I finally had the privilege to watch Aria — and by golly it only took me one season out of three to be convinced that it’s one of the greatest thing I can ask for an anime.
Aria, to most of its fans, is considered to be the flag-ship of the iyashikei genre — a genre that values a tranquil and soothing atmosphere above all. However, simply extolling the show based on how it expresses itself is practically incomplete, and may lead us to missing what the point is of the narrative. In any given anime, there is always a message to be understood behind the visual stimulation we experience. One reason these messages may often become lost in translation from medium to viewers (or vice versa) is due to the clash of context the show provides and the context its audience brings. As such, there will be varying instances of how we interpret a story — be it adoring a character on a personal level, or criticizing this and that on a more technical and critical point of view. Having said that, this post will fall under the former in which I will be sharing to you what Aria is to my eyes beyond its tangible nature.
Aria is beautiful — though that claim is rather an understatement if I don’t further elaborate what I meant. Aria is beautiful in more ways than one. Good, that sounds about right. Now, the question is: what makes it beautiful? Is it the atmosphere? The color scheme? The anecdotal stories? The OST? Sure, these factors play a part in contributing to Aria‘s charm as a whole, but our perception and appreciation of Aria can be taken into greater length and we need not look no further than traditional Japanese aesthetics. It’s only recently that I had myself exposed on the underpinnings of the traditional Japanese aesthetics. By luck, I stumbled upon a nifty essay that gave me the impression that “hey, this sounds exactly like what Aria is”. Sure enough, applying this new-found knowledge into an anime I’m already in-love with made my appreciation of Aria even more meaningful.
A review of what constitutes traditional Japanese aesthetics is needed in understanding what makes Aria beautiful. Unfortunately, I do lack the academic background to be able to dig deeper into an esoteric topic which is why for the sake of discussion, it’s adviseable to take a quick trip to Wikipedia and other various resources as a means to base my grounds and claim. Here are some links I found insightful, of which I’m sure you’re bound to learn a lot from them too:
- Japanese aesthetics in Wikipedia
- Japanese aesthetics in Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Wabi-sabi in North Texas Institute for Educators on Visual Arts
- Mono no aware in Sensitivity From Things
- Miyabi in Richard Hooker’s Japan Glossary
- Shibui in Unique Japan
- Yugen from Haiku by David
Each of which has rather simple explanations and definitions, but, again, translations may vary from person to person. However, the general idea should be there and is actually present in most of the encounters we have seen in Aria. The following part of this post will attempt to give you varying examples from the show and file them into its corresponding category. Take note, I’ve only watched two season of Aria — The Animation and The Natural — but I feel like we already have ample resources to work with. Everything is entirely subjective, of course, as this post is based on my own personal interpretation of its various themes. Though, as always, feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments later-on!
Mono no aware – Beauty in impermanence
Sunsets, like childhood, are viewed with wonder not just because they are beautiful but because they are fleeting.
– Richard Paul Evans, The Gift
Starting the list with mono no aware is appropriate considering that the said concept is the most popular amongst the traditional Japanese aesthetic, and that it’s largely present in Aria. Mono no aware is translated literally as “the pathos of things”; an understanding and sensitivity to the passing of the material and the immaterial. A well-known example is the prevalent love of the Japanese for sakura trees — or what’s known to us as the cherry blossom viewing. We’ve probably seen such trope in countless anime before, but it’s funny to think back that I wasn’t all that informed of its true significance and meaning. The true beauty — according to mono no aware — of the cherry blossoms is on how it evokes a sense of melancholy as seen through the brevity of its display (the leaves will fall after a week it blossoms). It’s beautiful not because it’s pink or anything, it’s beautiful because it’s finite — irreplaceable. Would we still cherish the cherry blossoms if its life-span is immutable? Probably yes. But its impact and meaning won’t be as profound if not without mono no aware.
- Episode 4 of The Animation happens to be a tear-jerker. It’s a simple exposition of life and death which is interestingly one facet of mono no aware’s concept. Death is indeed unfortunate but then again, it goes without saying, it’s part of our life. Sooner or later, we have to come into terms and appreciate the past and move on to our future.
- Episode 10 of The Animation is sweet and effective. It treats us to Akari meeting a “snow bug” which she later has to part ways with. Encounters that are brief and short are something to be treasured (depends, really). It’s not about the length of a relationship, it’s the quality of the time you spent together that matters.
