Feb 1, 2008
Aqua (Manga) add (All reviews)
Jiji (All reviews)
Serialized in: Comic Blade (Mag Garden) & Stencil (Square Enix)
Genre: Sci-fi, Slice-of-life, Drama, Comedy
Publisher: Tokyopop
Rating: T (13+)

Akari Mizunashi is traveling to Aqua (Mars) from Manhome (Earth) to become an undine, one of the famous female gondoliers of Neo-Venezia (a replica of Venice). Akari knows nothing about Mars, which is now called Aqua since terraforming released tremendous amounts of water that now cover 90% of the surface. She also knows next to nothing about undines, only that she wants to be one. Slowly, day by day, she meets all kinds of new people and practices hard to become a good undine and adapts to the slow pace of life on Aqua.

Akari is our main character and often narrator, since she frequently writes to a mysterious someone back on Manhome. Her total innocence reflects the reader’s and she encounters new things in the same way that we do, making her reactions to them our guide to this futuristic world. I say “futuristic”, but in fact there’s a delightful mix of sci-fi, ‘magic’ and nostalgic old ways in this story. For instance, despite the availability of computers, people on Aqua prefer to send letters, which are collected by a mailman in a gondola, no less. We are never shown Manhome, but Akari refers often to how the weather is regulated and everything is “convenient” there — in contrast to Aqua where it’s not as convenient to have to go out to shop, or to travel in boats to do anything. An undine, by the way, is a water-spirit, an elemental, as recorded by Paracelcus.

I’m describing all this because in a slice-of-life story, this is a staple of its charm. It’s nostalgic for slower, simpler times or at least it is a reaction against the insane, dehumanizing pace of modern living. There are often panels showing little more than scenery and setting, showing tiny moments of time that have little to do with hurrying the plot along. In this way, Amano is in strict control of the pace of the story and the reader can find him/herself skipping panels to get to the “happenings”. This is a mistake, however — the reader ought to let Amano have her pacing. (Which I was finally able to do after the third reading ^^;;; )

Fans of the series in both its forms might be surprised how few characters there are in this first volume. Akari meets President Aria, a “Martian cat” who is as smart as a human and very large too, but can’t talk. He’s a fatty, and the hardest thing to get used to in this manga. My own reaction to him was, “that blob is supposed to be a cat??” Alicia is Akari’s boss, mentor and idol all in one. She is very kind and gentle and takes an immediate liking to Akari, not really affectionate, but mothering her nevertheless. Aria Company is very small, only Alicia and Akari for employees, but she’s nevertheless famous and highly-sought as an undine. Aika is another trainee from a rival company, an abrupt, totally practical girl, who is constantly bringing the dreamy Akari down to earth and completely idolizes Alicia for some reason. She and Akari strike up an immediate friendship and often practice together .

Some of Amano-sensei’s earlier works were pretty bland and mediocre (Crescent Noise, Ohi-sama Egao). With this series, she is breaking free of shoujo or shounen standard style, although she brings some of those details with her, too. The style is very clean and graphical, with little sketch-like approach at all. And although the characters are well-drawn and likeable, it’s the backgrounds that are breathtakingly spectacular. It’s pretty clear that Amano traveled to Venice at some point, and probably took hundreds of pictures for reference, or at least is using photos from somewhere. On nearly every page, there’s something that is quite clearly drawn “from life”, whether it’s famous St. Mark’s Square or just a dilapidated building, losing its plaster over the bricks.

This manga, whatever other charms it has (and it has a lot), is a love letter to Venice. And the famous landmarks are not highlighted in such a way as to make one think that they’re the point. No, they’re simply there, in the background, like the little throwaway details that Sudio Ghibli animates in their films, as Ebert noted in his Totoro review. Akari struggles to control her gondola…under the Bridge of Sighs or through the Grand Canal, without calling attention to it. It’s fabulous. I have to admit that it’s a little “orientalist” too. A futuristic, sci-fi setting and it’s in a replica of Venice down to the last brick? It’s as if Amano is saying that Venice is so weird, it might as well be the moon — or, well, mars. But of course, it allows her to do what she wishes with the story, make it as lovely as Venice should be, not to mention have gondoliers who are beautiful girls, not sweaty, hairy men.

Many of you already know that ADV, for reasons that pass understanding, already started to publish this series, but skipping to the sequel, Aria. The license was acquired by Tokyopop and they’re starting from the beginning this time. Aqua is only two volumes, and Aria is on it’s 11th volume and still continuing in Japan, so I’m hoping Tokyopop stays with it. Tokyopop is doing their usual job on this manga; the printing is consistent, very little of the tops and bottoms of pages are cut off (none of the dialogue or art is lost, don’t worry), and the translation is, so far as I checked, fairly good. They have not “localized” it too much, as they euphemize the horrible treatments publishers give some manga. However, I have to take exception to the cover. Why change the stately, widely-spaced roman title from the Japanese version to this logo-ed, sci-fi title font? Nitpicky, I know, but this shows the level of regard TP has for this manga, I think. They took the time to redesign a title, but for no good reason. Also, as usual, there are no colour pages in the interior at all. I used to dismiss this as cost-saving, since colour printing is prohibitive and would likely make manga jump from $10 to $12. However, Infinity manages to do it. They also manage to have dust covers, like the Japanese tankoubon have.

In the interest of full disclosure, yes: I am a fanboy of this series in all its forms. But I have to say that it took me FOUR tries to like it. I didn’t at first. But I would say that it’s well worth trying out. It’s hard to say who would like this manga, it’s so outside of the usual thing. Give it a go.