You can tell that you really love a series when you can’t recommend it to a person without also giving very specific instructions on how to watch it. The amount of advice I’ve gotten about the best way to watch Aria the Animation just goes to show how much the people who like it actually like it. And one of the most common threads in the things I’m told is something I often tell people myself when recommending healing shows: “Don’t marathon it.” “Watch one episode every night before bed.” “Watch an episode every week in a neutral to warm bath.” Or even, “If it takes you less than a year to watch the whole series, you’re watching it wrong.”
Well, I’m not one to argue with the power of context and environment to shape your enjoyment of an anime series, and there are a few shows I came very close to not liking because I was simply watching them wrong. So I’m doing my best to heed the advice of people who told me to pace myself while watching Aria.
I’m generally bad at pacing myself with things I really enjoy, which is a real problem for me and something I’m trying to improve. Now that I’m watching Aria, I can hardly believe that it worked as a manga, since the pacing is so deliberate and calm. Apparently the manga had large and highly detailed illustrations, which I guess would slow you down while you’re reading and imply that you should be taking in the scenery, but so much of the animation’s greatness comes from the blend of music, colour, and the prolonged speechless moments of observation.
Aria takes place in a futuristic utopian terraformed Mars, called “Aqua,” in the city of Neo-Venezia, which is a popular tourist destination heavily inspired by Venice. The main cast are all gondoliers, called “Undines,” from different gondola companies. At least based on what I’ve seen so far, there’s no urgent real-life concerns of any kind that the characters need to grapple with, and while most of them are “apprentice” Undines there is no indication that they run the risk of failing as students. They spend their days practicing rowing, talking to tourists and to each other, caught up in a world where there’s nothing for them to worry about. Conflicts are completely trivial — such as “oh no, our cat fell into the water” — and their resolution is so leisurely that it really just serves to develop the characters and deepen their relationships rather than causing tension.
One of the jobs of the Undine is to make sure that their customers enjoy themselves on their gondola rides, so they inevitably make conversation and chit-chat as they travel through the canals and take in the scenery. Akari, the main character of the series and still an apprentice Undine herself, cannot accept money from clients and therefore only takes people out on impromptu or practice tours. At this point her passengers chat with her and often reveal something about themselves such as a problem they have been experiencing lately, a conflict with another person in their lives, or even unwittingly showing a certain character flaw. Through the “healing” power not only of the city’s atmosphere, but also of Akari’s personality, the characters exhibit a kind of growth towards the end of the episode. Of course, I’m just basing this description on the first four episodes, and with the addition of more characters the series may or may not deviate from this general outline.
The guided tours are also a great means of world-building, since as tours they are relevant to the characters riding the gondola as well as to the audience. You get the feeling of being a fellow passenger on the ride, eavesdropping on the intimate conversations between Akari and her passengers, and taking in the sights of Neo-Venezia while you learn about the characters.
So far, Akari herself is a fairly static character, though that doesn’t make her uninteresting. She’s an entertaining tour guide and her goal of becoming an Undine like Alicia, her mentor, is a nice, upbeat premise for the series. She’s in many ways a newcomer herself, having worked on Neo-Venezia for a year by the time we meet her, and she still often makes amusing mistakes or gets herself caught up in business unrelated to her job. But where she goes she seems to have that “magic touch” typical of protagonists of healing shows, such as Mushishi’s Ginko or Bartender’s Ryuu. But unlike them, she doesn’t manage this through skill or expertise, but through a kind of natural charm. Whenever she’s complimented on her skill, she seems genuinely surprised and flattered at the kind words.
As for the supporting cast, the other Undines, they seem already to have character arcs of their own that are in the making, with their own minor anxieties and interpersonal issues, which are just minor enough to stand out in the otherwise tranquil atmosphere of the show. One character, for example, struggles with being polite to people, but is really just shy even though she’s mistaken for being rude. The events of a certain episode grow her incrementally but still imply that she’s got a ways to go before the issue is totally fixed.
But this general lack of progress isn’t boring, it’s just the natural outcome of a show that values taking its time and breathing in the scenery the way Aria does. While these four episodes do end in a somewhat moralistic way, the morals are never a sharp “a-ha” moment, but more along the lines of a “maybe,” a starting point that they arrive at where you can still feel optimistic about a gradual, natural internal resolution. Aria punctuates its episodes mildly with the feeling that everything is going to be alright in the end.
As for me, I’m going to do my best to take my time with this show, even though I’m eager to see more of it and to see how accurate my description of the show ends up being, the extent to which things change, and whether any real drama is eventually introduced that breaks up the scenery. But I sincerely doubt that an anime with such a strong sense of identity will fall victim to anything like this. From the music, to the art, to the characters, to the long pauses, Aria knows exactly what it’s doing and it does it well.
And have I talked about the music yet? Not really? It’s so perfect. It’s like there’s a little Italian man sitting in the boat playing a guitar. Feels just like a vacation.