Aria by Kozue Amano

Aria Volumes 1-3 by Kozue Amano. ADV Manga, 2004. Each volume: approx. 180 p., black and white, $9.99.

I picked up this manga based on a recommendation from fans of Quiet Country Café. It’s identified as another kind of “everyday life” manga in a science fiction setting. In this case the setting is a terraformed Mars, now inhabited by humans and called Aria, and the city of Neo-Venezia, an echo of the Italian city of Venice. The protagonist Akari is a young gondolier (called an “undine” (which is a kind of water fairy in myth)) in-training. She is a recent arrival on the planet (there seems to be a previous 2 volume series called “Aqua” that tells of her arrival but it is not translated that I can find), so a large part of the story is her (and thus the reader) discovering more about the planet, the city, and the people inhabiting it.

Other than the story of her training there is no real overarching story to these three volumes. What we find instead is a series of vignettes featuring Akari, her friend who is also an undine in training, Akari’s mentor, their cats, and the occasional other recurring characters (by the third volume there are two other characters that seem to feature more prominently in her life). The changing of the seasons is a prominent motif, as well as holidays (festivals, carnivals). Stories include a trip to a Japanese style shrine, a city-wide masquerade, a treasure-hunt that is really about discovering areas of the city, a day spent cleaning and polishing the gondolas, and a story focused on Akari and a friend waiting for their friends to meet them. Each story is narrated, or at least begins with a narration, by Akari writing a letter to someone (an unnamed correspondent, perhaps family back on Earth).

The only time we see Akari plying her trade is in the first chapter of the first volume where she gives a boatride and tour to an old man visiting the city. Amano otherwise avoids the actual work that his protagonist does, though the story often circle around that work (cleaning the boats, training, meeting other undines). The chapter one tour provides a kind of overarching summary of the book itself: the rest of the book is a boat ride and a tour in itself, with Akari as our guide and co-tourist.

The character of Akari is a little too much the overly sweet, wide-eyed gawking girl. She is often too enthusiastic about learning new things, meeting new people, about life in general. Too often Amano shows us Akari’s effusive reaction to something but does not let us linger on that same discovery. This is in great contrast to Quiet Country Cafe where Alpha’s reactions are more restrained and we are allowed to see the discovery, the view, the scene with a similar sense of wonder. Aria is decidedly more conventional than Quite Country Cafe. There is more movement, more action, even if it is also less conventional than most manga, focusing much less (or not at all) on violence, adventure, or even romance (as of three volumes there is little in the way of romantic interest for any of the characters).

The artwork is a rather common big-eyed anime style with detailed backgrounds. Page layouts are unexceptional for manga, a few rectangular panels a page. Amano uses most of the manga conventions one would expect to see (speed lines, large close-ups of faces for emotional effect, “deforming” the characters for comedic effect) but only rarely. In fact, I can’t say there’s anything too exciting about the art at all.

What makes this work stand out is its difference from other manga which has been translated into English. It is not an adventure or romance or really any of the genres one sees. Sadly, it is also not that great an example of the “everyday life” genre. It seems there are 8 volumes of Aria in Japan, and, so far, ADV only put out 3 (the most recent in November of 2004), which makes me think this one got cancelled, perhaps due to low sales.

I’d love to see more “everyday life” manga if anyone has any recommendations (besides the aforementioned Quiet County Cafe and the previously review Walking Man,)