For much of the past week, I felt as if I were sitting alone in a boat without oars, left to the mercy of a storm-tossed sea. The next week, and possibly the one after that, might be just as difficult. It’s in times like these that I find myself in the greatest need of a little solace from the trials of life: an opportunity, however brief, to retire from struggling against the current, and to simply drift along with nothing but pleasant vistas before my eyes and healing notes in my ears.
Luckily, I know a few lovely ladies who were only too happy to take me for a relaxing afternoon row through some much calmer waters.
I still owe the readership a full review of Aria the Animation, which I previewed in an opinion-free teaser last month. With virtually every waking hour of my time currently pledged to some activity or other, all I can offer for now are my initial impressions on the series after finishing the last disc, which I did on Sunday afternoon.
It’s been one extraordinarily recuperative ride. Devoid of conventional action scenes, high drama and flashy animation effects, Aria the Animation‘s strength lies in its skillful celebration of the mundane. It may be set in a different world and in a different time, and it may be populated with individuals whose personality attributes (including optimism, patience, kindness, and childlike innocence) none of us will probably ever see manifested to the same degree in real life, but it’s remarkably easy for one to identify with the characters and relate to their experiences.
I recall one very touching exchange in the eleventh episode, when Alice realises that even though she, Aika and Akari are together all the time now, one day they’ll have to go their separate ways as they work towards their shared dream of becoming Primas, too busy with their own careers to have more than the occasional chat or friendly get-together. Athena concedes that things cannot remain as they are, observing that time “has a way of changing everything, sometimes gently, and sometimes harshly”. But she reassures her younger colleague that, for her at least, the fact that she loves her work hasn’t changed. Alicia adds her own thoughts, saying:
It would be a shame to lose sight of the fun we have now by getting trapped thinking of the fun we used to have.
Akira, for her part, feels that:
We shouldn’t say “the old days were fun”. We should say, “the old days were fun, as well“.
And finally, Athena tells the three young undines:
Back then, now, and the years to come, in the time you pass with the people you’re with, all sorts of little joys will come and go. If you can manage to hold on to each one, you’ll never run out of things that you enjoy.
Now this is the sort of dialogue that normally sends me retching, but all I did this time around was lean back and nod approvingly. The themes and ideas expressed are the very stuff of stereotypes, yet the series manages to deliver them in a way that reduces the saccharine effect and ensures that their substance makes it far enough into one’s mind to take root and flourish. Entertainment factories like Disney, for one, have proven themselves utterly incapable of achieving something like this, their preferred method being the brute-force “here’s the moral of the episode in plain English, now we’ll ram it down your throat” approach. Natural reaction: hands over ears and hum “Waltzing Matilda” to shut out the noise. But not here.
The music is quite excellent overall, and I think the opening song in particular is worthy of the highest praise. Beautifully written and wonderfully performed, Undine fits so perfectly into the soothing atmosphere of the series that I cannot imagine a better introduction to each episode. Another highlight is Athena’s song (see Episode 11), performed by the late Kawai Eri (who wrote the lyrics to Undine).
The voice acting is superb, with the cast members’ performances nicely suited to their characters’ personalities. The character designs are quite faithful to the elegant, very delicate features established in the original manga. Of course, no slice-of-life series can ever be complete without a super-deformed face or two, and such manipulations are used here to great comedic effect (especially on Akari).
The series stumbles a little on the technical side of things, more specifically in animation quality and background/set design which are unremarkable even for its time. I remember feeling more than a little disappointed with the bland, almost soulless depiction of Venice’s stunning architectural and cultural heritage that made it into the final version. From time to time, I’d find myself thinking – perhaps unfairly – that the production team’s research trip to the real-life inspiration for Neo Venezia was a monumental waste, since I saw very little of the elegance and grandeur of the Queen of the Adriatic in this series. But it’s not a fatal flaw, and at the very least it ensures that the story isn’t overshadowed by visuals.
My last piece of advice for today: the next time your weary soul finds itself yearning for peace and quietude, board a Neo Venezian gondola and have an experienced undine take you to a place where the gentle currents will wash your troubles away.
Just remember to pull out every last thread of cynicism from your head and toss it over the side. We can do without the excess baggage on this trip.
Links to wallpaper sources (in order of appearance): Neo Venezia Sunset (ImageShack account), Neo Venice (AnimePaper.net), City of Memories (AnimePaper.net), Phantasia (AnimePaper.net). More resolutions (including widescreen options) are available at the AnimePaper links.