- Episode 3 of The Natural is one great example. Akari and the crew spent an evening together watching a meteor shower. Just like a flowering sakura tree, a meteor shower’s span of life is short, initially bursting into a magnificent streak of light only to burn itself completely.
Wabi-sabi – Beauty in imperfection
That’s why I like listening to Schubert while I’m driving. Like I said, it’s because all his performances are imperfect. A dense, artistic kind of imperfection stimulates your consciousness, keeps you alert. If I listen to some utterly perfect performance of an utterly perfect piece while I’m driving, I might want to close my eyes and die right then and there. But listening to the D major, I can feel the limits of what humans are capable of – that a certain type of perfection can only be realized through a limitless accumulation of the imperfect. And personally I find that encouraging.
– Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
Wabi-sabi is perhaps my favorite traditional Japanese aesthetic. Wabi-sabi is simple, unpretentious, withered, unabashed. Finding a wabi-sabi object may come off as difficult to some, but the easiest “tell” I have on categorizing it is through its 1.) state and 2.) value. A common example of this is… say, a well-worn Chucks. I have a pair of Converse which I haven’t cleaned for a year, and damn. it. looks. gorgeous. It’s dirty, sure, but I’d wear it over any shiny Air Jordan. Something about its humble and battered appearance evokes a deep sense of awe within me. They say that one can tell a person’s journey through a single look of his footwear, and that’s exactly what I feel with my Chucks.
- Neo-Venetia. Neo-Venetia, as described by Ai (or was it Akari?), is inconvenient. Flooded, slow, retro, erratic… these are certain traits of Neo-Venetia we’ll first be greeted with. However, amidst these imperfections are untold stories and unseen qualities known only to those who fell in love with the city.
- Episode 4 of The Natural. I personally love this episode — probably one of my favorite. Akari takes on the job of a mail-man and later on realizing the value of sending messages through snail-mail. Just like Neo-Venetia itself, the primitive idea of sending someone a physical mail is troublesome and inconvenient; it takes too much effort. Rather, it’s precisely because it takes effort that made the idea of sending snail mails meaningful. It’s the effort that counts; would you rather receive a confession through a text message, or would you rather have someone send you a love letter adorned with flowers and all?
- Episode 12 of The Natural. Akari buys a wind-chime. The twist? Said wind-chime only lasts for a couple of days until it “dies” and returns back to the deep-sea. Luckily for Akari, her wind-chime left a part of itself possibly alluding that it doesn’t want to part with her. The wind-chime is still there — it still “chimes”. Albeit incomplete, its value is higher than with its previous state.
- Episode 16 of The Natural. This one is a classic example. Akari parted ways with her old-trusty gondola. Not really my favorite episode, but the thought is there: battered, rustic, yet full of sentimental value. Beauty through aging, my friends.
Miyabi – Pinnacle of elegance
When I was a child, whenever it snowed, I would play and make snowballs. When you start rolling a snowball, someone will always appear out of nowhere and help you make it bigger and in the end, everyone goes home satisfied. It was then that I suddenly thought “This is what I want to grow up to be like”.
– Alicia Florence, Aria the Natural Ep. 26
Miyabi, in my own interpretation, is the attainment of the highest form of elegance which was prevalent during Japan’s Heian period. It’s safe to note that miyabi precedes the other more common aesthetics such as wabi-sabi and yugen. As such, it’s fairly hard to find a direct example for this as the concept has evolved through the passage of time and influences.
- Elegant, refined, courtly… there’s only one person in Aria who matches these descriptions. Can you guess who? Ara, ara! Why, it’s none other than Alicia!
Shibui – Beauty in subtlety
Then on your tombstone, where you only get a little bit of space to sum up your life, some wax-faced creep chisels a set of meaningless numbers instead of poetry or a secret love or the name of your favorite candy.
In the end, all you get is a few words. – Scott Nicholson
Shibui, just like wabi-sabi, is rooted in subtlety and simplicity. However, the difference is that shibui doesn’t necessarily have to be imperfect, otherwise it may fall under wabi-sabi. Shibui lies in the inner quality (or the nuances) of things, and interpretation may differ from person to person. An example I can think of is a nice and cloudy weather, the “whack” sound of a tennis ball against a racket, Amanchu!‘s thinly drawn art, or even a parade of ducks in a pond for that matter.
