Slice of life is a storied genre of anime that longtime viewers will know… has never been entirely my cup of tea. I can appreciate when it’s done well, or packaged with an especially compelling hook (like last season’s Girls’ Last Tour), but slice of life always has — and likely always will — be fighting an upward battle for my attention. I’m just more of a traditional viewer, one who prefers plot and excitement, over calm and tranquility. So when you have a show like Aria, which is pure filtered, injected-straight-into-your-veins iyashikei… well, this is going to be interesting.
As always, this review is provided in video format and transcribed directly below. I would like to note that my reviews are written first and foremost to be experienced as videos (that is, read aloud), so no guarantees that jokes, grammar, or anything else will transition entirely smoothly to text.
Aria follows a group of female gondoliers, called Undine, living on Mars (now known as Aqua) in a new version of Venice called Neo Venezia, complete with its trademark canals and architecture, meticulously crafted to be resemble the original on Earth (which is now known hilariously as Manhome, being man’s home). The show begins with Akari Mizunashi, who had just arrived on Aqua to prove her skills and make a living as one such Undine. As is typical, a newcomer character allows Aria to disseminate natural exposition to the audience, which I had no problem with because I came to find the setting of Aqua actually fairly interesting.
I’m inherently fascinated by worlds that are, shall we say, casually sci-fi. At a slight glance, you probably wouldn’t realize this is a show that takes place in the 2300’s, with a weather regulator in the sky and mechanics adjusting gravity underground. I guess one thing I like so much about settings like this is that they’re inherently hopeful, and illustrate a world where mankind has become a prosperous spacefaring civilization as a matter of course, to the extent that it’s basically not a plot point. And if you keep your eyes, er, ears peeled, the show drops a number of incidental worldbuilding tidbits as the seasons progress. Very few of these “matter” to the story at hand, but they add character to Neo Venezia. Especially in the second season, you’ll get plenty of glimpses at how Martian society functions under the hood; how the mail system works, or where you can go for different flavors of Earth culture and why such areas exist at all. At one point, you’re even treated to a conversation from a pair of tourists who scoff at Neo Venezia, treating it solely as the weird knock-off Venice that it is. This conversation is naturally presented in a negative light, but it’s undoubtedly a viewpoint that would exist if a historical Earth city was remade on Mars, so I appreciated its inclusion.
And if you pay close enough attention, you can learn things not just about Mars, but Aria’s Earth as well. For instance, in episode 5, Akari mentions that you can’t swim in Earth’s oceans, and a reason is never given for this, but you can kind of infer that “oh, maybe pollution has built up or something”, which is why they were pushed to colonize Mars in the first place. Huh. Similarly, an older character mentions in Episode 9 that there are no homegrown fields on Earth, leaving you to wonder “hm, is that related to the pollution, or maybe agriculture has just because extremely automated?”. The show never gives you answers, but it can get away with that because the world is not the point. It’s just a setting for the lives of the characters to play out in, and little details like this are so satisfying; they make the setting come alive.
Now, worldbuilding is all well and good, but it also usually takes time, so what does Aria offer in the interim — from episode one? First and foremost would have to be its sense of atmosphere. The show is lush with soothing imagery of blue skies and open ocean. While the backgrounds can feel a little lacking in detail, especially in some of the early episodes, this is made up for with a mellow and majestic soundtrack which is allowed to permeate every scene that it can, exemplified by the fact that while Aria does have opening themes, it lacks opening animations, and instead the themes simply play over the beginning of each episode, often accompanied by establishing shots of the city or the cast going about their day. This really lets you sink into the show by ensuring that start to finish its flow is never interrupted, until the episode is actually over. A similar (albeit different) technique was employed in 2016’s Amanchu, from the same mangaka and director, where rather than skipping the opening entirely, the opening credits would spill over into the show proper, which served to gradually lead the viewer into the opening.
Getting back on track with Aria, I did feel that the show leaned so hard on its soundtrack somewhat out of necessity, because — while Aria does not look bad by any means — I would hesitate to say it looks particularly great either. As mentioned, the backgrounds can lack detail and the cinematography itself is largely unremarkable. There are the occasional episodes which break that rule, but this is hardly a consistent occurrence, leading me to believe that it could probably be attributed to a particular director or storyboarder who had that extra spark of talent. Indeed, when I looked into it a little further, it seems many of those most visually interesting episodes were storyboarded by the series director, Junichi Sato.
