Reviewby Carlo Santos, Jan 20th 2008
In the year 2301, Mars has been terraformed into a second home for humankind—but a quirk of nature has left it 90% covered in water, earning it the name "Aqua." On the planet Aqua is the city of Neo-Venezia, a recreation of old Venice, and it is here in Neo-Venezia that Akari Mizunashi is training to be a gondolier, also known as an "undine." Day by day, Akari discovers new experiences and new friends: teaching an old man to appreciate the city's charms, cleaning out the gondolas, passing the time while waiting for a friend, exploring an ancient shrine, and competing in the annual citywide gondola race. But could that race actually be a test for promoting Akari to the next level as an undine?
Picking up where the two volumes of Aqua left off, Aria is another gentle ride through a sci-fi pseudo-European cityscape. But don't let yourself be intimidated by its futuristic setting or random sprinklings of technology—this is a series that's all about enjoying the simple things in life. Akari's dialogue in the first chapter says it all: yes, they still do housecleaning, laundry and cooking by hand in Neo-Venezia, but just look at how happy she is, and how pleasant the rest of the city's residents are. (Isn't it funny how humankind had to reach the technological heights of space travel just to discover the wonders of pre-21st-century living?) With a feel-good philosophy at its core, Aria's first volume is 180 pages of pure, serene happiness.
Happiness comes in many forms, though, and each chapter looks at it from different angles. The best one in this volume is probably the shrine visit in "Sun Shower," as it's a little darker than Akari's usual adventures—there's an air of mystery and wonder, and the use of Japanese legends is a refreshing change of pace from the European flavor elsewhere in the series. But Akari's usual sunny attitude is still enjoyable in its own right: the race in the final chapter is a lot of bubbly fun, and even something like gondola cleaning becomes an exciting activity when she's there to spread her infectious happiness. Not the irritating, squeal-squeal-bounce-bounce type of happiness, but simply the ability to find the good in everything that goes on in life.
Yet there are some stories in this volume that don't quite satisfy. Sometimes the meandering, slice-of-life storytelling drifts too far out, resulting in no purpose or direction—just look at the middle chapter, where Akari basically waits for a friend that never shows up and shows a guy around the city to kill time. It's pleasant stuff, with some tidbits about the history and geography of Neo-Venezia, but it's still a storyline that doesn't go anywhere. Akari's encounter with a lost elderly tourist also seems to lack any true spark—first off, the old man isn't a very likable character anyway, and Akari's solution to his dilemma is to ... show him around the city. Look, we already know what she does for work, and having her do it with a disagreeable customer doesn't make it that much more interesting. Clearly, the best stories here are the ones where Akari is pulled away from her normal routine.
Although the mood of the series is gentle and dreamlike, the artwork isn't what one would call dreamy—the crisp lines and carefully bordered panels show more of a draftsman's touch rather than an impressionist. Yet this precise style still manages to capture the sense of wonder on planet Aqua: the airborne confetti at the gondola race, the falling autumn leaves in the first chapter, and especially the Japanese architecture and landscape on the shrine island. It's really the backgrounds and landscapes that are the main character in this series—and there are a number of full-page spreads that truly show the beauty of this imaginary planet. Because of that, the character designs are almost an afterthought, although they're still attractive enough. Holding it all together is the regular, rectangular paneling that lets each scene flow smoothly from one moment to the next, often with silences or interior monologue—and it's those quiet moments that are often the most touching.
For a series that celebrates the simple joys of life, the dialogue is also appropriately simple (although it does get a bit wordy when describing Aqua's formation or the history of Neo-Venezia). Akari gets in her fair share of optimistic, feel-good quotes, and while best friend Aika doesn't get to chime in with "No embarrassing lines allowed!" this time around, her ambitious personality definitely still comes out in the translation. Unfortunately, one thing that goes untranslated is the sound effects, which probably would have helped add more atmosphere to events like the shrine visit and the gondola race. If it's any consolation, the full-color first page does add some shine and polish to the volume.
The idyllic, future-meets-past lifestyle of Aria may be a wild flight of the imagination, yet the storytelling is as down-to-earth as they come. This is not about the wonders of space colonization, or the technological challenges of maintaining a replica of Earth, but simply the joys of discovering new friends and new experiences—something that's relevant no matter which century you're in. Admittedly, some stories in this volume fall a little flat, but Akari's charm still shines through no matter what she does. If a 24th-century girl can believe that life is worth living, and that even the most mundane things can be a source of inspiration, then perhaps we too can adopt this enlightened state of mind.
Overall : B
Story : B-
Art : A-
+ A gently paced, picturesque collection of stories that gives a true sense of being taken to another world.
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