Grumpy Jii-san sings row row row your boat
Good morning. That the sun coming up over the Belmont Mountains and Hassayampa plain. And as soon as there’s a little more light, I’ll be back to talk some anime.
Aria – The Animation
Aria – The Animation is a recent TV anime series, recently released in North America by The Right Stuf’s Nozomi Entertainment. People kept recommending it to me, so I gave it a look. I had a tough time slotting it into a genre. It’s sort of a gentle, sentimental shoujo comedy about nothing in particular.
Somewhere in the universe there’s a recently terraformed planet with a man-made replica of Venice, Italy. Neo-Venezia just like the original, complete with waterways, quaint bridges, and psuedo-historical landmarks, and gondolas; but, it’s much cleaner and friendlier, sanitized like a theme park at Disneyland. It has all the sparkle and none of the tarnish. Of course, it also features gondola rides. It’s the happiest tourist trap on the planet. And even though that sounds like a science fiction setup, there’s nothing very scifi about the stories.
The star is an apprentice gondolier, Akari, a sweet and earnest young lady who’s goal in life to become one of the great Undine. “Undine” is the title, after a mythical german water nymph, for Neo-Venezia’s gondoliers.
Now, you might think this is a rather modest life’s goal, akin to setting your career goal to hack a cab in New York City or drive a Disneyland tour bus. However, the role of Undine is apparently highly respected in Neo Venezia. It has a patina of being like a graceful hostess, like a geisha, for example.
Akari is training under one of the city’s great Undine, Alicia, the lovely head of the Aria company. Hence, the series’ title. Alicia is kindly and seems a little flighty. In fact, Alica is not only the sole Undine with the Aria company, she’s the entire Aria company, together apprentice Akari and their honorary corporate president, a blue-eyed cat named President Aria. I’d like to see the cat ask Congress for a bail-out.
Akari’s best friend is fellow apprentice Aika, who’s apprenticing with a different Undine company under the somewhat more strict teaching of Akira.
In the first episode, Akari will meet little Ai, a tourist who badly wants to take a gondola ride with the Aria company.
It’s indicative of this series’s sensibilities that no one ever questions the wisdom of such a small child wandering around a strange city completely on her own taking boat rides from strangers, nor do her guardians seem concerned about where she’s wandered off to. This is a world of exclusively friendly, cheerful and kindly people.
Although Ai-chan is just a visitor in this episode, she’ll become Akari’s interplanetary pen-pal, allowing Akari to provide some narration at the start or end of subsequent episodes, via email.
The third episode will introduce the third member of this apprentice gondolier trio, Alice, who’s training with yet another company that provides gondola rides.
Alice’s mentor, the spacey, angelic-voiced singing Undine Athena, doesn’t appear in very many episodes.
You’ve probably noticed that all the characters have two things in common: they’re female and their names start with the same letter A. There are a few minor characters who are exceptions, but we don’t see them often.
So, what do Akari and her two friends do with their time in the first season’s 13 episodes? Well, they practice rowing, take long walks, make friends with everyone they meet, have earnest conversations, and “gyre and gimble in the wabe”*. Really, nothing happens. Pretty much at all. There’s n o alien invasion, no rogue waves, no one gets hurt or is even placed in jeopard. No one worries about money or finding a boyfriend or anything more serious than flavoring the soup. Neo-Venezia is perfecto.
These episodes are so sweet, I was afraid I’d have to wipe the treacle off the DVDs. But all my snarky cynicism is really just cover for the fact that I have to admit that the series has a certain quiet charm to it. It’s occasionally chuckle-worthy, and has an understated grace and beauty to it that flows gently over you, like the water through those canals. It’s the way a world should be, rather than how it is. [“No sappy lines allowed!”]
The artwork for Aria is clean and pretty, offering a variety of nice scenery and crisp, simple character designs. Director Junichi Sato, who’s work on Princess Tutu I also rather liked, visited Venice to get some authentic scenery to idealize. In fact, Nozomi has subtitled his travelog and included it as extras on the DVDs. Nice business trip, that.
The accompanying music is as sweet and gentle as the characters.
Nozomi’s DVD is subtitled in English, but it doesn’t have a dub. That’s probably the only way to do a niche title like this, but it’s a shame, because it’s an anime you could show to the kids, if you could get them to read subtitles.
I’m certain this title isn’t for everyone, and as usual I’m far from being the target audience. This lacks any action or drama, and even the humor is low-key. But, at least it’s not the same old stuff. So I give Aria 4 stars. It’s the perfect anime for the elderly: it won’t offend anyone’s sensibilities, over-excite anyone’s heart, or even wake anyone up. “For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing that they like.”
Aria is based on a manga by Kozue Amano. I haven’t read that manga, but it’s been translated and printed in North America by TokyoPop.
Nozomi has released the entire first season of Aria as a single package of 4 DVDs containing 13 episodes. That’s a nice release strategy, and I really like the idea of shipping a whole season at once. Nozomi’s done that on a couple of titles lately. They’ve also produced a nice release package, including some voice actress interviews and with directory Junichi as well. Even the actresses don’t know what the show’s about, either:
[Nothing much happens.]
Also, each DVD has part of director Junichi Sato’s Venice travelog. Nozomi even packed a small booklet in the box with some character profiles and background on the setting, in case you’re wondering where the gravity came from, or who controls the weather on this terraformed planet. They make great packages, as if they actually cared about their product.
The 13 episodes of Aria cover one year, all four seasons, in Neo-Venezia, which we’re told is the equivalent of two Earth years. And at the end, the young ladies are still just trainees. The Air Force and teach you to fly a jet fighter in less time than that. Clearly this is an anti-competitive guild using arcane government regulation and mindless bureaucracy to create an artificial shortage of Undines and stifle competition, thus driving up transportation in Neo-Venezia for everyone.
Thanks for listening.
* “gyre and gimble in the wabe” doesn’t mean anything. It’s one of the nonsense lines from Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky from his book Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.