Aria the Masterpiece, Vol. 5

By Kozue Amano. Originally released in Japan by Mag Garden, serialized in the magazine Comic Blade. Released in North America by Tokyopop. Translated by Katie Kimura.

It may be forgotten in these days when Aria is a classic with multiple anime box sets released to great acclaim, but the manga once seemed to be under a curse. It was originally licensed by ADV manga (ask your parents), and petered out about Vol. 3. Then Tokyopop (1st edition) picked it up and made it through Vol. 6… and then did their “sorry, we’ve decided to stop publishing manga”. Now they’re back, and Mag Garden still speaks to them, so here we are having finally caught up with actual new material in this omnibus. The good news is that Aria remains exactly what its readers want it to be, giving us gorgeous artwork, laid-back slow-life travelogues, and the occasional dab of character development. And, given the larger trim and color pages, this is a very good edition to pick up for anyone who enjoyed the anime and wants more, or who was wary of getting this a third time for fear that it would strike out. (The 6th omnibus is due out soon!)

Alice (and Maa) are on the cover, and indeed there’s a sense in this volume that the author is really trying to stop having this be The Akari Show. Now that we’ve introduced Athena and the core cast is complete, we can work with them as a group, or in pairs, or alone. The volume opens with a sea change, as during a group barbecue Aika accidentally gets her hair set on fire, leading to a need for a haircut. Given that Aika’s crush on Alicia has involved her trying to grow her hair out, this feels a bit like the author trying to metaphorically move on from that static point and have Aika grow (going to visit Al makes her all flustered – the manga is content to tease yuri ships, but will never actually go there). Alice also gets a couple of good arcs here, as she’s the youngest and most immature, so her stories can be more straightforward – although an entire arc which amounts to “you should smile more” feels weird these days.

That said, it’s hard to get away from Akari’s charm, and she is still the linchpin that the series revolves around. This despite the fact that her characterization is actually the least developed – she’s never going to stop being the somewhat naive girl who finds joy in everything, as that’s what we love about her. I’d argue she could be a little more self-aware – the chapter where she hears about a ghost who spirits women away when they take her for a boat ride, then literally does exactly that and has to be rescued by Cait Sith, makes you smack your head a bit – but heck, even everyone around her spends time simply watching her walk around. The best chapter in the volume has Aika and Alice follow Akari around for the day to see what makes her special. (The answer is “she has “slow life” powers, and also the ability to be lovely to everyone even if she’s meeting them for the first time.)

There’s much more here to talk about, including the disturbing revelation that Akatsuki’s mother looks just like Aika, but the point is that this is new Aria, and it’s awesome, and you should go buy it, if only to ensure that the entire series can finally come out in North America this time.

Aria The Masterpiece, Vol. 4

By Kozue Amano. Originally released in Japan by Mag Garden, serialized in the magazine Comic Blade. Released in North America by Tokyopop. Translated by Katie Kimura.

It is, a great deal of the time, very difficult to remember that this manga takes place in the future on a different planet. Honestly, a lot of that may be engineered by the residents of Aqua, who have deliberately set things up so that anyone coming to Neo-Venezia is going to be thinking “old-time Venice”, not “new, modern, future Venice”. It’s brought up explicitly in the chapter where Akari helps the old mailman deliver his letters – why are there so many letters, when the world has email? We’ve even seen Akari send emails. But it’s because people who stay here want to revel in the low-techness of it all. It’s for the mood. There’s also an element of slight fantasy throughout, usually involving Cait Sith, but even that makes the reader think of older stories of that nature rather than an alien for The Planet Formerly Known As Mars. And let’s face it, we the reader want that as well. With the odd exception of floating islands and Woody’s Miyazaki-esque bike, we want to take it easy.

