March 09, 2008

ARIA, Undines and Promotions.

The world of ARIA is a lush and expansive one, with three series worth of anime (ARIA the Animation, 13 episodes; ARIA the Natural, 26 episodes and one OVA, "Arietta", and ARIA the Origination, currently on ep8 of 13), and two separate manga (Aqua and Aria) to draw details from (please note that this post draws only from the anime)

The setting for ARIA is the city of Neo-Venezia, nearly a brick-for-brick copy of the Italian city of Venice (which has been abandoned, finally slipping under the water of the Adriatic sea; whether this is because of eco-disaster or natural subsidence of the city is unknown), located on what was called Mars, now Aqua after extensive terraforming.  Like the original, Neo-Venezia is waterbound, with canals replacing streets.  As one would expect, the gondolieri of Venice made the trek to Aqua as well.  The profession underwent a sea change (pardon the pun) in Neo-Venezia, however. 

Now called Undines, the gondolieri of Neo-Venezia are exclusively female.  A mix of tour guide and limo driver, Undines might almost be considered the 'rock stars' of Neo-Venezia, with magazines devoted to them, and the best being known city-wide and beyond, with their fame seemingly reaching to 'Manhome', as Earth is now called. 

The Undines are well-organized, with their own guild of sorts, the Gondolier's Association.  The 'gondolier concession', if you will, is run by three companies: Orange Planet (the largest, whose uniforms are lined with yellow), Himeya (the oldest, red), and Aria Company (the company followed in the show, blue). 

There may be at least two other companies in Neo-Venezia as well (whose uniform colors are green and purple, respectively), but other than a brief moment in one episode, they exist 'off-stage', if you will.

Given all this, there are a few things that have bothered me (slightly) about the world of the Undines:
There are three stages in becoming a working Undine in the world of ARIA.  Every Undine starts as an apprentice, known as a Pair for the gloves she wears on each hand.  The gloves protect her hands as she builds strength and callouses from wielding her gondola's oar.  As a Pair, the apprentice is expected to learn the basics of gondola handling as well as the layout of Neo-Venezia's canals.  She also begins to learn the "social graces" of being an Undine, be it singing, the ability to speak coherently about the history and landmarks of Neo-Venezia (as well as the history of Man-home's Venice), or some other form of entertainment.  She learns these skills under the watchful eye of a master Undine (known as a Prima), or by riding along with a Prima as she goes about her day's business.  The Pair will help the Prima on these days in little ways, like taking photographs of the passengers for commemorative purposes for example.

What a Pair is unable to do is pole a gondola with a paying customer on board under any circumstances.  Instead, she may self-train with other rookies, under the guidance of a Prima, or perhaps on a gondola simulator.  Eventually, the Pair will present herself for advancement, and will be tested to advance to Apprentice, known as a Single (again, for the number of gloves worn; the glove is worn on the right hand).  There is no set time frame for an Apprentice to advance to become a Single, but a year or two may not be far off the average.

The apprentice Single continues with the training she underwent as a Pair, just moving onto more advanced techniques.  This training may be alone, or with other trainees (it is not unknown for trainees from the various companies to train together; while rivals, the companies are quite friendly).  At this point, the Single is learning about the "back roads" of Neo-Venezia, the lesser-used and much smaller canals of the city.  As there are many, many interesting and beautiful places off the main drags of the city, this knowledge is vital for the entertainment of the passenger/tourist.  The Single also begins to learn the basics of the company as a whole, such as the paperwork involved.  At this point in their career, the Single can take paying customers, but only with a Prima along.  This allows them the ability to 'get their feet wet' in the business while having the fallback of an experienced person along to help get them out of trouble if need be.

Eventually, the Single undergoes a series of tests, given by Primas and outside examiners (who may have been Undines themselves, or have a tie to the companies in some way.  In at least one case, the examiner is simply someone who had been riding gondolas for many years and knows what makes a good Undine).  At the end of these tests (which may not be obvious as a test to the Single), the trainee may be advanced to the status of Prima or informed that they need to continue their training as a Single for more seasoning.  It is quite common for a Single to have to take one or more of the tests multiple times before being promoted.

