Aria the Animation
In the near future, Mars has been terraformed into a paradise, where the city of Neo-Venezia rests. However, due to various circumstances, the water excavation project eventually lead to far, far more water covering the planet than originally intended, and so it came to be known as "planet Aqua" for the people living there and those who visit its main city, Neo Venezia.
Being based on Venice, Neo Venezia also has a thriving gondola tourism service spearheaded by the Undine, an all-female troupe of gondoliers. Akari Mizunashi is one of those girls who dream of becoming a full-fledged Undine, and so she becomes a part of Aria Company, a small, but well known asset due to it being run by one of the three Water Fairies, the greatest Undines on planet Aqua.
It's kind of funny -- and a little scary -- to look back on Aria now, after more than ten years has passed since the first season was made. And even before that, the memories of browsing through the manga every summer for two or three years, dismissing it at first due to its very uniform-centric designs, but eventually taking a leap of faith on it. And after almost literally devouring them, infuriatingly finding out that three volumes was all I had, at least at first. The small "I can't believe this is happening" moments when I learned it was going to get an anime adaptation. The elation I felt back in 2008 when the license for a North American release was announced. The way I stood staring at the box set of that first season as I held it in my hands, still not quite grasping the situation fully. And then seeing Aria the Natural and Aria the Origination (OAV included) got licensed as well. In a way, it's so much like the kind of feeling the show itself imparts on you. Aria does elation incredibly well, making you appreciate these small moments the show presents.
Akari Mizunashi might come across as a bit dense at first. She's definitely partially an airhead, but that's not to say she doesn't pay attention to what's going on around her, or that she's stupid in any way. In fact, she has a remarkable ability to look at the positive side of things and verbalize them in a way that not only makes sense, but feels really encouraging as well. It's a feeling that sneaks up on you, and before you realize, you're completely immersed in it. With her mentor, Alicia Florence, the two make up the perfect front for Aria Company, a small building in the outskirts of Neo Venezia. If Akari is the somewhat clumsy newbie, Alicia serves as the "perfect on the surface" mentor type who never seem to get angry about anything, even as Akari's friend Aika chastize her for her lax personality type or embarrassing lines.
Compared to Akari, Aika seems more like the responsible type, but she's also more prone to temper tantrums and general acts of immaturity from time to time. This aspect of hers strikes a nice counterbalance to her being the main drive at many of their practice sessions, and in many ways, she's also partnered up with a mentor of some similarity, namely Akira E. Ferrari. Both being headstrong, they clash almost all the time; in fact, her introductory episode sees her and Aika getting into an argument and Aika running off to "join Aria Company". Which, of course will not happen seeing as Aika is the heir to Himeya, the biggest Undine company in town.
The anime also saw fit to step up the scedule on Alice's introduction, going from appearing in volume 3 in the manga to episode 3 in the anime. Since most episodes tend to incorporate one chapter from the manga, or merge it with another, she had to be incorporated in chapter conversions where they hadn't originally met yet, like the bath house episode, or even the New Year's. That said, manga and anime Alice Carrol are pretty much the same person anyway; a young and slightly cynical school girl who was, unlike Akari and Aika, scouted into her current position. She's got a somewhat antisocial streak, which is a problem when you're scouted for a job that relies heavily on you being able to entertain guests, more often than not total strangers. To deal with that, she's a bit sharp-tongued, but not quite in the same way as Aika and Akira; where the two of them are harsh to connect with people and help them improve, Alicia's sharpness are more designed to make people leave her alone. Naturally, her personality makes her clash with Aika to some degree, but of course, Akari has little problems moving beyond all that and making friends with her anyway.
Other characters were simply changed around. In the manga version of the plot for the first episode, Akari's customer was a middle-aged man, but in the anime, we're introduced to a little girl who becomes a mainstay in the show, if not necessarily in appearance, but as Akari's friend from Manhome. Ai-chan doesn't make the best first impression, working her way into Akari's gondola through blackmail of a surprisingly harsh variety. How would the Gondola Association punish an Undine who tries kidnapping young girls, I wonder? But like she does with most people, Akari quickly gets through to Ai-chan, and by the end of it, she ends up being the one Akari mails about her day-to-day events, and even show up in the New Year's episode in question alongside Alice and many of the others we met in the anime.
A bit disappointingly, that also means Aria the Animation holds back on some of the other character introductions. Granted, Akatsuki gets introduced like normal, since he was one of the first male side characters who was introduced to the franchise, but Al -- who was originally introduced in full even before Alice's appearance -- only shows up in the last episode, briefly, and his introduction episode is almost completely glossed over. On the other hand, Woody -- the resident Sylph, a package delivery company -- is already introduced in full in episode 4 despite making his appearance after Alice does. The mailman does appear too, if somewhat briefly, but you're also going to have to wait until the next season to get to know my favorite male Aria character in full.
