Thursday, February 28 2008

Aria: Ice Cream and History

I had intended to do a separate post for each additional Aria episode, but family emergencies and computer accidents have conspired to force me to summarize episodes 6 and 7 of Aria: the Origination in a single post.

Episode Six, "In that Wonderful Extracurricular Lesson...", follows the pattern of episodes four and five in spotlighting particular characters, in this case the unlikely pairing of Alicia and Alice.
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The plot of this episode is rather forgettable and seems very contrived.  It opens with Alice and Athena running in to Akari and Aika in the market, with Alice herding Athena to offset Athena's natural clumsiness and absent-mindedness.  Afterwards, Alice buys Athena ice cream, which Athena proceeds to drop on the ground.  To cheer up her mentor, Alice then buys Athena a slice of pizza.  The story then cuts to Alice, Akari and Aika practicing.  Alice, curious to know about what kind of a mentor Alicia is, asks Akari how much Alicia scolds her when she makes a mistake.  Akari replies that Alicia never does scold her.  So Alice is determined to watch Akari and see if Alicia ever scolds Akari, and we are treated to a couple scenes of Alice getting caught spying on the two Aria Company Undines.  Alice, a bit put out at being unable to catch Alicia getting angry, is then seen pondering how to proceed, even to the point of considering sabotaging Akari in the hopes of having Alicia react.  To this end, Alice stops at a cafe and purchases a sundae.  But when she looks up...
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...Alicia is there, and joins Alice at her table.  (I don't know what's up with President Aria's outfits this episode.  I'm not sure I want to know...)

After an awkward (for Alice) series of greetings, Alicia gets to the point.  She's noticed that Alice is spying on her, and wants to know what the young Undine wants.  Alice confesses, and Alicia explains that she prefers to use positive reinforcement as a motivational tool, and uses President Aria (struck dumb by his headgear) to demonstrate.  After a long and somewhat awkward conversation, Alice has some understanding as to the way Alicia thinks its best to motivate people (and cats).

The problem is that the whole sequence seems out of place.  Alicia trains all three trainee Undines, and so Alice has first hand experience with her teaching style.  Alice should know that Alicia has no reason to be a strict instructor when she has the Demon Instructor, Akira, to play "Bad Prima" to her "Good Prima".

The episode does, however, shed some new light on Alicia and Alice, which was the whole point, but the conclusion leaves me wondering whether that light is entirely good.  Alicia's positive training method puts her "Sweetness and Light" quotient to the point where it's giving me cavities.  However, her showing up out of the blue to question Alice and the sheer mental anguish she puts Alice through before she asks about the recent spying indicates not only that she has some intelligence under the "My, my..." facade but suggests some degree of cunning.  She doesn't need to scold Alice;  her mere presence does it for her.

While Alice learns the value of kindness and positive reinforcement, her more glaring character flaw is highlighted and left unresolved this episode.  It seems natural to Alice that Alicia should scold Akari when she makes a mistake, after all, Akira scolds Aika and she (Alice) scolds Athena.  Of course, Alicia and Akira are Prima Undines, and as such are supposed to be the trainers (whatever method of training they use) but Athena is also a Prima, and Alice is supposed to be the trainee.  Alice, technically, isn't even a Single, she's still in the lowest level, that of the Pair.  And there's the crux of the problem;  Alice is a naturally gifted gondoleer.  She's significantly better than Akari or Aika, and we've seen in episode four that other Singles on the verge of becoming Prima regard Akari as highly skilled.  Her low status is probably a combination of her age, status as a school student, and the fact that her mentor is absent minded.  (And Athena is still incredibly absent minded;  if Alicia is probably a direct descendant of Belldandy, Athena is probably a direct descendant of Ayumu Kasuga.  Athena needs someone with some skill at day to day living to keep her on track.)  Alice's personality has warmed up some over the course of the series, but she still needs to learn a little humility.

Episode six is pretty high quality, graphics-wise.  The crowd scenes in the beginning in the marketplace have more depth of motion than most of the previous episodes, and the buildings all throughout this episode look pretty good.  Due to the lack of action, however, there are few good screenshots.