The animation likewise is also pretty limited, which I don’t find terribly shocking since Aria was produced by Hal Film Maker, who I had not even heard of until looking it up for this video and still recognized very little of their resume once I had. The show jumps to HD, 16:9 in the third season, but ironically that crisper presentation in some ways detracted from my experience, by making the slidey non-animation of the gondolas more apparent. And otherwise, there’s some 3D, but it’s mostly of an acceptable level for the era (except those damn CGI BOATS in Avvenire).
“But sheesh”, you say “this is one of the most acclaimed slice of life anime of all-time. Surely there’s more to it than a good world, pretty soundtrack and subpar production values”. Indeed there is, hypothetical member of the audience, and to explain further we should get to the characters. Besides Akari, the show is littered with many other gondoliers and friends: Aika, Alice, Alicia, Akira, Athena, Akatsuki, Al, Ai and… W-Woody. I liked how each one of the Undine, despite mostly matching uniforms, was so visually distinct, achieved solely through different hairstyles and color highlights. While they also hold distinct personalities, none of the characters are really super unique in the scheme of the things, but by the same token no one’s especially unlikable either. Akari’s the usual kind of well-meaning airhead whose speciality, in her own words, is making the insignificant things fun, which is basically the MO of the show itself. She’s flanked by the shy but standoffish young prodigy Alice and the loud tomboyish Aika, who had a running gag that I never entirely understood or found very funny, where she would shout “no sappy lines allowed” whenever things threatened to get a little sappy — which is ironic because the show in general could get too sappy, but more on that later.
The older characters — Akira, Athena, and Alicia — mentor those main three, and have their own nice dynamic. In particular, I enjoyed when we were offered a look into Alicia’s head, Alicia being the type of person that’s so relentlessly kind and caring that she can be somewhat frightening, because it’s hard to tell what she’s thinking. So, it was appreciated when we were eventually walked through her whole worldview, and came to understand what goes through her mind when she responds to everything so positively. Akira gets some nice material too, about the gap between talent and effort, and how a lack of talent isn’t an excuse for lack of effort, which is a nice little message.
As it happens, it’s not uncommon for episodes of Aria to end with some kind of message or moral — but honestly, sometimes it went in one ear and out the other. There’s only so much you can really internalize with general platitudes like “do your best”, although the series does tackle certain broader themes too, like appreciating the here and now, because nothing lasts forever. This is directly symbolized by those mentor characters who used to hang out all the time, and just haven’t had the chance as they got older, but it’s also slowly communicated over the span of Aria as a whole. There is an actual sense of chronology at practically any point in the series, it’s not like the middle chunk of K-On, where most every episode is interchangeable with the rest. Episode 1 has Aika and Akari breaking some rules, leading to in episode 2, Akira getting angry and Aika briefly joining Akari’s company. Then another rowing company mentioned in episode 2 is properly introduced in episode 3, so on and so forth. There’s a clear thread throughout the show — not always of story but at least of general relevance — for the viewer to follow, and that small degree of internal progress can make it much easier to stay interested in a show like this, where there’s little actual plot to latch onto.
More broadly, Aria takes place over a surprisingly long span of time, not even including the 3 epilogue episodes that were made years later. No, within just the base show, we witness yearly tides come and go, and the passage of many seasons with summer, then winter, summer again, winter again. They state in-show that a Martian year is 24 months, which would mean that as a whole... the series take place over like 5 Earth years? There’s undeniably a satisfaction to Akari and the rest growing as gondoliers in that time, and you can definitely feel that time, with how the characters’ roles and chemistry evolve, especially in the third season — which unsurprisingly is often lauded as the best one (to which I would agree).
