Manga Village

For this month’s Manga Movable Feast, the reviewers of Manga Village got together to for a roundtable discussion of the featured books Aqua and Aria.

Aria, and its prequel Aqua, is a science fantasy about a girl Akari Mizunashi, who goes to Aqua (previously Mars before terraforming) to become a Undine, or gondolier tour guide. It’s slow paced, with each chapter being a slice of life of Akari’s adventures in gondoliering, the city of Neo-Venezia, and Aqua itself.

What are your first impression of this manga?

Justin: I was drawn to check it out because I’d read some good reactions to it from a few bloggers I trust. When I first took a look at it, I remember being impressed. The art is lovely, the pacing subtle and lyrical, and the narrative takes time to linger on small, slice-of-life details. However, I remember after a short time getting easily distracted. It was very easy for my attention to fall elsewhere because there was a static, muted quality to the first volume. I almost felt like, after I’d read a few pages, I knew everything I needed to know.

So, initially, I had two conflicting impressions of the work.

Lori: I saw a lot of positive reviews for it too. I read the first chapter of Aria but didn’t see the appeal. For this feast though, I got a hold of Aqua, the true first two volumes, and the story really opened up. There haven’t been a lot of slow titles I’ve enjoyed, but Aqua/Aria has become the first slice-of-life that I really enjoyed and wanted to read more of.

Connie: I’d heard a lot of praise for it when ADV was releasing it, but I didn’t try it out myself until Tokyopop relaunched it.  It was more-or-less what I was expecting in that it had a main character taking in everything in the world around her, but I wasn’t sure how much I’d like it given the slow pace.  I was fairly charmed after the first volume, though.

Amy: I first picked up Aria when I was trying to introduce myself to other genres of manga besides shojo, around the time I began reading manga. I was able to snag the ADV release of the first volume from a swapping site and remember initially my attention being grasped by the artwork.

The setting is a sci-fantasy, on a Mars now covered with water. Does the setting help the story at all, or do you think the same story could be told without the sci-fantasy elements? Or would it do better in just one of the genres?

Connie: On one hand, I think the story is linked intrinsically to the genre and setting.  So much of what’s going on is Akari learning about the setting and her trade.  Some of the more interesting chapters explore the professions like weather regulators and the unique folklore and stories of Neo-Venezia, so I feel like the best parts and the very nature are related to the setting, which is inherently sci-fantasy.

On the other hand, would it work if Akari was actually in Venice?  Maybe?  There’s enough real Venice history to keep the reader and Akari interested, and even the most urban city can be romanticized, and Akari could still take trips out to the Italian countryside.  On the other hand, the series would then have to interpret modern technology, which almost feels like it has no place.  Unless it was historical, but then you would have to take in the actual history of Venice and have Akari react to events of the time.  It could be interesting, but it would definitely be different.

Lori: I think the sci-fantasy on a terraformed Mars really helps the story. Sure this story could be told in a historical setting, but I think it would lose a lot of the magic from Akari’s journey of discovery. So many of the simple pleasures Akari feels is from her contrasting experiences with the more technologically controlled Earth. Without these contrasts, I don’t think her discoveries would seem as magical or meaningful.

I also think the use of both science fiction and fantasy is really necessary to convey those feelings. The magical moments wouldn’t work in a straight sci-fi story, and a straight fantasy story wouldn’t be as grounded. I think it hits the perfect balance for both genres.

Amy: I felt that because the work seemed to contain both magical and science fiction elements that I was intrigued by it since I never encountered a work like that prior to reading the first volume. I think if the story were to be told excluding those sci-fi elements it wouldn’t have worked with just the magical components in and of itself.

Justin: I agree–there is a kind of lyricism and wonder derived from the science fiction elements. It’s the sf which anchors the series and give the narrative its stateliness and grace. Meanwhile, much of the humor (which balances out that stuff and keeps the stories light) is rooted in the fantasy. I’m sure you could pull it off set in history–there’s much about Aqua/Aria that reminds me of the great steampunk anime Nadia, which takes place in the mid-to-late 19th century. But there are certain approaches to SF that I see in manga that you just don’t see elsewhere. Aria has this in common with another great Tokyopop release: Planetes.

What do you think of the main character, Akari? Does she make a good lead? What about the side characters?

Lori: I really like Akari. She has that sense of child-like wonder without being childish. I guess you could call her innocent. She’s a great character to for the reader to share the new discoveries of Aqua with. She’s easy to relate to and get comfortable with. I really like the cast that starts to gather around her with Aika, Akatsuki, and Al and all fun and very different.

