Anime Review: Nadia – The Secret of Blue Water (A.G.E #1)

Written by MARTZ

MARTZ debuts his first edition of A.G.E (Anime Genesis Editorial), where he talks about the older anime shows that should (or should never) be watched. For this edition, he takes a look back at a GAINAX classic in “Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water”!

In the first of (hopefully) many articles in this series detailing anime classics, I’m going to be taking a look at one of the most recent shows I had the pleasure of watching: The deep sea-diving pre-cursor to Neon Genesis Evangelion – Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water.

Yes, a good half-a-decade before famed studio GAINAX received mass amounts of controversy and merchandise deals for its brilliant train wreck of a mecha show, director Hideaki Anno and character designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto decided to work on a series originally pitched in the 70’s by animation studio TOHO and none other than Hayao Miyazaki himself (Yes, HIM). The original concept was an anime adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic ’20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’, but somehow the project never materialized.

However, TOHO had still retained the original plot outline in the hopes of making their project a reality, and in the late 80’s, Anno (hot off his directorial debut in the brilliant ‘Gunbuster’) decided to take the helm as director, with TOHO, GAINAX and NHK working as the production teams behind the show. After over a decade since its original pitch, ‘Nadia’ would finally air its first episode on April 15th 1990, and would quickly garner a huge Japanese audience.

 

So yeah, interesting history aside, what exactly is the show about? Well, I mentioned that the original plan was to make ‘Nadia’ an adaptation of ’20,000 Leagues…’, but the end result resembled more of a tale inspired by the novel rather than a faithful retelling, and in this case that’s just fine.

Set in 1889, the story revolves around a young girl called Nadia, a nature-loving circus performer with no recollection of her past or her family, with her only possible link being the Blue Water, an ocean-coloured gem that she always wears around her neck. In the show’s opening episode, he meets-up with a young French boy called Jean (on the Eiffel Tower, no less). He wishes to become a prolific inventor, with the sole intention of finding his long-lost father, and decides to try and help Nadia in the process. Both children are then chased by the ‘Grandis Gang’, a trio of jewel thieves consisting of Sanson, a swarve expert in hand-to-hand combat and an expert marksman, Hanson, a skilled engineer and inventor of the gangs main mode of transport (an adaptive tank called the Gratan), and their leader, a once-wealthy woman by the name of Grandis Granva.

Together, they wish to take Nadia’s Blue Water away, and in the early episodes, act as the villains of the show, appearing either when an opportunity arises, or whenever they just happen to come across Jean and Nadia on their travels a la PokeMon’s Team Rocket. However, this only happens over the course of the show’s first seven or eight episodes before the story properly focuses towards the show’s real villain and the show’s other central character, the famous Captain Nemo himself, thus shifting the show’s focus and sending it into mass spoiler territory, of which I cannot go into further detail (…sorry).

But whilst I can’t talk of the progression of the story, I can at least talk about the themes and characters that ‘Nadia’ presents.

For starters, this IS a Hideaki Anno show, so anyone familiar with his work before or since ‘Nadia’ will know what’s on offer here. Apart from all the fancy pseudo-science (of which is actually explained during the show in great and interesting detail), Anno has always been a natural choice when it comes to developing younger characters via their interactions with older ones. Gunbuster did it, Evangelion did it, and Nadia is no exception. Nadia and Jean in particular come-off as proper 14 year-olds; old enough to handle the situations put up in-front of them, but not quite old enough to understand them. Romance, discovery, loss and growing-up are frequently bestowed on ‘Nadia’s’ protagonists, but it’s also the contrasting personalities that make for interesting (and occasionally amusing) moments.

 

Nadia’s short temper and strict vegetarianism are the two biggest factors. From a young age, Nadia has always been against the harming and killing of living creatures, regardless of the situation. She’s also never been a fan of technology, which is generally the exact opposite of Jean, who just can’t get enough of it. Take into account the obvious fact that both are of different ethnic races, it makes for some pretty enthralling moments (some of which are generally moving) and engaging chemistry that comes off as one of the show’s greatest strengths.

The rest of the cast also serve some very important roles, but are segmented somewhat. In later episodes, the role of the Grandis Gang moves from goofy criminal minds to adventure-yearning adults and mentors for Nadia and Jean. Captain Nemo’s role is more focused towards the main story itself, whilst other characters including a young girl named Marie and Nadia’s pet lion King are there to liven the mood when things might be turning grim. It’s a fantastic cast, and their diversity helps make ‘Nadia’ an anime that can be enjoyed by virtually anybody.

