December 13, 2010

Wonderduck's Favorite Anime Series Of All Time: Number Three

A favorite show needs to transport you to a different place than your own reality.  That's one of the advantages of the art of animation in general and anime in particular.  Anything you can imagine, and most things that you couldn't, are not only possible, but easy to do.  Giant mecha striding confidently across flaming terrain.  Enormous battleships rising out of the ocean to do battle with massive alien fleets.  Martial artists that make Bruce Lee look like a newborn infant.  Magical energy blasts powerful enough to destroy skyscrapers, called forth by girls in elementary school.  Heroes and heroines of every shape and size, saving the world from the most evil of opponents.  All of these are entertaining, exciting... and commonplace in anime.  To be truly different, a show needs to be outstanding not only in plot and character, but in setting, and not be afraid to tell its story the way it needs to be told, no matter how unlikely it may sound.

Even if the story is that of female gondolieri on Mars.


ARIA is technically not a single series, but three.  Here however, I'll be considering the franchise as one 54-episode series.  Produced by Hal Film Maker, the first season aired in 2005, with the second coming in 2006, and the final season in 2008.  All three were directed by Junichi Sato, and were based on the mangas Aqua and Aria by Kozue Amano.

The story, set in the early 24th century, follows one Akari Mizunashi as she emigrates from "Manhome" to the planet Aqua to become an Undine, or gondolier, in the city of Neo-Venezia.  We learn that Aqua was once called Mars, but during terraforming much of the surface was flooded.  Following a suggested eco-calamity back on Manhome, the Italian city of Venice was transported in toto to Aqua.  Akari joins the Aria Company as a trainee undine, and over the course of the next 53 episodes meets many people, makes many friends, and along with her fellow trainees Alice and Aika, eventually becomes a full-fledged Prima Undine.  Along the way, very little of any real importance occurs. 

Which is the beauty of ARIA, and the reason I love it so.  Despite the show's retro-futurist setting, despite the whole "outer space" aspect of the backstory, despite all the possibilities that the concept of terraforming planets and anti-gravity and spaceships could provide, ARIA ignores them completely, content to spend episodes drinking coffee in the Piazza San Marco, building snowmen, or watching a cat pretend to be a superhero.  Any science-fictiony aspects of the world of ARIA are reduced to minor, background things. A phone with a holographic display, a delivery hovercycle, a floating island where weather control is performed?  Fantastic, amazing... and utterly mundane.

None of this would work if the characters weren't people you'd want to spend time with.  Fortunately, Akari, Aika, Alice and all the rest of the cast are amongst the most utterly charming individuals in all of anime.  They obviously like each other, love what they're doing and where they're doing it.  "I love this city" is one of Akari's not-uncommon sentiments, spoken entirely without sarcasm and irony, and it's through her eyes that we learn why.  That journey of discovery that she, and we, go on over the course of the show is the true heart of ARIA, to the point that Neo-Venezia is as much a member of show's cast as the Undines.

And what a city it is.  Unlike many anime, where the background is stiff and static, the world of Neo-Venezia is alive and vibrant with motion, color and scenery.  You get the impression that the people living there and the tourists visiting the city, are all doing something, even though you might only see them for a second or two as a gondola floats by.  It's like the experience you'd get sitting around and peoplewatching in any city.

If all of this sounds a little "rose-colored glasses" to you, you're right.  Nothing truly bad ever happens in ARIA, there's no angst, very little danger (rogue fox spirits and all-powerful cat gods to the contrary)... in short, it's totally unlike almost every anime... every television show... ever made for adults.  There are people out there who don't like this aspect of the show.  To these people, ARIA is boring, uninteresting, flat out dull.  While I don't understand that opinion, I can see how they could come to it.  What I've come to believe is that ARIA is a fairy tale of sorts, almost a dream world.  It's also the only anime world that I'd be willing to live in, if the option was given to me.

If that isn't the mark of good storytelling, I don't know what is.  For that reason ARIA is one of the few shows that can be called one of Wonderduck's Favorite Anime Series Of All Time.

I would be remiss if I neglected to mention the show's music.  One would be hard-pressed to find a soundtrack in anime that better captures the spirit of a series.  From light-hearted little ditties to... slightly less light-hearted ditties, to lovely vocal pieces, just listening to the music will tell you just about everything you'd need to know about ARIA.  The OP for the second series, Euforia, as sung by Yui Makino, might be the most painfully beautiful song in all of anime.

While ARIA "only" comes in at #3 on my all-time favorites list, it holds the distinction of being the show with the single finest episode of anime ever.  That would be ep09 of Season 3, titled "Surrounded By That Orange Wind..."  I can count on the fingers of one hand (feathers of one wing?) the number of times I've cried while watching an anime, but only once has an episode made me cheer like I was watching a sporting event.  Simply outstanding.

Posted by: Wonderduck at 10:45 PM | Comments (1) | Add Comment
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1 Well, I wasn't totally wrong. Just got the position wrong...

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at December 14, 2010 01:38 AM (+rSRq)

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