t hope to overcome, and he obviously falls short. However, his sacrifice buys enough time for Saitama to come in and anticlimactically put the oversized mermaid down. Reki is powerless in an environment where he once held agency, and there is no getting around that, just moving through.
SK8 is as yet unfinished, and this could very well change, and Reki might pull through through sheer stubbornness. This essay runs hoping that they will try and say something meaningful on Reki’s lack of natural talent, but I am prepared that they might just be laying the groundwork for him to reemerge in S after a good training montage.
When writing a human drama, there is a subtle difference between what is realistic and what is emotionally resonant. If you stray from plausibility, you alienate your audience and their belief that your story has real stakes. If your story is simply regular people who experience mundane problems, you run the risk of boring the viewer. In either case, you fall flat.
SK8 straddles the line between these two tactfully, especially in how it invested a significant amount of its runtime early on establishing the gritty and tedious aspects of skating. Langa might have an advantage with his background in snowboarding, especially after receiving his modded board, but he has to put an incredible amount of work in to master the basics. And the series doesn’t just stop there.
ADAM’s Love Hug is one of the most absurd concepts that the series has brought up thus far. The Matador of Love will stop his board on a dime and move upward towards his opponent, arms outstretched and preparing to send them hurtling to the asphalt below. It sounds ludicrous that someone could move a skateboard uphill, but the experienced skaters who know ADAM well explain that it’s a trick of perception; ADAM tricks his rival into believing he is moving towards them by speeding away and abruptly changing course, using their own speed to appear as if he is moving uphill.
Playing with the plausibility like that is what makes these races exciting and dynamic. There is just enough room for doubt to believe that anything could happen, at least in theory. They occasionally push things too far, like when JOE leaps off his board to kick a rock wall and gather momentum, like a swimmer might push off the edge of a pool. These moments of silliness are relatively rare, though, so I can forgive them.
SK8 The Infinity has a clear grasp of what makes for a captivating narrative, both in how it handles its characters and its subject matter. This maintains the series’ high stakes and gripping personal drama. It also creates a well-rounded viewing experience that impresses the audience with its fusion of high-octane racing action with deeply personal drama revolving around coming of age, friendship, and persistence.
SK8 is not the first anime to do this, but it does an exceptional job of balancing these story elements without one taking the lead, all while being the first anime about skateboardin. No matter how many times I say it, it still surprises me that it took this long for one to be made. Regardless, I am just pleased that the first one has set a high standard for the genre going forward.
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