Justin: Obviously, from what I said above, I connect more with the setting and other elements, but Akari is the reason I can share this with my daughter–so much great sf is, unfortunately, not as accessible to girls because they’re filled with male characters, male perspectives, and male concerns. Brief aside–why is it that ADV gave the series an all-ages rating, but Tokyopop rated this “older teen?” But I guess that’s a topic for later…

Cats play an important role in the world of Aria. What do you think of their role?

Lori: I love the use of cats in the story, but then I love it when cats are used in any story. But in Aria, the cats seem to take on a bit of a mythical role in the world of Aqua. The Undine companies use the blue-eyed cats as their presidents as a way of asking for protection from the Goddess of the Sea. And then there’s the legend of the Cait Sith and the kingdom of cats. I really enjoyed those chapters.

Amy: I, too, enjoy any tale that involves cats in any manner, let alone one where they can play a small but important role. No matter what the genre may be if there is even a little kitten that makes it in a panel, i.e. Black Butler with Sebastian fawning over a black cat, more than likely it will be that much harder for me to put the book down.

Kozue Amano’s goal was to write a manga that focused on the happiness in the small things. Do you think she succeeded?

Connie: Definitely!  I love how upbeat the series is, and that the characters react to and are interested in the more mundane parts of life, or the things that usually escape notice because of routine but are still worth appreciating.  I’m also fond of anecdotes and tall tales, and it’s interesting here that the truthfulness of the stories isn’t really the point, the focus is more on the telling and the history of the story.

Lori: I agree as well. I’ve read a few of the slice of life titles similar to Aria, but none of them really touched me like Aria has. I also love the legends and the magical feelings they convey. But even the simple stories, like Akari going out with President Aria during the Aqua Alta and playing in the water really gives that feeling of wonder and joy. It’s easy to get pulled in.

Amy: Most definitely have to agree with this one. It’s the little things that can be ignored during the course of the day but its nice to be reminded that they exist and to take a moment to make the most out of them. I like that despite the fantasy and sci-fi elements the characters are able to enjoy and live in the moment.

Justin: Last week I went to check out what releases were coming out, and two titles that are very good, Gantz and Dogs (Dark Horse and Viz, respectively), were simply not where I want to be right now, what with everything going on in the world., especially Japan. One of my favorite series of all time, Dragonhead, is just not something I want to go back to for a while. I am so glad that we were doing this roundtable, because, in Aqua/Aria, I have a series filled with hope for the future, and a special focus on the wonder of everyday moments, the things you don’t realize are magical until something happens to strip them all away. That, to me, demonstrates Kozue Amano’s success.

Aria has had a troubled publishing history, starting off first at ADV Manga before being license-rescued by Tokyopop. Do you think this has affected it’s ability to find an audience?

Connie: I wonder.  Getting licensed by Tokyopop definitely put it in the hands of more readers, but Aria is a hard sell to the teen audience that is most likely to pick up manga.  I feel like it appeals to an older audience that would be more likely to follow any changes in the publication schedule and follow it to a new publisher.

Lori: I think beyond just following the publication schedule and publisher change, the slow pace and subject of the story really seems to make it more appealing to an older audience. When kids obsess about something (at least my kids), they find out everything they can about it, including release dates and who from. I just don’t think this title inspires that kind of obsession from teens. I wonder what Yen Press or Viz with their Signature line could have done with this, and would it have been a better seller?

Amy: It’s often exciting to hear about a title being rescued that one is already familiar with or read prior to being re-licensed but I never considered what it would mean for those readers new to the series or how to reach out to its target audience once again, but with a different publisher.

Justin: Maybe. But I think some other things factor here. This is where I think the age rating comes in. I don’t think this is OT by any stretch of the imagination, unless the series takes a dramatic turn in later volumes that I’m just not aware of. And I think it sells the younger readers, here I’m thinking pre-teen and young teen, short to avoid marketing to them. I work in a kids bookstore, and that’s the age when they discover Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, My Side of the Mountain, and a whole host of literature that is decidedly not “action packed,” or whatever. I hope that releasing it now, on the other side of the manga glut, where the different, off-beat, out-of-the-ordinary manga seems to do better, stands it in good stead. And my hope is that this also signals a turn for Tokyopop, a diversifying of their titles. I feel like their releases tend to fall into a few narrow, similar categories, and, while it’s good to have a particular audience in mind, in today’s market I think you want to cast as broad a net as possible.

Lori: I had no idea about the age rating differences. I do agree that Tokyopop’s choice of Older Teen is odd. There is nothing about this title that suggests the need for the higher rating. There’s no violence, or sex, and relationships are more hinted at and taken slowly. I didn’t think pre-teens to early teen would be interested in it because neither of my kids showed any interest in any slower stories, nor did I when I was their age, but I will gladly bow to your wider experience and expertise Justin. I think Tokyopop really limited its potential audience with the Older Teen rating, and that may be why it’s been such a slow seller.

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