The most notable thing about the Aria franchise of animated series is that it uses the narrative ideas of the school-set coming-of-age anime, but does not set its action in a school. Yet despite this, there is more of a focus on the role of education and maturation in its overarching plot than in many school-set stories because of this grounding in the adult world. This is made possible because of its science-fiction setting.
Aria‘s basic premise is that in a utopian future, Mars has been colonised and has become a major tourist attraction, especially a reconstruction of Venice where the action is focused. The story follows a number of trainee gondoliers in this town – the only ongoing, overarching plot is their personal development and the growing picture of Martian society that this provides for the viewer. The concept of purely utopian science-fiction – with no conflict, war or really major problems – is comparatively uncommon. The idea of a paradise ruined or under threat is commonplace, but Aria is more optimistic than that. What crises emerge within it are personal ones; they are important to the people involved at the time, but can be resolved in time to return to the happy status quo. As a result, it is easy to see Aria as a boring series; with little in the way of dramatic conflict and no real tension, it risks falling into the same trap as Moretsu Pirates in that there is no incentive to watch for each episode is a foregone conclusion. However, its appeal is not even supposed to be in the resolution of the personal problems that tend to define each episode – those themselves are vehicles for worldbuilding and a more slow-burning development of the setting and characters. While on the surface this idea of a series about very little incident appears comparable to something like K-On, which took as its focus the ordinary lives of schoolchildren, Aria’s science-fiction setting provides a far greater impetus to watch.
Science-fiction is based on moving away from reality and considering the effects of these changes on society; as a work of actually speculative fiction, Aria does not go greatly into the effects of the changes it proposes (terraforming and colonisation of other planets, climate control to benefit tourism) but instead takes them as a given. Back in my first article about Eureka Seven I talked about how creating a setting which seems at home with its own developments – in Eureka Seven‘s case the LFOs and trapars, in Aria‘s the idea that humanity can play God and reform planets in its image – creates a more realistic backdrop for science-fiction. Aria supplements this with monologues bookending each episode where the protagonist writes to someone on another planet explaining aspects of this new Mars, filling in gaps in the setting through plot-appropriate exposition. It is a simplistic device and arguably a clumsy one but the changing focus of the letters as both writer and recipient become more au fait with the world they inhabit provides its own kind of evidence of the ongoing character development. Aria is thus a very subtle series – despite at times having quite explicit exposition the actual message of value in each episode is not always the explicitly-explained one.
This subtle worldbuilding (for Aria is in essence an entire series of nothing but worldbuilding) could only be possible thanks to the protagonist’s status as a student; although they are learning a trade rather than going to school, they are nevertheless in education. However, their trade is to be a tour-guide, which immediately allows for the focus to be on learning about the setting – they must learn routes through the city, facts about it, how to interact with people. While many such character-driven anime impart information about their cast through interactions outside of school hours, Aria combines the two; student and teacher live together, meet other trainees and interact as peers and friends yet still the overall emphasis is on developing a broader, better-informed worldview. It is a very positive message, as suits the utopian setting; there is no hurry to progress for everyone is young and idealistic, and there is no grim reality to take away that idealism. In some ways, it is an extrapolation of what Eureka Seven bashes down quickly and uses as a cause of tension – the idea that when you are young, everything will work out and everything is as you imagine it to be. A setting on an alien planet, with bizarre versions of traditional customs and familiar-yet-alien landscapes, is thus highly appropriate; the viewer is learning what the characters are.
Even the structure of the episodes and their order contributes to this idea of idealistic self-discovery and the evolution of a worldview. For much of the beginning of Aria‘s first series, the city of Neo-Venezia where the action occurs seems almost a ghost town. There are very few people around that actively interact with the protagonist and, much like other school anime, the friendships are almost a discrete social group from the rest of society. Yet as lessons are learned and the trainees become more experienced, more strangers are added in and in turn the trainees affect others’ lives with their actions. In this way, Mars becomes more of a “living” society – the maturation of the characters is shown by their increasing position within it. Again, this is an optimistic view of society; everyone is helpful or needs help in some way which can be easily resolved with a little effort. While the setting is futuristic, and the gradual expansion of the scale coincides with learning more about the futuristic aspects, the overall tone is a universally nostalgic one – a love for a world when everyone has a kind word and time for a chat, when people do each other favours for no reason other than simple kindness and courtesy, and the weather is always good.
This warm, safe nostalgia at the heart of Aria is ultimately its biggest fantasy and its greatest draw; character-driven anime in its vein frequently focuses on idealised youth and nostalgia for an infinitely-long childhood (often with graduation or moving on – the incursion of real life – seen as an end to the idyll), yet Aria assumes that in the future, technology will allow reality to become the ideal. There will be no need for conflict or the undesirable aspects of adult life in what almost seems to be a post-scarcity society and as a result humanity will properly embrace the idealised view of the past (of people being closer, friendlier and more helpful). It is as a result perhaps the most credible series in its genre despite having the most fantastical setting; only by changing the rules of society through technological progress can the character-drama school anime idyll be extended into the working world.