It’s often said that nothing is perfect and generally, I agree. Everything has one flaw or another. The important question is less “how many issues does this have?” and more “how much do these issues bother you?”. Most of the time, a show’s issues bother me somewhat, even for shows I’d generally call my favorites. There are a few exceptions to this, but one anime has stood out as nearly flawless in my mind for the last 4 years. That anime is Aria.
Aria is decently well-known in the anime community. An iyashikei show, it might not be as watched as some works, but it’s well-respected by those who have seen it, especially among slice-of-life fans. It’s so popular with that crowd that it gained a reputation for being an elitist anime of choice.
And that’s for good reason. Aria is an absolute masterpiece, both in anime and manga form. It’s almost certainly the pinnacle of the iyashikei genre, with only Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou really competing. So what is it that makes Aria so good? As always, it comes down to a number of factors, but I think it’s informative to start by looking at the structure.
Aria’s anime is divided into 3 seasons. While the show is definitely cohesive, the seasons all manage to serve distinct purposes. The first, known as The Animation, serves fittingly as an introduction to both the characters and the world of Neo-Venezia itself. At the same time, it sets the viewer up for later events and quickly sets a mood which continues across the show.
Akari is the only character who gets full focus in The Animation. The others are certainly introduced — though Al kind of just shows up — but the show doesn’t really go in-depth with them at this stage. Instead, the show devotes itself to quickly making you fall in love with Akari’s captivating and optimistic personality. Her love of Neo-Venezia is the driving force behind the show, so it’s important that you quickly come to understand her perspective in order for the show to work.
Let’s take episode 5, “To That Island Which Shouldn’t Exist…”. This episode lightly explores Akari’s childhood, but more importantly looks at the way she maintains her childlike wonder and optimism while still growing up. She understands that the Neverland of Peter Pan is not a real place, but she’s gained the ability to see the world itself as a sort of Neverland, as something full of beauty and magic in its own way. Akari’s perspective here is what Aria wants you to carry as you watch the show: the idea that the world is beautiful and that memories are worth cherishing.
That said, while Akari is given the most in-depth treatment during this season, it does explore some other elements which will appear more strongly in the later seasons.
The first of these is mono no aware. As I’ve said before, it’s an aesthetic focused on the bittersweet beauty of transience. It’s a pervading theme throughout Aria, deeply connected with its focus on the importance of memories, but the first episode which truly makes it apparent is episode 4, “That Undeliverable Letter…”, which introduces a number of other important elements at the same time.
This episode is the first clear example of magical realism in Aria. It establishes the connection between cats and the supernatural, something Aria returns to frequently, even though this episode was anime-original. The show regularly makes it clear that Akari’s childlike wonder allows her to see things that others aren’t able to and this is just one example.
At the same time, the episode’s focus on long-lost, ultimately sad memories brings mono no aware to the forefront. The couple in this episode was not able to meet again, which is a deeply sad outcome. But there’s some beauty there, some joy in the knowledge that they had known and loved one another in the first place, that they contributed to the building of a city and planet that makes so many people so happy. This is something that the show returns to time and time again. Episode 12 itself is another example of this, as it demonstrates the power of Neo-Venezia by showing its founding citizens in a melancholy, but ultimately uplifting lens.
In addition, the show introduces the arcs for Aika and Alice, though it comes nowhere near following through with them. Alice’s issues with social interaction and understanding others are brought up in her introductory episode, while Aika’s issues with self-confidence, Akira, and just enjoying herself show up in episode 2 and 9.
Finally, The Animation sets up the inevitable separation of our three young undines. First, as I said, mono no aware is a theme, especially surrounding departures. Episode 10, “That Warm Holiday…”, shows this when Akari becomes fast friends with a snow bug before having to bid it goodbye. More importantly, though, episode 11, “Those Orange Days…”, introduces the fact that Alicia, Akira, and Athena are close friends as well, whose promotions into Primas has made it incredibly hard for them to meet up. The show makes it abundantly clear here that this is going to happen to Akari, Aika, and Alice one day, something Akari tearfully realizes as they split up at the end of the evening. This isn’t going to be followed up on for another 40 episodes, but the show puts it in the back of your mind here, emotionally preparing you for when it finally happens.
