One day, when I was wondering in the library, dragging my index finger along the pitifully small collection of anime DVD’s, I stumbled across a series that I never seen or heard of before called “Aria: The Natural”. I looked at the case and scanned the brief description on the back. “It’s a girly series. Don’t waste your time.” A small voice in the back of my head echoed. ” Why bother checking it out when there’s a chance you might not like it?” As I often tend to do when it comes to anime, I ignored this little voice in my head, made a mental note to make an appointment with my psychiatrist, and checked it out anyway. Boy, I’m glad I did; “Aria” is honestly one of the best series I ever had the good fortune to come across. There is nothing quite like it out there. What is it that makes “Aria” different from any other coming-of-age/slice of life anime? What is it that makes it so irresistible? It’s the fact that it’s a genuine slice-of-life story. That is, it not only follows the main characters, but it also shows their interactions with those around them. The series is a world in itself, and the viewer is simply invited to quietly observe.
Who Is This Series For? – This series is for those who may have just finished a real brain buster, heavy-duty series and are looking for something to cleanse the mental palette. This series is for those who want a break from the day-to-day slice of life series. This series is DEFINITELY for you if you are just looking for a series where you can turn your brain off and just let it happen.
Who Is This Series NOT For? – “Aria” may not be for you if you are not willing to leave skepticism at the door and believe that an ideological society such as the one portrayed exists. I wouldn’t recommend “Aria” to younger viewers as the slow, methodical pace may be TOO slow as compared to more fast-paced series that are out there. I would not recommend this series if you’re looking for a slapstick comedy. Now don’t get me wrong, “Aria” does have comedy, and it’s genuinely funny too, but it never goes out of its way to make a joke. “Aria” is not the series for you if you’re looking for fan service because, honestly, it’s not that kind of show. In the whole series, there’s only five scenes when we see the characters in a state of undress, and even then, it’s completely covered with towels, modest bathing suits, and water. Long story short, this series is to relax the viewer, not titillate. Finally, “Aria” is not for you if you are not a cat lover, as the series predominately features felines. Just thought I should put that out there.
That being said, let’s dive right in.
Story & Premise – Based off a manga of the same name by Kozue Amano, “Aria” has three seasons, each running in line with the other: “Aria: The Animation” which has thirteen episodes, “Aria: The Natural” which has twenty-six episodes, and “Aria: The Origination” which has thirteen episodes. There’s also an OVA called “Aria the OVA: Arietta”, which takes place between “Natural” and “Origination”. [please note, for simplicity sake, and because I’m a lazy bum, I will abbreviate the titles to “Animation”, “Natural”, “Origination” and “Arietta” when speaking of the individual seasons, and “Aria” when speaking of the series as a whole.] All three seasons are set in the far distant future where Earth is now known as “Manhome”, Mars is now terraformed into a planet made mostly of water called “Aqua”, and space travel is now common place between the two planets; so much so that people in this time often travel to Aqua for vacations. Enter Neo-Venezia, the main city on Aqua and an extremely detailed recreation of Venice. Neo-Venezia is a tourist hotspot, as it reflects the way Manhome’s Venice once looked prior to it being submerged in water. [This is never explained why…though I would suspect global warming…by jove, Al Gore was right!] The principal method of transportation for locals and tourists is the gondola but, unlike Manhome’s Venice, these gondolas are piloted by female gondoliers known as “Undines” who go through strict training and apprenticeships to hone their craft and reach the rank of “Prima” permitting them to, among other things, scull a white gondola and carry paying passengers. The story follows three apprentice Undines as they go through their day-to-day lives in Neo-Venezia, practicing together training to become top Primas like their mentors, The Three Great Water Fairies and exploring the wonders of this magical city.
The premise itself is quite simple, but the story that it tells is extremely well done. When I first saw the series, I unknowingly started with the second season “Aria: The Natural”, yet I was able to catch on to the general plot and story just as easily as though I was watching from the beginning. While the three seasons touch on different topics, (“Animation” introducing us to the cast, “Natural” introducing us to the world of Neo-Venezia and it’s citizens, “Arietta” getting the viewer prepped for what’s to come and “Origination” a culmination of the entire series as the Prima Promotion Exams loom closer) the show as a whole never leaves you hanging or confused as to what’s going on. You could easily start the series watching “Animation” or “Natural” and catch on after one or two episodes. In fact, during the short opening sequence on the first episode of “Natural”, Akari says “So, we meet again. Or is this the first time?” and then goes into a brief explanation of the story. The episode that follows pretty much introduces us in a subtle way to the characters we met in “Animation”. Later, during a festival when we see “Grandma” again (The founder of Aria Company), Akatsuki asks “Who is that?” and Akari explains to him, and in turn the viewing audience, who she is! And before you know it, you’re all caught up. It’s such a welcoming and warm story, and you feel less like you’re watching an anime about gondoliers on Mars and more like you just landed in Neo-Venezia and you just so happened to bump into an old friend. It’s not so much telling you a story, as it’s letting the story drift along with you along for the ride. This is an example of “Slice of Life” done right.
