By Kozue Amano. Released in Japan by Enix, serialized in the magazine Stencil. Released in North America by Tokyopop.
As part of my MMF post (and I will eventually review the book), a little history lesson. In the beginning there was Enix, a gaming and manga company that had several manga magazines it published, including Shonen Gangan and GFantasy. Stencil started out as a spinoff of GFantasy, attempting to be a bit more shoujo-oriented. It never quite succeeded, mostly as Enix has ALWAYS had an issue with basic shonen/shoujo demographics, even to this day. In any case, the magazine debuted in the late 1990s, and Kozue Amano's Aqua debuted there. Life was apparently difficult at Enix, and their merger with another company, Square, had many of the artists and editors nervous. So in 2001, one of the editors left to form Mag Garden, and took a number of the artists with him. They also took their series, and planned to continue them in the new magazines that would debut. Oh, the lawsuits that followed! After litigation, Square Enix agreed to give Mag Garden some cash, but the titles that moved had to be renamed, even if only a little bit. And so Aqua, after two volumes, became Aria. Mag Garden bought the rights to Aqua from Square Enix at the same time, and reprinted the volumes under their own banner and with new covers. This is the version that Tokyopop has licensed.
For those who are perhaps unaware of the plot, Akari is a young woman from Earth (called "Manhome" here) in the year 2301. She is flying to the planet Aqua, formerly Mars, to become an undine - a female gondolier who guides people around in Venetian rowing boats, touring the city. Akari is bubbly and happy, and seems to find almost everything endlessly fascinating. She joins Aria company, which seems to be a company of two. The other person is her sempai Alicia, a beautiful and laid-back onee-san type. The manga continues as Akari learns the ins and outs of gondoliering, makes friends, and watches the amazing scenery.
It has been noted by many that the main reason to love Aqua/Aria is the world that we see, and indeed as the series goes on the backgrounds and settings get increasingly more elaborate, verging on what has become known as "Scenery Porn". There's less of that in this first volume, as Amano is still honing her craft, but we do see signs of what's to come in a chapter where Akari and Aika (her grumpy yet lovable friend) attempt to follow their mascot through a maze of small alleys into the heart of Neo-Venezia, the city where they work. Most manga are character-based, but Aqua, while having fine characters, does manke you look at the whole page to take in everything, not just faces.
Aria was released first over here by ADV back in the day, and thus most people will be coming at Aqua after having read the 'sequel' series. It's not a prequel, however, but a true start to the series, giving us many of the elements we'll come to find familiar. The scenes with Alicia and Akari at the start will, in fact, be mirrored much later on in future volumes of Aria. I always enjoy when an artist works like that, as it gives the illusion of more planning ahead than was likely actually done. It shows they read their old work. The characters are still mostly sketches here, with Aika and Alicia not yet receiving the development they will get down the road, but we are just starting out. And there's President Aria. I've learned to put up with him, but I don't have to like him. He's there for goofy comedy, and inescapable. Oh well.
So since we don't have much characterization here, and plot is irrelevant to a series like Aqua, what's left? Well, mood. While the overall effect of the series is relaxing and sunny, we do have our first example of the chapters where the sort of faux sci-fi setting becomes faux-fantastical horror with the introduction of Cait Sith, the giant leader of the cats that only Akari ever interacts with. The interaction barely occurs in this first volume - she just gets a glimpse of the huge convention of cats - but as the series goes on, she sees more and more of the beast, to the point where it almost becomes an arc of the plot. These chapters generally have a different feel from the rest of the series, with the sense of wonder being turned inward to look at darker (though not quite creepy, this is never threatening) things.
In many ways, this is a typical first volume. The art is not as good as it gets, and I note the redrawn cover has the unfortunate effect of making Akari look sad and melancholy, which she isn't. Likewise, as we flesh out the world we get more shadings to folks like Alicia and Aika, who here are mostly just types. Still, if you haven't read any of Aria yet, I would definitely start here, as it gives a lot of the background and information that helps you understand things as you read further. And it's pretty. In all the best ways.