While The Animation was merely an introduction to the world, The Natural is focused on diving deeper into the characters, including the character of Neo-Venezia itself.
It starts this by making it clear that this season is even more focused on supernatural events than the first. Episode 1, “That Encounter at the Carnival…”, introduces Cait Sith, the King of the Cats and the symbol of Neo-Venezia’s supernatural entities. In the manga, he was introduced earlier, but here he was already built up by having cats surround the two previous supernatural events.
Cait Sith is interesting to observe. On the one hand, he’s remarkably creepy. Aqua’s cats are already strange, but as a giant, weirdly proportioned creature he just comes across as unnerving. At the same time, it’s impossible to know what his true aims are, which combines with the eerie atmosphere of his scenes to make it clear that he’s above true human understanding. He never does anything to hurt Akari and is ultimately shown to be caring, but it’s clear that Akari’s continued glances into his world could prove to be a problem if she goes too far. His eventual departure is sad but in many ways it’s a good thing for her.
Neo-Venezia is expanded on in other ways as well. My favorite example of this is in episode 2, “Looking For That Treasure…”. The whole treasure hunt gimmick not only allows us to see more of Neo-Venezia, which as always is absolutely beautiful but makes it clear why Akari is having so much fun exploring the city. The actual treasure of seeing a great view and meeting so many people might sound saccharine but that sweetness pervades every one of the show’s messages. This is not a work which gives into cynicism or pessimism in any way. “Now you got a treasure in your heart” might be a silly phrase but it’s absolutely true. The Natural takes your interest in Akari, which should be established at this point, and makes it clear why she’s correct in loving Neo-Venezia so much.
Exploring the human characters is another important part of The Natural. Akari, of course, gets the primary focus, especially with the increased prominence of the supernatural. Take episode 5, which combines two stories. The first, “The Wonder of that Rainy Day…” shows the danger present to Akari if she doesn’t mind the gap between the world of mortals and the other world, a theme which returns in episode 20. The second half, “The Discoveries on that Spring Day…” show that, while her actions were dangerous, the actual principle of going along as you want and finding the beauty in life is worthwhile. They went the wrong direction, but the rail car with the cherry blossom tree is still so beautiful. Mistakes don’t have to create misery.
There are plenty of other great Akari episodes, from episode 10 which showcases just how powerful her friendly optimism is, to episode 14 which shows how deeply she cares about Aria Company, to episode 26 which just demonstrates how pure her love of life is. But there’s one specific two-episode arc that I want to focus on, as it’s one of my favorite parts of the whole series. It’s composed of episodes 16 and 17, “Parting with that Gondola…” and “After that Rainy Night…”.
First, I want to thank Junichi Sato for the decision to stretch this one chapter into two episodes. The extra focus here goes a long way, making this arc from a great story into an actual masterpiece.
This is Aria at its peak, with a full focus on mono no aware, on the supernatural wonder which inhabits Neo Venezia, and on Akari’s pure and true love of everything in the world. Here, Akari is forced to part with the gondola she’s been using the entire time. It’s a slow, meditative arc, fitting for the series, wherein Akari just spends her final days with the gondola, quietly contemplating what it’s meant to her. At one point, she meets the gondola’s spirit, which reassures her that their meeting was a happy one.
It connects to Alicia, as she too once used this gondola as a trainee. This boat has spent decades at Aria Company and its retirement is a sad thing. But the memories that Akari has made with it weren’t for naught. They don’t need to be thrown away or ignored. They were real and happy and they’re worth preserving. And in the end, the gondola is put to use for another task, showing that everything in life continues in some way or another. This is one of the most beautiful stories in the whole show and it captures almost everything I love about Aria. It also demonstrates why Aria couldn’t really be made in the West; the focus on the spirit of an inanimate object and the continuation of existence beyond conscious life is something that simply doesn’t arise from Western literary and spiritual tradition.
Other characters are fleshed out as well. Alice gets some good material but I really want to look at what the show does with Aika. The arc wherein she burns her hair emphasizes her already low self-esteem and shows how her friends and mentor can help her to gain confidence in herself. When she fully embraces her new, shorter hairstyle — which I must add looks excellent — she takes a notable step forward in accepting herself, even if she doesn’t make it the whole way.
