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Kozue Amano’s Aria: Nostalgia etc

This post originally appeared at The Panelists on March 23, 2011.

This post is part of this month’s Manga Moveable Feast on Kozuo Amano’s Aria (currently (?) published by Tokyopop). For more entries in the MMF, visit Animemiz’s page on the feast. I’m not getting into a lot of plot or character summary here, but there’s plenty of it in the other posts. You could also check out the previous times I’ve written about the series in 2005 (Aria v.1-3), 2007 (Aqua v.1), and 2009 (Aria v.5) (I appear to be on a 2 year cycle) which have a little more plot description (and you can see some of my changing opinions of the series as I read more of it).

Kozue Amano’s Aria (the the two volume predecessor Aqua) doesn’t look like, nor does it sound like, a book I would enjoy reading (and rereading as it turns out). It’s a big-eyed manga about girls whose goal in life is to be great at piloting gondola’s in a futuristic Mars city designed to replicate 19th century Venice. Yet, it’s a series I now have 8 volumes of (more than any other manga except Phoenix, Nana, Lone Wolf and Cub, and Vagabond) all of which I’ve read at least twice. I’ve read the rest of the series in scanlation. [1]  I’ll try to avoid “spoilers” for the 6 volumes that don’t have official English publications, though I can’t think of a comic that would be less affected by knowing how it ends, as I can’t imagine anyone whose read the first few volumes who couldn’t guess where it ends. [2] I will use a few examples and images from later volumes but nothing extensive, though I think some of my points are clearer the more you’ve read of the series.

For a manga, Aria fits oddly with existing genres. Tokyopop labels it “Sci-Fi/Drama”, which is technically true though perhaps a bit misleading. As I’ll discuss later, the science of Aria‘s “sci-fi” is, if not completely absent, only a minor part of the series, more background than integral to the story or even the characters. And to call Aria “drama” is to use that word in only the lightest of senses, it is the least dramatic manga I can think of, excepting perhaps Jiro Taniguchi’s Walking Man. Even the quiet and slow (but beloved) Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou by Ashinano Hitoshi has an element of dramatic disintegration at work over the course of its story. Aria is almost absent of romance (more on that later) or much in the way of conflict. Instead it is primarily an evocation of both the everyday (at least a very particular sense of the everyday) and the passage of time. It is a most undramatic form of bildungsroman, telling the story of Akari, a young gondolier in training, and her friends as they learn their trade. If nothing else, we can say that the overarching story of Aria is about time passing and how to best spend and appreciate that time.

As such, repetition and variation are integral to the series: visually, narratively, and thematically. Visually, there is a frequent use of non-exact repetitions of certain imagery: characters standing erect on gondola’s as they glide through the water in a state of bliss, cityscapes, seascapes, skyscapes dotted by floating weather controlling ships, sunsets/rises, smiling and laughing faces, superdeformed characters showing their angry faces. There are also some striking scenes of exact repetition. Early on volume 1 of Aqua, two of the protagonists, Akari and Aika, gondoliers in training, get lost in a labyrinth of water-filled passages inside a building. To visually hammer home the disorientation, Kozue uses a series of page spreads that are almost exactly the same (remember to read right-to-left, click for larger views):

The first image in each spread starts off each spread back at the same spot, and the following two panels on the recto also closely mirror each other. The whole of the recto pages in the first two spreads are also almost exactly the same visually, with only slight variations in character position and differing dialogue to let us know it is not a misprint. This use of repetition works well to emphasizes the strangeness of the situation (lost in a labyrinth), but also works with the greater themes of the book.

Narratively, the story itself offers a repetition of situations, shifting out characters, locations, or times of the year, but offering familiar situations. This can work both for and against the narrative. The reader may get bored with the sameness (as I did on occasion), but the repetition also plays in to some of the greater thematics of the series.

Thematically, repetition is a touchstone for the heart of the series and its use of time, not only through seasons but also in the way the two generations of characters (trainees and mentors) are depicted.

In my most recent reading of the series, in preparation for this article, I finally noticed that each volume of the series marks one season in narrative time. With each new volume Akari (our protagonist and primary narrator) announces the arrival of a new season. This assures the reader’s attention to the passing of time and the growth of the characters (such as it is) and also nicely mirrors our segmentation of the year into the segmentation of the story. Time passing is closely tied with the series use of repetition and the thematically primary nostalgia that suffuses the series. Narratively, Kozue also uses seasons as a generator for stories. A great many of the stories revolve around season specific festivals, events, and nature (weather, animals, etc.). One chapter (49) in volume ten actually recapitulates a whole years worth of time by passing through each of the seasons.

The protagonists and major secondary characters in the series are all so-called “undines,” gondolier tour guides, divided into three younger trainees (the real protagonists) and three older mentors. As the series progresses, Kozue plays up the repetition in the larger strokes of the two generations’ lives: their friendships, career paths, and futures. This repetition and the opportunity it provides for the older generation to see themselves and their pasts in the younger generation and for the younger generation to see their future and, even more so, their present as a past time, is the greatest (and most moving) generator of nostalgia in the series.