Another thing I enjoyed was the fact that, even though this story takes place in the far-distant future, where space travel is common place, and human beings are able to both terraform and live on planets other than Earth, it’s not an overall driving force in the plot. In fact, there are times when you honestly forget that you’re in the future until something physical happens like a phone call on the holographic phone or a conversation between characters where they mention something high-tech. Only then you remember “Oh yeah…this is the FUTURE…” (25/25)
Characters – As I mentioned earlier, “Aria” follows three apprentice Undines, each with their own distinct personalities. First is Akari Mizunashi, an immigrant from Manhome (Earth) who works for the small yet welcoming Aria Company with her senior, the infinitely patient, forgiving, and graceful Alicia and company “President” Aria . Akari is a very bright, happy-go-lucky girl who always finds the positive in any situation, and takes genuine delight in finding the wonders in everyone and everything, much to the chagrin of her best friend Aika. Speaking of…
Aika S. Granzchesta is the future heir to Himeya Company, the oldest water guide company in Neo-Venezia where she was born and raised. Unlike Akari, who finds new wonders to discover every day, and waxes poetic sappy lines, Aika tends to keep her head out of the clouds and on her gondola, issuing sharp rebukes to those whose minds drift from practice. She strives to become a Prima and works hard at it everyday with the “help” of her mentor, the no-nonsense, hard-driving, tough-love issuing Akira and the company “President” Hime.
Last but not least, we have Alice Carroll from Orange Planet, the newest and largest water guide company currently in existence. She is the youngest of the trio, and the lowest ranked apprentice, yet she has advanced sculling skills that rival even the best Primas which has earned her notoriety among the water guide community and beyond. Because of this, she’s extremely self-conscious of her abilities and is shy when it comes to meeting others outside her circle of friends. Within the group, she acts as the De-facto straight-man to the headstrong Aika and the slightly air-headed Akari. In addition, she also has to act as a sort of guardian to both her roommate and mentor Athena and the young company “President” Maa.
[Oh, before I forget; apprenticeship rank is determined by the gloves worn by a Undine throughout her training. As she goes through her apprenticeship and passes randomly administered tests, she loses a glove. Gloves on both hands signifies a “Pair”, One glove on one hand signifies a “Single” and no gloves is Prima. When the series begins, both Akari and Aika are Singles. Alice is a Pair.]
As the series goes on, we’re introduced to several recurring characters like Ai, a young girl who befriends Akari in the first episode of “Animation” and emails her every day throughout the series, Akatsuki, a fiery apprentice salamander [someone who controls the weather from a floating island hovering over Neo-Venezia] who has an almost manic crush on Alicia, Al, a short apprentice gnome [a person who controls the gravity from deep inside Neo Venezia using a complex system of gravity stones–this is explained in “Aria: The Natural” so don’t worry.], and Woody, an energetic sylph [air bike delivery boy as motorized vehicles are not allowed in the canals or sidewalks of Neo-Venezia] who delivers packages around Neo-Venesia.
