Re: The hand-made planet — fancy’s spring, but sorrow’s fall

Now that I’ve challenged the heterosexuality of your pure, innocent gondoliers, let’s explore the gritty underbelly of the planet they gondolier upon. Not that the underbelly is really very gritty; normally it’s just pleasantly soft and susceptible to the application of stimuli, like that of a cat. It isn’t perfect, no, but it’d be boring if it was.

Months ago, I noted:

It’s likely that Aqua has its share of problems, and often we must infer these from the view we’re given through Akari’s rose-tinted glasses. Consider Akatsuki’s borrowing money from his brother; could this mean that the people who control the weather are underpaid? That’s an important job, and such a situation wouldn’t say much in favor of Aqua’s economy. Perhaps Akari has the luxury of introspection because Aqua’s economy is a one-trick pony, and the tourism industry, spearheaded by the undines, brings in all the money.

We learn in Aqua that Akatsuki is an apprentice himself, which, combined with his personality, explains his lack of money. So much for the imagined economic apocalypse I tossed in Aqua’s general direction. Not that Aqua makes its eponymous setting seem perfect, for it also drops this intriguing factoid:

Is that some sexism? Why, yes, I believe it is. I have nothing to say about sex/gender discrimination that hasn’t been said already (do I look like a gender critic to you?), other than perhaps this: in this case, is it really such a bad thing?

Lest I seem porcine in my misogyny, let me explain. I don’t mean to suggest that discrimination of any kind can ever be a good thing, but I can only resent it so much here when it pigeonholed Akari into a position that lets her shower her optimism upon as many willing or unwilling showerees as possible. What sort of franchise would Aria have been if Akari was, I don’t know, a mailwoman? Not a bad one, necessarily, but Aqua’s tourism industry would’ve lost one of its most valuable members to a delivery service. I prefer Akari the rosy lens over Akari the overlooked infrastructure cog, anyway. In analytical terms, the workforce discrimination provides implicit characterization for Akari and company, tying them to the setting both by giving them a possible motive for being undines in the first place and making them seem like the sort of people who concern themselves more with making the best of what is than worrying about what could be — which is, after all, Akari’s apparent purpose in life.

Besides, were Aqua perfect in every way, Akari’s optimism wouldn’t be so impressive. I enjoy these brief glimpses of the Aqua that exists beyond Akari-vision, as they help me appreciate the magnitude of what she does. “No rights?” says Akari. “No problem!” That’s an exaggeration, of course, but it’s still not easy to be apolitical; even James Joyce, who insisted with all his characteristic zeal that politics and art didn’t and couldn’t mix, was a socialist. And, given the concern she shows her fellow human beings, it’s not as if we’re led to believe that Akari is particularly apathetic. She’s simply not a lobbyist. There’s more than one way to contribute to social progress, after all.

Leaving aside the issue of whether Aqua’s sex-divided waterway workforce is a good or bad thing, we can probably agree that it’s a different thing — different than what most of us are used to, at least. Discrimination exists in the American workforce, it’s true, but not to the extent that men are mail carriers, women are tour guides, and that’s the end of that. Aqua’s brand of labor division feels almost pre-industrial…which makes sense, as the rest of the planet feels pre-industrial, too, never mind the constant presence of spaceships flying overhead. And it’s not accidental; we’re dealing with a setting in which motorboats are actively forbidden (if I remember correctly), making the gondolas not only pleasant, but required. Aqua is slow-paced and nature-oriented, but very deliberately so; every aspect of this nature, from weather to gravity, is controlled. It’s positively pastoral. In fact, it seems to straddle the very pinnacle of pastoral settings: its nature is not only overseen by humankind, but was built by humankind in the first place.

Note that “the very pinnacle” does not equal “perfect.” As the hideous mutant body of English literature tells us when we look at it the right way, there is no perfect pastoral; something always remains beyond human control. If we struggle with nature long enough, we can coax it into being generally hospitable, but we can never subdue it completely. Consider Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” in which the speaker propositions a nymph1:

Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove,
That valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods, or steepy mountain yields.

