In my previous article on the Aria franchise I talked about how it presented a subtly idyllic science-fiction world, one where the progress of technology and civilisation has created a return to a much more old-fashioned sense of community. The emphasis of the first series on Akari and her friends’ interactions with the locals around them, and the gradual expansion of the series’ scope from the very intimate (focusing purely on Akari’s response to a memory of meeting one tourist) to build a better picture of the setting as a whole, taught the viewer about the world they were witnessing; the drive of the series, its entire plot, was depicting a world that is lived in.
By the third series, after 39 establishing episodes which serve to explain life in the city of Neo-Venezia and gradually expand the narrative scale from the intimate and personal to a picture of a living urban culture, the focus returns quite intimately to the protagonist, Akari. The final section of the second series, focusing on urban myths and Akari’s encounters with strange supernatural things never properly explained, began this move back towards a more focused story but it is the third series which properly establishes this new tone. The contented, post-scarcity stasis which the setting seems to exist in and which the viewer has been taught about is now well fleshed-out and so there is little space for further emphasis on it. That it has taken two full series to properly impart this – with series 2 almost a 26-episode digression to fill in the gaps about both the inner workings of Neo-Venezia and its peoples’ lives – makes the return to Akari’s personal story timely and now far more meaningful. It has been well-established that the city is a bustling, living one and now it is one which Akari must in time become part of. All of the stories that have been told so far have been about her education and now it is coming to an end; she is to become, in time, a tour guide and so must have a properly informed knowledge of the world.
This raising of the stakes is reflected in how the nature of the stories changes; an early episode in series 3 has Akari tasked with taking an unknown passenger on a tour of the city despite her inexperience, with a request to visit interesting and personal places. That this story is told while downplaying Akari’s comedic forthrightness and ignorance and instead focusing on other aspects of her personality shows something quite uncommon in Aria‘s genre; a subtle kind of character change used to show a natural kind of maturation. The emphasis of similar shows is usually on stasis or at the least the love of the status quo, with the end of education or the end of a holiday being the end of the narrative and tinged with regret about what is ending having to do so. Characters may change but it tends to be in straightforward ways to show the passing of time; Akari’s development even in a small number of episodes in series 3 – and more importantly the way it is depicted not through others noticing it, or a significant tonal change, but instead in a simple downplaying of some of her previously defining character features in a way that seems logical – feels a lot more like the culmination of a character journey.
Series 3’s plots also, crucially, focus a lot more on Akari alone or discrete from the supporting characters, as some of Series 1’s did. Again, this is a slight change of focus; shows in this genre usually focus on group dynamics and are quite introverted or introspective (for example K-On‘s focus on a school club). Aria’s choosing to clearly define a main character, and have many stories which specifically focus on their interactions with the world outside of the group of friends that form the supporting cast allows it to tell a far more intimate and personal story even if its focus remains on depicting a vivid and bustling city. Episode 4 of series 3 shows this quite clearly; Akari’s friends are unavailable and so she goes off on her own to work with apprentice guides from other companies on a ferry. In some ways this is the education-plot equivalent to the world-building episodes of series 2 – it provides a small piece of worldbuilding context and introduces some new characters (similar to episode 3’s simple story of a confectioner who Akari subtly helps overcome a period of boredom with his job) but the detail it imparts is about the world of the tour-guides and boatmen of the city.
Apprentices are allowed to crew the ferries unsupervised, and the team Akari ends up with include two students who have been unable to graduate from their tour-guide training who use it similarly for practice. The final character introduced, though, provides the kind of setting detail that quite defines Aria‘s world; the main drive of the series might remain Akari’s wish to become a Prima (qualified guide) and the majority of the other apprentices she meets have the same aim, but Atora, the girl she meets on the ferry, has no desire to graduate. She enjoys using the skills she has learned to help ordinary people, not just tourists. This is a kind of self-determination and depiction of a wider world that quite stands out; a character is presented who is ultimately an iconoclast in comparison to the main cast but who is not depicted negatively, or as strange. Instead, Atora is a respected figure among the other apprentices on the ferry duty, and her happy acceptance of the importance of jobs beyond the one she trains for begins to turn others’ views towards that aim. This effectively breaks the insularity that the setting has built up; while Akari and her fellow apprentices are known to, and interact with, the city around them, they do not belong in it in the same way as Atora does. While the episode ends with Anzu, the nervous girl who has failed to graduate several times, eventually deciding to carry on trying rather than join Atora on the ferries, it comes via a learned appreciation of everyone’s calling, not simply the promotion of the status quo at the expense of the outsider.
If anything, this episode – on the surface just another single story about a small facet of life in Neo-Venezia – provides a more lasting impression and a much greater point of differentiation between Aria and its fellow series than many others. The whole emphasis of series 3 is on the final stages of Akari’s personal journey and the beginning of her professional life, and after over 39 episodes showing how graduating as a Prima is the sole focus of apprentices, to be introduced to Atora, who is not a ferryman because she fails like Anzu but because she enjoys it, provides a whole new view of the world. That she is shown as a respected figure not someone opposing what “should” be done also sets the series apart from those which perhaps focus more on a love of perpetual youth and fixed expectation for the future.