ANIME & MANGA - Review
11:00 - 11th July 2015, by Andrew Osmond

Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water

Speaking at last year’s Tokyo Film Festival, Hideaki Anno mentioned that he once watched a rerun of his 1990 series Nadia, and was pleased how well it held up. “I was really impressed… The young me was really enjoyable!” He was right.

Nadia is more than enjoyable. At best it’s superb, an anime classic. It starts with a speccy boy and a sullen, beautiful dark-skinned girl who doesn’t know where she’s from. The two meet on the Eiffel Tower in 1889, and are promptly chased by crooks after the girl’s blue jewel. From there Nadia explodes into a saga involving submarines, battleships, flying battleships and a terrific reinvention of Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo. There’s a scary masked villain, wondrous technology, hideous weaponry. There are robots, slapstick, sea monsters, growing-up pains, lethal love, shocking secrets…
…and a white lion-cub who says “Nyah!”

It’s an outstanding 27-part series. Unfortunately Nadia ran 39 weeks, and the surplus dozen episodes – 23 to 34 – aren’t so pretty. Often called the ‘island’ episodes (though they involve two islands and a trip to Africa), they’re mostly poor and sometimes excruciating, scribbling on the good stuff. In TV terms, Nadia jumps the shark thoroughly and painfully; but miraculously, it jumps back for the five-part finale, which is among the best anime endings ever.

First, let’s praise the “real” Nadia, minus the island episodes. It holds up in many ways. Certainly the narrative is energised by the character designs of Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, and by Shiro Sagisu’s exciting music. Both would reteam with Anno for Evangelion. But Nadia is fundamentally a thrilling yarn, a kids’ adventure whose adult themes repay multiple viewings. It’s exuberant from the start. The apparently helpless heroine Nadia is cornered on the Eiffel Tower by three crooks – only for the girl to run death-defyingly along railings, KO the heavies with a somersault kick, and then escape down a lift shaft!

All this amazes the boy Jean, a young inventor who’d followed Nadia hoping for a girlfriend. But he impresses her with his stream of gadgets, which he uses to keep the crooks away. His house opens up Thunderbirds-style to make a runway for his experimental plane! But then a deadlier foe appears, the impassive harlequin-masked “Gargoyle,” who is calm, coldly courteous, and a killer. He commands a faceless fanatic army, saluting the name of Neo-Atlantis.

But Gargoyle has a nemesis; Captain Nemo, who’s reimagined from the steampunk novel, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Nadia’s Nemo has thick black hair and a melancholic moustache; his voice is commanding yet gentle. In one shock scene, Nemo slaps Nadia; then he tenderly tells the girl to improve her outlook. Anime’s answer to Viggo Mortensen, Nemo is voiced in Japanese by the great Akio Ohtsuka, Batou in Ghost in the Shell.

Nadia positions Jean as a wide-eyed 19th-century lover of science. He’s set against Nemo and his futuristic Nautilus crew, who are on the other side of the atomic age. They’ve effectively lived through their own Hiroshima, as becomes horribly clear as the story unfolds. After Nadia and Jean start travelling on the Nautilus, the tone gets shockingly dark, like the “Nina” plotline in Fullmetal Alchemist. This isn’t the fun adventure you thought it was. Nadia part 16, where the characters descend for a funeral at the bottom of the world, is a near-perfect anime episode; Anno plumbs the murky depths he’d later mine for Evangelion.

Like Alchemist, Nadia has plenty of goofy comedy, but even the whimsy can have razor blades. One episode is a madcap Loony Tunes runaround with a giant robot crab, but it turns very serious at the end. The love-triangles look like silly sideshows, until you realise there’s a real, toxic love-triangle going on underneath, an operatic tragedy. Like older shows such as the 1970s Gatchaman, much of Nadia’s drama comes through its characters’ angrily trembling faces, through furious grimaces and eyebrows; even their very eyes arch.
In part 23, the first of the ‘island’ episodes, Jean stops a flood by drinking gallons of water, until his body’s a massive balloon. This is weirdly wrong – Nadia can be goofy, but surely not this goofy! But maybe it’s a metaphor for how the next dozen episodes will distort the show. Marking time until the story comes back, these episodes are full of sub-Loony Tunes nonsense, stabs at sitcom, and random stuff. A ten-minute dream sets up a Thunderbirds gag; Jean sings karaoke to a robot ukulele.

As we explained last issue, Anno wasn’t involved in these episodes, though he’s claimed Japanese viewers enjoyed them. Well, maybe the kids did, and anime fans who really liked randomness. But the island episodes are so pointless, farting around in a five hour-long holding pattern. Nadia herself is treated horribly. From the start, she was presented as a difficult girl, complaining and criticising, but with lion-like courage and boldness. The island episodes turn this believable teen into a ghastly, needy airhead, as if they’re trying to destroy Nadia when Gargoyle can’t.

Quite frankly, you can skip from parts 22 or 23 forward to 35, where the ‘true’ Nadia returns. The last five episodes are a marvellous pyrotechnic circus. There are final conflicts and sacrifices, startling crossovers with the future Eva, and mad mechas slamming into the Eiffel Tower. You might also watch part 31; it’s the least bad island episode, and actually fills in some plot. Or you can endure the whole run of Nadia, good and terrible. Remember, you’re luckier than the Japanese audience who watched it in 1990. You know it gets good again!

In a nutshell: two-thirds great, one-third bad. Watch it for the great stuff.
SCORE: 4/5
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