What They Say:
Akari, Aika, and Alice are three girls who share a single dream: to become the most talented gondoliers in all of Neo-Venezia! Every day they train toward their goal, exploring all the wondrous sights that the water-covered planet Aqua has to offer. Whether it’s spending a wild day at Carnevale, sharing a beautiful sunset, or even crossing paths with the mysterious spirits that dwell in Aqua’s shadows, for these three friends, each day is a new adventure!
The audio presentation for this release brings us the original Japanese language in stereo while the newly created English language dub gets both a stereo and a 5.1 mix. All three tracks are done via the uncompressed PCM format so they’re all pretty much the real deal in terms of what was recorded for the project. 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. The music is where things get to stand out a bit more overall but even that’s kept a touch lighter and not as strong as one might think, keeping to the tone and atmosphere of the series itself. 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 1080p using the AVC codec with it in it its original full-frame aspect ratio. The thirteen episodes are spread across three discs in a five/five/three format and there’s plenty of space to work with on each disc. Animated by Hal Film Maker, the first season has a really nice look to it as it maximizes what it does with little animation in a general sense. This is one of those shows about mood and dialogue, so it’s very relaxed and often with some near-still sequences to allow the atmosphere to seep in. The visual design is great with the backgrounds working a number of appealing designs and the characters look wonderful as well. The high definition presentation for it takes the colors and gives them a more solid and richer look where it can while giving us more detail overall. It’s like the series just has a stronger presence visually because of it and that helps to make all the other smaller elements come across stronger as well. The result is a beautiful show looking even greater.
The packaging for this set brings us a standard-sized Blu-ray case with a hinge inside that holds two of the discs. The front cover gives us a couple of our key characters from Aria Company set outside the business along with our mascot boss as well. While there isn’t exactly continuity in design of how the covers are because the seasons were spread out over the years originally, they are consistent in bring ing out appealing looking pieces with a good use of the blues but also in how the costuming with all of its white elements work. I really like this one for getting our core trio but also the elder trio in the mix but still doing mostly near-full-length designs. The back cover is a little more traditional with lots of white space as we get a small selection of shots from the show along the right. The left gives us a brief but effective summary of the premise while the discs features are clearly listed as well. The technical grid breaks out things along the bottom in far too small a font for most people to read unfortunately and it doesn’t provide clarity to the format either for some aspects of it, which is mildly frustrating. No show related inserts are included nor is there a reversible cover.
The menu design for this release is an interesting one as we get an l-shaped bar along the left and bottom with some really nice blue and white elements that have the logo, the city, and some of the boats as well. The navigation is used along the bottom too with the soft waves linework that really is quite appealing. The rest of the screen is given over to the scenes from the show that takes us through the designs of the characters, the boats, and the city itself to highlight the appealing uniqueness of much of it. It’s just odd to get this kind of big block l-shaped design. The navigation loads quickly and works effectively with submenus and setup both as the main menu and as the pop-up menu during playback.
The extras are pretty lengthy overall and certainly worth checking out after taking in the series. 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’s 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.
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 the 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. But that’s also a lot of the appeal because it’s more realistic and not exactly level-climbing moments for the characters to deal with, so it’s more subtle.
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.
There’s so much going on during Aria: The Natural that it’s hard to describe it as it’s all subtle growth material. 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. Revisiting the set again a few years after last seeing it, and coming on the heels of the first half so quickly, definitely made for a good experience. 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, especially now that it looks the best it likely ever has and is more accessible than ever with its new dub.
Japanese 2.0 Language, English 2.0 Language, English Subtitles, Promo Video, Roundtable Discussions, English Cast Commentary, Cast Reflections on ARIA The NATURAL, Director Discussion on ARIA The NATURAL, Clean Ending 2, and U.S. Trailer
Content Grade: A
Audio Grade: A-
Video Grade: A-
Packaging Grade: B+
Menu Grade: B
Extras Grade: B+
Released By: Nozomi Entertainment
Release Date: May 5th, 2020
Running Time: 325 Minutes
Video Encoding: 1080p AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Sony KDL70R550A 70″ LED 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.