Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Mar 7th 2009
Aria The Natural
Sub.DVD - Collection Part 1
Cradled in the vast oceans of the terraformed planet Aqua, Neo-Venezia is a gem of a city. A tourist attraction, it is home to a wide variety of easy-living folks, among them Akari Mizunashi, apprentice gondolier of the Aria Company. As she and her fellow undine Aika and Alice practice their craft, she collects in her heart all of the tiny, potent wonders of her new world. Undiscovered flower gardens, new festivals, the light of a candle flame—everything is a wonder in Akari's unclouded eyes, be it as trivial as flowers floating in water or as monumental as Cait Sith, the magical King of the Cats who has taken a curious interest in feline President Aria's guileless human companion.
You could grow old and grey waiting for Aria to go somewhere. Waiting for something, anything to happen. Akari, Alice and Aika, as loveable as they are, don't evolve much, the stories are more poetry than narrative, and the height of drama is watching a luminous wind-chime slowly die out. From a mere description of it words like meandering, pointless and precious spring readily to mind. But to describe it in terms of narrative propulsion is to do the series a gross injustice. Aria isn't a journey, it's a place. That is true now more than ever as the series moves with minimal fanfare into its second, and longest, season. The character introductions and world-building, as gentle as they were, are now in the past. No longer does the series need to work to transport you to its world of kindness and quiet beauty. It need only roll its unique, ever-changing opening and bam! you're there.
And a wonderful place it is. Populated with simple, sweet-natured people, from elderly mailmen to apprentice glass-blowers, who enjoy their unassuming lives to the utmost. A place ruled by the languid shifting of seasons rather than the onward march of plot or the merciless dissection of character. A place where a turn around a corner could as easily reveal a new friend or an effulgent sunset as a mischievous fox god or a stately cat spirit. And all of it refracted through Akari's childlike lens, where every experience, be it part-timing for long-term citizens or simply going shopping, is a magical adventure of enchanting beauty. Yes it's corny as hell, and sweet enough to rot teeth at a hundred yards, but Kozue Amano's original manga isn't called a “futuristic healing comic” for nothing. The world she and director Junichi Sato weave is ridiculously uplifting, an animated dose of Prozac for even the darkest of days. Warmly humorous, unflaggingly optimistic and determined to find magic in everyday life, Aria is the closest you can get to hug therapy with something as cold and inanimate as a television screen.
As much as Aika, Alice or even Akari, Neo-Venezia is the star Aria. Sato lends the city a very real sense of place, breathing life into it with lovely backgrounds and layered sound. Beautifully lit and carefully illustrated, the city comes alive as it weathers winter, shimmers through summer and idles through spring. With as little action as the series has, Sato is allowed to focus on telling details—the movement of trees, the rippling, crystal clarity of ocean water, the wind ruffling the hair of Amano's lovely characters. Thoughtful sound design gives the city's lazy rhythms a concrete feel, weaving the sounds of water, wind, birds and the city itself into the visuals. The score complements rather than competes with the sound design, contributing homey instrumentals and the late Eri Kawai's incomparable vocals to a tapestry of sound every bit as gorgeous as the city it occupies. It all draws together to create a fairy-tale city that feels curiously real, a place where one can easily believe that peace and kindness come naturally, that wonders await all who care to look, and that the magical king of cats is as real as the girl for whose cheerful charms he falls.
The return to an established world allows The Natural the freedom to experiment a little. The introduction of Cait Sith cements the series' classification as magical realism, and it's now confident enough in its secondary cast to unhesitatingly base entire episodes around Akatsuki and Al. Akatsuki's episode even introduces (heaven forbid!) a little romance, while others allow glimpses of Akari's insecurities. But the formula established in the first season is a winning one, and Sato is careful not to unduly disturb it. Though inevitably less fresh, each episode can still harness all of the considerable power of its subtly magical setting, cuddly cast and slice-of-life pacing to sweep one up, culminating in celebrations of beauty, both mundane and mystical, that are no less moving for being scrupulously gentle and anti-dramatic.
Like the series itself, Right Stuf's release of Aria the Natural is careful to maintain continuity with the first season. As before, the thirteen episodes are stretched across four thinpak volumes and housed in a beautiful box. But unlike the first season, they are accompanied by a separate disc of extras. On it interesting tidbits abound, such as Junichi Sato's blunt confession that he anticipates no change from the first to second seasons and Eri Kawai's admission that the lyrics to Athena's songs are pure gibberish. An interview with the three lead actresses has them commenting on their (and Sato and Amano's) favorite scenes from the first season, while the discussion of the series' sound (featuring composer Takeshi Senoo, a representative from Choro Club, and Eri Kawai alongside Junichi Sato and sound director Yasuno Sato) highlights the importance Sato placed on the aural side of his project. Oddly enough, Yasuno Sato is actually Junichi Sato's wife, a fact that perhaps explains the seamless nature of the soundtrack, but likely has more bearing on the unusual subtlety of Sato's dirty old man's eye for the female form. The interview with Yui Makino—the excellent opening theme's artist—is comparatively disposable. Right Stuf's booklet is shorter than the previous season's, but is oriented more towards the technical side of each episode and is in glorious color, making it far more valuable.
When asked why he named this season “The Natural,” Sato claimed that it was because he wanted it to flow naturally. He succeeds brilliantly. It widens its scope to embrace its secondary cast and to delve more explicitly into the magical, but The Natural is less a sequel than a direct continuation of its predecessor. It will never win over those bored to tears (or driven to distraction) by the deliberately reassuring first season, but those once wooed by the soothing magic of Neo-Venezia will be delighted at the chance for a return trip; a trip that is, if anything, even more beautiful than the first.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A+
+ Akari and Neo-Venezia; gorgeous visuals, likeable characters and an embarrassingly effective feel-good tone.
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