March 20, 2011

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Aqua Volumes 1 and 2

Written by Kozue Amano
Illustrated by Kozue Amano
Tokyopop

The Manga Movable Feast (or MMF for short) is a chance for those of us who hang out on Twitter to all write about the same series. We've discussed things as different as Emma and Barefoot Gen over the past year or so. Sometimes the feast is about a well known work like One Piece, but other times we'll look at books that might be a bit under the radar, such as Karakuri Odette. Because it's not completely translated (legally) into English yet, I think we may have a series this time that might be better known for its anime rather than its manga. However you've come to it, I can't imagine anyone not falling immediately in love with Aqua/Aria.

This month's host is Linda, at Animemiz and she's already been busy talking about Aria in anticipation of the Feast. Once she has an anchor post, this entry will link to the master post for all of the March MMF articles.

Aqua is the beginning of the story of Aria. We think of it as a prequel here in the English-speaking world, but as Linda pointed out, it's actually part of the main story. Due to publisher changes in both Japan and the United States, the series was chopped up somewhat and the different names tend to make it seem like they aren't connected.

However you classify it, Aqua/Aria is set in a soft sci-fi world where we've managed to terraform and colonize Mars. Only we kinda messed up when we did it, and now Mars is almost entirely full of water--going from the dry planet to a planet where less than ten percent of its surface remains above the water.

As a result, people tend to live like the whole place is one big Venice, Italy, complete with gondolas. It's a neat idea, one I haven't seen before, and within the first few pages, this manga was already drawing me into its world and making me want to read more about it. That's somewhat unusual for me in manga, where I tend to find opening chapters somewhat boring, as we set all the players of the drama in place and do a bit of world building. It's also somewhat unusual, because the other space-related manga I've read (To Terra, Planetes) did not do much for me. Here I was hooked almost from the start, and that's before we get to the cast of characters.

Our main character is Akari, a young woman who leaves Earth to move to Mars in the hopes of becoming an Undine, which is a combination tour guide/navigator of the waters of Neo-Venezia, one of the Martian cities. While she is pretty much the typical shojo heroine, out of her depth, incredibly cute, and somewhat naive, the big difference here is that instead of seeking out a man who doesn't want her/isn't good for her, Akai's love interest is her job. She has a single-minded determination to be an Undine, whatever it takes.

That's a nice change of pace for a shojo series--showing what happens when a girl who might not be the toughest person on the block opts to follow her dreams, rather than her dream man. I'm hoping that idea continues into the Aria section of the narrative, as it would be a shame if this slipped into a typical romance. I like that the object of her desire is something other than love of a person.

This is not to say that the manga is feminist. Definitely not. Though we spend most of the two volumes looking at a career held only by women, right up to the high levels, it's ultimately a profession staffed by women because all the other water-related jobs are "men's work." Ironically, adding some insult to this injury is one of the best parts of the manga, namely that the Undine companies are all run by cats. Because, after all, it would be silly if these companies were run by women, right?

I'd be lying if I didn't mention that this underlying idea bothers me, and mars what is otherwise a spectacular series. However, I guess it's unreasonable to me to expect a shojo manga to be progressive. I certainly can't immediately point to another shojo series where the roles of women are given equal treatment, so why pick on Aqua? Instead of dwelling on the point, I'm going to keep talking about why I think this series is so good.

As I mentioned above, part of what makes this manga so appealing to me is the idea that cats run companies. It's preposterous, but since this is a science fiction, why not? (My objection above stems from it only being the women's jobs that are headed by cats.) This leads to some great set pieces, starting at the beginning of Volume 1 and continuing on into the second volume. It also means that Amano sometimes has to do a lot of telling--the cats in Aqua do not speak--but the sacrifice to storytelling is worth it to see President Aria trying everything from cleaning house to being a superhero.

The best story involving cats, however, is when we hear of the legend of the Kingdom of Cats. Ever wonder what happens when your cats go seemingly missing? Perhaps they're being summoned for a higher purpose. The art in Aria is generally of very high quality, but in this chapter Amano outdoes herself, adding Escher-like touches, atypical (for the manga) shadows, and an awesome splash page.

I'd have been sold on Aqua based solely on how often cats are involved in the story, but there are a lot of things to draw the reader in, if cats just aren't enough for you. Akari's boss, Alicia, is the type of supervisor you'd love to have. She's very understanding, supportive, and patient, guiding Akari along the path of an Undine and helping her adjust to the world of a waterlogged Mars. Alicia has just a hint of mystery about her, however, and I'm curious to see if there's more to her than the good natured soul we see here would have us believe.

There's also Aika (and yes, this naming convention of Amano gets a little confusing now and again), who is both friend and professional rival for Akari, as she works for a different Undine company. Aika is extremely driven and practical, contrasting nicely with the filled-with-wonder Akari. She's extremely useful for explaining things to the reader via the blank slate of Akari. I can also see that their friendship might be strained over time, based on a few signs that we see in these early days of the story. We also have a few male characters that hover in and out of the story, but as far as things go in Aqua, they're more like props to move the plot along or add to the science fiction world-building.

I'd be remiss if I didn't talk a bit about the setting of Aqua. Between clever, well-spaced text information and absolutely gorgeous artwork, Amano creates an awesome soft sci-fi world in Aqua. I have no trouble figuring out how this world works or what goes on in it. I know about the longer year, the man-made climate, and a bit about the economy. I know there are things that happen only here on Mars and how that changes life for its inhabitants. Best of all, I know what all this looks like, because Amano takes the time to draw settings that are far more detailed than you usually get from a shojo manga. This is one of those series I would read just for the art, as Amano's characters are illustrated with style (and distinction) and they live in a world that I can see in page after page of creation. We have everything from the canals to the small streets to the darker inner workings of the climate control to locks and dams that stem the flow of water.

The best part? None of it feels like info-dumping. When we learn new things about Mars, it's because Akari needs to know it as part of the plot. When we see new parts of her emerging world, it's only to add to the things Akari can do, such as when she's given the chance to sail to a new part of Neo-Venezia. Tying things to an existing earth city, Venice, also helps aid the transition and make it less necessary to explain everything. I feel like all the knowledge we gain about the world of Aqua/Aria is given to us organically, something that's extremely difficult to pull off in science fiction.

Sure, there's plenty we don't know yet, and those who prefer hard science are going to be disappointed we don't get pages and pages about how she's able to e-mail Earth from Mars or why the climate control works, but if those things really bother you, then this isn't going to be the manga for you, anyway. We're here on a journey of discovery for Akari, and for her, whether President Aria sleeps in her bed or goes out on the town is more interesting than how the whole city keeps from sinking into the ground. Personally, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Aqua/Aria has immediately jumped into my list of favorite mangas, earning the right to be added to my limited bookshelf space. It's pretty, with art you can linger on. It's got a sense of wonder you don't often see in comics, matching more with that of an older teen rather than a child. It's got cats in charge of companies, which in and of itself should be enough. Best of all, however, is that while Aqua is not the only part of the story, it can be read on its own and enjoyed without any other context.

I give Aqua my highest possible recommendation. It's a pure joy to read, and I hope you'll treat yourself with a visit to Neo-Venezia as soon as possible. I'll even pay for your Undine trip!