There are times when I am forced to doubt my own taste. Aria the Scarlet Ammo is widely hated (even by its own subbers), and I can see why. The plot is telegraphed, the unoriginality is staggering, and the series seems to revel in its implausibility. And I loved every minute of it.
The opening episode makes an effort to be clever and self-aware, talking about the implausibility of its clichéd beginning (a girl falling from the sky) - but by now this itself is just another cliché. From there the plot advances at a reasonable pace, with a shadowy organization making attacks on our heroes and their classmates. But in truth there's little logic to the choice of targets, and one early episode seems to leave several dangling threads which are never picked up. The second half is better, with a more tightly directed arc sweeping around to a fitting conclusion.
In fairness Aria is more about the character relationships than the plot, and here it remains firmly on course. Male lead Toyama's interaction with the titular Aria is conventional to a fault - indeed, they hit every tsundere cliché in the book. With every show I watch in this genre I find myself more appreciative of Toradora, which managed to portray tsundere-ish behaviour but had a realistic take on the negative consequences of it. Aria goes for cheap laughs over realism every time, and there's only so many times a girl attacing an innocent guy for an imagined slight will amuse. Even so, the relationship has its moments of tenderness - though Aria has all the subtlety of a brick in delivering them - and there's some charm to be found in watching it develop. The emergence of another character as a kind-of-but-not-really rival for Toyama's affections is similarly charming but conventional. The one innovation is Toyama's "Hysteria Mode" - when aroused, he turns fantastically competent but also insufferably smug (in a way the ladies swoon for, but he himself hates). It sounds - and is - ridiculous, but it provides a great way to make combined romance/action scenes actually make sense. And the silliness barely registers against Aria's general background.
Aria seems at first to revel in piling absurdity on absurdity. A school for police-types makes some sense; making their uniforms bulletproof is a good trick if you can do it, but giving minor characters psychic powers seems entirely gratuitous (they're not even relevant to the main plot). However, the ending makes up for a lot of this; it brings together all the sillinesses of the previous episodes and not a jot more, allowing a really satisfying sense of closure. Sadly we can't say the same for the character subplots; while Toyama/Aria concludes as such things must, an earlier love rival seems to have been simply dropped. It's a disappointing level of disorganization in a series this short, along with the aforementioned dangling character plot.
I'd like to say the series would be better if it dropped both characters from early episodes, giving more time to focus on characterization of the lead three. But in truth each is so utterly archetypal that I don't think there's any more depth to reveal. So perhaps Aria is right to have what are practically filler episodes, and certainly they never bothered me while I was watching them.
Action is the other important element of Aria, and here it goes from good but depressingly conventional to simply good. The series deserves praise for keeping its gunfights interesting and varied, something much harder than the same task for swordfights. But with good use of location, team balance and the occasional supernatural power, Aria pulls it off beautifully. The series can also boast a fantastic opening tune, and very good music generally, with some nice recurring motifs around the fight dynamics. General animation is perfectly decent, if nothing special by modern standards, and voice acting was generally convincing - though Aria's absurdly high-pitched sound seems a bit cheap.
So: all-round good presentation, wayward plot and setting salvaged by a very elegant conclusion. Woefully stereotyped characters, with no surprises anywhere in their interactions. I can't fault anyone for hating Aria the Scarlet Ammo, given the breathtaking unoriginality of the character-driven side of its story. Nor can I in good conscience recommend it, given what the reaction elsewhere has been. But personally I found it the most enjoyable show of its season (notwithstanding the ongoing Steins;Gate).
Overall Rating: (7.8/10)