My, my, how life is all about the encounters that you have. Anyone who has been watching Aria The Natural, or the first series will know the abundance of meaning that it places in the everyday meeting of people and the revealing of quiet secrets that sometimes, just sometimes, provide glimpses into something more unusual.
On the watery planet Aqua, in Neo-Venezia, Akari, and her fellow apprentice undines (gondoliers) Aika and Alice continue to learn their trade from their prima undines: Alicia, Akira and Athena. But perhaps they really just learning about life.
Life lessons run under the surface of almost all of Aria. Like the series as a whole these are mainly quiet lessons that rarely intrude, like a skillful undine they seem so natural as to go unobserved, though part two of The Natural does sometimes signpost these a little too clearly. This is not the end of the world by any means, but compared to Aria the Animation or the first set of The Natural, there are some tonal shifts, such as when Aika learns that she should aspire to be herself and not to be another; then later again when Aika finds some home truths that not everything thinks and feels as she does about her senpai that feel a little bit too obvious in the lesson that they're teaching. Maybe though this is the problem with Aria: it does the simple things so well that when its course deviates for just a moment, it's easy to be a little picky. This more than anything is a testament to what a good anime it is. Yet in those moments where it may feel a little over-earnest, such as Akari saying goodbye to her training gondola in a two-parter that is also guilty for overly reusing old footage, that can cause people like me to tut. I feel it needs to be as it always should be, thoughtful, calm, considered and always with humour. Keep with the little things and there is no need to deviate from that gentle course.
That’s my pickiness over and done with because of course, at its best, the final 13-episodes of Aria the Natural aren’t just relaxing, mind calming anime. It revels with subtlety in the richness of the world in which it is set and the quiet development of its characters. The continuing meta-physical aspects, such as Akari delving further into the world of the maybe-cat-deity Cait Sith hints at wonders that most can only hope to speak of. Few like Akari might see in a little more detail yet no more than is required to add a sense of wonder, never to fully explain because again Aria is best when it suggests the joyous mysteries of life both mundane and otherworldly. Aika especially gets to develop, her potential romantic interests deepening and even opting for a new hairstyle, something worth mentioning in part because her accidental cut seems to take inspiration from Serial Experiments Lain’s titular protagonist's miscut... I wonder, I wonder...
There’s also the obvious but easily ignored elements that always give the series richness, whether in its humour or tonally. The first is apparent in the cats that are the gondola company presidents who of course have their own characteristics and dynamics: pudgy-wudgy stomached President Aria is clearly enamoured by regal President Hime, while President Maa mainly wants to bite President Aria’s pudgy-wudgy belly. Then there is the music, often straightforward, clear, precise, unfussy guitar or piano notes, never obtrusive but as you watch always so very much part of the series' identity. It’s entirely self-effacing because on its own it may not be virtuoso, but in the context of the stories told it always complements the series. Without it, the series might well be unthinkable.
Some aspects too are pleasures entirely of my own. I love how Aria The Natural continues to refuse the obligatory title sequence but allows each episode to unfold. This matters because it ensures that we are pulled into the characters and the story, there is nothing to break it up but the series title appearing on screen and for a moment later the episode title. No more. No less. Tonally it allows consistency (nothing worse than a title sequence that is tonally tits-up). It’s small but again so vital, an easily missed aesthetic choice with serious easily overlooked impact.
OK, so I started on a bit of a downer but that really is because Aria as I say is at its absolute best when it is doing the least, or apparently doing nothing. It has almost no need at all to be in the slightest bit obvious (and obvious by Aria standards is less so than most series) but again that is the thing, such high standards are hard to keep up and considering not just this second set of episodes but Aria the Animation and Aria the Natural, all 26-episodes of this second series reminds us all just how less is more and focussing on an apparently small set of human emotions via a small set of characters can be so much richer than grand story arcs. Subtle is difficult to do, so I look forward to the third series.
Oh, do I have that to review? I do. Sometimes, as a reviewer, you do feel privileged, in the best possible way.
Have to say I like this cut, with the touch of Lain