Aria the Animation
"Heaven...heaven is a place where nothing ever happens."
Talking Heads, "Heaven"
Anime can be boring. Maybe it's having to read so many subtitles that just turns our heads to mush. Maybe we've all gotten used to Michael Bay-style rushes and expect it from all our entertainment. Maybe other cultures just don't have a Western sense of pacing. Who would blame them? We in the West live in a culture that rushes from one entertainment to another at a headache-inducing pace. We like stuff fast, loud, and dumb...or at least, that's the stereotype. For a long time, it seemed that anime in the US had to be only things paced at breakneck speed. It really says more about us than it does Japan and its entertainment.
Right Stuf, through their Nozomi line of releases, seems determined to bring things back to a more even keel. Very few of their titles can excite the fanboys who get an adrenaline rush off of Dragonball Z. But that's OK. It's heartening to see shows like Victorian Romance Emma, Maria Watches Over Us, To Heart, and His and Her Circumstances get solid stateside releases. Aria the Animation is one of their most recent releases, and it will not make the world turn off its axis or threaten us all with subatomic destruction brought on by antimatter bombs. Its pacing is languid, and very little ever happens of any importance. That said, years ago Seinfeld proved that a show could be about nothing and still be hugely entertaining. Aria the Animation is really about creating a feeling...something like a brisk yet sunny summer Sunday you wish would never end.
Aria is about Akari, a young woman who has come to the planet of Aqua to learn to be an Undine -- that is, a gondolier -- in the city of Neo-Venezia. Life in Neo-Venezia, a romantic destination that recalls the beauties of Venice, is lived at a slower pace. It's a perfect destination for those who need a break from the hectic. And so Akari's training takes place over a couple of years...and since Aqua's year is double that of Earth's, we're talking quite a long time. Along the way, Akari makes friends of other trainees, has a few adventures with Aria (the company cat), and yearns to become as great an Undine as the "Three Water Fairies" who are the stars of Neo-Venezia's boating scene.
Not too much to it, right? But this show is not about the overarching plot, not really. The show is really about transporting the audience to a softer time and place with characters that become gentle friends. In fact, three of the episodes themselves involve mysterious and unexplained "time travel" that gives us a larger picture of life on Aqua and put time into its proper perspective. Though the show has some science fiction elements like this, they aren't its core. It's really a slice-of-life entertainment that makes you feel like you are on vacation even as you are watching it. Not a lot has to be accomplished, only memories made.
To be sure, you have to want to go on that vacation, because there are some problems if you aren't willing to just go along with the show's flow. For example, the timeframes involved prove to be an issue for the easily bothered. As my friend and anime reviewing buddy Bruce Carlson (AKA Grumpy Jii-san) points out in his insightful review, the Air Force can teach you to skillfully fly a fighter jet in less time than it takes to become an Undine. This is true. But there is much the show never covers; the girls are all of an age that they probably are still in school and take classes when they aren't busy practicing their sculling, though we have no proof of it. You either accept it or you don't. I, for one, am fine with it.
The other issue that may bother some viewers is that this show uses the well-worn anime plot that makes it fall into the genre I call the "ganbatte" show. "Ganbatte" means "do your best" in Japanese, and countless shows fall into the same pattern. In "ganbatte" series, the lead character is not the smartest or most talented person in the world, but through hard work and determination and a "can do" attitude, he or she inevitably succeeds. The style is at least as old as Touch and shows up time and again, such as in the music drama Beck. But what keeps this show from falling off the cliff into "ganbatte" cliches is that while the general concept is as predictable as they come, Aria is interested in its characters and the special moments in their lives rather than the lifeless framework it picked up from other anime and manga.
Actually, you could say that Aria breathes life into a lot of other anime cliches as well, which makes it surprisingly enjoyable. At the same time that Akari spouts off sappy platitudes, another character reprimands her for them. There is a hot springs episode, which in any other series would be an inevitable descent into fan service. Instead, Aria's hot springs episode is tasteful, even chaste, and it develops relationships between the core players. And while the show intends at times to evoke "natsukashii" -- the Japanese concept of wonderfully nostalgic melancholy -- it does so in a way that really works. Aria revels in making old standbys new again.
Presentation is another key to a great anime series, and Aria excels here. The animation itself is nothing incredible, and a few obvious digital pans and CGI effects make it a little less palatable to me than it could have been. But then again, the show redeems its animation presentation by being plain gorgeous at times. The show isn't afraid to make its landscapes look like "art" on occasion, and indeed this makes it feel like we are entering a beautiful painting rather than just another anime. And the music! The music is what brings the whole thing together. I am not sure I could go back and read the manga simply because the score makes this show. At times reminding me of classic anime tracks from almost 30 years ago, the soundscape makes us believe in Neo-Venezia. If Nozomi/Right Stuf released an album of Aria's music, it would be a must-have. I also was impressed with how the opening theme is always incorporated into the show -- no need to skip the same old credit sequence! -- and how the lyrics regularly changed in the ending theme. I've never watched every OP and ED on any other show, ever, to my knowledge.
The only place I can see any misstep in this release is in the lack of a dub track. Normally, I'm a purist who prefers the Japanese. I think, though, that the audience for this program is limited by its subtitles. I often wound up watching this show around 6am with my 13-month-old, and he was entranced. We don't normally let him watch TV, but the show's pacing and gentle tranquility would often put him back to sleep after a rough night. My six-year-old also caught a little bit of it and enjoyed what he saw, even though he really couldn't understand it. Had there been a dub, I am sure he would have watched the whole thing. It's not a show for children per se, but much of what passes for children's entertainment these days, even supposedly educational programming, is mind-numbingly dumb. Parents would find nothing objectionable here, and for children who don't need to be spoonfed everything, it would be a treat.
I would be lying if I said I thought Aria the Animation could be a rousing success story in America. I doubt it has much appeal to the typical American otaku demographic, even amongst women. But cheers to Right Stuf/Nozomi for releasing it and its sequel, Aria the Natural. Because this is the kind of show that you can not only support, you find it wriggling its way into your heart. While I have hundreds of shows in the hopper that I need to review, the sequel will be making its way into the list. I want to go back to Neo-Venezia soon.
P.S. It is extremely rare for me to have a patron who supplies me with a title, but such was the case with Aria. I want to give a shout out to Stig Høgset, one of the resident reviewers over at THEMAnime.org, who sent me the DVDs from halfway across the world...well, at least he ordered them from halfway across the world, which is work enough. You can read his thoughts on the series here.
Aria the Animation -- nothing objectionable -- A