Overall, the cast of “Aria” is like none that I’ve ever seen before. Each one shines in every episode, and none of them feel overshadowed by each other. Because of her character type and personality, it would be EASY to have Akari overshadow Aika and Alice, but it just doesn’t happen. Each character has their own little nuance that makes them special; whether it’s Akari’s almost-baseless optimism and love of everything and everyone, Aika’s no-nonsense rebukes to Akari’s sappy commentary, or Alice’s cool yet slightly childish speaking mannerisms [she uses the phrase “dekkai” meaning “huge” or “really” in every single episode she is featured in at least once] each character has a subtle little quirk that makes them recognisable. Even the one-shot characters like Anton the glass makers apprentice in “Natural” or Anna the Prima turned housewife in “Origination” are given equal attention to detail, and are great characters on their own. The instructors are well matched with their apprentices, and the chemistry between the two is a joy to watch; the gentle yet supportive Alicia paired with the sweet-natured yet sappy Akari, the tough love wielding Akira paired with the headstrong Aika, and the silent yet wise Athena paired with the still-maturing Alice. As the series progresses, the relationships between these characters develop and mature which makes it all the more enjoyable to watch. The ending to the series is fulfilling, and I didn’t feel let down by it at all. In fact, and I know this will sound strange, but it’s the exact way the series should’ve ended; any other ending just wouldn’t work. I also have a soft spot for the “presidents” of the companies, my particular favorite being Maa-Sachou. I know it’s weird that a six-one, two hundred and forty pound black guy has an affinity for cute little kittens, but hey, don’t judge me… (25/25)
Animation & Music – According to the mini-documentary “Sato-Jun’s Venice. I’m Sorry!” [Sato-Jun being the directors nickname], the director and some of his production crew actually went out to Venice to take in the atmosphere of the city, actually ride in a real-life gondola, and take a lot of photographs to use as reference points instead of just making an assumption on what Venice looks like. And their hard work shows through this series as “Aria” is a feast for the eyes from beginning to end. The buildings, the landscapes, the sweeping views and vistas are all done with the attention to detail that, sadly, is missing in many of todays shows. Nearly all the buildings you see in “Aria” are based off real-life buildings and structures that you can find in Venice. In fact, in the last episode of the mini-documentary, the director goes through each episode and shows the real-life picture that inspired it. It’s really facinating to watch. The director even went so far as to perfect the animation of the water reflecting off the oar in the water, which was based on his actual first trip in a gondola. The only problem that I had with regards to animation was that the size of the gondolas seem to change as the series goes on. In “Animation” we see that the trainee gondola Akari uses is pretty much a two passenger ride, with one passenger sitting on the floor at the bow or on the top, and another passenger towards the back by the gondolier. However, in “Natural”, the size changes; the gondola can now seat three passengers in small stools. And before you say “But, wait! Doesn’t Akari get another gondola mid-way in the series?”, keep in mind that the gondola I am referring to is the same gondola that Akari has been using since “Animation” began. While it’s nothing that completely distracts from the overall storytelling, it is something that, none the less, caught my eye; a small blotch in otherwise flawless artistic work. One other thing to note is that the animation style changes slightly in “Aria The OVA: Arietta”. The backgrounds and scenes are beautiful, as always; in fact, one could argue that Neo Venezia never looked better. However, with the character designs, there is a noticeable difference with Akari and Alicia. The faces are slightly smaller, the eyes are a little bigger, and more detail is given to small facial shadows and wrinkles. It’s still beautifully done, but it is a bit of a shock when you compare the series versions with the OVA. But, it still looks awesome.
With regards to music and soundtrack, this series gets full marks across the board. It works well with the setting, making use of soft guitars, pianos, and gently applied acoustics. All the musical cues are nice and subtle, and matches the scenes they’re used in perfectly. The opening songs; “Undine” for “Animation”, “Euphoria” for “Natural”, “Nana iro no Sora wo” for “Arietta” and “Spirale” for “Origination” all strike the appropriate cords for each of the seasons. The end songs are equally pleasant, and the animation set to them is nothing short of beautiful. Special note must also be given to the late Eri Kawai, who provided the singing voice for Athena as well as performing other songs on the “Aria” soundtracks. Her voice was a true gift to this series, and it is, as Akari would probably say, a wonderful miracle that her voice will continue to live on through this series even after her passing. And then, somewhere close by, a sharp voice will ring out “EMBARASSING COMMENTS ARE PROHIBITED!!!”, thus ending the conversation. Shame on you, Aika. (24/25)
Performances – This series is available in Sub-Only format, and to be honest, to dub this anime would do it a great disservice. This is something that I do not say lightly at all. With all due respect to the English Dubbing community, there is no group of actors or actresses that I can fathom that can bring the same level of quality that the original Japanese actors attained. Erino Hazuki, Chiwa Saitō & Ryō Hirohashi excel above and beyond the call of duty as Akari, Aika and Alice respectively while Sayaka Ohara, Junko Minagawa, & the late Tomoko Kawakami gave equally awesome performances as Alicia, Akira and Athena again respectively. I also must applaud the Japanese voice talent for their near-perfect pronunciation of Italian terms and phrases used periodically throughout the series. (25/25)
Story & Premise – 25 out of 25
Characters – 25 out of 25
Animation & Music -24 out of 25
Performances – 25 out of 25
Final Grade: 99/100 = 99% (A)
Availability – All three seasons of “Aria” are available on DVD, licensed by Right Stuf International. “Aria: The Animation” is available in a four-disk box set with all thirteen episodes plus extras. “Aria: The Natural” is unique in that it splits its twenty-six episodes into two 13 episode sets, each set containing four disks plus one for extras. “Aria: The Origination” is available as a four disk set with all thirteen episodes plus extras and “Aria The OVA: Arietta”. Each set has plenty of extras including a video journal of the directors trip to Venice and conversations with the voice cast where they reflect on the series, working with each other, and their favorite episodes. There are also special “Picture Dramas” on the “Origination” DVD’s which are well worth checking out. In any case (pun intended), the DVD’s are available from may different retailers such as Right Stuf International, Wal-Mart, and Best Buy. Of course, you can always check other sites out like Amazon and eBay, but you do so at your own risk! Prices may vary.
