Aria the Animation happens to be one of my favorite shows – it’s a very tranquil, easy-going anime about gondoliers working in Neo-Venezia, a city situated on a terraformed (and renamed to Aqua) Mars. Set in in an unknown future, Aria the Animation has the distinction of a calm pacing, a contrast to the more hectic development of others (such as One Piece, the Dragon Ball franchise and similar); as a result, it allows the audience to take in the environment as the series progresses, letting the scenery take center stage from time to time rather than simply letting it play second fiddle to the characters. Non Non Biyori, a more recent anime, has the same set-up – the environment becomes important not only as a backdrop, but as a living, breathing place where the characters interact, with scenic beauty being a main draw for the series.
As a matter of fact, this Martian city appears alive here in the first episode; the action embarks on a leisurely pace, letting viewers soak in the surroundings before getting into the meat of the story (in this case, showing the daily lives of the undines, who work the gondolas). Despite being set on another planet, everything looks so relaxing and calm and familiar – Neo-Venezia brings Earth (now known as Manhome) to Mars/Aqua, and people enjoy the relaxing, bucolic charms of city life on the former Red Planet. One gets various glimpses of the advanced technology throughout; Earth has proceeded far enough technologically to make terraforming a feasible reality, but Mars became a “second Earth,” so to speak, as people migrated there to live and work. That Neo-Venezia is so explicitly modeled after an European city makes the terraforming all the more impressive – floating islands and ships exist in the same space as classically-inspired architecture, where no cars can be seen (something Mizunashi Akari explains later on in the episode).
The episode opens without any sort of musical fanfare; instead, the opening song plays over images of Aria Company getting ready for the day ahead, with medium shots and close-ups dominant. One really gets the impression of a bustling city with the shots of the city itself – Neo-Venezia, after all, is rather large (as can be seen in the final screenshot above), and one can imagine a large population inhabiting it. As for Aria Company itself; it may be a small place, but it looks to be a popular locale; Alicia Florence, the Prima Undine of Aria, receives a lot of business, and Mizunashi Akari hopes to one day be promoted to the position as well. As mentioned before, Earth at this point in time has rather advanced technology, allowing for both space travel and terraforming; Aqua stands as a testament to these achievements. With a newly-habitable planet comes new opportunities, and for the past 150 years, people came to Aqua, and Aria Company likely arose from the new environment; everything looks so peaceful here, and the episode takes its time in establishing the characters and the setting.
With these opening screenshots, we get to see the introduction of Akari – a young undine, she came to Aqua to practice to become a Prima, and she loved the city at first sight (from the ship she rode to the planet). Akari has a boundless enthusiasm for her job, even if people occasionally tease her; one can see that with Izumo Akatsuki, who calls Aria Company to listen to Alicia Florence’s voice mail message, then calling off Akari as “Sideburns” (momiko in the original Japanese) when she answers. The introductory sequence shows Akari to be a rather outgoing personality – she enjoys her work thoroughly, and (as we see later) imparts her love of Neo-Venezia onto others. Also, the opening scenes impart serenity – unlike shows such as One Piece, Aria the Animation prefers to take its time, presenting its visuals with relaxing music that help unwind. Nothing happens quickly here, and that’s wonderful; it pays to relax from time to time, and Aqua offers a means for people to do so.
Akari’s first “customer,” Ai, initially does not enjoy the ride; she sneaks onto Akari’s gondola in order to get a free ride, but she is somewhat frustrated with the seemingly slow ride. The first few shots of the ride show the city as well as Ai reactions to it – she doesn’t really take the time to gaze at the scenery, instead voicing her disinterest to Akari (who tries her best to make the ride an interesting one). This level of disinterest seems to show how well people adjusted to space travel; Ai doesn’t quite see the appeal of Neo-Venezia, as Manhome has all the amenities she is used to, whereas Aqua seems more laid back.
The gondola scene also marks the introduction of Aika S. Granzchesta, Akari’s friend and an employee of Himeya company; she quickly asserts herself as the more competent of the undines when asked by Ai, showing her to be rather headstrong, while her trademark line “no sappy lines allowed!” illustrates her low tolerance for sentiment. Throughout this scene, Neo-Venezia shines – it’s as much a character as Akari and Aika are, and it looks lively and serene whenever it appears. To give an example, the fourth and fifth screenshots above show buildings dwarfing Akari and Ai, giving some scale to the architecture; everything is grand here, very much like the historical Venice upon which it is based. In addition, the world seems rather water-based, with gondolas as the primary mode of transportation; the real-life Venice became famous over the centuries for its numerous canals, and this aspect of the city gets reimagined for a new environment.
By episode’s end, Ai comes to love Neo-Venezia as much as Akari does; Akari and Aika take the time to speak with the girl about the city, even enjoying potatoes together. Even though Ai never paid for the ride, Akari enjoys the time she spent, and doesn’t charge for the experience; the potato, a seemingly simple thing, happens to be a rather amazing event for Ai, as she learns to love something she initially disliked on Earth. The potato serves as a reminder to relax and enjoy the day – Neo-Venezia thrives on tranquility rather than impatience, and getting to know the city goes a long way.
Akari provides the overarching theme of this episode – love, both for the city and for family. She helps Ai realize that her older sister wanted to share the joy she experienced on Aqua; Ai originally felt annoyed, thinking the sister wanted to brag, but she now understands why she spoke so highly of Neo-Venezia. It turns out that the sister herself didn’t have the greatest time there, either – she argued with her husband while on the gondola (which Alicia explains to Akari), but the two reconciled afterward. Neo-Venezia has a way of winning over people, and Ai understands this now; she was too annoyed initially to fully comprehend what her sister wanted to do.