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[R1 DVD box art]
AKA: アリア ザ ナチュラル 〜遠い記憶のミラージュ〜 (Aria the Natural: Tooi Kioku no Mirage), Aria the Natural: Mirage of a Distant Memory
Genre: Slice-of-life / science-fiction
Length: Television series, 26 episodes, 23 minutes each
Distributor: R1 DVD box from Right Stuf International.
Content Rating: PG (adult themes)
Related Series: Aria the Animation, Aria the OAV ~Arietta~, Aria the Origination, Aria the Avvenire.
Also Recommended: Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou, Haibane Renmei, Sketchbook ~Full Color's~, Laid-Back Camp, Amanchu.
Notes: Based on manga by Amano Kozue, licensed and released by Tokyopop together with its manga prequel Aqua. Aqua and Aria are both serialized in Mag Garden in Japan.
Rating:

Aria the Natural

Synopsis

The introduction phase pretty much over with, Mizunashi Akari doubles down on her efforts to experience all the wonderful things about living on planet Aqua and experiencing many of its wonders; whether that be her meetings with Cait Sith, going on a treasure hunt through the streets of Neo Venezia or experiencing many of its festivals. And, of course, the chance to deepen her relationships with her friends is nice too, be that her fellow trainees Aika and Alice, her mentors Alicia, Akira and Athena and last, but certainly not least Ai-chan.


Review

The feeling of making a new friend you can tell you have a lot in common with can be an exhilerating feeling, but it's that part where you have grown comfortable in each other's presence and find out that it's really going to be a good one is even better. As Aria steps out of its first uncertain steps as an anime conversion in the Animation, the Natural doubles down -- literally so, as this season is a full 26 episodes in length -- on giving its audience exactly what it came to see.

And it's not like they were lacking for manga material, although I'm lead to believe that the manga was still in the process of being created when the various seasons were made, which I will go more into when I do the review for Origination when that time comes, but where Aria the Animation did resort to filler material as completely standalone episodes not covered in the manga at all, Natural only does the "embellish manga chapters" thing with whatever original additions it has, particularly in light of the fact that some manga chapters could feel a bit brief at times, and stretching that out to last a full 23 minutes had to be an interesting task in itself.

"Looking for that Treasure...." marked the episode where I finally made my peace with Tara's rendition of Alice, as she does a great job portraying the somewhat reticent girl despite the differences in tone. The episode itself is a nice gift package based around two separate manga chapter; mostly the treasure hunt one, due to its title, but also a later manga chapter covering Akari's stay at Cafe Florian, one of the many locations based on real life, and its manager. The treasure aspect of the episode played out a bit differently, mostly due to the fact that, in the manga, Alice was still a somewhat new addition to Akari's friendship circle, which prompted a jealousy streak in Aika that would have felt out of place had they used it here.

The Natural also has a few Alice-centric episodes, which also allowed me to get a better listen at Athena's voice acting. And despite my initial concerns from the Animation where she barely had any speaking lines, she definitely becomes a contributing factor to Alice's continuation of growth. My worries are once again put to rest, as Michele Knotz does a great job as Athena, who, perhaps more than Akari, seems like such an absent-minded person on the surface, but she's far more aware of her surroundings than most people would give her credit for.

Aria the Natural also finally lets both Al the Gnome and Anno the postman take center stage for at least one full episode each, and I'm happy to report that their dub voices continue to be strong. Al kind of sounds like an awkward kid tonally, but he talks with the gentle confidence of an adult, which he actually is despite his looks. The anime covers the meteor shower chapter, but Al also shows up more than just briefly in both the Festa Del Boccolo episode and, more importantly, "That Young Girl's Heart", the second half of one of the two-arc storylines. Meanwhile, Anno gets to do the story where he wants to rent an Aria Company gondola for one day because his is off getting repaired. Said episode is particularly heartwarming, because Anno is the first friend Akari made in Neo Venezia, and out of the side characters not named Akatsuki, he's also the one who showed up the most often. And while you could possibly argue that Mike Pollock plays up the "rustic, old person" tone as much as Karen Smith did with "Grandma" Akino, the acting still nails his warm, nostalgic persona to a tee.

The manga chapter itself was based on a fairly short chapter, so the anime choses to put in a subplot about a boy looking to deliver a letter to his former teacher at the day of her marriage, which is... right about then and there. The material is anime original, much like episode 4 of the Animation, and it admirably puts its best foot forward by starring a young boy, who, much like a lot of boys who are still trying to work out how to mature, made a mistake while trying to sort out his feelings over how he hurt his female music teacher to the point where he made her cry. The episode actually impressed me about how it allowed the boy to dwell on his mistake by himself, and even when he laid out his woes to both Akari and the Postman, neither of them saw fit to browbeat him even further into submission. In what is a nice addition to the Animation's episode 7 and its message of "it's pointless to scold someone who are already reflecting on their mistakes", and although I doubt Akari would ever do that even if Akira hadn't told her, the episode still served as one of the better moments of the Natural. You can even hear his voice cracking up a bit at the end of his farewells in the Japanese version that I'm a bit sad the English dub didn't follow up on it. It's also worth noting that this episode feels especially nostalgic to me because I had a grandmother who had the exact same job as the Postman have, and I have fond memories of following her around at work much like Akari did here.