And we will sit upon the rocks,
Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers, to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.

And I will make thee beds of roses,
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers and a kirtle
Embroider’d all with leaves of myrtle:

A gown made of the finest wool,
Which from our pretty lambs we pull;
Fair lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold:

A belt of straw and ivy buds,
With coral clasps and amber studs;
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me and be my love.

The shepherd swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May morning;
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my love.

The irony of a spirit of nature being offered a position as subordinate to a subduer of nature, including access to various natural elements torn from their contexts and beaten into the shapes of clasps, studs, and beds of roses, was not lost upon Sir Walter Raleigh, who wrote “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd” in response:

If all the world and love were young,
And truth in every shepherd’s tongue,
These pretty pleasures might me move
To live with thee and be thy love.

Time drives the flocks from field to fold
When rivers rage and rocks grow cold,
And Philomel becometh dumb;
The rest complains of cares to come.

The flowers do fade, and wanton fields
To wayward winter reckoning yields;
A honey tongue, a heart of gall,
Is fancy’s spring, but sorrow’s fall,

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of roses,
Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies
Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten–
In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

Thy belt of straw and ivy buds,
Thy coral clasps and amber studs,
All these in me no means can move
To come to thee and be thy love.

But could youth last and love still breed,
Had joys no date nor age no need,
Then these delights my mind might move
To live with thee and be thy love.

Ooh, burned.

For our purposes, the warp and weft of it is that the nymph knows what humans, in their arrogance, do not: nature existed before the birth of humanity, and it will exist thereafter, its dauntless processes reclaiming our feeble efforts. That’s a pessimistic way of looking at it from a human standpoint, but there’s little to be gained from denying that, until we devise some way of ending the universe itself, nature is bigger than we are.

This applies to Aqua as well, terraformed or no. The salamanders and gnomes, arbiters of atmosphere and gravity respectively, wouldn’t be necessary if Aqua simply served the needs of humankind on its own. And it’s obvious enough that the undines, salamanders, sylphs, and gnomes aren’t the nymphs of Aqua; the latter two aren’t dealt with in the manga, but we learn that undines are certainly subject to the whims of the Neo-Adriatic Sea’s currents and tides, while the salamanders don’t have complete and total control over the weather precisely because Ukijima is operated by human beings and not computers.

That’s not to say that Aqua hasn’t any nymphs. They simply happen to take the form of creatures who tend to abhor the water.

And it’s appropriate that Aqua’s nymphs are creatures who abhor the water; just as water isn’t the natural environment of (most) cats, water isn’t the natural environment of Mars. The feline minor deities are just as out of place as the water itself. Nymphs they may not be, I suppose, but there’s at least something supernatural going on with the cats; I present as evidence the blue-eyed ones being regarded as good luck emblems by the undines, the goings-on of episodes four and twelve of Aria the Animation, Aqua’s fourth chapter, and the Cait Sidhe myth which somehow migrated to Italo-centric Aqua from Scotland. Given certain of those examples — the cats seem to administrate the collective memory of Aqua, after all — and the Cait Sidhe being a fairy, I don’t think it’s a stretch to identify some of Aqua’s cats as planetary deities. And when we consider that the affairs of cats are never wholly evident to the human characters, we can see that Aqua leavens its pastoral idealism with an acknowledgment of the ever-limited means of humankind.

It’s significant, no doubt, that, of all the characters with whom we become acquainted, Akari maintains the most contact with the cats and their machinations. Perhaps, as with the ancient kings of Earth and their nymph wives, Akari’s “marriage” to the Martian felines confirms her authority — but over what, I wonder? The human spirit? I may not be far enough along to know.


1It’s widely accepted that the speaker speaks to a nymph, anyway; that may have been retconned in later, but literature is nothing if not a retcon-fest. Consider T. S. Eliot’s assertion that “what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it,” that “the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past” (“Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2001: 1093.). If it’s Raleigh’s poem that added the nymph to the web of things, then so be it. And anyway, I figure it’s a reasonable reading — at least I hope you find it reasonable, as it’s necessary for my examination.

