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.
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.