Aria certainly has a reputation – in fact, I’d say it stands besides K-On! as the most renowned slice of life series in anime. And even within the show’s first few minutes, it’s easy to see the exact kind of peaceful, slowly warming atmosphere this show is going for. We open with unseen characters speaking of the joy of meeting new people, contrasted against gorgeous backgrounds that feel almost like tiny oil paintings. A silly-looking cat-creature opens a window, simply to enjoy the breeze. Then a girl awakes, and groggily wonders at the window, still wiping the sleep from her eyes. It’s a very sleepy opening for a very peaceful show, the kind of show perfectly suited to watching as you crawl into bed.
The show’s opening song only reinforces this impression, speaking directly of the mood this place is working to create. “The gentle wind brushing against my cheek while rocking to the sound of the waves. I can feel my body relaxing.” We are in peak sleepytimes here, an unfiltered shot of healing directly to the vein. From the setting to the storytelling to the lovely backgrounds and music, every variable is perfectly calibrated to helping viewer muscles slowly unwind.
That’s not to say that nothing happens in this first episode. There is a narrative, and we’re introduced to a variety of characters. There’s Akari, the pink-haired girl from the start, along with the cat-creature known as “President Aria.” Akari works for the Aria company, where she practices rowing a gondola through the canals of Neo-Venezia. Neo-Venezia is a city on Aqua, the planet that used to be known as Mars, which was terraformed some 150 years back. All of that is ancient history now; at this point, Neo-Venezia is a peaceful and established city, known for its skilled undines, the professionals who row gondolas through its watery streets.
Much of that information comes naturally through the visual storytelling and banter of Akari’s early morning routine, but the rest is revealed through Akari’s conversations with Ai, a small girl who hitches a free ride on Akari’s gondola. Ai essentially wants Akari to prove to her the value of Neo-Venezia, so she can understand the feelings of her sister back home, and so Ai becomes a bit of a viewpoint character as Akari meets up with fellow trainee Aika and paddles gently through the streets. Ai says she doesn’t like gondolas because they’re slow, but slow things are the heart of a show like this. Light drama and a happy ending eventually bring Ai to a better understanding of her sister, demonstrating that the undines and their boats do for this show’s characters what the show itself is supposed to do for us.
Aria’s first episode is charming, if a little underwhelming writing-wise. The characters wear their hearts on their sleeves, which is fine, but having the undines underline the moral of the story at the ending felt like a bit much. Additionally, some of the lines throughout didn’t feel like anything an actual person would say – they felt, well, like mushy slice of life dialogue. Much stronger is the show’s incidental storytelling and atmosphere; the easy banter between the various undines, and most importantly, the setting and aesthetic touches that bring this world to life.
The world of Neo-Venezia is clearly one of the core characters of Aria. Even this episode’s conflict reflects that; while Ai quickly comes to like Akari and Aika, it’s Neo-Venezia itself that she has to learn to trust over the course of the story. But from an outside perspective, it is abundantly clear that this place is designed as a very specific kind of eden. There are no cars here, and you have to make your own labor-intensive living – but to Akari, that is a positive thing, something that echoes the ending’s reflection that “miracles require hard work.”
And in the absence of those amenities of fast modern living, Neo-Venezia presents a slow and graceful world of communal warmth and natural beauty. The city emerges like a bleached reef from the depths of the sea, spiraling in towers and shingled roofs like shelves of coral over water. The Aria building itself represents a cozy sanctuary, like a well-tended treehouse out on the water. And the sky is scattered with small dashes of humanity, floating vessels and ribbons creating the sense of a space shared by man and nature.
The visuals are up to the task of bringing this world to life, with the texture of the drawings deserving particular notice. The animation is quite limited, but that’s not really the focus; and the many silly faces certainly keep things light. Most importantly, the show’s music is wonderful – a heavy mix of acoustic guitar melodies complemented by occasional piano and strings. Aria presents a fully realized atmospheric experience.
Overall, Aria is more or less exactly what I expected it to be. It’s not naturally my kind of show, and this first episode’s story didn’t really engage me, but as an introduction to a beautiful, easy-going world, it certainly succeeded. It’s a show you could easily save an episode of for when you need it, when your day has been long or your work has been stressful. It’s a place to escape to, letting the wind rustle your hair as waves lap gently against the quays.
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