This brings up the first of the questions that had been nagging at me, that of what value is a failed Single to their Company?  After all, not every Single can become a Prima; it takes a certain type of person to successfully perform the job.  It can be safely assumed that some of these trainees become office staff for Orange Planet and Himeya (Aria Company is, by tradition, a two-person outfit; a Prima and a trainee).  Perhaps some of these people become trainers themselves; for example, she may have excellent boat-handling skills, but is a poor tour guide.  One would expect that these talents would be used in some way.

But it isn't until episode 4 of Aria the Origination, the third series, that we get some clues as to what an unpromoted Single can do.  There is one way that we know of that a Single can take paying customers without a Prima onboard, via a Traghetto.  A traghetto is a large gondola controlled by two gondolieri, one at either end, and serves the same purpose as a bus does in a city.  Multiple passengers ride standing in the traghetto, which follows a set route around the canals. 

The two gondolieri are Singles from the companies (it's common for there to a Single from Orange Planet and Himeya both on the same traghetto), getting in some practice with customers in preparation for their tests.  It's also not unheard of for a Single to become a dedicated traghetto operator, instead of testing for Prima.

It's obvious that some unpromoted Singles leave the companies eventually.  Perhaps they can move freight around the canals of Neo-Venezia.  This has not been examined in the series (though in one episode, a particularly fragile cargo is transported via gondola.  The Single from Aria Company is hired, but Aria Company's Prima is required to be along, as if the cargo was a passenger.  Because the cargo is so fragile, this may be a special case), so all we can do is speculate on this point.

The other point that has bothered me during the run of the show is how lucrative a profession being an Undine is.  We know that the best of them are booked weeks and months in advance, but their payrate is never mentioned, or even hinted at.  Certainly, they'd all say that they do it for the "love of the job", but generally that doesn't pay the bills, either for themselves or for their company. 

And make no mistake, the companies don't live poorly.  Gondolas can't be cheap, and while they may last for quite a while (the trainee gondola for Aria Company is seen to have been in use over the period of three separate Singles, for example), they do eventually become so worn that it would be a disservice to the clients/passengers to be assigned to such a gondola.  So a replacement needs to be made and delivered.  Further, there's the infrastructure of each company to contend with.  Orange Planet has at least 81 gondolieri on staff of varying levels of experience, Himeya has 80.  Many, if not all, of these Undines live in the company building, where food and lodging is provided, as well as uniforms and services.  Himeya's building appears to be approximately half a city block in size, Orange Planet's seems to be even more extensive.  Aria Company's building is essentially a decent-sized house with two levels.  The upstairs is living quarters for the trainee, the lower level is a combined workspace/living space.  In any case, the buildings of the companies are quite ornate and well-furnished. 

The characters in the show never seem to lack for the ability to purchase what they need as well.  One must therefore assume that the position of Undine is quite lucrative for the gondolieri as a whole. 

Perhaps the manga that the series is based upon goes into detail about these points.  As I've not read it, I can't say.  Anybody out there who has who might be able to shed light upon these questions?

In conclusion, the ARIA series is a beautiful show that I'd be willing to suggest to anyone.  It has much in common with Yokohama Shopping Trip, and fans of that series would be well-advised to check out ARIA.

(In fact, and this just came to me as I was writing that last sentence, one could almost see the two shows as taking place at the same time.  After all, in YST, the waters of Earth have risen for some reason, flooding most coastal cities... much as has happened to ARIA's Venice on Man-home.  It's not much of a stretch to expand that to the rest of the planet. 

Hmm... I'll have to think about this some more.  For some reason, thinking of Alpha and Akari in the same 'world' makes me smile...)

Posted by: Wonderduck at 11:55 PM | Comments (5) | Add Comment
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1 I think Aria works so well because we never need to worry about the details.  The world of Aria generally isn't so irrational that we can't believe that there could be a logical explanation for the fact that we never actually see money change hands in the series until episode 4 of Origination.  It's probably better this way, given the one thing I've seen that completely threw me out of the suspension of disbelief regarding the series is the forced explanation of how the Gnomes maintain an Earth-normal gravity on Mars in Aria the Natural.  If they did provide us with an explanation, we'd probably end up with some hokey Star Trek utopian economic system.

