Monday, September 30, 2013

Anime Review: Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water

A long time ago, a young upstart animator named Hayao Miyazaki was hired by Toho to create a television series. Being a fan of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, he came up with an outline for a show called Around the World Under the Sea. The idea was that a pair of orphaned children got caught up in a conflict against a great evil and a rebel submarine crew. The idea was shelved and never developed, but Miyazaki would later take the concept and tweak it somewhat to make Castle in the Sky.

Jump to a few years later, where a new, flourishing animation studio called Gainax, known for having created the Daicon III and IV sci-fi promos, Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise and Aim for the Top! Gunbuster (and later would make such hits as Neon Genesis Evangelion, FLCL and Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann), was approached by Toho to make a TV show for Japan's public broadcaster, NHK. While digging around, the studio members found Miyazaki's concept and were captivated by it. Handing it off to Gunbuster director Hideaki Anno, they developed the series into one of the most popular anime of the early 90s, Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water.

Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water (Fushigi no Umi no Nadia)

Source: Original (loosely based on Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea)Vintage: 1990-1991Animation: Gainax, Group TACDirector: Hideaki Anno (1-22, 35-39), Shinji Higuchi (23-34)Writer(s): Hideaki Anno, Toshio Okada, Akio Satsukawa, Karou Umeno, Hisao Okawa (scripts), Hayao Miyazaki (original concept outline)Genre: Adventure, science fiction, historical fictionLength: 39 half-hour episodes

Our colorful cast

The year is 1889. The world is experiencing great technological growth, especially over the sea. However, lately there have been several reports of "sea monsters" attacking various trade ships. The truth behind them, however, is far less fantastic, but even more terrifying...

One day, a young inventor named Jean Rocque Raltique is with his uncle in Paris for a grand science festival. While there, he meets a strange girl with dark skin and a blue gemstone around her neck. This girl is named only Nadia, having come there with a traveling circus, trying to learn her birthplace and the meaning of the jewel she possesses. The two are later ambushed by a red haired woman, the vain and short tempered Grandis Granva, and her two flunkies, the tall self-proclaimed dandy Sanson and the short but intelligent Hanson. They demand that Nadia hand over the jewel she has, calling it the Blue Water. Together, the two escape their clutches, meeting with the cheerful and innocent 4-year old orphan named Marie en Carlsberg, and eventually they all find themselves on board a magnificent submarine called the Nautilus, being commanded by the enigmatic Captain Nemo and his down to earth, no-nonsense first mate Electra. From there, they learn that the Nautilus is locked in a struggle with the evil organization known as Neo-Atlantis, led by the masked villain Gargoyle, and that the Blue Water is at the center of the conflict. Thus, they set off to save the world from complete domination, and uncover the secret of Blue Water.

The story is very reminiscent of old adventure novels and serials, and this deliberately so given the inspiration. There's the exotic mystery behind Nadia's origin, which many people speculate on due to her unusual skin color (no one is able to figure out whether she's African, Indian, Egyptian, Arab...not even her) and her mysterious Blue Water. There's a clear cut bad guy, who want to conquer the world for some vague and ill-defined reason, complete with a simple, but menacing appearance, and a strong cast of heroes to combat them. They find exotic locations and the action is always grand and impressive...when it happens.

See, despite ostensibly being an adventure show, it feels incredibly claustrophobic; the majority of the series takes place aboard the Nautilus, which tends to be underwater half the time. They visit islands, but the time spent on them isn't very long, and after all the main characters are rounded up, there isn't much in the way of meeting new people in the few places they visit. As a result, there really isn't much action to happen, either. There can be a good stretch of episodes in which the characters just sit around and talk, or goof off doing something innocuous like learning how to cook. These down moments aren't unwarranted or even all that bad, but after 3 episodes pass by without a peep from the villains, you start to wonder if maybe they've just given up off screen. It leads to being pretty slow feeling for a good chunk of it.

This kind of stuff happens more often than I'd like...

But when the action does happen, you better strap yourself in because it's spectacular. You get to see the ingenuity of all the Nautilus crew members, inventing new gadgets, coming up with new strategies on the fly as torpedoes soar through the sea, and that's just when they are underwater. The first island arc, where our heroes first get introduced to Neo-Atlantis, is something straight out of an Indiana Jones flick, and the battles only escalate from there. In fact, it really says something when the Nautilus goes toe to toe with an airship with super powered magnets and pseudo-nuclear bombs, a conflict worthy of a final battle, occurs two-thirds of the way through. The real finale? Well...that'd be spoiling it, but suffice to say, it is more magnificent than you can possibly imagine.

Flying submarines. That is all.

The characters are pretty darn likable and all have their own goals and personality quirks. Jean is constantly fascinated by technology and wishes to be a great inventor in his own right, specifically making aeroplanes to find his lost father. Grandis wishes for jewels and wealth, until meeting Nemo reignites a passion in her heart she long forgot about. Sanson is mostly comic relief with his ego and suave demeanor, but his unbridled courage and strength makes him one the shows better characters, along with his much smarter and more reserved counterpart Hanson. Nemo and Electra are shrouded in mystery, and their characters aren't fully developed till later on, but they are determined and willing to make any sacrifice they can to stop Neo-Atlantis. Gargoyle is fairly stereotypical as a villain, but he is still very menacing, cold and effective. Even Marie, a 4 year old girl, despite her occasional annoyances, can be a source of levity in darker times.

Oh, you wanna know about Nadia? Well, to be perfectly blunt...she's terrible.