There are other elements that make the show work. Action set-pieces successively convey a sense of tension, whilst many of the scenes involving Grandis and her gang are incredibly fun to watch, and make a nice change from the often-serious undertones the show conveys. The shows main antagonist Gargoyle’s portrayal is also executed brilliantly, whether it’s his mysterious masked appearance, his level-headedness or his ability to command virtually any situation he’s in, he comes off as a proper villain, and his interactions with some of the shows characters (especially Nadia) are executed in a manner similar to the likes of Darth Vader. He never does anything that may be considered going “too far”, but what he does say and do has impact and very rarely comes off as cheesy. For a more family-oriented show like ‘Nadia’ (by Japan’s standards, at least), he fits the bill perfectly.

However, dubbing ‘Nadia’ as a kid’s show over in the west may be stretching it a little, and that’s justified by some of the show’s more mature content. For example, being a GAINAX production, there is a bit of fanservice every now-and-then, most of which involving Nadia. Sure, it’s NOWHERE NEAR the levels frequently seen in shows today (we’re not exactly talking Ikki-Tousen or High School of the Dead here), but there is the occasional shower scene, a couple of bath scenes (one of which showing-off Nadia’s rear in all of its glory) and the fact that nearly everything Nadia wears HAS to expose her navel (you should see what her idea of ship crew attire looks like). There’s also some low-detail on-screen nudity, and some bloody violence in a couple of episodes, although nothing too graphic. As a result, the show’s TV-14 rating is justified, although most episodes are generally clean.

Now of course, be it fanservice or the characters themselves none of this would have worked if it weren’t for Sadamoto’s likeable character designs. Whilst some may think the character designs are a bit too outlandish compared to his later work in Evangelion, they definitely work here, and let’s face it, there’s not another character out there like Nadia. Anywhere.

 

If you’ve been on enough anime websites, there’s a good chance you’ve seen her face at one time or another. As one of the first fully-established black girls in anime, Nadia’s look is as exotic as it is attractive, and she’s certainly up there with the likes of Sadamoto’s own Rei Ayanami (who could very-well be one of anime’s most bankable characters) in regards to pure face value.

The rest of the cast is not quite as instantly recognisable; but many still have their own merits. The only character of whom I had issues with was Nemo’s assistant Electra, whose design just comes off as a bit too simplistic (although a change in hair and attire later-on do a LOT to fix this).

Finding a nice gap between simplicity and excessiveness, the show’s designs also mark a turning point in the changes of art anime began to experience in the early 90’s. Sure, the characters may not look as refined or as detailed as Evangelion’s cast, but when you take a look at some of Sadamoto’s official art books, they can still work today, and that’s what makes the show’s characters stand-out for me.

One other aspect that has also failed to age is the show’s soundtrack. Written and composed by another man who will also go on to work on Evangelion (Shiro Sagisu), his score also helps to append many of the show’s defining moments and whilst not quite up to the standards of his later work, for one of his earlier projects, the soundtrack is very, VERY good. Full orchestras are accompanied by some brilliant piano work, and the variety in tones and styles is pretty staggering. Not every song is a winner, but when it comes to hitting the highs and lows during episodes, they definitely hit their marks.

I also have to mention that the opening and ending themes to ‘Nadia’ are also breathtaking.  “Blue Water” is one of the most uplifting openings I’ve heard in an anime, and it’s so damn catchy that it has claimed a permanent spot on my MP3 player. “Yes, I Will…”, also succeeds thanks to a delightful novel-esque art style during the ending credits, and for being such a damn good song in its own right (and as a fanboy moment, both were sung by Miho Morikawa, who also did the opening to the Dirty Pair OVA’s).

But from music to vocals, I had decided to watch the whole series in ADV’s 2000-2001 dub. I also watched a couple of episodes in the original Japanese track for comparison.

In regards to the dub, ADV did a grand job in the casting, particularly for the shows child protagonists. Meg Bauman does an admirable job as Nadia, who manages to convey her emotions very naturally throughout the show whilst also having some fun during the show’s more light-hearted segments. Nathan Parsons’ role as Jean isn’t quite as good – and his impersonation of a French accent is spotty in places – but it’s certainly a brave effort for a young and inexperienced voice actor at the time, and above all else, it didn’t annoy the hell out of me, which is definitely a plus. Compared to their Japanese counterparts, Nadia (played by Yoshino Takamori) sounds much younger by comparison whilst Jean (Noriko Hidaka) comes across as more natural.

The rest of the cast also benefits from a likeable range of talents. Then 11 year-old Margaret Cassidy plays Marie with a lot of spunk and delivers her lines with real energy and commitment. Grandis (Sarah Richardson) delivers a pretty convincing English accent that accurately portrays her higher upbringing, whilst Hanson (Corey M. Gagne) comes across as a bit of a loveable nerd fitting for the character.

But for all the performances,  Sanson is easily my favourite. Martin Blacker’s pompous -sounding accent for the character is simply perfect, and I still can’t get over how much more entertaining his scenes were when he was able to free his vocal restraints and go absolutely crazy with them.