The nostalgic core of Aria is impossible to ignore. All the larger elements of the story emphasize nostalgia and force attention to it on the reader. We can start with the setting of the series, Neo-Venezia. The city, found on a terraformed Mars of the future (2300 C.E.) renamed “Aqua”, is a recreation of 19th century Venice, a city from a previous century (to the reader), existing in a world centuries ahead. This situates the story both in the past and the future of the reader, a perfect location to best evoke nostalgic longing. Neo-Venezia, as is noted numerous times in the series, is essentially a “backwards” place existing with the perks of a science fictional technology, yet culturally and aesthetically maintaining the “charm” of a vanished (and certainly non-existent) past. Technology brings a clean, healthy world, shorn of any sign of poverty, homelessness, disease, or war, with weather controlled to be perfect seasons. Culturally, the city exists without motor vehicles of any sort (excepting flying machines that provide transportation of goods), without any visible phones (ok I just found one in volume 10, it has a crank, separate ear and mouth pieces, and two visible bells on top), televisions, or other trappings of contemporary or future technology–excepting Akari’s laptop, an object she brought from Earth. Earth itself is portrayed, through narration and dialogue (it is never shown), as an artificial world where everything is controlled by machines and no longer “natural” (Akari has never swum in a “real” ocean). One story is devoted to Akari assisting a mailman as he delivers letters and an evocation of the wonders of paper mail, because, while Akari’s narration is provided in the form of emails back to a friend on Earth, the people of Neo-Venezia prefer to use paper mail.

Narratively, a number of stories explicitly rely on the nostalgia theme. It is explicitly mentioned in a scene early in the series in Aqua volume 2:

As noted above, the younger generation of characters are themselves a source of nostalgia for the older generation, while the older generation’s nostalgia puts the younger into an increased sense of the fleeting nature of their present. Their place as trainees, i.e. students, also evokes a great location of nostalgia, school, a period that is always limited in time, guaranteed to pass, and so often looked back on with a nostalgic glow.

This is perhaps most explicit in the first chapter of volume 6 (which is just at the middle of the series (2 volumes of Aqua and 12 volumes of Aria, means volume 6 of Aria is actually volume 8 out of a total 14)) where the six undines are gathered together for the first time. The older generation (admittedly, older seems to mean early 20s in this story) tell the younger about how they met. This story clearly mirrors the way the younger characters met in earlier volumes. The younger characters note this in the story. What disturbs the characters is the way over time the older generation got so busy with their work that they don’t get to see each other very often, when, as youths, they spent every day together training (as the younger generation do throughout the series). This sense of change and lose is closely associated with the nostalgic longing, time passes, life changes, and those situations where we considered ourselves most happy seem to gain luster by their distance.

The sadness of nostalgia and change is countered by the didactic content of the series, an example of which can be seen in this very scene. The older generation offers the younger generation advice on enjoying the present:

I should note that this scene (again, situated at the center of the series) is repeated in memory in the final volume of the series, with this same advice replayed, further showcasing this as a core scene in the series.

Similarly, in contrast to the nostalgia, Aria frequently calls for the appreciation of the present as fleeting moment to be enjoyed to the full, a call that is the series other main theme. Akari as a personality is often shown with, and admired by the others for, her ability to find pleasure in the everyday and to make the most of her experiences. Her enthusiasm for life, people, and the world around her becomes infectious both to the other characters and acts as a draw for the reader. As an example, in volume five a whole chapter is devoted to Akari and her enjoyment of waiting: “I love to wait. I relish little pockets of spare time.” (154)

This pleasure in life is often found in beauty, scenery, and the scenic view. This is the aspect of the series that many reviewers focus on, the phrase “scenery porn” comes up a few times, and it is an aspect I focused on with my first reading. It is also more prominent in the early part of the series, before Kozue has had time to grow the themes of the series and the characters’ relations. Akari is often shown in rapture at a wonderful view (cityscape, sunset, the sea, rainbows, buildings, etc.) and I assume the reader is supposed to share in these feelings, but Kozue’s conventionally realist manga backgrounds (thin lines, clearly photoreferenced, ziptones) don’t really convey that sense of aesthetic wonder that one feels on seeing the real thing. One thing art can do is to reframe and reimagine these natural wonders in new expressive ways. Art is about how the thing is represented not necessarily what is represented. I find less realistic artwork is often more expressive and aesthetically moving in this respect, particularly when the object of representation is something out there in the world that is aesthetically stunning on its own. For instance, Oliver East’s watercolors are rarely realist, but his images of nature, buildings, even wind (realist art can’t really draw wind) are visually exciting. Aria’s artwork is too often too real but plain to be aesthetically surprising in the way Akari, the character, sees the objects represented.