Lagniappe (A Little Something Extra) – This is a section that I will devote to interesting and unique trivia that I stumble across either through the viewing of a series, or by way of the all-knowing Internet:
- In episode six of “Aria: The Animation”, when Akari stays over at Orange Planet, Alice makes a point to ask Akari to change into the yellow Orange Planet uniform. However, later in “Natural”, when Alice says that it’s perfectly fine that both her and Aika are in their standard uniforms.
The uniforms for Aria Company, Himeya Company and Orange Planet are primary colors; Blue, Red and Yellow which, when combined together, make white–the same color as a Prima gondola, interestingly enough.
(**SPOILER ALERT** DO NOT READ BELOW **SPOILER ALERT**)
When Alice is promoted to Prima, she is given the title of “Orange Princess”. When Aika is promoted, she is given the title “Queen of Roses”. However, when Akari is promoted, she is given the title “Aquamarine”; a non royal-style title. However, it should be noted that the gemstone of the same name has been known to have calming mystical properties which is strongest when in the water. I would call that pretty appropriate for Akari, wouldn’t you?
The three girls are promoted in the reverse order that they are introduced in the series. Alice first, then Aika and finally Akari.
During Alice’s’ promotion examination, Athena asks Alice to perform a song. The song “Lumis Eterne (Eternal Shine)” was preformed by Ryō Hirohashi. The director admitted to being nervous when he read the manga that Alice had to sing during her promotion exam. The song itself is sung in both Esperanto and Japanese.
(**END SPOILER ALERT** NON SPOILERS BELOW **END SPOILER ALERT**)
- In the first half of episode twenty-two of “Natural” (“That Mysterious World … / That Guardian Of Aqua”), there is a scene when the genders of the entire cast is reversed (girls become boys and boys become girls). However, even though they refer to each other with “-kun” instead of “-chan”, their feminine names still remain.
- In episode two of “Animation”, we see two males working for Himeya Company, wearing a male version of the company uniform. This is the only time we ever see males actively working for any of the water guide companies (not counting Episode 22 of “Natural” because that was an alternate reality). However, it is not known whether or not these fellows are actually water guides or are they just general employees.
- In the second picture drama (found on the “Origination” DVD’s) Akari, Aika and Alice are enlisted into playing in a three-on-three mini-soccer game for charity. When Alice protests, Aika says “I thought you were good at sports like kendo and stuff.” Alice replies “You REALLY must be thinking about the wrong person.” This is a reference to Ryō Hirohashi, who, in addition to playing Alice, also played Tamaki Kawazoe, a young kendo prodigy, in “Bamboo Blade”.
- According to the DVD extras interview with Eri Kawai, the lyrics to many of the songs that Athena sang was actually gibberish with no real meaning.
- The director for “Aria” (Jun’ichi Satō) and the sound director (Yasuno Satō) are married. This is confirmed in the “Natural” DVD extras interview. The pair joked that they had “family discussions” while at home with regards to the direction of the series and deciding which pieces of music work best. Awww…
- In episode 23 of “Natural” ( “That Sea, Love, and Heart …”), we see an elderly couple get treated to a musical serenade by a couple of musicians. The musicians are actually caricatures of Choro Club feat. Takeshi Senoo, the musical team responsible for much of the music heard throughout the “Aria” Series.
- Both the singing voice (Eri Kawai) and speaking voice (Tomoko Kawakami) of Athena Glory have passed away; Kawai on August 4, 2008 due to liver cancer complications and Kawakami on June 9, 2011 due to complications with Ovarian cancer.
- The voice actress for Maa-Sachou (Akeno Watanabe) also voices Al, the Gnome.
So where does that leave us? Well, simply put, the “Aria” series is spiritual renewal in animated form. Never before has a series been both enlightening without being overly complex, encouraging without being hyperactive, and sappy without being cavity inducing. The animation is breathtaking, the music is uplifting, and the acting is some of the best I’ve ever heard. I would recommend “Aria” to anyone looking for a break from the norm.
And so ends my first review. I know I was a little long-winded, but with a series like “Aria” it’s kinda hard not to be. As for my next review, originally I had planned, and even begun to watch “Mushi-Shi” for the next review, but due to a request from a friend of mine, and because I haven’t seen a lot of reviews of this particular title, AND because I always try to find any excuse at all to watch this series, I will be reviewing…
“Ghost Stories” (Gakkō no Kaidan)
Look forward to it! (Please don’t forget to comment below to let me know how I did with my premiere review!)