Then there’s Nemo. When I first heard him in the dub, I had a bit of trouble with it. It sounded as if his voice actor (Ev Lunning Jr.) was still figuring-out what he wanted Nemo to sound like earlier in the shows recording sessions, but as time went on, he was given more freedom in his dialogue and all became clear. It sounded somewhat deep and exotic with a bit of a European twist. It’s hard to nail it down, but the end result really works for the character and it only gets better as the show progresses. His assistant Electra (Jennifer Stuart) was given a British accent for the dub, and is easily the most convincing of all the cast (whether or not her actress was actually British, I really can’t tell). The rest of the crew don’t stand-out too much, but they deliver their lines well and are thankfully free of any embarrassing accents. Gargoyle also sounds appropriately menacing and his delivery is also some of the best in the show (David Jones said for a DVD interview that not having to lip-synch his lines was a huge benefit), whilst the rest of the show’s extras range from average-to-good.

But in all honesty, I enjoyed the dub…a lot. For a dub that’s now over a decade old, it still holds-up. It’s not the greatest dub in the world (some will hate the somewhat cheesy accents) and the Japanese audio flows a bit more naturally in places, but truth be told, I’d seriously give the dub a chance (two or three episodes at best before making-up your mind). If not, the original sub is also more than watchable, so in essence, you really can’t lose either way.

So up to this point you can tell that I really do love this show. Everything about it makes me realize why I was drawn to anime in the first place, and it has that level of quality that only a studio like GAINAX can provide. The story, the characters, the music, the voice acting, everything stands up.

But with all that said, I can’t consider ‘Nadia’ a masterpiece.

Yes, you read that right. As amazing as this show can be, there is one major issue that plagues this series. I’m talking about the infamous island episodes.

Allow me to explain: Back when ‘Nadia’ was broadcast in Japan, NHK broadcasting was impressed by the show’s growing popularity, and decided to commission additional episodes as a result of this. What was originally set to be a 30-episode long show was now 39, and this extension caused a slew of problems. Notably, Anno himself actually stepped-down from his role as director after episode 22 in order to concentrate on the show’s final five episodes. Another GAINAX regular, Shinji Higuchi (Storyboards for End of Evangelion and Evangelion 1.0) took over until episode 34, when Anno would return.

During Higuchi’s time as director, many of the show’s filler episodes were outsourced to other animation studios in order to reach deadlines in time. The result of these ended in much lower production values as well as some awkward shifts in art style. Some of the worst offenders were from episodes produced by KAC, a Korean animation studio, whose character renderings and animation were so poor they basically made the episodes in question completely unwatchable. Many of the other filler episodes do stand better by comparison, but problems still persist.

 

The biggest problem from all of this is actually at the expense of the characters themselves. Nadia and Jean are stripped down to their most basic character traits and then accentuated to new levels of annoyance, and the relationship between the two also suffers because of this. As a result, scenes between the two often involve in personal conflicts, and they begin to show both characters in a negative light, showcasing Nadia as a stuck-up bitch, with Jean coming across as an inconsiderate jerk. There are scenes that TRY to fix this, but many of them end up feeling forced or amateur in execution, and the same problems would only occur in the next episode anyway.

The only saving graces are episodes 30 and 31. Now whilst episode 30 can be considered yet another filler episode (it’s actually one of the better ones in the arc), it helps flow naturally into episode 31, which is considered one of the most important episodes in the show. Not only does it have actual plot significance, but it also features probably one of the most touching moments in the whole series. I’m not even going to hint at what happens, but trust me, its worth watching.

But it is worth watching through hours of worthless filler? No, nothing is. With the exception of those two episodes the rest have absolutely no reason to exist. Sure, the series does recover, but watching a whole 10 episodes of crap in an otherwise fantastic series is almost heartbreaking, and has negatively impacted my enjoyment of the show. I’m not the only one. Read any anime forum regarding ‘Nadia’ and others will say the same: Skip the filler episodes. I even went as far as labelling the bottom of one of the DVD sets in the case that someone wants to borrow it off me to specify this: Watch all the way to episode 22, skip to episodes 30 and 31, and then watch 35 to 39. By following these instructions (of which might as well act as a level select cheat to a retro video game), you can skip the filler and watch the episodes that really mattered. Sure, there will be some broken links between some episodes, but take it from me, it’s the right thing to do.

  

But with that ugliness out of the way, I do want to emphasise that this series does end on a very high note, with an ending that does eventually tie all the loose ends, whilst delivering a few emotional moments before the ending credits roll. It’s a fitting end to a flawed, but memorable series. Sure, NHK would try and screw Nadia again with the motion picture (I’ll be more than happy to write about that one in the future) and the show itself isn’t exactly historically accurate (mankind has yet to invent air transportation, yet they can make battle mechs with extendable arms…), but when all is said and done, it’s all a bit like Nadia herself: Easy on the eyes, occasionally annoying, but always has a good heart.

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