For instance, the scene shown above where Akari is watching fireworks and is told about nostalgia, the fireworks themselves just don’t really work as a wonderful image in themselves, making it harder to share Akari’s enthusiasm. Similarly, in volume 1 Akari discovers a rainbow in the water she is using to clean her gondola. Her excitement just can’t be matched by the representation itself:

It is to Kozue’s credit that she often can pull off these scenes not with stunning imagery but with the combination of the imagery and the characterization. Often the art is more striking when the scene is not about the natural beauty of the scenes itself, but rather some other aspect, like this striking scene from v.10 where the frozen moment (important in the story) and the visual angle work together to make the image moving:

Kozue is also skilled in setting up some of the more fantastical scenes that go on in the book, like the labyrinth scene above. A similar scene finds Akari and her mentor Alicia on an island designed like a traditional Japanese shrine setting. As the characters walk through the torii the scene again creates a sense of disorientation and confusion that is quite lovely.

So this appreciation of life and the moment is not always successful when Kozue focuses too much on the view itself, rather her strength in the series is making use of the characters and their interactions to control the reactions to various scenes.

The idea that people are in charge of their own happiness is also frequently evoked through out the series by different characters. All this didactic content is certainly a positive message to try to convey to the reader and indeed forms one of the larger themes of the series, but these ideas are undercut by the relentless sunniness of the series. As noted this futuristic city shows no sign of homelessness, poverty, war, violence, or any negative effects of technology. The setting is basically a utopia, though it is also, despite the theme of change that runs through it, strangely static, as we see neither births nor deaths across the 4 years of narrative time.

Nor, along with birth and death, is there any real sexuality in the series, though there are clear gender related issues. The primary characters are all women, though a few recurring males are seen throughout the series. Akari’s best friend Aika has the only hint of romance with one of these males, a romance that is so innocent and unspoken that it is almost not there. One of the males also has an endless crush on one of the older undines, but it is primarily played as a joke. In fact, the male characters as a whole are portrayed as unserious characters and with seriously weird looking appearances. The main women are all attractive–and in this odd fantasy they must be to have the jobs they have–within the bounds of the style (big eyes, lots of hair, impossible figures) while the men are all odd and caricatured, one of them barely looks like he belongs to the same species as the women.

The roles of the genders in this utopia are also backwards (as perhaps befits the nostalgic setting but not the futuristic one). We are at one point told that the gondolas the undines use to give tours are the only boats women are allowed to pilot in the city. And in chapters where the girls see the work that their male friends do (one works in a floating ship that controls climate, one underground in a place that controls gravity, and another is a flying delivery man) there is no indication that women perform any of those jobs.

That a series so focused on happiness and the pleasures of daily life, starring teenage girls is so void of romance is a bit odd, but romance would also introduce drama and the potential for heartbreak, which would break the fantasy. And the series is essentially a fantasy. It’s least successful moments are where the fantasy of a science fiction utopia is given a layer of mystical fantasy elements. A few chapters in the series make use a mythical giant cat figure (I’ve gotten this long without mentioning the predominance of cats in the series, there are a number of them) and events Akari witnesses or participates in that are only explainable as fantastical. These elements are out of place in a series that is otherwise so focused on finding the special moments in daily life.

In the end, though, I find Aria a unique and moving series. Over the course of so many pages there are many scenes that are worth rereading and Kozue is very successful at creating a rapport with the characters that she can build up to a very moving finale (which hopefully we’ll see in a real English printing some day).

Images from Aria v.1 are from the ADV edition. Images from Aria v.10 are from the scanlation. All other images from the Tokyopop editions. For volume and page references, the image files are named in the format TITLE_VOLUME_PAGE.

Addendum: Apologies if some of these points are not as clear or supported as they could be. I didn’t want to miss my deadline! And maybe some other time I’ll connect Aria’s nostalgia to the aesthetic concept of mono no aware, but that would take a lot more time (and rereading of some references).

Addendum 2: I didn’t find a good place to complain about how Tokyopop’s edition provides no translation of the sound effects. For such a quiet series, the sound effects are pretty important. For instance, not the lovely long effects in this spread:

Those characters represent the sound of a special chime that is the focus of the chapter. In many other cases I was unable to tell what the effect was supposed to represent. I’d have loved something like the notes used in English translation of Yuichi Yokoyama’s New Engineering.

Addendum 3: I also wanted to reiterate my absolute confusion at Tokyopop’s rating of this series as “Older Teen Age 16+, May include: Non-sexual nondescript nudity, mild fanservice, alcohol use.” Having read the whole series twice (and some volumes more times), and leaving aside what “nondescript nudity” could be, I didn’t see any nudity of any kind of the book. Nor would I classify anything in the book as any but the mildest of fanservice. There is one chapter at a beach with characters in bathing suits, but it is hardly exploitive. There is one chapter in a bathing house that is positively tame (everyone is in very chastely worn towels). There is some alcohol use but it is extremely subtle (you can see the wine bottles). It’s baffling.

[1] I read the scanlations after ADV stopped publishing Aria after three volumes. Aria‘s publication status in English has never seemed very secure. ADV cancelled it after three volumes and Tokyopop’s edition seems to be in a constant state of pending cancellation. It was put on hiatus on one point, and lately volumes have come out only once a year. As of right now, it’s not clear volume 7 will ever appear. Sean Gaffney gets into the publication history (including in Japan) a bit at his post.

[2] SPOILERS: There’s an alien invasion and all the girls’ gondolas turn into giant fighting robots… (that’s a joke).