My, my, returning to Neo-Venezia after a year I remembered the warm feeling the series left me with but I was admittedly a little hazy on some of the characters beyond our protagonists, and the first episode suddenly being populated with a cascade of mainly familiar faces, Aria: The Natural could easily have felt like overload, but instead memories of who these people were seeped back in, even if names didn’t always (age will do this to you), and soon I was slipping into that old state of allowing Aria to wash over me.
In the best possible way.
So for the uninitiated, what is Aria: The Natural? Nothing more or less than the continuing healing anime tale of apprentice gondolier Akari, of Aria company, and her friends and fellow apprentices: Aika (who disallows any sappy lines), and Alice who is younger yet precocious.
But it is of course so much more. Even if not much ever really happens.
Aria is a masterclass in nothing really happening while allowing you to gently relax and never feel for a moment like you are wasting your time. This is not damning by faint praise, instead it walks that finest of lines and rarely falls from it. For example, an early episode sees our protagonist, still apprentice undine, Akari, and her friends Aika and Alice, finding a small chest hidden behind a statue, inside of which is a clue that leads them on a journey - one clue at a time, mystery beside secret, and illustrates how Aria continues to retain that old sense of wonder at the small joys in life, whether this is deciphering each clue or the coffee they share in a café along the way with a stranger. A kind stranger. Aria doesn’t do weird strangers that you wouldn’t want to take sweets from.
Yet there is always something else going on under the surface that ensures we feel like we are moving forward, slowly, like a gentle gondola ride and that is the best way to see the series. Without always realising it, we’re lulled but also provided with fragments of a greater whole. Just as a literal trip in a gondola will illuminate Neo-Venezia, our gentle ride watching Aria always floats just enough in the way of moving character and world along so as to never stagnate. This may be seen in glimpses into Aika’s emotional life, or how undines need to be more than just gondoliers but instead need to understand the richness and mysteries that exist in Neo-Venezia. As with the first series, Aria tends to use a framing device for each episode, that being Akari’s correspondence with her young friend, Ai, who lives on Manhome, a narrative device which exists not just to provide background quickly so we can enter each episode, but can also have its own unique meaning, such as how Akari finds herself one day helping a postman collect and deliver his day’s work. The simple joy of a physical letter over electronic correspondence.
Yet there is an unusual mystery that is introduced in this first part of Aria: The Original, one I am intrigued to see continue. Akari sometimes finds herself not in the usual Neo-Venezia, but in other places, access to secret backways and the literally larger than life cat Cait Sith... imagination or reality, who can say, but President Aria (every gondolier’s president is a cat, don’tcha know) oft disappears and when he does the Cait Sith appears in a possibly metaphysical other part of Neo-Venezia.
Will we see more? I’m thinking so and intrigued to know more, but I also wish not to have any mysteries made clear because the delight in the glory of the everyday is what makes Aria so delightful. That and the general lack of sentimentality. Yes, it has sentiment but no sappiness. As Aika delights in reminding her friends: no sappy lines allowed. Yes, Aria does slip into this area in one episode, but it’s a small and forgivable error.
Because of its age it’s true that some of the animation is not as smoothly elegant as newer works (and it is also in 4:3 not widescreen) but the elegance of the design and the tone throughout more than makes up for any such trifles. The voicework is perhaps best defined by how every character feels uniquely defined but no one intrudes and this is as it should be. Aria should be a gently sculling boat and it is. The great skill of the piece is of course what it is not, and could so easily be. It’s a joy to allow it to wash over you. Perhaps it hasn’t quite the impact of Girls Last Tour, which was truly exceptional, but Aria exists to bring a gentle joy with intelligence, bearing witness to the delight to be found in everyday living. I for one think that that is reason to rejoice.
If uncertain whether to buy Aria the Natural or not, don't hesitate, do it