- Akari herself. Akari, by far, is one of the most natural character I have ever met. She’s simple, she doesn’t try too hard to be noticed; she’s just who she is — unadulterated.
- Episode 14 of The Natural. Akari builds a palina (a pole for mooring boats into) for Aria Company. The palina she built herself wasn’t that outstanding nor overly complicated. The design was rather… bland and simple. However, its true quality exudes from the life its artist imbued upon it.
- Episode 18 of The Natural. Apparently, Aika keeps her hair long because she wanted to be just like Alicia. After an unfortunate (and funny) event that caused her to cut her hair short, she found meaning on simply being who she is. Her short trimmed hair is a perfect fit, given that it matches her open and expressive nature. Unadorned yet beautiful.
Yugen – Mysterious kind of beauty
As the winter sighs,
autumn’s last breath of maple
waved its first goodbye.
Kindle doing haiku, 2016
First, ignore that haiku you just read. Anyways, I love the concept of Yugen in which it suggests that beyond what can be said but is not an allusion to another world. It is about this world, this experience. I feel like it’s the kind of elegance that we cannot explain, but easily draws us at a trance when we experience it. My personal example? Serendipity is one. Have you ever picked up a cent in the morning, only to find that that cent will be of importance later on the day? I did. I find it fascinating and mysterious that such a small occurrence will turn out to be a memorable moment.
- Episode 10 of The Animation. Look! A hot-spring episode! Fanservice? Nay. It’s probably the only hot-spring episode in the whole history of anime that didn’t have any fan-service what so ever — and I love it. The climax of the episode is when Akari and the crew bathes while marveling at the beauty of the cloudless night sky. As if a void is set to consume them, they still can’t help but appreciate the wonder of finding something out of the blue. Life is full of surprises, after all.
- Episode 5 of The Natural. Akari and Alicia stumbles upon a decaying and abandoned rail-car beneath a blossoming cherry tree. Now, this entry can actually be filed under mono no aware considering the presence of the cherry blossoms. Seeing the contrast of the vivid, lively colors of a tree and the decaying gray of metal, however, struck a deeper chord in me. Yugen is further elaborated as a profound, mysterious sense of the beauty of the universe … and the sad beauty of human suffering, and I can’t help but feel the same thing during this scene.
- Akari and her encounters with Cait Sith. Cait Sith is depicted as an enigmatic creature, yet this doesn’t stop Akari from meeting him from time to time. The longer Akari reminisces Cait Sith and his wonders, the stronger her attraction becomes toward this mysterious being. And, no, it’s not because of magic.
Kawaii – cute, fuwa fuwa, chibi
Obviously, this isn’t included in the traditional list of Japanese aesthetics. Though, I find it an appropriate inclusion when it comes to discussing Aria‘s aesthetics. The Japanese has… weird tastes when it comes to what they think is cute or not. As a consumer of their culture, we should be able to testify on what this meant and how it applies to their medium.
- Color coding. Akari on pink, Aika on blue, Alice on green… the list goes on. Color coding is often used in anime (or in any given related Japanese sub-culture) as a means to differentiate and characterize characters, though the end result often appears as a colorful and cute display of aesthetics.
- Moe. I think this is pretty self explanatory. It’s actually great that Aria even managed to combine a deep and profound view on aesthetics into that of their current and modern take on beauty without offsetting the balance of either aspects.
- Cats. Japanese loves cats. Aria takes it to another level though. Nah, I think it’s just Kozue Amano’s own personal preference.
Aria is filled to the brim of these references. It’s a rare reminder of why I got into anime in the first place; it gave me a new angle I can use to view life. Aria teaches us that there’s beauty to be found anywhere, in everything, in anytime. If, by any given chance, we can integrate how the Japanese — traditional or not — views beauty into our day to day lives, just how many wondrous realizations can we derive from this down-trodden reality? Perhaps an “objectively bad” anime can actually be good (not saying that it exists). Perhaps an anime that insults my beloved grandma has something worth appreciating. Just like what Akira said, people tend to view negative things too seriously, and we instinctively forget the good in the situation. Perhaps it’s the same with how we normally view occurrences in life — be it a loss of a loved one, or even as simple as criticizing a work of art. There are a lot of ifs and perhaps — and that’s a great thing; we just have to keep looking for these answers ourselves.
I know I am just barely scratching the surface of this topic, but I sure did learn a lot from my experience of writing this. How about you? What do you think makes Aria beautiful to your eyes?