She has this sort of air around her that feels like she's straight out of Miyazaki's original draft, only magnified to be his mouthpiece. She too has a mysterious past, and it is true that near the end of the show, she gets a lot better, but for far too long, she is the resident stick in the mud. No, worse than that; she is constantly on her soapbox, delivering preachy, condescending speeches to anyone and everyone that does something she disagrees with. Whenever she isn't talking, she has a scowl on her face at everyone around her. She does this not only to the bad guys, who probably deserve it, but to her fellow crewmates as well. It also gets really annoying when it's the same three topics she has to spew about every single time; either 1) "Science and technology are bad because they destroy nature and the world", 2) "Jean isn't paying attention to me so I'm going to blame everyone else for everything" and 3) "Killing is wrong so everyone everywhere should stop eating meat". Her pretentious, greater-than-thou attitude gets irritating fast. The only reason she's tolerable in later episodes is only because the plot has gotten to the point where there's simply no room for to yell about these things anymore. She does calm down a bit, but it's too little too late at that point. To anyone who thought that Asuka Langley Soryu was a terrible character, Nadia is far, far worse.

75% of her dialogue in a nutshell.

Getting back to the good, the animation is, for its day, very good. It features the traditionally expressive and fluid movements that Gainax is known for, with a lot of great designs for the vehicles and gadgets in this. The colors are bright, the action is detailed and huge, to the point that some shots look like they are theatrical quality animation, and even the tiniest wave of hair gets a lot of effort put into it. The music, scored by Shiro Sagisu, is suitably grand and adventurous, with plenty of orchestral magic behind them, even if they do sound a little tinny. Voice acting across the board is also well done in both languages, and a special nod goes to ADV's dub for having the guts to cast the child characters with actual children. Meg Bauman (14 at the time) does a great Nadia, and Margaret Cassidy (11 at the time) is actually even better at being Marie than her Japanese counterpart. Granted, Nathan Parson's Jean is a little screechy and sounds like he's going through puberty (which he probably was, being 12 at the time), and paired with his inconsistent French accent, he's definitely the worst of the bunch, but even he has his moments. Plus, other outstanding performances from Ev Lunning Jr. (Nemo), Martin Blacker (Hanson), Corey M. Gagne (Sanson) and David Jones (Gargoyle) elevate this to being one of ADVs better dubs.

There is, however, one fatal drawback this show has, and that's with what fans generally refer to as "The Island Arc", or, more specifically, the "Island/Africa arc". See, the show was originally meant to run 24-26 episodes, the standard for anime. But due to the unexpected popularity, NHK commissioned the show to run for 39. Hideaki Anno was overwhelmed with work, as he tried to make an additional 13 episodes to make the order, but he knew he couldn't do it, with production falling behind schedule, and given his own increasing frustration with a lack of creative control on the project, it wasn't helping matters. So he handed off directing duties to his friend Shinji Higuchi for about twelve episodes so he could focus on the final five. The result is nine episodes of much maligned padding that goes nowhere.

Essentially, after episode 22, Jean, Nadia and Marie all wind up on a deserted island. This is, sadly, where they spend most of their time, just doing whatever they can think of doing, and ultimately wasting time. There are no battles with Neo-Atlantis, no Nautilus, nothing that has anything to do with the plot for a long time. The fact that the animation for these episodes was notoriously low quality only helped establish this arc as a cut rate Looney Tunes short stretched out way too long

Yes, it really does look that bad sometimes.

Really, there are only two episodes that hold any real significance to the overall plot. Episode 30 leads directly into episode 31, which contains a huge revelation that changes the the scope of the entire series. A few episodes into the arc, the kids reunite with the Grandis gang, along with a man named Ayerton. That's all you need to know to get what's going on; skipping episodes 23-29 is actually recommended. And even after the big plot twist, they still needed to go off to Africa for three episodes to do nothing of any real importance, so after you're done with 31, just skip straight to 35. Your experience will be better for it. That being said, the Island arc isn't without some merit. The blossoming relationship with Jean and Nadia is actually well done, with a little bit more characterization for Nadia that explains why she's such an animal rights activist. Plus, there are some genuinely funny moments here and there. It's just buried under extremely stupid things like, say, Jean trying to stop a flood of water by drinking it all.

You thought I was kidding.

Luckily, the plot gets moving again with episode 35, and the final four episodes are truly something to behold and more than makes up for the filler. If you want to watch the Island episodes, there's nothing really stopping you, it's just 90% pointless is all.

Also, a fair warning to anime-inclined parents. Given the lighthearted nature of the story, you'd think this would actually be a great show for kids. And for the first four episodes, it seems like it is. After all, the most prominent villains up to that point were essentially a proto-Team Rocket. But with episode 5, it starts getting a little too violent for kids, and though there are still plenty of lighter moments, there are some really heavy dark moments that could frighten them. There's even an entire episode devoted to a funeral for the characters that died in the previous one. Plus, there are a few instances of partial nudity, and in one episode, full in the buff (though nothing is shown; not even nipples are present). If the violence was toned down just a little bit, the fanservice not quite as blatant, then it could easily pass for a PG rated action adventure for children 9-12. As it is, though, it's generally more suited for teenagers. I only bring this up because the nature of the early episodes don't quite indicate how dark it can get later on. If you are a parent, then you should probably wait until your kids are a bit older before watching this, or at least watch it with them.

Overall, taking the entire series as a whole, Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water is a good old adventure show from beginning to end. While there are long stretches of very little happening, when it gets going, it goes full throttle, and takes you on one hell of a ride. If it was a bit more tightly paced and some of the character flaws were ironed out, particularly Nadia, then this could easily be considered a forgotten masterpiece. Even as it is, it's definitely a unique and engaging diamond in the rough; it may have some scuffs, but its brilliance still shines through.

"Come watch Nadia! It's great!"

The show is available on DVD by Sentai Filmworks and Section23 Films. You can get themand .
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