Aqua Vol. 1

By Kozue Amano
192 pages, black and white
Published by TokyoPop

With the wealth of manga being translated into English, it’s understandable if one initially misses out on a few books the first time around. That’s certainly my excuse when it comes to Kozue Amano’s series Aqua and Aria. At a glance, there’s not a whole lot to lure you in—a young woman learning how to become a gondolier. Once I finally sat down and read the first volume, though, I realized that this is more than just the story of someone learning their job. Rather, it’s a travelogue across another planet.

When Earth terraformed Mars to become habitable by humans, no one predicted that the ice caps would melt so much that 90% of the planet would become covered in water. Now Mars is known as Aqua, with its shining star the city of Neo-Venezia, based on the original Italian city of Venice with its canals and gondolas. Akari Mizunashi is the latest arrival in Neo-Venezia, joining the Aria Company as an apprentice undine, or gondolier. More importantly, though, Akari is about to start a whole new life, one away from the crowded and supposedly “perfect” Earth. Here, everything is what she’s been waiting for.

I was surprised at how quickly Aqua managed to grab my attention, for a book that really doesn’t have a lot of traditional plot. Each chapter is another day in the life of Akari, as she makes friends, learns about how to be an undine, and travels through Neo-Venezia. Where Amano really got me, though, was how real she made both the city and the world. From hills full of wind-turbines to the maze-like alleyways of Neo-Venezia, each new location continues to feel less like a story and more like a journey to the actual place. It’s a beautiful, almost dream-like series of stories. It’s lots of the little touches, though, that really make Aqua shine. There’s a story early on where spring flooding submerges the sidewalks and first floors of buildings by a foot or so of water, and the way in which Amano tells the story and how the locals react to it makes you feel like you’re actually there. Through Akari’s eyes, you’re able to get the sense of wonder that she feels, and each new facet of living on Aqua comes across as real and interesting and fantastic. Of course, there does to be at least a minimal amount of plot, which Amano provides. Akari’s a good protagonist, and an early scene in which she explains why she’d rather live in the more rustic Neo-Venezia than on Earth comes across as both heartfelt and non-preachy. The supporting cast seems a little more two-dimensional, but it’s also early enough in the series that I’m willing to give them some time to grow.

The art in Aqua is for the most part quite good. Amano shines when she’s drawing scenes of Neo-Venezia itself, be it the undines guiding their boats along the canals, or gliding across an old, pre-flood settlement from the Mars era. It’s the sort of book where whenever a two-page spread appears, it really is well worth it, letting the reader drink in the beauty and expanse of the city. You can tell that Amano did a lot of research on the real Venice, and it really shows; as someone who has been to Venice, this looks and feels remarkably authentic. My one quibble is that at least in this first volume, Amano is not really that good when it comes to action. Fortunately Aqua is hardly an action-packed story, but there are rare occasions when it shows up and just falls flat. Hopefully it’s something that in the dozen or so volumes to follow will improve, but right now it’s the one flaw in an otherwise gorgeous book.

Aqua ran for two volumes in Japan before switching magazines (and publishers), resulting in a name change to Aria. Regardless of the name, though, I consider myself a fierce convert of the series. This is the sort of book I’d actually love to see more of, ones that really transport the reader to another place entirely. I, for one, cannot wait to pick up the second volume of Aqua and then move onto Aria. Utterly enchanting, I suspect anyone else looking to experience a different time and place will love it just as much.

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