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.

Aria The Masterpiece, Vol. 2

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.

Starting with this omnibus Aqua renamed itself Aria and moved to its new home in Mag Garden’s Comic Blade, where it would remain until it finished. Comic Blade is technically for male readers but tended to be sui generis a lot of the time, And Aria doesn’t really have the fanservice that you’d expect from a guy title – the cast go to a hot springs here, but everyone keeps their towels on for the most part, and it’s meant to be peaceful and relaxing, just like the rest of the series. There’s no sign that the title moved magazines at all, as it picks right up where it left off with Akari and company, not doing one of those “reintroduction” chapters. There’s not really much to reintroduce. It’s a girl and her gondola, on a planet of water, and god, it’s pretty. The second omnibus helps to introduce us more to the customs and festivals in this world, adds a new minor character, and shows off the art, which is why we’re here.

(Sorry about the cover art – I spent several minutes trying to find a picture that did not have a banner in the corner and was unable to. Grump.)

Saying I’m only here for the art, though, seems rude to the main characters, who I also deeply love. Akari is such a ray of sunshine that you can’t stop smiling while reading about her, whether she’s happily cleaning her gondola, gathering firewood, or almost getting spirited away by foxes, a chapter that verges on unsettling but doesn’t quite make it because it’s hard to imagine anything bad ever happening to Akari. Alicia continues to be the big sister we all wish we had, quietly mentoring Akari, marveling at Akari’s shininess, and getting Akari drunk with some peach wine she brought out. Aika tries to hard to be cool and elegant like her crush Alicia, but she’s simply too grumpy and hyper to pull it off, but that’s what makes her charming – and hilarious. Even President Aria is here, and I still find his chapters boring, but they’re part of the mood as well, really.

We’re also shown some of the ways in which Aqua is a terraformed planet, as we meet the gnomes who make sure the gravity works properly – well, one gnome, Al, who looks like Harry Potter… erm, a little kid, but is actually a few years older than Aika and Akari. And there’s also another appearance by Cait Sith, the giant cat leader who seems to have a soft spot for Akari, as she sees him with astonishing regularity. As for the scenery, well, it’s simply fantastic, and you will pause on some two-page spreads just to take it in. There are one or two chapters where the entire point is to see Akari meander through Neo-Venezia and take in the gorgeousness. She’s not any closer to promotion (the race she competes in turns out not to be a test at all), but she’s having fun.

If you’re on the fence about getting this, because you already have it, or because you’re worried it might get cancelled – again – I urge you to pick it up anyway. It’s a coffee table manga.