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The seasons change and Neo Venezia cloaks itself in the shifting light and atmosphere of each as Akari, Aika and Alice continue to ply their trade as Undines, water guides to the wonders of their peaceful world. Their ambitions, to become Prima Undines who can guide tourists without an accompanying superior, remain the same, as does the gentle rhythm of their lives, but no life stands completely still and their ambitions may be closer at hand than it seems.
Aria the Animation was our introduction to Akari and Neo-Venezia. Aria the Natural was the quintessence of their gentle magic. Aria the Origination is their final bow, fourteen episodes of elegiac beauty that soothe even as they mourn the franchise's passing.
If forward motion is the yardstick by which you measure quality, then The Origination is the best of all Aria incarnations. In its final season the series trims away the overt magical trappings of The Natural, narrows its focus back down to its central trio of apprentice undines, and moves their lives forward with almost shocking suddenness. After reveling in its sense of place and celebrating at length the languorous magic of everyday life, the series finally shifts its gaze to its characters' futures. If ever you were curious about the fate of Akari, Alice, Aika or any of the other "A"s who populate the series, The Origination's final episodes will leave you quite sated.
The commencement of forward motion comes at a cost, however. This is by far the least magical of Aria's installments, and not just because Cait Sith has gone MIA. The Origination lacks The Animation's freshness as well as The Natural's sprawl, the space in which to steep us in the laid-back atmosphere of Neo-Venezia. Its future focus foreshortens Akari's wide-eyed explorations of the here and now, and its final episodes, and the changes they effect, are more bittersweet coming of age drama than celebrations of everyday wonder. The conflicting emotions this season ultimately evokes are, as ever, subtle and sneaky in their power, but they also leave an entirely different impression than seasons past. Aria's customary warm glow is still there, but it's an older, wiser and sadder warmth.
Fear not, though; Aria approaches its forward-gazing narrative with the same quiet grace and eye for cinematic poetry that it brought to its uplifting mission in previous seasons. From the Arietta OVA that begins this set the series features a renewed focus on professional maturation that is pure Junichi Sato: so quiet, natural and seamlessly integrated into the series' visual and narrative rhythm that when it precipitates the first of a series of major life changes it's some time before you realize that he had been building to them all along. The feelings the series leaves you with are similarly constructed: gentle emotions built of little things—comments and tiny psychological revelations—whose full import only becomes clear when they swell together at the series' poignant conclusion.
And of course it is all—every glimpse of the future, window into the past, and glance at the increasingly evanescent present—transcendentally beautiful, crowned with images and sequences so gorgeously constructed that they defy easy encapsulation. There's a retirement ceremony that echoes the royal processions of bygone eras, a simple ferry crossing during which music and motion combine to communicate the economic beauty of Akari's sculling, and of course a nearly endless number of discrete moments when Sato's meticulous sound design, the carefully researched settings, and Choro Club and Takeshi Senoo's wonderful acoustic score make a living thing of Neo-Venezia.
Right Stuf's presentation of the series is every bit a match for its content. Their thinpak box is solidly built and thoroughly bedecked with the series' delectable art. The accompanying booklet is colorful, dense with interviews and cast retrospectives, and just generally a joy to read and look at (even if it has some embarrassing misprints). The decision to place the single Arietta OVA on its own disc seems wasteful until it becomes clear just how packed the other discs are. Every one of the three Origination discs features four to five episodes (episodes 1-13, plus bonus episode 5.5) along with two or three picture dramas—barely animated video mangas with enough bad dialogue to hint at how disastrous the series could have been were it not so carefully written and executed. And to round out the set, there's an entire extra disc of cast and crew interviews, including "SatoJun's 'Venice I'm Sorry!' Returns", a sequel of sorts to Aria the Natural's thoroughly charming travelogue featuring the thoroughly charming Junichi Sato.
There's no dub, but really, who expected one?
With background on Alicia and Akira's formative years and a focus on growing up that sees the central trio of Akari, Aika and Alice roughing out their future paths, this is a far more traditionally substantial season than the franchise's previous two. Occasionally rushed and less sparklingly magical than previously, the series doesn't suffer the change without consequence, but it remains a graceful and gorgeous experience. And if its new maturity inspires a certain sadness, well that's exactly as it should be. In the words of Akari: wonderful.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B+
Animation : B+
Art : A
Music : A
+ A genuine and poignant conclusion to a series that often seemed like it would never see one; as beautiful in execution and sentiment as ever.
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