Most of the questions I've wanted answers to are details about the backstory of the characters, rather than the world itself.  What made Akari so enthralled that she decided to leave home to travel to Aqua and be an Undine?  Does Alice have family on Aqua, and what is her school life like?  What was Akira's reaction to Alicia getting accepted into Aria company, and why didn't Alicia try to join her friend at Himeya?  Can we get any of Athena's backstory before she met Alicia and Akira?  What's Aika's family like?

Posted by: Civilis at March 10, 2008 07:44 PM (ODZ3Q)

2 You definitely get the impression that Mars and Neo-Venezia are a backwater in human civilization, if you will. Plenty of customers comment on it - even though there's plenty of SF-ish stuff around Neo-Venezia, there's absolutely -nothing- like it back on Earth.

So, possible explanations...

- It's SF: The technology available to all the future folk means that money isn't a particularly big worry. You can get material goods for nothing, or so close to nothing that it's not a concern. Money's chief use, then, would be for services, and not just "to have services performed" but "to have a human perform those services". The charge is for the undine, not for the ride, as it were. That would also explain why the undines take so much care in training and comportment - they ARE their product, not so much a monopoly as a brand name, if you will.

This would explain the loose view of money - you don't ever really need it, except as a call on someone else's time and effort, since everything really could be done by machinery if you wanted to do it that way. So people are free to do things like set up unusual roadside stands near seldom-visited Japanese-style temples, or create wonderful open-air baths out of the wreckage of an abandoned house, or what have you; the money's not a means of supporting yourself as much as it is a marker of appreciation from those who use the service you provide.

Only problem is, that doesn't adequately explain the salamanders and gnomes, who are clearly providing a public service; they aren't short on cash, so somehow they're getting money, which implies a system of taxation.

There is, however, NO incentive to efficiency (at least, not in N-V!) Lots of things are done in ways that can be described as "charming", where if the cost of providing the service were subject to profit motive, you'd see something more advanced or at least less idiosyncratic. (Seriously, you set up a planet-wide system of tunnels and moving super-dense balls to generate stronger gravity, and you let it be run by a short guy bangin' away on an organ keyboard?)

- It's the boonies: Partly the above, but N-V is way behind Earth in development. Could just be that all that Earth business means that everyone in N-V is the local equivalent of wealthy, in a tourist-town sort of way; visiting Earth tourists don't mind dropping the local equivalent of a year's room and board for a day's tour guide. The oligopoly sets the prices, so competition doesn't drive them down. N-V gets its goods from even more impoverished (relatively speaking) and less-picturesque areas of Aqua without a tourism business.

- The rat race is thataway, silly: N-V is a town full of romantics, after all. It's entirely possible that it's just full of people who don't honestly give a damn about high-tech gewgaws, attracts such people (Akari), and anyone who wants "the better life" and the attendant stuff just emigrates.

Posted by: AvatarADV at March 12, 2008 01:38 AM (LMDdY)


This is going to sound horrible, but what episode is the "superdense balls and keyboard" one???  I don't remember ANYTHING like that, not even during the episode when Aika visited Al to show off her hairstyle.

I'm wondering if I missed an episode somewhere!

Posted by: Wonderduck at March 12, 2008 07:03 AM (DcSb+)

4 The anime is very faithful to the 3 volume Aria manga (ADV). The manga does not stray into technical discussions on the economy.

Posted by: conrad6 at March 12, 2008 10:10 AM (TBk3U)

5 It's in the manga somewhere, Duck. Can't remember if it's in Aria or Aqua, and most of that is buried in my rolling library at the moment. If I recall correctly, that was the one with Al and his grandfather; there was a quickie explanation of what it was they were doing.

Posted by: AvatarADV at March 12, 2008 01:45 PM (LMDdY)

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