And if the anime didn't feel like stretching things out to the breaking point, well... that's what the two-arc episodes are for, like one episode that has both the Inari shrine visit and the spring day discovery story. Aria the Animation only did so with one episode centered around the daily life of President Aria, the rotund and feline President of Aria company, but the Natural has a full four episodes dedicated to shorter pieces.

More interestingly, the anime even had an alternate look at one of the aspects of Venice, the Marriage of the Sea. This is one of those times where I saw the anime version before I read the manga counterpart, and while I wasn't initially too fond of the anime version. In it, an old man wanted to recreate the Marriage of the Sea for his wife, wherein the manga original dealt with the original festival recreated for Neo Venezia. Looking back on it, however, I kind of like how the two media approached the subject in different manners. Yeah, the anime version seems like a paltry attempt at recreating what is a pretty ridiculously lavish affair, but the episode itself does a great job at letting us know why not to judge by first impressions all the time.

On a technical level, the animation quality of Aria the Natural is the whole show at its "worst", but more than that, animation quality varies quite a bit from episode to episode. Also, unlike the Animation, the character style is a bit closer to the manga original. I remember the original fansubs from this show was based on what was sent on TV at the time, and both seasons -- the Natural in particular -- would get fixes post-production in preparation of the DVD release. At the same time, I remember the line art in the Animation looking kind of fuzzy at times, which it still does here as well, but a good deal less severe than in the Animation. Of course, some of the visuals just hurts to look at from a logical standpoint, one of the most prominent examples being this.

I'm not sure I even want to know what people were thinking when they made this, and while the lane divider was eventually fixed for the DVD release, I still have to see train tracks just seemingly haphazardly being built right on top of pastoral fields with no foundation whatsoever, as if people don't understand how ridiculously heavy trains are. Thankfully, these disconnects are pretty rare, and shouldn't distract too much from the show, which otherwise paints a serene and pastoral -- and well-researched -- viewpoint of this recreation of one of Italy's most famous cities. And, of course, the music is still fantastic; really, I cannot stress enough how much the music underscores -- no pun intended -- the emotional highs and lows, and the sheer presence of atmosphere that Aria, as a whole, has to offer. You'll recognize some of the tracks from the Animation being reused here, of course, but they made more than enough tracks to fill a whole new OST album to go with the one from the first season, both of which I personally own and whose quality I can vouch for. The intro theme, Euforia, is a vastly more upbeat intro theme than the Animation's gentle and serene Undine, but no less of a fitting episode opener for it. And this being a 26 episode season, it gets two ending themes in Natsumachi and Smile Again, two equally upbeat pop anthems rounding off the package. The exception in the Natural is the show reusing Undine for the double "Gondola farewell" episodes, 16 and 17, and Rainbow for the very last episode to round off this season. And as an extra knife twist, said last episode does use Euphoria for the opening theme for that selfsame last episode, but a "vocal and piano" version played in a minor key, as if to really drive home how this is the last episode of the season. You're horrible, Aria. I love you with all my heart, but hoo boy, that's just plain evil. Evilicia!

It doesn't help that the season itself ends on the series' strongest episodes, and that's already following a lot of really good standout episodes, like "Looking for that Treasure" (episode 2), "The Night of the Meteor shower" (episode 3), "The Smile Reflected in that Mirror" (episode 6), "Those Really Self-imposed Rules" (episode 13) and, of course, the "Parting With That Gondola/After That Rainy night" double episode package (episode 16 and 17.) But much like episode 11 of the Animation, "The Fruits of That Encounter" (episode 25) brings much of the core and closest side cast together for a party in what makes up the Redentore episode -- and a nostalgic lookback at the kind of parties and social gatherings I used to attend during my younger years, albeit much less formally so -- while the last episode, "That White, Kind City", once again reinforces the relationship between Akari and her mentor, Alicia, in a way that really encapsulates why Akari is so fond of being a part of Neo Venezia. Even if it contains that aforementioned knife-twister of an opening theme.

It really feels so good to see this show again. I haven't had as much time to rewatch my original DVDs as I would have liked, and in a way, this Bluray dubbed rerelease seemed like the perfect excuse to do so. I don't know whether this is the case or not, but I'd like to think that it's very much because of Aria that we can now enjoy other, quiet slice-of-life gems like Laid-Back Camp or Flying Witch. And some minor hiccups aside, I think I can say that this redub project has been a startling success on Aria's end. The Animation and the Natural now done, one collection remains, and then....

Aria really is a hot water bottle for the soul.Stig Høgset

Recommended Audience: Much like the first season, the second season is.... clean. No fanservice, certainly no violence. A few (very mild) adult themes, that's about it.



Version(s) Viewed: Region A Bluray, bilingual
Review Status: Full (26/26)
Aria the Natural © 2005 Kozue Amano / Mag Garden / Aria Company
 
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