In general, The Natural is not a season of progress. The “main plot” centered around the girls’ developments as undines doesn’t move much. They practice all the time but we have no real sense of whether or not they’re improving in any significant way. Instead, this season simply allows us to feel closer to everything, to have a better grasp of the characters and world. The first season set itself up as endearing, but it’s the second season which really makes that the case, preparing us for the movement of the third season.
But before that, we need to look at the OVA, Arietta. Arietta is frequently overlooked but it’s vital to the show’s setup. Here, we get another glimpse at the relationship between Akari and Alicia. Once again, this prepares us for the final season, where this relationship will be the driving force behind many of the upcoming events. In addition, it begins the greater focus on Aria Company itself and the ways in which its changed throughout the years, something that is continued down the line.
The Origination is the initial conclusion to Aria, and as such it ends all the ongoing arcs, both narrative and thematic. Almost every episode in The Origination is devoted to either concluding an arc or specifically building up to the inevitable promotion and separations of the trio. As I said, this was an element that was introduced as early as The Animation but here is where all that build-up finally pays off.
First, The Origination does something the show hadn’t done until this point; it actually demonstrates the skill of our main characters. For quite some time, it’s been hard to tell how good they really were, especially in regards to Akari. It was clear that they were pretty good, perhaps even better than most trainees, but seeing as our only other examples were the Three Water Fairies, they didn’t come across as particularly impressive.
Two episodes do an excellent job of demonstrating Akari’s skill. The first is episode 2, “That Smiling Customer…”. Here, Akari does a job for someone who isn’t one of her friends. The fact that she’s able to do such a magnificent job and show so much personality in her own view of Neo-Venezia is amazing and makes it clear that she’s a great tour guide.
And in terms of her actual rowing ability, episode 4, “Those Who Aim for Tomorrow…” make it quite apparent that, while perhaps not at Alice’s prodigy level, she’s an excellent undine. This episode, which shows a number of other Singles vying for promotion, makes two things clear. First, it demonstrates Akari’s extreme skill and the fact that she’s sure to be promoted when she takes her test. Second, it once again shows the many ways in which the world can be beautiful. For one of these Singles, tour guiding is not the goal, with traghetto ferrying being the task she loves. The other two, who have failed their Prima exams, are upset, but Akari’s warmth is able to touch them as it touches so many, encouraging further attempts.
In general, The Origination is focused on exploring the characters to completion. Aika’s arc with self-confidence is ended and she’s able to happily move forward while believing in herself. The Fairies are given a bit more depth and shown to be fully fledged characters on their own. Again, it’s all very sentimental, but I’m fine with that.
And that brings us to the final 5 episodes which are truly masterful. As I said, the promotions have been built up to this entire time. They likely would have been emotional in the first place, but that build-up gives them extra weight which helps a great deal. Other shows like K-On! and Hidamari Sketch demonstrate this as well; when it’s clear that the separation is going to happen, it becomes a much stronger moment.
The show begins with episode 9, “Surrounded by That Orange Wind…”. It’s clear from the beginning that this is Alice’s promotion. After all, the Hill of Hope is used for all Single promotions, something we already know at this point. The exam itself is great, really demonstrating just how far Alice has come in opening up to others but it’s the conclusion which is truly stunning. Alice’s performance of ‘Lumis Eterne’ is beautiful in a way you don’t expect. The show has never indicated that Alice can sing; rather, the only character shown to have talent for it is Athena. Hearing the wondrous, touching song is fantastic.
And then the show manages to top it. Both we and the characters know that this is a promotion. But the double promotion comes as a complete surprise to almost everyone. Alice is more than ready to be a Prima, but it’s still very surprising. I can’t imagine watching this scene without crying. Even writing this paragraph brought on some tears. It’s just so nice to see Alice, who has struggled so hard with connecting to others, finally break free and not only express herself but be rewarded for it. It’s truly a magical scene.
Episode 11, “Those Ever-Changing Days…” makes one thing clear. The simple fact is that the girls are going to spend less time with one another, something that’s already starting to happen. But that doesn’t make it impossible, and there doesn’t need to be a special reason for it. Their care for one another is enough of an excuse to meet up. The trio might not be able to be together at all times anymore, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t best friends.