Leave a comment


  1. Haha. I was referring to Eliot’s theory in the poetry class I’m teaching. I’ll probably make them read this, and maybe “The Metaphysical Poets.” I suppose I don’t have a lot to say about this, being almost completely ignorant of the show, but I’m not sure how much I buy your first proposition concerning the “okay-ness” of the sexism — that is, creating the story we have doesn’t give it a pass. Sexism created A Room of One’s Own, too, but it still doesn’t make sexism “good.” Obviously you’re not claiming that, but still.

    Also, a few years ago I wrote a reply to *both* those poems, in which a third party counsels the two speakers, at one point advising the fellow to take the lady out to a movie. And at one time “nymph” could just mean young woman, though obviously the mythic elements of a nature spirit are still present even if the object of the shepherd’s lust is human.

    • Pontifus

       /  24 January 2009

      Yesss, make your class read my post!

      I’m semi-okay with sexism here because I see it as a seemingly deliberate narrative device rather than a lurking social force with significant influence on Aria’s creation. That is, I still resent it on behalf of the characters, I suppose, but at no point does it seem to make sexism in the real world sound like a good idea. If I thought the manga somehow actively promoted gender discrimination, the tone of this post would be quite different. It’s just there, as it’s just there in, say, George R. R. Martin’s fantasy.

      Given Raleigh’s making his speaker seem almost ageless, I figured the nymph was a nature deity as far as he was concerned, at least. But, like you said, I suppose it’s probably fine either way.

      Also, a few years ago I wrote a reply to *both* those poems, in which a third party counsels the two speakers, at one point advising the fellow to take the lady out to a movie.

      Post it in a reply to this comment!

      • Goodness. I haven’t read those 2 poems since high school; and that means early ’90s (Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains ’90s).

        How many female bloggers comment on Aria?

        How many female fans does it have? Can it be said that the target market is indeed the male demographic?

        This is interesting, because the fans of the undines – except for Akatsuki, are all female. The interest in touring Neo Venezia has so far (I’ve only see up to episode 3 of The Natural) been portrayed as coming from female passengers.

        If Aria were marketed to the female demographic, then feminized males would be appropriate gondoliers. We would be seeing very bretty (bishonen) male undines, but essentially behaving like the females. Basically, you’ll get Fan Hulic/Julian Minci/Sigfried Kircheis with an oar. However, the Akira/Aika roles will be tough to portray as male (though Tieria Erde/Alto Saotome comes to mind).

        But would men necessarily patronize gondoliers now that men hold the oars?

      • Well, for what it’s worth, the two related manga ran in what appear to be shounen magazines, Monthly Stencil and Comic Blade.

      • Pontifus

         /  24 January 2009

        I think Aria was aimed at a male audience, though I don’t know how much its focus on women is indicative of that. Could relegating men to the periphery give it the same appeal to girls as, say, Marimite (not that I’ve seen/read/etc. any of Marimite, but still)? Either way, I tend to think that men would suddenly be more interested in touring Aqua if they went the hot bishies with oars route, if only because they’d write it such in an attempt to appeal to their audience — but then, maybe the passengers would still be largely female, and it’d be a wish fulfillment thing.

        Side note: someone, please, for the love of whatever deity or deities you may or may not worship, draw some fanart of Fan Hyulick in an Aria Company uniform!

      • I think it’s the age-old adage that applies to the Japanese idol industry as well: women have more universal appeal, as they can be attractive to both male and female fans; a male idol will generally have a fanbase of mostly women, since men are loathe to like a guy who dolls himself up all pretty-like. How many male fans of the Jonas Brothers do you know?

        THOUGHT SO.

        At any rate, anime/manga is reknowed for busting demographics all the time; Shounen Jump has a significant amount–maybe even a majority–of female readers, enough that they’ve started to actively patronize them; guys watch and read shoujo all the time, and talk about the female characters in much the same way a girl might discuss the male characters.

