If you've got your finger on the pulse of the anime world chances are very good you have heard about Aria. The manga was originally released back in 2002 and some volumes are available in the States via ADV's manga line. A few years later the animated version followed suit and it more or less represented the manga well enough. Now, it's worth mentioning that Aria is something of an oddity. When the show came out it had 13 episodes to call its own, but it was so well produced and liked by audience that it was brought back for a second season. That second season landed 26 episodes and even that wasn't enough because the franchise went on to receive an OVA and yet another 13 episode season.
Naturally with that kind of pedigree leading the way many here on this side of the ocean were ecstatic. Considering the release was also being handled by Nozomi and available through Rightstuf anime lovers had yet another thing to cheer for. The publisher has a long history of selecting high quality shows and handling them with great care. With how popular Aria seemed to be it all seemed to add up to a solid release. Does the first boxed set meet up with the hype? For the most part yes, but I must say that this show isn't for everyone.
Ironically, that previous statement isn't necessarily a bad thing but rather a way to let you know that it takes a special kind of person to get into this series. It's very dry at times, not a lot happens, there's no action, no violence, no fan service, and for all intents and purposes the series is merely about day to day life. Granted it takes place on an alien world and features a cat who owns and maintains a company, but that's besides the point. This is a unique series that instantly stands out and separates itself apart from anything you have ever watched before. Because of that its audience is going to be very polarized.
Aria takes place well into the future where Mars has been covered with water via terraforming. The red planet becomes a vibrant blue one and it's a virtual water world, so much so that it has been renamed Aqua. With H20 being the name of the game here, it's no surprise that the series focuses on a city similar to Venice in a way known as Neo Venezia. Naturally with its beautiful, unique vistas Neo Venezia is a tourist trap for folks who don't live there. While Neo Venezians are used to the watery world, people from Manhome (Earth) are not. Even so, many flock to the planet for tours through the canals and working for the Aria Company, a prestigious tour group, is a sought after career. Aria follows the exploits of a girl from Manhome named Akari who desires nothing more than being an undine, or a female gondolier.
It's through Akari that we see Neo Venezia in all its beauty and learn what life is like on Aqua. Considering she's a fresh perspective on life here every episode of this first season follows her as she discovers new things and goes about the daily motions of living life navigating a gondolier. Of course much of this is also told from the perspective of her friend, Ai, who comes to visit and gives us the opportunity to examine Akari's job from the view of an outsider.
As Akari adapts to her new life she interacts with several other rookie gondoliers and their trainers. There are several other companies other than Aria, which is owned by a cat with the same name, and though they are all in competition with each other, they more or less get along. Other characters such as Akira, Alicia, Aika, Alice, Athena, and several others with names that begin with A all appear in the program and have something unique to bring to the table, be it experience, a relationship, or simply their personality. It can be very difficult to keep tabs on everyone, but the show's visuals utilize a heavy dose of pastels to keep people separated.
Throughout all 13 episodes the first season of Aria the Animation leaves an impression. It doesn't blow things up, show boobs galore, or even step out of line once. It's a peaceful show that could almost be considered anime's answer to poetry. It may be dry at times, the pacing is painfully slow, and quite honestly it's a show where basically nothing happens. However, watching the series will have a calming effect on you if you let it and because of that viewers looking for something original to add to their collection should definitely give it a spin. It may not be the grand opus it was heralded to be and I wasn't blown away, but it's interesting enough to be considered an easy recommendation.
Aria the Animation is presented on DVD with a 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio. The show's production from 2005 carries over well to 2008 though it's clear in parts that technology has gotten much better since the show began. The implementation of some of the CG elements, such as water, looks a little off at times, there is some aliasing in parts, and there are moments where backgrounds don't look quite right. However, the character design elements are strong and this is definitely an atmospheric show with a unique look. Everything is so statuesque that you'll easily gloss over the nitpick-worthy moments so all in all it's a solid looking show that wears its strengths well.
Aria's sound is definitely an element that goes a long way to crafting the world in which the show takes place. The series may be presented with a 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo output, which is unfortunately due to the fact that it restricts the sense of immersion, but all around the quality is good enough. This is a dialogue driven show with very little in terms of things that could fit on the rear channels anyway aside from ambient effects and whatnot. It's also worth mentioning that since this is a Nozomi release Japanese is the only spoken language available, but thankfully there's an English subtitle track. The acting is very well done and fits the show like a glove so in that regard fans of Japanese dubs will be pleased as well.
With 13 episodes packed onto four discs, the first season boxed set of Aria includes a bevy of supplemental features. The first noteworthy inclusion here is a guidebook which contains a plethora of sketches, information about the locations and characters, snippets such as Japanese DVD covers, and some promotional artwork. It's nice to have, but I can't exactly say it's the meatiest booklet of this kind I have ever seen. It's good enough though and it's a welcome accompaniment for the program.
As far as what's actually on the discs themselves there's a nice spread across all four DVDs. Atypical stuff such as trailers, previews, clean animation, and commercials are available here like you'd expect. Above the norm there are actually two pairs of interviews with the voice actresses for the Apprentices and the Primas. These are enjoyable enough and kind of fluffy, but they really let the personality of the voice actors shine through. Probably the most enjoyable feature here is the six part "Venice, I'm Sorry!" with Junichi Sato taking us on a video tour of his trip to Venice to get inspiration for the show. It's very entertaining to watch this personally guided tour of Venice and his charms really come through. It's easy to see how some of that is reflected upon the show.
I really enjoyed Aria the Animation and found watching it to be a very soothing experience. The series was definitely off the beaten path for me, but its charms won me over and kept me interested for all 13 episodes. This wasn't a show that I became hooked on and it wasn't a breakout success. The slow pace and overly peaceful nature combined with na´ve characters made the series almost endearing to a fault. This isn't a show for everyone, but if you're looking for an anime that's unlike anything you have ever watched before you should consider this strongly recommended.