From a technical standpoint, Aria the Animation isn't terribly impressive. The animation can be great, but just as often it looks a bit... less so. Granted, I can't imagine anything centered around water to be easy to animate in any circumstance, much less so when you also include all the vehicles that travels on the Neo Venezian seas. Things can get a bit slidey with vehicle movement, and even beyond that, the show does look a bit clumsy at times. That said, the background art can be quite gorgeous, and the settings are often a veritable treat. Sato and some of the members of his team did go on a research trip to Venice itself, and it shows.
As far as the Blurays go, the whole upscale process does give the backgrounds in the show a smoother look, which is good, but the characters -- their line art in particular -- has this variably fuzzy quality to them that probably stems from the original -- a bit like the visual problem Haibane Renmei had -- which, to my understanding, was not made in full HD. It's hard to say how much importance I should place on this, since Aria certainly has enough strengths to make its visual qualities much less of a problem.
The music, on the other hand, is never anything less than utterly fantastic. Most of the in-show tracks are made by Choro Club and Takeshi Senoo. They give the show a nice acoustic, southern American flair -- "choro" is apparently inspired by upbeat acousting music from Brazil, mostly by way of flute and guitar -- while Senoo rounds up the piano pieces that mark the somewhat sadder, but still optimistic pieces like the gorgeous "Mangetsu no Dolce". Each episode is spearheaded by "Undine", a quiet little ballad by Yui Makino that fits the show like a warm, cozy glove. Instead of a premade animation sequence that gets repeated every episode, Aria the Aniation ingeniously incorporate more of the show's story with the episode. This way, it basically continues its plot as the music plays, making every single opening segment unique to each episode and saving the viewers from having to skip anything when watching it on DVD or Bluray. Round Table brings up each episode (except the last one) with "Rainbow", a more energetic song, albeit still with Aria's trademark laid-back attitude.
English dubs can be a bit of a crapshoot when it comes to anime, and the dub team for Aria were facing one hell of an uphill struggle to begin with. The Japanese voiceover for Aria was more or less as perfect as one could hope for; Erino Hazuki's work as Akari defies explanation, so much so that when she sort of brought that tone to other characters, like Shihomi Riho from Tamayura and Mizunashi Akane from Amanchu, just listening to them speak is enough to make you feel that warm, fuzzy feeling inside. My (metaphorical) hat off for Veronica Taylor, then, because she did an amazing job at recapturing the tone and spirit of her character. Sure, she does play up the "breathless wonder" in her voice a bit much at the start of the show, but that's understandable to a degree. When you don't have that voice and text reading disconnect, you also realize a bit more how awkwardly phrased and explainy the dialogue can get in the first season, but that's not as much the actor's problem as the script's.
Moving on with the dub commentary; Jessica Calvello also does a great job as Aika, bringing much of her Akira-inherited strictness, but also that mild childish petulant streak to bear, while Marissa Lenti generally does a good job with Alicia, mirroring her motherly nature and gentle tone. Tara Tisch-Wallace as Alice and Lisa Ortiz as Ai-chan took some time getting used to, as their tone of voice was changed quite a bit from the Japanese originals, but their acting is generally good enough to warrant that. Although Alice sounded maybe a bit too self-assured in the English dub compared to Ryou Hirohashi's muted representation of her, which makes me wonder how Tara will handle the later episodes centered around her character. Again, her voice acting isn't bad; it might just be a matter of getting used to her. It was the same with Akira's voice actor, Carol Jacobanis, except in the opposite direction. She does have some problems, at least at first, bringing Akira's sheer power of presence to the screen. Junko Minagawa did a great job with her, but Carol seems to struggle a bit, or maybe she underestimates her character, as the weight behind her voice is definitely lessened compared to the Japanese version -- one of the episodes in Aria the Animation puts a nice divide between her "on the job" self and her "drill sargeant nasty" self, and Carol's Akari seems a bit stuck on the former all the time. Again, she isn't a bad actor in this show by any stretch of the imagination, but whether she was the right choice for Akira remains to be seen.
I'd like to talk some about Athena too, and not just out of respect for the late Tomoko Kawakami, but.... she barely speaks in the first season, even in the Japanese version, so it's kind of hard to judge the efforts of Michele Knots when she doesn't have much to work with, although episode 11 should probably count as evidence enough that we have nothing to worry about on that front. Miss Kawakami sort of just mumbles her lines most of the time, so in that respect, her English actor does a good job of replicating it for the English dub. In addition to that, out of pretty much every voice in the dub, Athena's songs are most likely the only voicework they kept from the Japanese version. And yes, that includes the voice of the cats. It took a while for me to realize it, but President Aria also got an English dub actor -- that is to say Tara Tisch-Wallace plays President Aria in addition to Alice -- and, like I mentioned, it took a little while for me to realize that he had been redubbed despite not really speaking any words in any language except in his own kitty way.
