A 1990s favourite long unavailable on these shores, Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water is a classically-styled, swashbuckling adventure serial, finally granted a UK release earlier this year, courtesy of Animatsu.
Set in 1889, Jean, a teenage engineering prodigy, visits the Paris world fair to take part in a flying machine competition along with his uncle. While there, Jean becomes captivated by Nadia, a young circus acrobat, although unfortunately for him, she is barely willing to give him the time of day. When she is pursued by a criminal gang who attempt to ‘buy’ her from the ringmaster, however, Jean seizes the chance to come to her aid and get into her good books. Thus the two are plunged into an ever-escalating series of adventures, taking them from the streets of suburban France, out into the open seas, where they encounter Nemo, a mysterious sea captain locked in battle with a fascistic secret society.
The exact details may be lost to the mists of time, but legend has it that, back in the 1970s, Hayao Miyazaki pitched a number of ideas for a new adventure anime to the TV execs at NHK, one of which was for a story inspired by Jules Verne’s 20’000 Leagues Under the Sea. By the time the series went into development more than ten years later, Miyazaki had already sworn off TV work forever, leaving the job to those professional supernerds at Studio Gainax; out for their first big TV project and somewhat in need of a mainstream success, after the expensive commercial failure that was Wings of Honneamise.
Directed by Hideaki Anno (later of Evangelion fame), Nadia is unlike Gainax’s other, more fan-oriented productions, being aimed at a much wider audience, and often described as a ‘childrens’ show’. This label does it a disservice, however, as the tone and delivery of the series is perfectly in sync with the broad appeal of early Ghibli adventure films (particularly Laputa), albeit infused with Gainax’s own passionate childhood nostalgia for sci-fi anime of the 1970s. This may sound like an uneasy marriage, but in practice it works surprisingly well, with Nemo’s private war against Neo Atlantis coming across like a full-on space opera, played out at the bottom of the ocean. Indeed, one of the show’s greatest strengths is the sheer diversity in its narrative; we can go from sneaking around a secret factory, to exploring a deserted island, to submarine-borne combat in the space of as many episodes.
Characterisation is well handled throughout, but I was particularly impressed by how the series seems to make every member of the cast feel important – everyone genuinely has something to contribute to the overall experience. The slight downside of this is that Jean and Nadia are occasionally not the most interesting characters in what is ostensibly their adventure, but even when Nemo and his crew take centre stage, it still feels as though we have the childrens’ perspective, glimpsing a conflict they are only unwittingly part of, and do not entirely understand.
While undeniably a product of the 1990s, with all that entails, Nadia’s visuals have also aged well. Even by today’s tv anime standards, the series still looks good, with bright, colourful character designs and fluid animation put to good use for both dramatic scenes and pleasing comedic interludes. I would like to have seen a little more thought put into the look of the futuristic technology on display, but I think that is largely due to steampunk having become a much more established visual style since the show’s release.
Unfortunately, the one elephant in the room with this series is the inclusion of a notoriously poor run of filler episodes around two thirds of the way into its run. Nadia was actually a victim of its own success, proving so popular when it began airing that the TV network ordered it to be extended by nine further episodes, without providing any extra funding. Preferring to concentrate on the show’s finale, Anno left these episodes in the hands of his friend Shinji Higuchi, and it seems that all the love went with him. The resulting ‘Island Arc’ is a difficult thing to get through; characters are reduced to one-note caricatures, the animation rapidly drops in quality and the show’s impeccable sense of comic timing is totally lost. Mercifully, as these episodes add nothing to the plot, they are easily skippable and virtually written off altogether, when the proper story resumes afterwards.
Despite this unwanted baggage, however, I feel it would be uncharitable to mark the series down because of it. The series is brimming with good ideas and produced with such obvious care throughout the rest of its run, that it remains a staggering achievement for all involved. There is no doubt that the likes of Evangelion and FLCL cemented their place in fans’ hearts, but Nadia is also easily Gainax’s most accessible work to date and would be an excellent choice to show anyone not already acquainted with the medium.