        As for whether or not the Undine industry is sexist in nature, well, gondoliers in Venice itself are frequently portrayed as men–in fact, I’ve not seen a female gondolier ever. Maybe it’s just a reaction to that, maybe it’s supposed to help develop themes, or–get this–maybe Kozue Amano just likes drawing cute girls more than cute boys? Female mangaka often like drawing both to be attractive (see: Kouga Yun), whereas males just tend to make the girls hot and the boys not.

      • I’ve not seen a female gondolier ever.

        Doesn’t mean that there’s no lack of trying. :P

      • Pontifus

         /  27 January 2009

        Yesss…though it’s interesting that she sort of sucks, and keeps failing tests and such (maybe because nobody’s willing to teach her properly?). She should try rowing backwards.

      • Sigh… Fine. The title is “A Bystander Interrupts the Shepherd’s Wooing”

        Now stop, now cease, cut short your lies,
        un-limoniad end your sighs.
        The two of you a pair are made,
        to squawk and scream till both are frayed.

        Lady, you might consider town,
        I’ve heard they have loads of men around.
        Country clubs, street corners, grime-blacked bars,
        most of them don’t know what sheep are.

        And you, young man, with phlox-stained hands,
        pollen stretched to fragrant sands,
        don’t eat your son before he’s born,
        don’t weave clothes from sheep unshorn.

        Flowers are rather outré, lad,
        take her to a show instead.
        The crush of young folks in the stands
        may make her forgive wand’ring hands.

        Or dinner with candles gleaming,
        scents of hot honey steaming.
        Tea and biscuits, rum and coke,
        pastoral dates seem a frail joke.

        And lady, seek your satyr couth,
        stop waiting for immortal youth.
        Say yes, say no, as you please,
        romp with Maenads, drink life to lees.

      • Pontifus

         /  24 January 2009

        You slay me, sir! This is hilarious, and also somehow very pertinent to both the previous poems and reality. Now I’m even more curious about your poetry based on obscure physics and computer science.

  2. Marmoset

     /  24 January 2009

    I’ve never been particularly concerned about all the undines being women but I’m slightly perturbed that they are all YOUNG women. Not just 18-25 young but 16-20 young, what happens to these women after they’ve ‘retired’ at 20/21? Do they return to Manhome? Do they take up another profession? Do they go live in the Aqua countryside like that old undine did? Being an undine seems to be like being a romanticised club rep or summer camp helper; it’s what you can do before you get a real job.

    I don’t know if it’s covered in the manga but I would also love to know what Aqua was originally intended to be. I got the impression that Neo-Venezia was meant to be a tourist destination AND something else (political centre maybe) but only succeeded as a tourist destination, hence why half of it seems to be abandoned.

    • Pontifus

       /  24 January 2009

      Based on bits and pieces of information I’ve come across, I think some undines retire into marriage, essentially, though I’m not far enough to confirm that. I’m not sure what age is considered too old; I don’t recall ever finding out how old Alicia, Akira, and Athena are, but I assumed mid-20s, at the very least. In any case, I’m hesitant to call the undines romanticized summer camp helpers, if only because they’re grouped with the sylphs, gnomes, and salamanders, all of whom are deemed critical to Aqua’s infrastructure. I couldn’t tell you why undines get the same status as the others; maybe tourism is just that important in Neo-Venezia.

      I’m not sure what the original colonists planned to do with Aqua; that’s an intriguing question. Given that Manhome is in bad shape, maybe they simply wanted to use Mars to test out their terraforming capabilities before colonizing the galaxy in earnest prior to the earth’s impending demise. Or, as you mentioned, maybe they intended to set Aqua up as the center of their intergalactic government. I wonder if there will be any hints as to Aqua’s purpose further on.

    • In the manga thought, it is mentioned that “Grandma” was in the service for over 30 years. Whether or not that was just gondola-rowing aside, it’s not like only being there for a young age is the norm.


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