Review for Aria the Animation - Season 1 Collection
I’ve said before that I like the slice-of-life, ‘iyashikei’ genre, where audiences can vicariously partake of an easy, relaxing, even healing life, through characters existing in worlds with little or no drama. It doesn’t sound like much when I describe it, but such shows comprise some favourite titles in my collection. You would think that frustration and iyashikei should be mutually exclusive terms, but I have to admit that I did get a little niggle this year when MVM announced two such shows. There are good, and not so good shows, and when it came to Is the Order a Rabbit?, MVM announced that they’ll be releasing all three seasons of the show in the UK. Compared to that show, the Aria franchise is the iyashikei Holy Grail, a show from the mid-2000s that set the high watermark for the genre, and it too ran to three seasons, as well as OVAs and movies. Yet MVM only announced the release of the first season. Personally, I know which show I’d rather have on my shelf if I could only have one.
I have been waiting for a UK release of Aria for years, and now that we get it, it’s here on Blu-ray. Maybe that’s why MVM are noncommittal on this show, as it dates from 2005, the pre-HD anime era, and the best that we can get on Blu-ray is an up-scale. So now I have two hopes; one that the show lives up to all that hype that I’ve just given it, and two, that the great British anime buying public rush out and snap this show up. That’s the way that we’ll get Season 2 and beyond...
Akari Mizunashi is living her dream. She’s always wanted to be an Undine, and went as far as leaving her home world of Manhome and moving to the water planet Aqua. An Undine is a gondolier who takes passengers on gondola rides around the sleepy water city of Neo Venezia. After a year, Akari is still in training with the Aria Company. Aria the Animation follows the adventures of Akari and her fellow and rival trainees, Aika and Alice in and around Neo Venezia.
13 episodes of Aria the Animation are presented across three Blu-rays from MVM.
1. That Wonderful Miracle...
2. On That Special Day...
3. With That Transparent Young Girl...
4. That Undeliverable Letter...
5. To That Island Which Shouldn’t Exist...
6. That Which You Want to Protect...
7. Doing That Wonderful Job...
8. That Melancholy President.../That Cool Hero...
9. That Starlike Fairy...
10. That Warm Vacation...
11. Those Orange Days...
12. That Soft Wish...
13. That White Morning...
Aria the Animation gets a 1.33:1 pillarboxed 1080i transfer, a 60 Hz interlaced upscale of the SD source. I haven’t seen the original DVD release to compare, but what we have here on this Blu-ray release matches the better anime DVDs of the mid-2000s. The image is clear and sharp, line detail is good, and colours are consistent, and the show gets nice, smooth animation. Aria is a vintage show from early on in the digipaint era, and what we get here is an example of effective simplicity. The character designs are cute, yet memorable, and prone to drop into super-deformed mode when they do something goofy. The world design, heavily influenced by Venice offers an appealing sense of architecture without being overly detailed. This is a reflective and atmospheric show that has a whole lot of sunsets and colourful skies, yet there is an artfulness with which it uses a limited palette. This is a show that can establish much with just four or five shades on screen.
Aria the Animation comes with the option of PCM 5.1 Surround English, and PCM 2.0 Stereo English and Japanese with the choice of subtitles and a signs only track. And get this; you have the choice between white and yellow subtitles. No one can be as fickle as an anime fan, and in one fell swoop, this release removes one point of contention. If only more distributors did this, the yellow vs. white anime subtitle flame wars would end. Facetiousness aside, the audio presentation on this release is as you would hope for, at least when it comes to the Japanese audio (with yellow subtitles). The dialogue is clear, you get a decent level of stereo separation, and the show’s mellow soundtrack comes across to excellent effect. The subtitles are accurately timed and free of typos.
The discs boot to animated menus.
The extras here begin with the episode 3 commentary with ADR director Joe DiGiorgi, and voice of Alice, Tara Greene.
There are some featurettes as well...
Apprentice Undines’ Interview Pt.1 lasts 10:16 and Erino Hazuki (Akari), Chiwa Saito (Aika), and Ryo Hirohashi (Alice) chat about the show.
SATOJUN’s “Venice, I’m Sorry!” Pt.1 (8:37), and Pt.2 (8.21) follows the director, Junichi Sato as he scouts locations in Venice.
