Aria The Masterpiece, Vol. 1

By Kozue Amano. Originally released in Japan by Enix, serialized in the magazine Stencil. This edition released in Japan by Mag Garden. Released in North America by Tokyopop. Translated by Alethea and Athena Nibley.

Third time’s the charm? This is definitely the year of lost causes getting another break. First we had Urusei Yatsura, cancelled over and over by Viz back in the 90s, getting a deluxe omnibus treatment. And now Aria, beloved by bloggers and a cult classic, but cancelled when ADV Manga collapsed and then cancelled again when Tokyopop hibernated, is getting its own deluxe treatment. These editions came out in 2016 in Japan, and this volume has the “Aqua” volumes, i.e. the start of the series before the Enix split that led to Kozue Amano moving to Mag Garden. It is a standard Japanese omnibus, meaning that it looks great but also eliminates most of the author’s end comment pages and extra side stories. What you get here are the first nine chapters, looking significantly better in this format than they did on first release here. The translation is the same, I’m fairly sure.

The series is a LOT more popular than it was back in the day, though, mostly as the anime was a bigger hit than expected. For those still unfamiliar, the series takes place on Mars, now renamed Aqua, sometime in the future. It’s been terraformed to be a water planet, and Neo Venezia is one of its stunning cities, done up to be just like Venice. This means they need gondoliers, and that’s where our heroine, Akari, comes in. She’s flying up from Earth… erm, Manhome… to join Aria Company, one of three companies in the city that are considered the cream of the crop. Of course, when she gets there she discovers that the company is just her and her mentor, Alicia. Plus President Aria, who I will discuss later. Even worse, her rowing technique, while awesome in terms of speed and flair… is less awesome as she’s rowing backwards. Fortunately she quickly gains skill, and also acquires a best friend/rival (who has a crush on Alicia) and a teasing guy friend/rival (who also has a crush on Alicia).

That said, as Aria fans know, the plot and characters are great, but they’re secondary to the scenery. Neo Venezia is the star here, and the larger format shows off the art to an even better degree. I especially loved the chapter that introduced Cait Sith, the huge, vaguely supernatural cat that will also, in a way, mentor Akari throughout the series. I was also very amused at how quickly everyone falls for Akari’s shining optimism and love of life. Aika attempts to be grumpy, with “no sappy lines allowed!” being a running gag, but it doesn’t work at all. It’s also not hard to see why everyone (including me) loves Alicia… she’s a fantastic gondolier, clearly cares for those around her, especially Akari, but most importantly, is the very definition of “ara ara”, the phrase that she spouts constantly in the original Japanese.

Manga or anime, Aria is the equivalent of a peaceful breeze running through your hair as you go down the river in a slow boat. It’s worth buying again.

Aqua Volume 1

By Kozue Amano. Released in Japan by Enix, serialized in the magazine Stencil. Released in North America by Tokyopop.

As part of my MMF post (and I will eventually review the book), a little history lesson. In the beginning there was Enix, a gaming and manga company that had several manga magazines it published, including Shonen Gangan and GFantasy. Stencil started out as a spinoff of GFantasy, attempting to be a bit more shoujo-oriented. It never quite succeeded, mostly as Enix has ALWAYS had an issue with basic shonen/shoujo demographics, even to this day. In any case, the magazine debuted in the late 1990s, and Kozue Amano’s Aqua debuted there. Life was apparently difficult at Enix, and their merger with another company, Square, had many of the artists and editors nervous. So in 2001, one of the editors left to form Mag Garden, and took a number of the artists with him. They also took their series, and planned to continue them in the new magazines that would debut. Oh, the lawsuits that followed! After litigation, Square Enix agreed to give Mag Garden some cash, but the titles that moved had to be renamed, even if only a little bit. And so Aqua, after two volumes, became Aria. Mag Garden bought the rights to Aqua from Square Enix at the same time, and reprinted the volumes under their own banner and with new covers. This is the version that Tokyopop has licensed.

For those who are perhaps unaware of the plot, Akari is a young woman from Earth (called “Manhome” here) in the year 2301. She is flying to the planet Aqua, formerly Mars, to become an undine – a female gondolier who guides people around in Venetian rowing boats, touring the city. Akari is bubbly and happy, and seems to find almost everything endlessly fascinating. She joins Aria company, which seems to be a company of two. The other person is her sempai Alicia, a beautiful and laid-back onee-san type. The manga continues as Akari learns the ins and outs of gondoliering, makes friends, and watches the amazing scenery.

It has been noted by many that the main reason to love Aqua/Aria is the world that we see, and indeed as the series goes on the backgrounds and settings get increasingly more elaborate, verging on what has become known as “Scenery Porn”. There’s less of that in this first volume, as Amano is still honing her craft, but we do see signs of what’s to come in a chapter where Akari and Aika (her grumpy yet lovable friend) attempt to follow their mascot through a maze of small alleys into the heart of Neo-Venezia, the city where they work. Most manga are character-based, but Aqua, while having fine characters, does manke you look at the whole page to take in everything, not just faces.

