Aria was a series I had been putting off for some time, despite hearing and reading things suggesting it would be right up my alley — earlier in the year I had been looking for relaxing, laid-back anime and I watched several, however I kept ignoring Aria in favor of others. It’s been a while now, and I can’t remember what caused me to finally give in and actually watch through the series, but I did and here we are.
It’s probably worth noting at this point that if you’re here looking for a recommendation, let me stop you right there; I am emphatically going to push this as a series that each potential viewer should taste for themselves and decide, because it’s not something that really lends itself to fitting a certain type of viewer. At least, I don’t think so — Aria has a distinct flavor, to be sure, but I really don’t know to what demographic, sex, or general category of anime fan it’s supposed to cater. It’s very unlike other series I’ve seen.
The premise of the series is very unassuming — at some unspecified point in the distant future, Mars has been terraformed into a livable, vibrant world covered in water (and now called “Aqua”). The city of Neo-Venezia exists as a preservation of the now-extinct Earth city of Venice. It’s connected by waterways and serves as a popular tourist destination on Aqua, specifically for the guided tours on gondolas. The story follows Mizunashi Akari, and later her friends Alice and Aika, as they work together towards the goal of becoming “Prima Undines”, or professional gondoliers, for their respective tour companies.
The story develops over three seasons, and it’s a time investment, to be sure — 52 episodes for me is a particularly large number of episodes for a single story, given my real life schedule and general lack of free time. It took me three whole months to get through this, however I will be returning to this point a little later, as it played an important role in my enjoyment of the series as a whole. Just realize what you’re getting into if you do plan on watching it.
Around the time that I started watching Aria, I was not all that excited about it — I wasn’t really excited by anime in general at the time and was considering taking a break. When I started the series, it was just as something to watch; in retrospect this was probably perfect, because I didn’t have a whole lot of expectations, however I will say that this was not an easy series to get into.
If you’re anything like me, the premise of the series as described above probably does not sound too enthralling — and it really, really isn’t. The pace of the series from beginning to end is extremely slow, and patience is required more than once throughout the 52-episode run. There is no action, there is no excitement, there is very little (implied) romance…basically nothing that would get one’s heart rate even slightly elevated in the traditional ways.
This shouldn’t be a surprise, all things considered, and it wasn’t. I was fully expecting it actually, but it didn’t change the fact that parts of the series were really…just…boring, kind of. Not that this is even a bad thing — as a slice-of-life series, plateaus are inevitable, and reflective of life in general. And in this series in particular, those periods just served to provide a nice backdrop against which the more interesting episodes (of which there are considerably more) could shine.
And these episodes, for me anyway, wholly made the series worth watching. I appreciate stories that develop slowly and methodically, so maybe it was inevitable that whenever I came into contact with Aria, the sparks would fly; all I know is that when I think back on Aria as a whole, I get a warm fuzzy feeling that reminds me of when I watched Sketchbook, although the two series are hardly comparable in any meaningful way.
As with any series in this vein, the story lives or dies by its characters, and with the sheer amount of space the series creates with its length, the characters have the time to develop into very interesting people worth investing in. Much like in Sketchbook, the changes that happen are gradual and subtle, but each character ends the series in a distinctly different place than they were at the start, and it’s a beautiful thing to behold.
As with everything in this series, the character interactions and development all happened at their own pace, irrespective of expectations or other pressures. The result is a series that feels entirely organic and fluid; where other series, especially shorter ones, tend to force character development to follow a specific and predetermined path (I’m looking at you, Please Teacher), Aria haphazardly meanders to its endpoint. Characters interact with one another and grow together in ways that feel natural, and the result is, quite simply, refreshing.
It’s rare to come across media of any type with no real agenda. There’s a point to Aria, but it’s not preachy, or terribly deep, or even all that unique. In fact, whether or not its “point” was even intended could be debated; really, Aria ends up feeling like slice-of-life of the most honest kind — things happen, lessons can be learned, but they’re not pre-molded constructs, they’re simply the natural results that flow from the events which lead up to them.
