Here it is, my last post for my Secret Stars of Anime column. Don’t worry, I’m not quitting the blog; I just have a new column that I will be starting next time. Before that new column starts, though, I figured I would give this column a nice, big sendoff by covering my absolute favorite anime series of all time, the ARIA series. Based on a manga by Kozue Amano, this series consists of three separate seasons aired between 2005 and 2008, plus an OVA series released within the last year and a half (which has unfortunately yet to be licensed in English, so as per column rules, I will not be talking about it). For those looking to watch this show, the seasons are titled, in order, ARIA the Animation, ARIA the Natural, and ARIA the Origination; with Natural being twice as long as the other seasons, this series spans 52 episode in total.
The ARIA series takes place sometime in the future, when Mars has been terraformed and serves as a second Earth that humans can live on. One location in particular has been constructed to resemble Venice, Italy with its many waterways crossing throughout the city; this place, called Neo-Venezia, is the central setting of this story. In this city, women called Undine serve as gondoliers, taking passengers on tours through the city’s waterways on their gondolas. The main character, Akari, is an apprentice Undine, working at the Aria Company, a very small but still well-known company. She is mentored by Alicia, the company’s only other employee (aside from the “president”, a cat named Aria) and a very popular and frequently-booked Undine. She also meets up with and gets to know two other Undine from other companies, the feisty Aika and the prodigious Alice, and the three of the work towards becoming full-fledged Undines.
As for why this anime series is my all-time favorite, this show takes five elements I love in various anime and combine them into something amazing. Just one of these elements would be enough to make a show a high-ranking show, and my other favorite shows will often have three or even four of these elements, but ARIA is the only show I have seen that not only has all five, but combines them in such a perfect way as to make what I consider the perfect anime series. (Granted, it’s not completely perfect, as there was one half of an episode I didn’t particularly care for… but that’s still over 99% perfect!) Below I will go over each of those five elements, what I love about them, and how ARIA makes use of those elements. Consider this a window into my anime-loving self and what exactly I love about anime so much.
The first element I love about ARIA is also the element most commonly associated with the show. Iyashikei is a term that literally means “healing-type [show]”, and many consider ARIA to be the quintessential example of an iyashikei show. I have talked about iyashikei in the past, and how sometimes, all you need after a long, tiring day is a nice, relaxing show that is all about finding the good things in life. That said, this element is also the reason why ARIA is not a popular, mainstream anime: most people look to anime for some sort of excitement, either with action, drama, or comedy. ARIA is relatively lacking in all three, as they generally do not contribute too well to the iyashikei nature of the show. (There is some comedy, but nowhere near the level of even a standard comedic slice-of-life show). You have to be in the right mood to want to watch ARIA, where you are ready to relax your mind and simply let the raw peacefulness of the show wash over you.
The show is certainly really good at it, though. This is one part where, as an anime, this show has an advantage over its manga source material. Whereas with the manga you can quickly flip through the pages and read through at your own pace, the anime forces you to move along at its own pace. That might not sound appealing, especially if you aren’t looking for a slow, relaxing show, but if you are, there’s something especially nice about releasing control of the story’s pace to the show and letting yourself enjoy the ride, as if you yourself were on a gondola tour. The show’s beautiful visuals, relaxing music, and overall positivity all add to the “healing” factor of this show, which make for a unique experience.
Personally, I love iyashikei shows for how they go against the usual conventions of fiction to present a story that can be enjoyed in a different way. While I understand that this type of show is not for everyone, I definitely encourage everyone to know about this type of show and what it can offer. Maybe, one day, you will find yourself in that right mood where you want something relaxing to watch, and then you will look up ARIA or another iyashikei show, watch an episode of it, and fall in love with this type of show as well.
Obviously, the wondrous setting of Neo Venezia contributes to the iyashikei feel of the show, but the setting itself is also a big draw. As much as I love slice-of-life shows, most such shows take place in mundane settings, and while I have no problem with that, I do personally also love more fantastical settings, including science-fiction settings. A slice-of-life show that takes place in such a setting would be ideal, although perhaps a bit rarer than I would like, but thankfully at least we have Neo Venezia, a science-fiction type setting that manages to also have a bit of raw fantasy (more on that later).
What really impresses me, though, is how much detail has gone into the world-building of Neo-Venezia. Details abound on how the Undine and the Undine companies work, as well as other parts of the world such as the suspended sky islands where climate is maintained and the underground facilities that work to give Mars an Earth-like gravity. Many aspects of actual Venetian life are also portrayed, including festivals and even the “acqua alta” high-tide phenomenon. Anime’s obsession with making their settings resemble their real-life counterparts comes into play here, as many details of Neo Venezia’s locales and architecture are taken straight from location-scouting in Venice. And that is to say nothing of the various beautiful side-locations that the girls visit, providing a sense of exploration as the world of Neo Venezia slowly unfurls.