Tara Greene returns for a commentary on episode 6 with a rep from Headline Studios, whose name I couldn’t catch.
Apprentice Undines’ Interview Pt.2 lasts 12:17
SATOJUN’s “Venice, I’m Sorry!” Pt.3 (9:14), and Pt.4 (10:13) are also here.
To go with the earlier apprentice interviews, we get two Primas Interviews on this third disc lasting 13:28 and 10:59 respectively. In them, Sayaka Ohara (Alicia), Junko Minagawa (Akira) and Tomoko Kawakami (Athena) face a little Q&A.
SATOJUN’s “Venice, I’m Sorry!” Pt.5 (10:37), and Pt.6 (14:25) are also here.
The anaemic Commercial Collection contains just one commercial which lasts 48 seconds.
Clean Endings lasts 3:08.
The curse of hyperbole strikes with Aria the Animation. I have so long wanted to see this show, have heard and read so many positive appreciations of the series, that my expectations were unfairly high when I started watching it, and in the end, there was no way it could meet those expectations. So early on, I decided to give the show a fair shout, and rather than indulge in my usual review binge-watch, I kept my viewing down to just one episode a night. It turns out that Aria is best watched that way anyway, as these episodes are so mellow, so slight that it’s a show you watch for the mood, the atmosphere, and not so much for character development and narrative.
Seen that way, Aria is really quite good, definitely one of the better ‘iyashikei’, healing shows, even if it is one of the archetypes of that particular genre. It’s a tale of gondoliers, which in this particular world are all female. It is another world too, the planet Aqua, set in the city of Neo Venezia, very obviously this world’s version of Venice. The Undines that scull the gondolas around this water city have the job of transport quite naturally, but they also act as tour guides, and have reputations for customer service. That kind of reputation requires lengthy training to achieve, which is why the central characters in the show, Akari, Aika, and Alice are all rookies, in the process of being trained. Their teachers, Alicia, Akira, and Athena serve as qualified Undines for their respective companies while mentoring their charges, and they all have different approaches to teaching and working.
The show begins with Akari training, and running into a girl named Ai who insists on being her customer, despite the fact that Akari isn’t allowed to have customers yet. Ai has issues with Aqua, Neo Venezia and the gondolas, boiling down to the fact that her older sister is obsessed with them, and she can’t see the charm. She doesn’t trust the practiced charm of the Undines, and wants to see what the fuss is about, but spending the day with Akari converts her, and gets her to see what her actual issue is. They become friends, and promise to stay in touch. Thereafter, the episodes are framed as correspondences between the two friends after Ai returns home to the planet Manhome.
Subsequent episodes gradually introduce and develop the other characters, and Akari and Aika first meet and befriend the renowned rookie Alice early on. The three friends with distinctly different personalities (Akari is the easy going friendly type, Aika is ambitious and outspoken, Alice is introverted but with a warm heart) bounce off each other and have little adventures in and around the city over the episodes.
The various gondola companies have an odd tradition of appointing blue-eyed cats as their company presidents, and there are three mascot animals that get added into the mix, with President Aria the most prominent. They are nice for comic relief, but aren’t quite as charming when they take centre stage, which happens in the one weak episode in the collection, the two part episode 8, which focuses on Aria’s adventures. There’s also a magical element to the show which shows up a couple of times, with a mysterious bridge in winter, and a girl that desperately wants a message delivered. These are subtle but effective tales, which sort of reinforce the mystical nature of cats on the planet Aqua.
The real charm of the show comes in the way it builds its worlds. We learn about the history of Aqua and the city as the show progresses, and those little bits of exposition add meaning to the story. We also learn how Aqua was built and functions as the show progresses, beginning early on by learning that the world was actually terraformed and colonised from Manhome years previously. We learn something of how the society is structured and works, and once again, this is all done subtly, almost without the viewer realising it. And while spending time with these relaxing characters is a large part of Aria’s charm, in the absence of a specific narrative, learning about this world really does hold the attention.
Aria the Animation couldn’t live up to the ridiculous expectations I had for the show, but it more than lives up to its reputation as one of the best relaxing slice of life shows around, enhanced by a masterclass in sci-fi world-building. The Blu-ray is as good as the SD source material can allow, so set your preconceptions accordingly before buying, but Aria is very much worthy of a place in any anime collection.