Omo wrote an interesting article over here regarding Aria’s setting, specifically what purpose there is in using a blatantly science-fiction setting rather than simply setting the story in the real-world Venice. Rather than doing my usual thing and writing a gigantic comment, I’m going to use it as motivation not to be lazy and actually sit down and write something.
I think there are many reasons why Aria has its science fiction setting, and while I think Omo does hit on the most major of them, there are other factors at play too. Suspension of disbelief is probably the most major goal with the setting. By setting the story in Bizzaro-Venice situated on Kevin Costner’s Mars we are subtly being told to leave our preconceptions based off any knowledge we have of the real Venice behind. Religious and political elements become largely irrelevant.
It’s also worth noting that the setting basically works as a caveat emptor for the author. Using the real-world Venice is restrictive. Certain landmarks are in very specific places, and there are a lot of small details which need to be fairly accurate. After all, the story itself revolves around the daily life of the people of the city, told through the eyes of a girl who is still learning about it. If some details are wrong, some landmarks are in the wrong place or something, well then that’s because they had to build it in a slightly different place because it’s not the real Venice. If the author wants to put some special building into the place, work in some special landmark, or anything like that, then she’s able to do so with no repercussions because it’s not the real Venice. If she wants to work in a creepy giant cat-thing, that’s okay because it’s clearly a work of fiction. It’s set on Mars!
The setting also better allows the work’s tone to be expressed. Neo-Venezia is almost utopian in its presentation (I say ‘almost’ because Utopia implies perfection. It’s close to a utopian ideal, but not quite there). One of the enduring charms of the series is Akari’s purity and innocence as she interacts with the people of the town. Everyone is kind to each other and the closest the show ever comes to conflict is a slightly angry old man with a heart of gold. By separating from reality, you can essentially make an idealised vision of Venice. You don’t need to know about the fact that a lot of the expansion of the real city was due to wealth brought back after the sacking of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. You don’t need to know about their military campaigns. You don’t need to know about the fact that the city is in decline, both figuratively and literally. Neo-Venezia can be the beautiful, perfect Venice it is because of the setting.
I think it’s also very important that the setting itself be separated from the ‘real world’ of Earth because of some subtle implications that this has on Akari as a character. It’s often forgotten that all the other characters in Aria (with the exception of Ai) grew up in Neo-Venezia. Akari traveled there from another planet. She is an outsider. Granted, this could be just as easily achieved by setting it in the real Venice, and having Akari come from Japan, but I think it was fairly important that notions of race and country of origin be left out (see the previous point). I actually find it fairly interesting that this particular element of Akari’s character. We never hear her talk about her family, and she is more interested in corresponding with Ai than she is any actual relatives she has. I always saw this as a subtle suggestion that her reasons for coming to the city were due to some kind of issues with her family on Earth, and I think that this is another point where the setting enhances the point. Akari comes from the ‘real world’ of Earth but because she is able to see the beauty of the city and its people, she is accepted – in fact, the spirit of the city (aforementioned Cait Sith, who creeps the shit out of me) allows her to see and experience things that none of the other characters are shown. Neo-Venezia will accept anyone from the ‘real world’ regardless of their circumstances. If the real city was used to drive this kind of point then it would seem fairly cynical and condescending, wheras the setting allows us to accept this at face value.
So in the end, the setting really is critical to achieving the level of emotional engagement and appreciation for Akari’s childlike wonder and innocent love of her adopted home. Also, the best characters definitely row their boats with both gloves on.