The last of the main cast is introduced in this omnibus, as we meet Alice’s mentor Athena, who also turns out to be the last of the “three fairies” along with Alicia and Akira. Athena’s skill is in her gorgeous singing voice (which, by the way, is another reason to get the anime adaptation, which really does a great job), but she’s also an oddball who frequently simply flakes out or is misunderstood by the Very Teenage Alice. She and Alice, both being the “oddballs” of their groups, balance out Aika and Akira (angry tsunderes) and Akari and Alicia (balls of sunshine). And, like Akira and Alicia, she’s keeping a close eye on Alice and trying to help her develop into a first-class undine… despi8te occasional hiccups like the right-handed Alice deciding her left hand is useless, or the sudden adoption of a tiny Martian cat found at canalside. They make a good pair.

When I called Akari a “ball of sunshine” earlier, I wasn’t alone – one of the themes in this book is people staring open-mouthed at her ability to enjoy everything and describe how wonderful it is. Whether it’s glass-blowing, mail delivery, fireworks, or simply sitting at a cafe that keeps moving its seats to stay in the sun, Akari is a one-woman tourist brochure… a fantastic quality for an undine, of course, even though she remains blissfully unaware of her own talents. She’s still got a ways to go with the gondola, of course, and we’re only halfway through the manga, but we are gradually seeing the three apprentices mature and grow up, and the though it beginning to niggle into our heads that this may end with the older generation moving on to make way for the younger.

Fortunately we aren’t there yet. What’s more, starting with the next omnibus we’ll be reading material as yet unseen in North America. I can’t wait, this series is itself a ball of sunshine.

Aria the Masterpiece, Vol. 3

By Kozue Amano. Originally released in Japan by Mag Garden, serialized in the magazine Comic Blade. Released in North America by Tokyopop. Translated by Alethea and Athena Nibley and Katie McLendon.

Having given a long introduction to the main character of Aria – the city itself – Amano can now set about fleshing out the cast. Of course, the fleshing out is done at the exact same “slow pace” that the rest of the series has, but we do get two new regulars at the start of this third omnibus. Alice is from Orange Planet, the main competitor to Aika’s Himeya and the top gondolier company in Neo-Venezia. (Great gag when Akari asks about Aria Company and is reminded they have two employees.) Alice is one of those people who is really good at what she does but also somewhat introverted and bad at people skills, which has left her much like a prickly cat – well, prickly in a different sort of way than Aika, who’s more of an angry cat. Alice, naturally, attempts to tell Akari and Aika to go away when they first meet. Also naturally, Alice is totally unable to resist Akari’s natural in your face niceness and becomes a friend.

The other main character we meet in this volume is Aika’s mentor Akira. She’s there to underscore the fact that the gondoliers in Aria seem to get apprentices who blend well with them… or in some cases mirror them. This is readily apparent with the hit-headed Akira, who arrives after Aika runs away from her harsh training and decides to hang out with her crush, Alicia, instead. Naturally, we find that Akira and Alicia have a very similar relationship to Aika and Akari, complete with not allowing things and their competitive nature. Fortunately, Akira and Aika make up fairly quickly (it turns out Aika is actually the heir to the Himeya Company, which is one reason Akira is so strict) and she mellows out a bit for subsequent appearances. I will note it does seem odd that Athena is not mentioned several times, particularly when Alicia and Akira take their changes – and Alice – to the beach, but of course that’s hard to do when you aren’t written in yet.

The rest of the book contains more of the usual reasons to read Aria. There’s ‘sense of wonder’ chapters galore here, one of the best being a treasure hunt where the three girls run around the city finding clues and hints. As you’d expect, Akari also has another run in with Cait Sith, this one brought about by being outside on the hottest day of the year. Don’t drink that cold milk too fast, you’ll get a tummy ache. Oh yes, and we also meet Woody, who is a minor character whose main feature is that he looks – and acts – a lot like Vash the Stampede from trigun, something I suspect is mostly unintentional. And of course there’s the main reason to buy these books again – the larger trim size and nicer paper mean that it’s a treat to look at, and you want to go back and go over the art in slow motion after you finish it.

The next omnibus will have Vols. 5-6 of Aria, aka right before the series originally got cancelled by Tokyopop. Let’s hope it does better the second (no, wait, third – sorry, ADV Manga, no one remembers you) time around.