Aria Volume 2 by Kozue Amano, 2003, English Translation 2008.

The is the second volume of the second part of a fascinating manga series that combines sci-fi, fantasy, and slice of life. The series takes place about 300 years in the future, when Mars has been terraformed and renamed Aqua (because of all the water on its surface). The human colonies on Aqua are designed to resemble old-fashioned cities on Earth (called Manhome here). The people of Aqua prefer a much slower pace of life than people on Manhome, and aspects of life on Aqua more closely resemble Earth’s past.

The series is divided into two parts. The first two books are the Aqua volumes and introduce Akari Mizunashi, the main character, a young girl who came to Aqua to learn to become a gondolier in the city of Neo Venezia (which resembles Venice). Female gondoliers, called Undines, give tours of the city, giving Akari plenty of time to admire the beauty of her new home and meet interesting people. The two Aqua books are the prequel to the main series, Aria. Aqua covers Akari’s arrival on the planet, her introduction to life on Aqua, and the beginning of her training. The main Aria series show Akari’s continuing training, her progression to becoming a full Undine, her evolving relationships with her friends, and as always, her delight in learning more about her new home and admiring its beauty.

In the second volume of the Aria series, winter comes to Neo Venezia, and Akari experiences the delights of the changing season and the celebration of a New Year as well as continuing to learn more about her new home.

The series has received some criticism for being slow and lacking danger and adventure, but that is not really the point of the series. The main purpose is to show people how to appreciate the small pleasures of life. The sci-fi and fantasy elements (the spaceships, advanced environmental controls, intelligent Martian cats, and even the occasional appearances of the legendary Cait Sith) are mainly background to the stories about the magic of friendship and simple pleasures. Each volume contains a few short stories about Akari and her friends and the little adventures they have on a daily basis and the life lessons they learn. It’s a great series for relaxing when you’re stressed out.

The stories included in this volume are:

Snow Bug

Snow Bugs (a kind of fluffy aphid) appear on Aqua at the onset of winter. They are larger than Earth aphids, and they look like cute little puff balls with eyes.

Akari makes friends with one of them when she and Alicia go out to gather some firewood, and she brings her Snow Bug friend home with her for awhile.

However, the Snow Bugs appear at this time of year because they are migrating to their winter home, and as snow comes to Neo Venezia, Akari has to accept that her little friend must move on with the other Snow Bugs as it gets colder. Fortunately, Snow Bugs have long life spans, so Akari can count on seeing her little friend again next winter.

Utopia

Akari has trouble adjusting to the winter in Neo Venezia because it’s much colder than the winters she is accustomed to on Earth. Aika suggests visiting a hot spring, which Akari has never done before because people on Earth are more technological and not so much into the beauties of nature. Alicia takes Akari and Aika to visit a very special hot spring where the baths are built into a magnificent old mansion.

The mansion has been there for years, and parts of it are now crumbling with disuse, but the hot water from the spring beneath it is now allowed to flow through the lower floors of the old mansion, giving it a mysterious atmosphere, yet it’s still a very relaxing hot bath.

The girls indulge themselves in the baths and have dinner on one of the upper floors with a grand view of the ocean. (Alicia is older than the other girls and a legal adult, so she drinks alcohol. She lets the teenage trainees try a small amount to see what it’s like, but mostly, the younger girls have iced coffee milk.)

After the younger girls have a nap, they go back in the baths, and Alicia shows them a special part of the hot springs. Akari feels a little guilty for taking the day off and indulging themselves, but Alicia says that a break now and then is good.

This is one of my favorite stories in the Aria books because I just like the idea of a mansion being turned into a giant hot spring bath, with water flowing through it. The crumbling bits look a little dangerous to me, but it’s fun to imagine what the rest of the house might be like.

A Day in the Life of the President

President Aria may be an intelligent Martian cat, but he is still a cute kitty. He does cute kitty things, like climbing into bags and boxes, worrying about Akari’s hair dryer, and fighting with a hair brush. It even says that he doesn’t like baths, although he didn’t mind going to the hot spring in the previous story.

Martian cats are supposed to be as intelligent as humans, and it’s established in the series that President Aria and other cats have their own community with Cait Sith, the king of the cats, sneaking off sometimes to meet with each other, but President Aria also does things that people would expect from ordinary pet cats, and it’s not clear why. Then again, it might not matter. The Aria stories are mostly atmospheric and about emotions, so not everything has to be completely explained.

Voices of the Stars

Akari learns about the Gnomes, a group of people who control the gravity on Aqua. Alicia tells her about the gnomes one day when she explains why the gravity on Aqua seems to be the same as on Earth even though its natural gravity would be much less strong. The Gnomes live in their own community underground and only come up to the surface from time to time to go shopping.

One day, Akari and Aika see a group of Gnomes shopping. They help one of them, who is having trouble loading his supplies into his boat. Akari offers to take him home in her gondola, and he accepts, taking her and Aika to see where the Gnomes live underground.

The Gnome, Al, is a trainee Gnome, just a few years older than Akari and Aika, although he is short and looks younger and, oddly, speaks like an older, old-fashioned man. He explains to the girls how the Gnomes control the gravity on Aqua by conducting special high-mass gravitational rocks through a network of pipes surrounding Aqua’s core. As always, the science and technology on Aqua are borderline magical.

Al shows them where he works, and the machinery that controls the sending of rocks through the pipes is like a large pipe organ, making beautiful musical sounds as it works. Al becomes a recurring character in the Aria stories.

Auguri Di Buon Anno

Akari celebrates New Year’s Eve with her friends. It’s interesting how they compare Japanese New Year’s traditions with ones from Venice, from the types of food eaten during the holiday to the way that Japanese people traditionally consider New Year’s Eve a family holiday, while Akari’s friends consider it a holiday to spend with friends in public. Alicia explains to Akari that one of the traditions of Neo Venezia is similar to a traditional Italian custom of throwing out old things on New Year’s Eve as a way of throwing off bad memories from the previous year.

Akari and Alicia join their other friends in the public square on New Year’s Eve, and Akari reflects on how much her life has changed during the last year, since she came to Aqua. During that time, she’s had many new experiences and made many new friends, and she’s grateful for everything that’s happened and all of the good memories she’s had.

Akari and her friends stay out all night and see the sun rise on the first day of the new year.

Carnival

Akari is introduced to the traditions and wonders of a Venice Carnival! Alicia explains the origins of the tradition to her.

However, Akari becomes intrigued by mysterious figure dressed as Casanova. Rumor has it that the same person has played the role of Casanova for 100 years, but no one knows who it is.

Aika and Akari try to follow a member of Casanova’s entourage to see if they can find out who Casanova really is. The two girls get separated, but Akari meets up with Casanova, and he invites her to join his entourage to parade through the crowd.

In the end, Akari does get a look at Casanova without his mask, and it’s a magical end to Carnival!

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