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"Aria The Animation": Wet n' Fuzzy

Often, when writing a review, I’m vexed to realize that the English language has fewer words than I might wish for. There is no word, for example, that means “I sorta-kinda liked it, but not too much” or “It sucked, but was still kinda watchable”. Aria, fortunately, can be captured in one phrase: completely and utterly charming.

The story takes place in a futuristic world that is (gasp) notpost-apocalyptic. In the far-off future, Mars has been terraformed into a water planet, suitably re-named Aqua. It follows the daily lives of three young “undines” (gondoliers) in the city of Neo-Venezia as they try to become professionals at their respective companies. It sounds boring, and some will undoubtedly find it so, and all will agree that Aria is definitely an acquired taste. The cynic in me was screaming during the entire show. But, for the most part, Aria is a gentle, easy-going series that’s well worth your time.

A lot of the show’s strength probably comes from its setting. Aqua is a wonderfully beautiful place, and the show’s staff is obviously aware of this. In place of the usual fan-service that would accompany a show about three teenage girls, we get gratuitous shots of horizons, seascapes, rooftops, and fireplaces. There is a wondrous love of water present in almost every screen (the sky gets some lip service as well). In addition to the beautifully depicted city of Neo-Venezia, we are treated to island paradises, spacescapes, underwater forests, and mysteriously appealing alleyways and buildings. The show’s makers do a wonderful job of creating a world that the viewer desperately longs to visit; I haven’t been this entranced by a setting since Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky.

I mention the show’s beauty almost hesitantly, because, while the individual screens are pretty, the animation is fairly low-budget. There is a particularly jarring scene involving a trio of seagulls that simply seem to float in the air, jerking occasionally in a pathetic attempt at miming movement. I actually whacked my DVD player on the side, assuming it to be a technical tic. It is by far the ugliest such bit, but I could cite several other such sequences throughout the show. Luckily, one can find compensation in the nice setting shots and bright colors, but the weak animation is still an unfortunate blight.

Aria could probably fill thirteen episodes simply with a tour of Neo-Venezia, but rather than simply wallow in visual splendor, it attempts to show us the planet through the eyes of a trio of young girls. The result is surprisingly endearing. The three main characters all fall into pretty standard roles, but unlike so many other similar characters they never become irritating or bland. Quite the opposite, in fact; the three characters (whose names, by the way, are Akari, Aika, and Alice) bounce off each other entertainingly. Each girl has two other minor characters accompanying them: a mentor (many of whom are noticeably similar in personality to their students, though they are each distinct creations) and a cat (each cat is a traditional animated zany, roles which they play to a T). There are some other characters as well, but the girls, their mentors, and the cats are by far the most important.

The writing is only slightly less successful than the visuals; there are many moments that get quite syrupy, and these are only partially redeemed by lampshading. (Aika will call out and rebuke anyone who utters a “sappy line.”) The show is often quite funny when it needs to be; of particular note are the antics of the three cats, and the way the show occasionally pokes gentle fun at some old-as-the-hills anime tropes, like the sweat drop and the up-skirt. It is worth noting that this show is much better than the manga it is based on; while the latter ended up as no more than a diverting trip to a wondrous land, the show goes far beyond this, adding sound and color to the B&W pictures of Aqua and adding substantially more personality to the cast.

This box set contains the first thirteen episodes of the show on four discs. There’s a nice smattering of extras, including interviews with the show’s voicing cast, and a documentary about the trip the crew took to Venice. Also included is a booklet with notes by the manga’s creator and conceptual art for the show; the book is surprisingly un-informative, but the show is largely self-explanatory. It is available in English only through subtitles, which is a shame, but it’s a very, very good subtitling job, and almost nothing is lost in the speech-to-text translation. The voicing is terrific, with nary an uninspired or lazy line reading within earshot. The music is as soothing and gentle as the waves caressing a sandy shore after sunset… Whoops, that’s a sappy line, isn’t it? This damn thing’s getting to me.

Aria is not your typical anime; at least, it’s not what the average western viewer thinks of when they think of anime. There is no danger, no villain, and nothing blows up. But it’s still a terrific show. Unless you’re overly cynical (in which case you may actually experience physical pain from the sheer number of happy endings), I strongly recommend it. At twenty-some dollars, you can go ahead and file this one under “buy it now.”

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