Aria was released first over here by ADV back in the day, and thus most people will be coming at Aqua after having read the ‘sequel’ series. It’s not a prequel, however, but a true start to the series, giving us many of the elements we’ll come to find familiar. The scenes with Alicia and Akari at the start will, in fact, be mirrored much later on in future volumes of Aria. I always enjoy when an artist works like that, as it gives the illusion of more planning ahead than was likely actually done. It shows they read their old work. The characters are still mostly sketches here, with Aika and Alicia not yet receiving the development they will get down the road, but we are just starting out. And there’s President Aria. I’ve learned to put up with him, but I don’t have to like him. He’s there for goofy comedy, and inescapable. Oh well.

So since we don’t have much characterization here, and plot is irrelevant to a series like Aqua, what’s left? Well, mood. While the overall effect of the series is relaxing and sunny, we do have our first example of the chapters where the sort of faux sci-fi setting becomes faux-fantastical horror with the introduction of Cait Sith, the giant leader of the cats that only Akari ever interacts with. The interaction barely occurs in this first volume – she just gets a glimpse of the huge convention of cats – but as the series goes on, she sees more and more of the beast, to the point where it almost becomes an arc of the plot. These chapters generally have a different feel from the rest of the series, with the sense of wonder being turned inward to look at darker (though not quite creepy, this is never threatening) things.

In many ways, this is a typical first volume. The art is not as good as it gets, and I note the redrawn cover has the unfortunate effect of making Akari look sad and melancholy, which she isn’t. Likewise, as we flesh out the world we get more shadings to folks like Alicia and Aika, who here are mostly just types. Still, if you haven’t read any of Aria yet, I would definitely start here, as it gives a lot of the background and information that helps you understand things as you read further. And it’s pretty. In all the best ways.

Aria Volume 6

By Kozue Amano. Released in Japan by Mag Garden, serialized in the magazine Comic Blade. Released in North America by Tokyopop.

This is the first volume of Aria I’ve gotten to review here on my blog, which given I began in December 2009 should tell you something. Aria is one of those manga series beloved by bloggers and no one else, which always gets great word of mouth but somehow translates into low sales. Companies HATE these titles, mostly as the online folks won’t stop going on about how awesome it would be if they were picked up, and how it would totally find an audience. (The number of Signature books from Viz on the NYT list speaks for itself.) And Aria is doubly special, as it’s actually a license RESCUE – it had originally been put out by ADV Manga, who folded after 3 volumes.

And so Aria, which is 12 volumes total, seems to be down to one volume a year, meaning we should see the ending in 2017. It’s a long, leisurely pace that urges us to take a closer, longer look at each volume, and learn to appreciate what is in front of us. Much like the manga itself, in fact. As readers of Aria know, this is not a manga packed with action and madcap chase scenes. This is about relaxation, and short slices of life in a Venice that just happens to reside in the future on a different planet.

There’s a lot to like in this volume, though not much of it translates into things I can easily talk about in a review. Manga like this are difficult to analyze, as so much of it has to be experienced by the reader. Calling Chapter 30 a big parody of Galaxy Express 999 (which it is – President Aria even dresses like Maetel) misses the entire point of the evocative winter’s night mood of the piece, as well as Akari once again interacting with the World Of Cats that only she seems to be able to connect to. Likewise, looked at dispassionately, the chapter with Akari meeting the glassmakers can be somewhat twee, another example of Akari’s pure awesomeness managing to drown out even the grumpiest of voices. But it isn’t dispassionate, of course – this is a manga to get emotionally involved in, so much that when Akari comes out with what should be a hideous cliche, we grin from ear to ear.

My favorite chapter of the volume featured Alice, the somewhat emotionless girl of Akari’s power trio, and her encounter with a tiny, eccentric kitten. Everything just clicks here, from Aika’s wild fantasies stirring Alice’s imagination, to Athena’s deadpan expressions making Alice even more paranoid (every single in the manga has a sempai who is very similar to them, and Alice is no exception – Athena is even harder to read than she is.) Best of all is Alice’s despair when abandoning the kitten, and later frantic search for it. It’s filled with raw emotion, but for all that, we still don’t actually see Alice cry. We’re waiting for the tears, but they don’t appear – they’re only implied in shots from far away. It’s an excellent stylistic choice.

There’s also the omake chapter, which is one of those things that is startling when you first read it, but afterwards just seems too short and one-note. That said, this is the most terrifying Akatsuki you will see in the entirety of the series.

In the end, this was a good volume of Aria. Lots of Akari being sweet, and some nice development of Athena, who we only just met last time. We’re now halfway through Aria, and I find that I don’t really mind the pace Tokyopop is putting it out – as long as they keep doing it, I’ll be happy to spend the time with Akari and company whenever they stop by.