Now I often find that, to complement the characters, a big draw to slice of life is a good sense of humor, and I can thankfully say that while I didn’t find it gut-busting, Aria to me was at least funnier than your average anime. It sometimes reminded of Flying Witch, where the understated matter-of-fact delivery of a joke makes it work, moreso perhaps than the actual punchline. Although, it’s worth noting that in general, the show was a bit more “anime” than I was expecting. What do I mean by that? Well, if you’ve seen Amanchu (which I mentioned earlier)... the Amanchu vibes are understandably all over this, or rather, the Aria vibes are all over Amanchu. The two share striking stylistic similarities, with playfully deformed mascot characters, and every member of the cast having their own unique chibi face to match their personalities.
Speaking of deformed mascots… what in god’s name kind of cat is that (above). It looks, sounds or acts like no cat I’ve ever seen. It turns out that cats, you see, play a strangely large role in Aria. Each rowing company on Aqua has a blue-eyed cat as their symbolic president, and it’s unclear if the cats are canonically intelligent or if I just take extended gags too seriously, but I am heavily inclined towards the former because Aria also has a strange supernatural element to it. Every so often Akari will wander into a world long-past or nearly get spirited away by ghosts, but by far the most frequent supernatural event involves a strange world of cats, led by a cat king, Cait Sith. To be frank, this aspect of the show never did much for me. It felt simply odd and somewhat unnecessary, being so disconnected from the rest of the material, especially since only Akari herself (plus the cat) ever winds up in those supernatural situations, robbing us as viewers of even the normal character dynamics. This is another reason why the third season is my favorite, because it cuts the supernatural entirely to focus on gondoliering around Neo Venezia.
And as long as I’m talking about things I disliked, this is a good time to get to the aforementioned sappiness. While I overall enjoyed Aria for all the reasons I’ve stated — the world, the atmosphere, the likable characters — I felt it often lacked the emotional punch that it wanted to have. Certain scenes left me simply bored or disinterested. The show could come off as so flowery and theatrical that it even leaned towards pretentious, trying to capitalize on emotional weight that it never actually earned. I would guess this is a controversial opinion, considering how well-liked Aria seems to be, so before anyone gets angry, let me explain what I mean with an example:
One of the biggest moments of the second season is a two episode arc where Akari is forced to give up her gondola due to its old age. It’s a fairly drawn-out sequence (two episodes, like I said) — going on one last ride and saying goodbye to the gondola, very clearly intended to tug at your heartstrings. But… I couldn’t really bring myself to care, and the reason for that is incredibly simple: the gondola itself had been a total non-presence until we were expected to feel bad about getting rid of it.
This gondola — not gondoliering in general, but this specific gondola — never felt like an actual character or an integral part of the show in the same vein as, say, the Going Merry of One Piece. The Going Merry had a distinct visual design, strong sentimental ties to the characters (that we personally witnessed from square one), and eventually even a kind of sentience — which was kind of weird, I’ll be honest, but the point being this gondola was just some boat. I didn’t even realize it had been the same gondola until they made a big deal about getting rid of it. It was never an individually recognizable or important element of Aria. It’d be like asking me to tear up if suddenly, I dunno, Spike had to give up a gun in Bebop. It would have no impact, because the gun in context of the narrative and its presentation had never been anything more than a tool. Aria does try to manufacture a last-minute sentimental value for this gondola through flashbacks, but it just doesn’t have much weight to it when those flashbacks are literally in the same episode as the farewell.
So if I was to summarize my main issue with Aria, that would be it. It tried to make me feel emotional often without putting in the effort to actually create a foundation for that emotion. You can’t win over the audience — or at least, you can’t win over me — just by having characters cry and expecting me to also cry. I’m shallow, but I’m not that shallow.
Now that’s not to say that every time Aria tried to do pathos it failed. There’s a simple beauty to things like a hidden gorgeous view, and the third season, by comparison, is much more effective, because many of its events are not sudden contrivances, but inevitabilities that had been alluded to since the beginning, like the characters graduating or drifting apart as time marches on. And in the end, it’s hard to truly dislike a show like Aria. I certainly don’t. I had my issues, but when a series’ entire goal is to calm and soothe, it just feels like kicking a puppy to find fault with it. It’s a pleasant series, that I bear no ill will, and I’m sure you would enjoy if you’re a big fan of iyashikei.