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An animé title that I’ve been enjoying recently is ARIA the Animation and its sequel ARIA the Natural.

 

Part of the enjoyment is that I just adore animé that, like ARIA, are all about hope and that sensawunda that can make life magical. For all my cynicism sometimes I have to admit to being a romantic idealist at heart and ARIA sings to that part of me.

It is clearly in the shoujo (girls) tradition and thus avoids things like fan service, unrealistic female physiques, etc. The emphasis is more on beauty rather than the sometimes dreary, immature, and all-to-adolescent shonen interpretation of "sexy".

Setting

Set on a terraformed Mars that has been renamed Aqua with most of the story taking place in Neo-Venezia, a re-created Venice complete with canals.

With the canals come the Undines, the graceful female gondoliers who form a major part of the tourism trade in Neo-Venezia.

The three main characters are apprentice Undines, and are apprenticed to the "Three Water Fairies", the leading primas of the day.

(Aside: The elemental theme continues with the Salamanders being the people who operate the weather control stations, the Sylphs being messengers on air bikes, and the Gnomes who regulate the gravity from underground.)

  
Science Fiction or Fantasy (spoilers below, you may want to stop now) 

As described so far the series is optimistic science fiction; humanity has developed the technology to terraform Mars and has chosen to do so in an idealistic, romantic manner to provide hope for those still on Manhome. On this level the series can be seen as "engineering" SF with a very human touch.

But there are a number of episodes which are out and out fantasy. Time travelling cats who can present themselves as humans, fox spirits, a fairy cat king, etc, etc.

The fantasy episodes are enjoyable but I think I would have preferred the series without them.

ARIA isn’t like Haibane Renmei which is clearly fantasy from the get go, nor does it appear to have the rigid internal rules for its fantasy elements that make Haibane Renmei work so well. (Aside: For those who haven’t seen Haibane Renmei yet, what are you waiting for? It is available locally in Australia on some very good DVD releases).

It is hard for me to express but I think I would like to have seen ARIA express a view of the future that a mature humanity could build for itself without any fantastic intervention, that humanity could develop for itself not only the technology but the wisdom to use it well. 

Superb Characterisation

Having seen to the end of the second season one of the highlights is the superb characterisation – significant plot elements can be  (and are) conveyed by a single change of expression (the best example of which is in episodes 16 and 17 of ARIA the NATURAL but there are hints of others at the end of ARIA the NATURAL). I can’t wait for the third season.