I could spend more time being wistful and abstract, but that only gets one so far before a line of pretension is crossed that can’t be un-crossed. It may be too late for me in this particular review, but in case it isn’t there are a few more specific things worth mentioning.
First, the art is pretty but ultimately forgettable. I certainly didn’t keep watching this because of the art style; there’s nothing wrong with it, but it does precisely nothing to stand out from the generic mid-2000s cliche anime styles of the time. The setting is, unsurprisingly, very serene-looking and docile, and honestly it gets a little tiresome. It’s always sunny in Neo-Venezia, and I wish there had been more rainy days, more cloudy days, more…something to break the monotony a little.
The music too is predictably similar, although it fares much better…pretty, unobtrusive, and very atmospheric. The OP/ED songs across all three seasons are also gorgeous and perfectly fitting. Lots of slow, bubbling tunes that swell and sway and gently dissipate. The music through the series is exactly what music in an anime should be — a vital background component that only ever enhances the drama onscreen. Aria, quite simply, has one of the best anime soundtracks I’ve heard thus far.
I also need to briefly point out that as there are three seasons to this series, there are differences between them. The first one, Aria The Animation, is probably my least favorite of the bunch — it’s good, of course, but it’s mainly introductory in nature and doesn’t really build up enough steam to be considered anything more than “good” on its own. We learn who the main characters are, what their various motivations and personalities are like, and we start to see the ways in which they interact with one another, but it doesn’t go very far and ends feeling somewhat incomplete.
And it should! Because the second season, Aria The Natural, picks up where the first season leaves off and begins to really unfold the rich tapestry that makes up the world of Aria. Season two devotes much of its time to taking us through the city of Neo-Venezia, exploring its various facets and mysteries, and growing its characters along the way. There are a few surprising episodes in the second season that border on being downright dark, although the magic of Aria somehow prevents them from ever being stressful or threatening. “Dark” may be too heavy a word; “weird” or “mysterious” probably fits better, but however you term it these episodes serve to add a rich layer of surprise and vague unease to an otherwise perfectly ordinary setting.
The final season, Aria The Origination, lies somewhere in between the first two seasons in terms of its approach, as well as its quality. By far the most emotionally engaging of the three, it also has two or three episodes (out of 13, so a nontrivial portion) that were just really uninteresting. However, the last three episodes of the season are also arguably the series’ best, so it’s really hard to say anything too negative about it. I did love it, I was just surprised at how highly regarded it is (see here and here, where it’s counted among the top 30 or so anime of all time), especially considering that the prior two seasons are never held in the same esteem despite their being extraordinarily similar in most respects.
That said, Aria The Natural was by far my favorite season; the unexpected twists and turns it took, even if they weren’t very sharp, kept me on my toes and pulled me irreversibly into the world of Aqua. It felt like a treasure hunt, with characters and places floating in and out of focus, keeping me always searching and wanting to delve further. It was a masterfully paced and impeccably told portion of the story, and every complaint I could level against the series as a whole wouldn’t make a lick of difference in the face of Aria The Natural.
For that reason alone, the series was very much worth my time. It didn’t change my life, it didn’t force me to look at anything in a new way, it didn’t even really have an effect on my view of anime in general. It was just a really, really well-told story. Very much like those things in life that take time to appreciate (i.e. wine, but come on that’s so cliche, and I’m more of a beer man myself), Aria wasn’t something that I latched onto immediately. I was barely sold on it by the end of the first season, but I’m glad I held on and saw it through because the payout was astounding.
I personally chose to watch this series one episode per day (and most of the time this was only 4-5 days per week). I took it extremely slowly, and I really feel that the anime was all the better for it. I got to savor the world, and the characters, and the pacing, and drink it all in a little at a time. I would recommend others, who have the patience that I do, to do the same if they’re going to watch through the series. It will take a long time, but it’s not something for binge watching or tearing through to get to the next series on your list. It’s a series you let wash over you as you lay down for bed, to let it cleanse your mind and bring you simple happiness before drifting off. It’s something for healing, for comfort, for the simplest and purest joy you can achieve from the comfort of your bedroom or living room, and it gets my most enthusiastic praise.
Personal value: 9/10