Episode 12, “Embraced by that Blue Sea and Wind…” is the somewhat obligatory promotion of Akari. At this point in the show, with the other two promoted and Akari’s skills clear, it’s obvious that her promotion is right around the corner. My favorite moment in this episode is the end of the exam, where Akari brings Alicia back to Aria Company as the demonstration of her priorities as an undine.
Aria Company is a small organization but it’s characterized by the deep love and optimism shown by all who have worked at it. Akari is shown throughout the series to embody the spirit of Neo-Venezia, but more importantly the spirit of Aria Company itself. She may be an immigrant to the planet, but the Company is her home and as an undine, her focus is on it. Akari carries with her the same spirit that Akino had when she first established Aria Company, the same spirit that Alicia had when she too first became a Prima. It’s for this reason that she is dubbed, Aquamarine, the goddess of the seas. Alicia and Akari’s strong bond is emphasized, carrying us into the next and final episode of the series.
Episode 13, “To that New Beginning…” is, as all of these episodes were, bittersweet. I stated early on that mono no aware pervades this series and The Origination shows that better than anything else. Alicia’s retirement is undoubtedly a sad event. She won’t be able to spend nearly as much time with Akari anymore, and she’ll be giving up the career she worked so hard for. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t beautiful. Alicia put a lot of thought into her decision and ultimately decided that working for the Gondola Association is what she needed to do.
It’s so very sad. It’s heart-wrenching to see that she put it off as far as she could, delaying Akari’s promotion just to spend a bit more time with her. Everyone is moving forward, going on in their own directions. But the memories of the times they’ve spent are worth keeping forever, and new memories can be made as well. The ephemerality of it all is breathtaking.
And then we see it all begin anew. Akari becomes the teacher to Ai, another girl from Manhome who can see Neo-Venezia for the beautiful city that it is. Another trainee to absorb the ethos of Aria Company. Another person to forge new connections on this wonderful, tranquil planet.
The Avvenire, the recently released OVA, is merely a coda, a small glimpse into the lives of our characters after our departure. It’s wonderful to see their faces again, to spend one last hour with the characters we’ve come to love. It’s so beautiful to see Ai become friends with Aika and Alice’s apprentices, leading the way for yet another generation of Water Fairies. I wept as Athena sang Lumis Eterne, calling to mind my favorite moment in the series and serving as a fitting tribute to both her voice actress and the one who sang her songs, both of whom passed away before the Avvenire was made.
It was excellent to see more of Alicia’s thought process as she recruited Akari and, eventually, made her decision to leave the Company. It’s not necessary in any way and is absolutely fanservice, but it’s an OVA which only enhances Aria. As I said, we can always make new memories, even if our departures are sad. I’m so happy to have the Avvenire and to have made even more memories with these fantastic characters.
Aria is a celebration of everything in life. It celebrates the entire world, carrying an optimistic attitude with it the whole time. Certainly, there are bad things in the world of Aria. Akari nearly gets spirited away in multiple episodes and while we never see it, Manhome is implied to be a comfortable but ultimately boring and imperfect place. But Neo-Venezia is near perfect because it’s not meant to be real. Instead, it’s meant to show what the world could be if we all carried Akari’s attitude. If we were all optimistic, if we could all find beauty in the smallest of places and the saddest of moments, then surely we could build a world as wonderful as Aqua.
The show is slow but it’s better for it. As you watch it, you slowly come to fall in love with the characters, understanding their perspectives. Akari’s love of Neo-Venezia goes from somewhat over-the-top to a completely believable point-of-view. I wouldn’t say that nothing happens in Aria. But what does happen is not the focus. The point is not to eagerly expect the next event, but to become fully immersed in the mood.
In Aria, everything comes together. I could spend so much time talking about the wonderful backgrounds, which are even better in the manga. I could also talk about the soundtrack by Choro Club, one of my favorites in all of anime, which does a perfect job at evoking the emotions that the show needs. But that seems beside the point. These things are not separate entities but one part of a greater whole. It’s for that reason that the flaws in Aria basically never bother me. Sure, there are episodes I like less, but even they at least fit the tone and contribute, even if I’d replace them if possible. It might not be literally perfect, but I think it’s the closest we’re ever going to get. For that reason, I believe Aria is the pinnacle of iyashikei, the pinnacle of slice-of-life, and the pinnacle of anime.