Reviewby Carlo Santos, Jan 7th 2010
Aria The Natural
Sub.DVD - Collection Part 2
Akari Mizunashi and her friends are continuing their training to become full-fledged Undines (gondoliers) in the city of Neo-Venezia, a futuristic re-creation of Venice. As always, they learn that getting around the city is about more than just paddling a boat, and many new encounters and challenges await them. Some of the toughest challenges are the ones concerning the Undines themselves: Can Akari learn to let go of her gondola now that it's all worn out and needs to be replaced? Can her friend Aika overcome her insecurities and become proud of her own identity? Along the way, they'll also learn more about the residents of Neo-Venezia (including a few amusing childhood stories), and Akari might just have a couple more run-ins with a mysterious cat spirit...
In a way, the Aria series is like a drug: when taken in small doses, it can be a wonderfully relaxing sedative, like a cure for the common anime. Too much at once, however, can leave one drowsy or even comatose, due to the series' languid pacing. So just because Aria the Natural comes in two economical boxsets of 13 episodes each doesn't mean it has to be watched in that manner. Neo-Venezia is a place best enjoyed in brief visits, and that's because the second batch of episodes is much like the first (which in turn is just like the original): a collection of stand-alone but loosely chronological stories, each one providing a gentle slice of retro-futuristic life. After all, when you've got a formula that works, why change?
Not all slices are created equal, however, and even though the mood of the series seems permanently set to mellow, it does shift subtly with each episode. Earlier in the series, when Akari was still a newbie learning the ways of planet Aqua, she would have gone through a lot more customer-service training and explorations of the city—but here the focus is more on personal development. The process of retiring her old gondola, for example, turns into a glowing reminiscence: rather than taking the easy way out with clips of previous episodes, this collection of flashbacks becomes a story in itself, showing how our heroine has grown over time. And she's not the only one taking the trip down memory lane: the supporting characters also take some time to look back on their youth, providing some refreshing insights. Just imagine, even a consummate veteran like Alicia was also a greenhorn once!
Even seemingly frivolous episodes result in moments of enlightenment, like when a midsummer barbecue leads toAika rethinking the image that she projects to the outside world. Events like a dinner party, or a rainy day study session, are not just things to be glossed over but serve to strengthen the bonds of friendship. But amidst all these developments, other aspects of the series get lost in the fray: there's only one episode that involves meeting a new customer, and while it's a very heartwarming one involving an old married couple, it appears that Akari would rather cling to her old friends instead of making new ones. In addition, the occasional ventures into the supernatural feel strangely out of character: the urban-legend horror episode and Akari's "Galaxy Express" encounter with Cait Sith don't really connect with what Aria is all about—even if it does involve the same environs and characters.
But about those environs. As always, the elegant architecture and landscapes of Neo-Venezia are essential to the series' soothing quality: one can't help but stand in awe of the view from Hope Hill, or enjoy the dizzying heights atop the floating island of Ukijima, or take in the calming silence that comes with freshly fallen snow. Almost every background is a triumph of visual design, even if it's just a daily occurrence like the sunset (orange and yellow are clearly the prettiest colors on Aqua, not blue and white). Sometimes, however, the technical quality of the animation doesn't quite measure up to the artistic conception, and some views of the city come out flat: buildings are lacking in texture, perspective gets skewed, and certain backgrounds are so static that they look painted-on. The character designs, too, suffer from occasional sloppiness: the faces may be cute and the outfits distinctive, but every now and then someone's eyes will appear too close together, or the face shape is a little off, and suddenly the illusion is broken.
The music, on the other hand, suffers from no such inconsistencies. Even though the soundtrack still uses many of the cues and melodies from way back in the first series, it's a cool, sophisticated sound that never wears out. The Brazilian-tinged acoustic folk of Choro Club is a world away from the synth-heavy tracks of most other anime, and when one speaks of the series' calm and refreshing qualities, it's because music like this gives the show room to breathe. Similarly, the opening and ending themes are as laid-back as they come, and the integration of actual episode content into the opening sequence is a clever way of getting people not to skip over the credits.
Although this DVD set lacks an English dub track, it more than makes up for it with the wealth of extras—so much, in fact, that there's a separate disc just for all the bonus content. Included on the disc are two hours' worth of interviews, most of it with the voice cast, although for those who are truly interested in the art and craft of animation, the half-hour segment with the director is clearly the place to be.
If there is one plot hole to be pointed out in a series that doesn't really have a plot, it is this: Don't these girls ever do any actual work? For all this talk of training to become an Undine, Akari seems to spend an awful lot of time hanging out at the café, chatting with her pals, and generally just having way too much leisure time on her hands. Yet this relaxed lifestyle is clearly doing her a lot more good than being a 21st-century-style workaholic. Likewise, Aria the Natural succeeds by ignoring the tenets of what makes "good" anime—does everything need an epic earth-shattering storyline and iconic over-the-top characters?—and proudly going at its own pace. The picturesque cityscapes and pleasant camaraderie would only be ruined if Aria tried to be something that it's not. This is a series that doesn't really go anywhere, and it doesn't have to. It's fine exactly where it is.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : C+
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Closes out the series by doing what it does best: tales of friendship, fun, and self-discovery in a beautiful retro-futuristic world.
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