Episode seven, "During that Slow Moving Time..." has probably been the best episode of the series so far, and is a special treat for fans of the series.  The colors are often lush and vibrant, and the world is full of little details to discover.
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We open with Akari and Alicia going to visit a retired Aria Undine that was once a mentor to Alicia.  She fell in love with a fisherman she met as a tour guide and married him, moved away from Neo-Venezia and had a son.http://dorkside.mee.nu/images/ariae6e7/AriaE6E7s04.jpg

Anna, shown here with her son Ahito, spends some time reminiscing about her time as an Undine (her husband's name is Albert, in keeping with the theme).  Anna isn't the only Undine we are introduced to this episode.  After a surprise encounter, we are introduced via a flashback to Akino.
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Akino was a popular but overworked Himeya Undine who learned a lesson about patience and the need for a new look at life from a stray cat.
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This encounter caused her to step back a bit and make a decision which has ended up forming the basis for the world we see in the series.
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As one can probably guess, we've seen Akino before.  Here's how she looks in the present of the series:
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She's referred to in the series as Grandmother, the legendary Undine that founded Aria company.  The Undines in episode four compliment Akari by saying "I guess we can't expect anything less from an employee of the Aria Company that Grandmother founded."

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The scenes showing the founding of Aria company are a treat, but leave a few questions unanswered.  Akino encounters the young President Aria sitting along an empty stretch of wharf, staring out at the empty sea, day after day.  The big question is, what exactly was he staring out after?

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The Undines of Aria company: Anna, Akino, Alicia and Akari.

Posted by: Civilis at 08: 52 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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Thursday, February 21 2008

Aria: Memories, Cats and Inconsistancies

I'm lately burned out on politics, so an episodic play by play of Aria: the Origination is the best I can do at the moment.  But it's a worthy task to assume.

Episode 5, "That keepsake clover...", is primarily a character expose for Aika and Akira, but it does that job well.  Akira is definitely the most well defined of the three mentors, and this look into her inner insecurities and the similar insecurities that haunt Aika, is well done.

The episode opens with our three students out on a routine training.  In any other series, that opener would be good for some catastrophe, but in this case it's just another demonstration by Athena and Alicia as to just how good they are.  Athena gets to put her voice to use this time, and basically shuts down the market momentarily as everyone stops and listens to her.  It's a trick we've seen before, but it's always a pleasure.  Alicia, meanwhile, repeats her precise boat maneuvering to gracefully catch a wind blown hat, to the applause of the crowd.
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It's amazing the degree to which the animators have made the Undines seem like a combination of figure skaters and martial artists when they're handling an oar in other than a routine manner.  It was visible in episode 4 when it briefly looked as if Akari and Anzu were going to break out into a demonstration of staff fighting to impress the onlookers as they readied the oars.

The three students comment that Alicia and Athena have natural talents, which causes Aika to immediately wonder at what talents Akira, her mentor, has.  Although Aika idolizes Alicia and is overtly antagonistic with Akira, we've seen in the first season that Aika deeply respects Akira as well, to the point of taking it personally when other Himeya Undines badmouth Akira.  Matters aren't helped much when Alice and Akari show off their own talents in afternoon practice.  Alice is almost as good at her technique with the boat as Alicia, demonstrating both masterful parallel parking skills and high speed back alley rowing.  (I wonder where they came up with the idea that Alicia's talent is her oar technique;  I thought her special talent was just that she's completely amazing, so much so that she probably has Haruka Minami as an ancestor).  Akari, meanwhile, has adapted to Neo-Venezia with much the same unique talent that Carrot Ironfounderson shows towards Ankh-Morpork in Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels.  She knows everyone, everyone knows her, and she's friends with everyone.  And of course this depresses Aika even more.

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Aika returns to the Himeya offices / apartments to run into Akira in full cleaning mode, and is drafted to assist her mentor.  Her slight depression deepens considerably when one of Akira's photo albums is investigated to reveal a photo taken immediately after Athena was promoted to Prima.  It shows Alicia as Prima, Athena as Prima, and Akira still with the single glove of the Single (apprentice) level.
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The book details are amusing, if difficult to make out, as in one shot an angry Akira is clearly depicted with the cartoony face the series uses for exaggerated emotions.

With the picture, Aika immediately questions Athena about how she felt about being overshadowed by two peers with natural talents.  This triggers the expected moral-laden "when I was in your shoes" story from Akira in the form of an extended flashback.
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It's interesting to see yet another side of Akira's past, as she slips into depression at being normal.  And yet a surprise encounter by a bed of clovers teaches her a lesson that she's then able to pass on to Aika.  And who is the surprise teacher?
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The surprise teacher that gives Akira a lesson in self-confidence and self-worth is none other than a much younger Aika.  Story told, all becomes right in Neo-Venezia and everything is back to normal.

A few other observations on the episode below the fold:
more...