Among the side characters, I have to say that Akatsuki's English actor absolutely nailed the character. Wayne Grayson does tune down some of Akatsuki's shriller edge, which is fine by me, since the character itself could get kind of obnoxious at times, and his lines just feel right by the show. Woody's actor, James Carter Cathcart, does bring out the Goofy factor a bit much to my liking, but does an otherwise fine job as the lovable Sylph with a big heart. Marissa Lenti also does a great job as Akino Ametsuchi, aka Grandma, making her just as warm and generous as her Japanese counterpart, even if I feel she's overdoing the "old lady voice quavering" thing a bit. The Gnome Albert Pitt and postman Namihei Anno is a bit harder to judge as none of them have done any major acting in Aria so far aside from quick appearances. They sounded just about right, though, so I'm still looking forward to the episodes in the next season centered around them. Al in particular gets a lot of nice moments in Natural, which is a nice way to make up for the fact that Aria the Animation completely glosses over his introduction chapter, which was also the starting point of his relationship with Aika.
The gentle nature of Aria the Animation is of course not going to appeal to everyone, though it is my firm belief that no show ever should. Instead, the show strikes that perfect balance of not compromising on what it wants to say in addition to being very inviting. I mentioned once that Laid-Back Camp showed a great deal of respect for its main introvert cast member, but Aria actually does much the same with Alice; you might not think so at first, as the episode's opening narration states that Alice "distances herself from her smiles", but Akari never beats her over the head with it in the episode itself, and Alice herself comes to her own peace with her situation as an introvert who's doing a job that expects her to show her best side to her customers. It sounds like a contradictory thing, but much as I dislike shows that disrespects introverts, I also have no patience for shows that let them use their introversion as an excuse to be assholes. Not that Alice ever crossed that asshole border; instead, Akari seems to allow Alice to come out on her own. And even when she does, she still remains her awkward self.
With the somewhat restructured manga-to-anime story setup, Aria the Animation feels a bit like an introduction phase the whole way through, whereas Aria the Natural would move on to the many facets of Neo Venezia itself, and Aria the Origination brought everything up to its inevitable conclusion -- and new beginning -- of Aria's core cast and the people in their lives. Since we have three seasons now, the middle one even being a full 26 episodes long, this isn't really a problem outside of the sometimes explainy dialogue meant for people who never read the manga and needs to be kept up to speed on the much more speedy character introductions here.
Because even with those nitpicks in mind, Aria is an absolute marvel of a show. It's hard to put to words why this series feels so good to watch, like any moment you might've experienced when everything just felt so right somehow. Just from a combination of small things we usually take for granted, like the sound of soft background chatter when you're going to sleep, or, to pick a more personal example, the time I was driving back from Oslo late at night, with my three passengers sleeping and music on the car stereo with the volume set low and mist floating over the roadside lakes and rivers as I drove past them.
It's also the small gestures among the production crew, because the DVDs and Blurays had an unusually nice selection of bonus material, with cast interviews and the ever adorable "Venice, I'm sorry" segments featuring Junichi Sato's research trip to Venice. During the cast interviews, you can tell the cast really enjoyed their roles, and Tomoko Kawakami even commented on that she found it nice that their agency got sent the entire manga series (or whatever had been released to that point) for them to read, and she concluded that she would also see this thoughtfulness in the manga itself. Funnily enough, there is this bit where she seemed a bit put out by the fact that she was playing a huge klutz, but if you follow this all the way to the Origination -- and I suspect a lot of people who are now reading this already owns the entire DVD set and already have the Bluray set in their hands now -- you will also know that she was very happy that Athena turned out to be a reliable and capable gondolier in the end. Not that she needs to help the others completely derail the interviews into mad gigglefits or anything, and in a way, all these bits feels as much a part of Aria as the show itself.
This show was originally made in 2005, and while it's kind of scary to think that so much time has passed, I think it's also quite telling that people keep coming back even now, 12 years later, to this quiet, understated show. Rather than be a huge smash hit with all the hype that comes with it, the feelings you (probably) and I have about Aria is more like a recently planted tree; it might not look like much if you just give it a cursory glance as the little sapling it is, but given time, it will grow inside your heart like a veritable Yggdrasil.
See? I can make sappy lines too. Despite Aika's protestations, Aria wants you to know that it's OK to do that sometimes.
12 years later, this timeless show is still an absolute joy to watch. Do YOU want to go on this vacation? — Stig Høgset
Recommended Audience: I really can't think of anything questionable to say about this show. It's completely devoid of anything even resembling violence and any fanservice is so light as not to be worth mentioning at all.
Version(s) Viewed: Region A Bluray, Bilingual.
Review Status: Full (13/13)
Aria the Animation © 2005 Hal Film Maker, Aria Company.
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