What They Say:
Akari, Aika, and Alice continue to strive toward their goal of becoming Neo-Venezia’s top gondoliers. But as their skills improve, they find themselves faced with new challenges. On their journey to become Primas, the three girls will have to paint a palina, serve as hostesses at the Festa del Redentore, and even learn how to be brave in the face of a dangerous passenger!
Contains episodes 14-26.
Nozomi’s release of the series mirrors the first season where it’s presented only in its original Japanese language format. While dub fans may be disappointed by this, the series presents itself well here in its stereo form encoded at 192kbps. The show is essentially all dialogue driven with little in the way of serious directionality to it and that gives it a very soothing feeling when combined with the generally mellow instrumental music. There isn’t anything aggressive in this show but it all maintains the right kind of atmosphere that it wants to present in order to keep you engaged with it. In listening to these thirteen episodes, we didn’t have any problems with dropouts or distortions during regular playback.
Originally airing in 2006, the transfer for this series is presented in its original full frame aspect ratio. The series is spread out across four discs in a 4/3/3/3 format with all the extras on their own fifth disc. The show isn’t one that has a really high budget so there isn’t a lot of detail or fluid motion to it at times, which allows for the bitrate to vary a whole lot more. Some scenes do show some noise in the backgrounds and a touch of mild blocking here and there, but by and large this is a smooth and solid looking presentation. The main thing people will notice more than anything else is some of the aliasing that goes on during the various panning sequences, but that’s even less so compared to the first season so it’s not much of an issue in general. If you liked the first season, this one is more of the same but just a little bit better.
Aria: The Natural Part 1 mirrors the first half of the series and the first season in its packaging which is a huge plus as that was done really well. The series is housed in a solid heavy chipboard box with each of the main panels featuring some great looking detailed artwork. The two main panels are different in approach but with wonderful results. The main panel has the main trio together, Akari in the foreground the most, while their instructors are behind them looking on. The back panel has everyone together for the apprentices in the same height and level but with some of their friends with them, everyone smiling big and happily. Within this box are five thinpak cases. These pieces look wonderful as it takes the various characters and puts them together against different backgrounds that highlight the city or the characters. The only dark one is the first one since it features Cait Sith with Akari. The remainder are much more colorful for the most part and features a smiling group of people. The back covers all follow a uniform approach with a lot of white space, some simple but solid shots from the show and the same summary for each volume. The individual discs special features are clearly listed and the technical grid runs everything through according to that volume. No inserts are included nor are there reversible covers.
Within the box we get one special item that’s included with each set, the “Neo-Venezia Episode Guidebook Part 2” which is done in full color non-glossy paper. The book runs about twenty pages and covers each of the episodes with character and setting artwork pieces, some shots from the show and a brief bit about a particular of that episode. After that, there are a few pages of various trivia items that help to fill in little nuggets about the show that are discovered while watching it. The two page artwork section is also really nice as it shows pieces that were used for the cover artwork and more.
The menu design for the series is one that reworks the cover art for each respective volume and zooms in on it a bit while placing the navigation strip along the bottom. The colors and detail for each cover is much more vibrant here and the clarity really shines well. They’re not over designed menus with a lot of animation but they take the core piece from the cover and add enough flourish and design to it to tie all together in a solid way. With there being no language options here, the individual selections look a little meager but are easy to navigate. Player presets are obviously a non-issue but it is worth noting that you can turn the subtitles off on the fly should you choose to.
The first season spread its extras out across each of the volumes, but this season has decided to put them all on their own disc which certainly gives it a stronger value feeling. The extras are pretty lengthy overall and certainly worth checking out after taking in the series. The roundtable discussions are broken down by “company” with the voice actors for the company presidents and their employees are together talking about it. The Aria company is the shortest of them at fourteen minutes while the other two run closer to eighteen. The Aria voice actresses got more time in other features on the first set if I recall so that helps to balance it a bit and it gives the other voice actors more time to shine and talk about their feelings on the series. In addition to that, there are the larger Cast Reflections pieces which are in two parts that run longer than the company roundtable pieces and they go into more of the same but with a bit more direction and animation from the series show. The best extra in my opinion though is the director discussion which runs thirty five minutes. Junichi Sato has long been a favorite of mine for the kinds of shows he works on and hearing him talk about his adaptation of the manga into this is fascinating and rather detailed in places, especially in the choices made in what to adapt and how to rework certain scenes to deal with TV. It’s unfortunate that he didn’t get to do this in widescreen as he seems to really want to try and express the beauty of the city but finds it difficult to do in full frame format.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
As much as I enjoy Aria: The Natural, the series overall is one that I find I have a really hard time talking about. So much of the series is about atmosphere and a general pervasive feeling and mood that describing it isn’t the way to go. This season in particular is a little different, especially the second half, as the focus has been shifting away from the place and locales themselves to dealing more with the characters. So much of this revolves around realistic small growth and progression for everyone that the changes aren’t really noticeable because it is a natural evolution.