Posted by: Civilis at 09: 21 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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Tuesday, February 12 2008

The A's Have It

Right now, there is only one anime series for which I'm waiting impatiently for each fansub release: Aria the Origination.  It's rather odd, in that Aria is the most relaxed series I've ever seen, and it seems almost criminal to be impatient with it.  The four episodes currently released have all been very good, and two have been nearly perfect.

The first episode, "Upon the Spring Wind That'll Soon be Here" is the textbook example of a recap episode.  It gives all the major characters some screen time, getting us used to their obvious quirks and reminding us that the author has a thing for names that start with A.  It also sets up what seems like the dominant theme of this series, the eventual promotion of our three trainee Undines to Prima, but does so in the guise of reintroducing us to their mentors through an example of their extraordinary skills.  Alicia's stunt is not visually dramatic but is emotionally dramatic, giving her a "Sweeteness and Light" quotient almost at the level of Belldandy from Ah My Goddess.  Akira proves that she's got some well-concealed thorns, and I'm not talking about those heels, and she manages to let the best of tomboy that was shine through with the lady that is.
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Finally, Athena manages to demonstrate that Wisdom and Intelligence are not necessarily the same thing, in her creative handling of a small problem.
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The third series looks visually more impressive than the previous two series.  The backgrounds are richer, and the city of neo-Venezia seems more alive.  On watching it for the second time, I noticed that tt is something of a Potemkin visage, as the backdrops that seem alive are largely set pieces.  The bystanders are largely stationary, with occasionally one being animated in a simple action.  It's only in the process of looking for screen captures that I actually noticed the deception, however.  On first watching it I was enthralled with the pretty world.

Episode two, "That smiling customer...", reintroduces us to Neo-Venezia again, as Akari takes a special client on a tour of the city, giving the animators a chance to draw some of the more visually impressive bits of the city.  The resolution to the episode is a bit of a downer of my opinion, but offset by the spectacularly illustrated gardens.
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Another detail I notices as I was rewatching the series is the use of computer animation for the water effects.  While the backgrounds are still, the water, visible in nearly every shot, is almost constantly moving, which helps to give the illusion of life to the world.

The third episode, "Those feelings you put in..." is the weakest of the four currently out.  It centers on Akari's permanent set of rose colored glasses and the architecture of Neo-Venezia and of Venice.  I'm curious to try to match up some of the buildings in the anime with their real-world counterparts and see how they match up.  I was surprised that I could spot the details visible in San Marko's Piazza in Aria the OVA:  Arietta (and again in this episode) in looking at Venice's San Marko's Piazza in Google Earth.
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Another detail noticeable in several places throughout all the series is the use of reasonable looking Italian (in that it looks like Italian to someone like me that's not similar with the language) for most of the flavor text.  It's first visible in the first series in the episode where Alice is introduced, but it crops up several places in the new series, most noticeably where President Aria is reading his morning newspaper.
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The fourth episode, "Those who aim for that tomorrow...", is a spectacular bit of character development.  Akari spends the day working with three new characters, all other apprentice undines, named Atora, Anzu and Ayumi, all of whom have been pondering and worrying about their future as Undines.  It gives another hint about the series theme of the promotion test for the title of Prima Undine.  Despite being introduced this episode, all three characters are fully fleshed out, with defined personalities and quirks.  The episode uses their interactions with Akari to give us some insight into their world and their lives, and the final character drama in the episode is surprising and emotional, gives us a new look at characters only introduced this episode, and lets Akari's eternal optimism shine through to advance the overall plot.  Part of getting to know the characters is watching them work, and it's to the series overall credit that Akari is not always the center of attention throughout their day.
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One other thing to note in this episode.  We've been introduced to three Undine companies, Aria Company (Akari and Alicia, with blue trim), Himeya Company (Aika and Akira, with red trim) and Orange Planet (Alice and Athena, with yellow trim).  Almost exclusively, whenever you see a random Undine in a shot of Neo-Venezia, they're in Himeya red or Orange Planet yellow (as Aria company only has two employees, both named, there are no random Aria undines).  My recollection is that at one point in the second series, we see a random Undine in green trim in one of the opening credits, but I've never been able to find it again.  I experienced a momentary pleasure at looking at the crowd of apprentice Undines in this episode to see both green and purple uniformed Undines, only to be disappointed when our team consisted of Akari, two Orange Planet Undines, and a Himeya Undine.The image “http://dorkside.mee.nu/images/TAHI06.jpg” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

Posted by: Civilis at 09: 59 PM | Comments (2) | Add Comment
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