Float On | Aria

A look at Kozue Amano’s Aria franchise, as part of this month’s Manga Movable Feast.



This article originally appeared in Protoculture Addicts magazine issue #97, published July/August 2008. For more information or to order a copy of the magazine, click here. To read a complete collection of articles for the Aria Manga Movable Feast, visithttp://animemiz.com/aria-manga-movable-feast/.


At the dawn of the 24th century, humankind has succeeded in spreading throughout the solar system. When the Earth’s closest neighbor was first terraformed, the melting of its polar icecaps covered nearly 90% of its surface in crystal clear oceans, transforming what was the red planet Mars into a beautiful blue orb named Aqua.
Nestled within the oceans of Aqua lies the city of Neo-Venezia, a seaside town modeled after the ancient Italian city of Venice. Over the 150 years of its existence, Neo-Venezia has become a major tourist destination thanks to its natural beauty, classical stone architecture, and a quaint way of life personified by the undines, an elite class of female gondoliers who guide visitors and residents alike along the city’s street-like canals. Undines, so named in honor of a water nymph from European folklore, begin their career as a “Pair,” a trainee wearing two gloves to prevent calluses during strenuous rowing training. Once her skills have progressed to a certain point, the prospective undine wears one glove to denote her position as a “Single,” an apprentice only able to take customers under supervision. Only after careful study and training can a single be promoted to the rank of Prima, a full-fledged undine.
Our window into the watery world of Aqua comes courtesy of Akari Mizunashi, a young girl from Earth (now known colloquially as “Man Home”) who moved to Neo-Venezia to become an undine. When we meet Akari, she is a Single working for Aria, one of Neo-Venezia’s three major gondola companies. Under the watchful eye of Alicia, a demure blonde-haired Prima who is the most popular undine in all of Neo-Venezia, Akari trains alongside Aika and Alice (two fellow undines-in-training from rival companies) in hopes that one day she’ll be worthy of the title of Prima.
Don’t let Akari’s lofty ambitions fool you: Aria the Animation is about as far away from your typical “quest to be the best” anime as you’re likely to find. Rather than concentrate on Akari’s trials and tribulations as she learns her trade, a typical episode instead follows her through ordinary encounters with customers or spending time with her fellow undines, amiably building to a moment of discovery where she finds herself in awe of the spectacular beauty of her surroundings. Director Junichi Sato (Sailor Moon, Kaleido Star) lets the stories unfold at their own leisurely pace, with even the pensive episode titles (“That Lovely Miracle…”, “On That Special Day…”) belying the show’s almost languid pacing. But the slow pacing also serves a purpose, allowing the characters a chance to endear themselves to the viewer. As each episode reaches its climax, Sato so perfectly captures Akari’s feelings of discovery, wonder, and whimsy that the end result is simply magical. In a world of mindless action epics, Aria is the animated equivalent to taking time to smell the roses.
Much of the animated Aria’s tone comes from expertly emulating Kozue Amano’s original manga, a series so captivating that The Comics Journal’s Dirk Deppey called it “a masterpiece of storytelling and illustration” and “quite conceivably the best comics series ever created for elementary-school girls.” North American fans first got a glimpse into Amano’s world in 2004 when ADV Manga licensed Aria for English language release, but the series was an unfortunate casualty of the line’s implosion, with only three volumes ever seeing the light of day. ADV’s release was incomplete in another way: the company chose to begin by publishing the first Aria volume, skipping the initial two volumes that Amano had published under the title Aqua (the title change having come about when the series changed Japanese publishers, from video game maker Enix’s Monthly Stencil anthology to Mag Garden’s Comic Blade, a year into its run). In 2006, Tokyopop acquired the license for both series, releasing the two Aqua volumes beginning late last year. The serialization of the twelve-volume Aria manga is currently under way, with two volumes available so far. [2011 update: The first six volumes are now available. –JG]
The animated series, dubbed Aria the Animation, debuted on TV Tokyo in October 2005, proving successful enough to spawn two sequels (the 26-episode Aria the Natural and the 13-episode finale Aria the Origination) that adapted the remainder of Amano’s manga. Director Junichi Sato penned a one-shot video release, Aria the OVA: Arietta, that saw release between Aria’s second and third season. Any English-speaking fans eager to be caught by Aria’s magic need not wait long: the first series is due as a full-season, subtitled-only box set on September 30th courtesy of Nozomi Entertainment, the anime production arm of mail order retailer Right Stuf International. The company’s website also hints that a release of further seasons is to be announced at a later date. [2011 update: The entire Aria is now available through Nozomi Entertainment. Visit http://aria.rightstuf.com for more info. –JG]
Click thumbnails for larger images.
Instantly identifiable by the two long locks of pink hair that frame her face (just don’t call them pigtails!), Akari greets each discovery in her new adoptive home with the wide-eyed joy of a child, a reaction that mystifies Neo-Venezia natives Aika and Alice. She is trustworthy to a fault and quick to make friends, even with standoffish people like Alice. Akari’s biggest challenge in becoming an undine is learning how to row properly, since, when she was on Man Home, she mistakenly taught herself how to row backwards.
Much of Akari’s day is spent deferring clients for her overbooked Prima Alicia, the most popular undine in all of Neo-Venezia. Alicia seems to get great joy at watching Akari see the world of Aqua through a newcomer’s eyes. Prone to greet most situations by cheerfully uttering “Ara ara” (alternately translated as “My my” or “Well well”), her laid-back demeanor serves as a calming influence on Akira, her sometime rival and longtime friend.
Each gondola company has a cat with aquamarine eyes to serve as its “president,” and this particular moon-faced cat has the privilege of serving as president for the Aria Company. President Aria is most often found bounding behind Akari in search of food or putting the moves on the Himeya Company’s president (to little success).
In Aria’s first episode, Akari meets Ai, an emotionless young girl who she shows the magical beauty of Aqua. Following that meeting, each episode shows Akari corresponding via e-mail with Ai, offering a shift from Amano’s original manga where the identity of Akari’s penpal remained a secret for most of the series’ run.
Heir to the owners of the Himeya Company, Aika was the first friend Akari made after arriving on Aqua and the two have followed each other closely as they progressed from Pair to Single status. Though the two became fast friends, Aika still likes to tease Akari, frequently greeting her slack-jawed awe by saying “Embarrassing remarks are not allowed!” Aika is fiercely competitive, almost to a fault, and idolizes Alicia.
Akira is Alicia’s counterpart at the Himeya Company, her childhood friend, and her polar opposite in virtually every way. A fearsome trainer, she offers the discipline that Aika needs to push herself to become a better undine.
A fourteen-year-old prodigy, Alice was recruited right out of junior high by Orange Planet, Neo-Venezia’s largest gondola company. Despite her young age and Pair status, Alice is much better with an oar than Akari and Aika when we first meet her, but her stuck-up attitude proves a challenge of its own.
The third of Neo-Venezia’s “Water Fairies” along with Alicia and Akira, Athena is best known for her gorgeous singing voice. At first, Alice thinks Athena is inattentive, but an early encounter involving her pet cat reveals Athena’s tender side. | Jason Green
For more on the Aria anime franchise, visit http://aria.rightstuf.com


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