The second half of Aria: The Natural has much the same feeling and beauty as the first half. And if you go by Junichi Sato’s comments in his director’s piece in the extras, you can see where that evolution did change in this series. The episode that focused on the girls running around the city to find things and discover the beauty of it all sort of signaled the end of the city as the central character. So many discoveries about the characters were made through exploring it and its mysteries, watching the wonder in their eyes as they realized where they were living, that is what made a good part of the series so charming. So many series have people living in fascinating areas that they barely give a glance to. Aria made sure we shared in the beauty and wonder of it all, whether it was with the relatively new Akari or the longtime citizens like Aika. That is still there to some extent as this half plays on, but it is minimized in a lot of ways.
The past is given some welcome time here in a very cute way. We’ve had some nods in the past when it comes to Akatsuki and his brother, but this time around we see more as he and Woody used to play together at one of the parks and had to deal with a strong-willed “boy” who egged them into doing things that they wouldn’t do otherwise. There are some really good bonds here that are shown in how they were strengthened but a lot of the charm was seeing the interactions between them in the past as well as the present. Woody is generally an underused character so I was glad to see him get a bit more time here as well as humanizing Akatsuki a bit more. But it was also the time spent in the present during this telling as Akari listens to the stories and you see how friendly and warm everyone is with each other even when they’re needling someone.
What made me smile the most in this set was also the most unexpected of things. Some focus was given to the continued training that the girls are given as well as the evolution of their role in becoming a proper Undine. One of the things that happens in the Aria Company is that the gondola that Akari uses is being put out of regular service because of its condition and wear. This is a very personal thing for Akari and even for Alicia as we learn it was the one she trained on before she began training Akari on it. There’s a very sappy sequence where Akari takes it out to all her favorite places, places we’ve seen in past episodes, and she gets pictures done of it for her memory as well for Alicia in a way. There are some very nice parallels here with what Alicia did when she was younger and mingling her past with the change in Akari’s future is done very well. With the gondola being sent to be used in deliveries, a new one is coming in but there’s a lot of warmth and love given to this old gondola. In the very fast paced and disposable world of today that we live in, it’s sometimes hard to really find these kinds of connections with things and Aria really pushes through those elements in this storyline. It made you feel a connection that Akari and Alicia share with it as their lives change and grow.
I think what pleased me the most overall with this set though is that Aika was really given a chance to shine. So much of Aria is about Akari which isn’t a surprise and they do a really good job of balancing the three apprentices as well as giving the Fairies their time in the sun as well, but it’s felt like Aika hasn’t made out too well in some ways. This is even more so with her somewhat abrasive personality. She goes through a few changes here that really make her far more personable, though she has to deal with some trauma and self-awareness first. During a big study session at the Himeya Company, she sees the other apprentices pointing and talking about her and feels all full and confident about it as she’s been doing so well lately. The truth is a very different thing, even from what you’d expect it to be, and it really does change her and forces her to look at things differently.
It also helps that she’s given a very different look over the course of these episodes. A dinner party goes badly and her hair gets ruined, resulting in a new haircut that drastically changes her appearance. When you think about it, nearly all the women who are Undines have very long flowing hair. Even when younger they had it the same way. It’s a very natural thing and it’s something they’ve used for different effect over the course of the series. So when Aika has to get such a short cut, her appearance is so different that even her personality seems different from it. She’s still abrasive, but there’s more of a cuteness to her now that makes her less harsh in a lot of ways. And she seems to soften because of it as well, which makes her more accessible to her friends since they see how she reacts to things differently now.
While it may not be the kind of series that seems it, there’s so much going on during Aria: The Natural that it’s hard to describe it. There are little nuggets about the world they inhabit, the kinds of festivals and events that make up the atmosphere of a very laid back and inviting culture. This season does end with a big event that ties up a lot of things and brings back characters that have impacted people while also pushing the core trio in what they need to do to become proper Undine’s themselves. Aria is a series where you have to be in the right mindset to watch it. I did the first half of this season in marathon form and I found it to be less engaging because there was so much. With this set, I did an episode a day in the late evening to let it wash over me so each story was given its own focus. With all the little nuances of this slice of life story, it made out far better this way and it left more of an impression. This is a wonderful show that deserves a large and faithful following and I cannot recommend it enough.
Japanese 2.0 Language, English Subtitles, Aria Company Roundtable Discussion, Himeya Roundtable Discussion, Clean Ending 2, Orange Planet Roundtable Discussion, Cast Reflections, Director Discussion, Previews, Guidebook
Audio Grade: B
Video Grade: B+
Packaging Grade: A
Menu Grade: B
Extras Grade: A-
Readers Rating: [ratings]
Released By: Nozomi Entertainment
Release Date: March 24th, 2009
Running Time: 325 Minutes
Video Encoding: 480i/p MPEG-2
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Sony KDS-R70XBR2 70″ LCoS 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.