All this (plus one more element that I will get to later) makes Neo Venezia one of the most appealing anime worlds to visit, as well as one of the best anime worlds overall. It almost feels as if Neo Venezia itself is a character, alive and interacting with the other characters. Speaking of which…
Slice-of-life shows live or die by their characters, and thankfully ARIA has a great cast of characters. The main character, Akari, is just a perfect bundle of pure optimism, and it’s easy to get swept up with her appreciation for everything life has to offer. Aika balances her out with a more down-to-earth personality (especially as she calls Akari out on all her “sappy lines”), but the show slowly reveals more depth to her, her friendships, and her passion for Undine work. Alice might be, if not my favorite character, the character I most identify with, being somewhat antisocial but dedicated to her Undine practices, as well as having a childlike side to her, given that she’s younger than the others.
Each of the girls also has a mentor who is closely associated with her, and form a second “main cast” that frequently appears throughout the show. Akari’s mentor Alicia is a kind and gentle soul that helps the girls out, while Aika’s mentor Akira is the strict teacher who keeps them well-trained (although she does care for Aika and the others). Alice’s mentor Athena is a skilled singer and overall caring person that is rather clumsy off the job (but very skilled on the job). There’s also several other side characters (including a handful of males, at least one of whom serves as a romantic interest to one of the girls) who all help to make a strong cast.
It is a common misconception that slice-of-life shows are devoid of plot or conflict. The plot and conflict of a slice-of-life show don’t always make themselves clear like other types of shows do, and they often don’t have one overarching conflict spanning an entire series, but the story and conflict definitely exist. Like many shows of this type, ARIA plays its episodes out with small conflicts that take place within the episode, such as having to escort a bored tourist or trying to deliver a letter. In many ways, slice-of-life shows present a very scaled down but real and relatable conflict: here’s a new day, with all sorts of possibilities in front of you; what are you going to do with it? Finding out how the girls of ARIA make the most of each day is part of the “healing” joy of each episode.
That said, ARIA does have an overarching conflict: each of the main girls is training to become a full-fledged Undine. This particular part of their story especially comes into play during the final season, Origination, which has a more focused structure that brings the overall story to a conclusion of sorts as the girls face not only their final tests to become Undine, but also what that means for their future and the future of their mentors. This season has a more melancholic tone to it; while it never gives up on its calming sense of positivity, it does admittedly trade in the raw magic and wonder of past episodes for a more bittersweet look at each character’s development and future. For those looking for perhaps a more traditional narrative (with plenty of feels to go with it all), Origination in particular might be the season you want to look at. Despite the change in tone, Origination still feels very much like ARIA, just with a different focus, and one that brings the series overall to a very satisfying ending (the sequel OVAs notwithstanding).
All these four elements already make for an incredibly strong show, but there is one final element I have yet to mention that brings it all together to make my favorite show of all time…
I haven’t talked too much about how my Christian faith plays into my love for this show, as I did want to look first at those elements that can be appreciated regardless of one’s faith. Of course, the show’s various lessons about appreciating the little things in life and making the most of every day, among other things, do reflect various Biblical teachings, and I can definitely make a post analyzing any given episode for its themes that mirror Christian themes. That definitely plays one part in why this show resonates with my faith.
The other part, though, involves one very specific character I had not yet mentioned: Cait Sith.
Cait Sith is a giant cat that in-universe is believed to be the guardian deity of Neo Venezia. Most of the people in the show only believe in him as a sort of myth, but Akari at many points in the show manages to end up in supernatural situations that lead to her meeting up with Cait Sith in person. Over the course of several meetings, Akari starts developing an intimate bond with Cait Sith, as he protects her from evil spirits and just in general make her feel welcome. In many ways Cait Sith reminds me of Aslan from the Narnia series: a God-like figure that can be regal and intimidating, but also friendly and inviting. The episodes involving Cait Sith are some of the most wondrous episodes in the series, and help give this show that one extra element that pushes it above any other show I’ve watched.
So that is my favorite anime of all time, the ARIA series. Unfortunately, online streaming for this show is scarce, but at the very least, you can try out the first two episodes on the Nozomi Entertainment official YouTube channel, and buy the DVDs if you are interested in more. No need to worry about objectionable content either, as this show is as clean as it gets.
With that, my final Secret Stars of Anime post is done. What comes next? Stay tuned for my new column, “Starstruck”, in which I talk about whatever I feel like talking about! I will still promote various lesser-known shows, because I love doing that, though I will also talk about more popular shows, shows I didn’t like as much, and will even go into other media like manga and video games (of Japanese origin, of course). Until then, whether or not you try out ARIA‘s brand of healing power for yourself, here’s to finding something to love about every day of our lives!