Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water
It’s been awhile since I last dipped a wary toe in the fertile but mossy lake of anime. The opportunity came again several weeks ago when my wife brought home an unfamiliar DVD from the library, thinking to give the kids an excuse to hear somebody’s Japanese besides ours. Normally I wouldn’t pay much attention to anything besides giant fighting robots, but the cover said something to the effect of “the best anime series ever made” and “based on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” Consider my curiosity piqued.
Nadia comes from a pretty unassailable pedigree. I was a big Jules Verne fan back in the day, with the venerable tale of Captain Nemo a favorite. The original idea for Nadia was put together by none other than Miyazaki Hayao, back when he was just some guy doing animation for other people. It seems, though, that he never did more than outline a story. Finally, the team of Anno Hideaki and Gainax Animation, those crazy minds behind Evangelion, did the full production at the behest of NHK, Japan’s quasi-public TV station. One would think that this combination is a sure thing, so I decided to give it a try.
This is Part One of our Nadia coverage, through Episode 16. It remains to be seen if Part Two will happen, based entirely on whether or not I make it any further in the series. The entire series has 39 episodes, but widespread Internet commentary says that almost a third of those, from the early twenties to the mid thirties, aren’t worth watching. This means that I have seen over half of the good bits, which is probably enough to make some judgments about it all. Thus far it is a mixed bag. The good parts are intense and impressive, the bad parts are about what one would expect from a TV anime geared towards 10-15 year olds. At its heart is a raging schizophrenia; Nadia can’t decide if it wants to be a tense sci-fi thriller or a zany kids’ show.
In that there is a captain named Nemo and his submarine, The Nautilus, Verne’s story gets a nod. That’s about where the similarities end, as the main characters are teen-aged Jean and Nadia, who stumble, as is the tendency of animated youngsters, into a plot much more complicated than they ever dreamed. Jean is a French inventor, while Nadia is a circus performer with a pet lion cub, both of whom are hinted to be from Africa. Immediate and surprising bonus points for Nadia being black, the series for being aware of it, and the occasional nods made toward racial equality. Anyway, they find themselves involved in a vendetta between The Nautilus and some guy from Atlantis who wears a funny mask and calls himself Gargoyle. There are various confusing twists and turns, an array of side characters, and a lot of questions still unresolved at the end of Episode 16, not the least of which concerns a strange crystal called Blue Water that Nadia carries around.
When the series tracks this story, especially the Gargoyle – Nemo conflict, it cranks up the tension, asks some hard questions, and tells a good steampunk before there was steampunk kind of story. Disc Two in particular comes ready to play, with some amazing shots of the bad guy’s hidden fortress, wild technology, and action intense enough to scare off my kids. As befits a TV series, some of the art is comparatively amazing. There are also plenty of easter eggs for anime fans, many of which probably went over my head. Two that I immediately noticed were Nemo, who is a dead ringer for Global from Macross (not so much when he takes off the hat), and at least one scene with Gargoyle’s people that was straight out of the original Gundam and its Nazi-ish Principality of Zeon.
I have narrative whiplash, however, from watching this thing boomerang from serious SF to crazy kiddie cartoon. Gargoyle will be making some grandiose speech about genocide and destiny in one minute, then kids will be running around the next dodging clumsy bad guys while making stereotypical anime expressions with giant mouths and floating sweat drops. Overly dramatic deaths are paired with comical (?) romantic subplots, while slice o’ submarine life bits interject themselves into underwater battle scenes. I suppose it’s rather obvious which parts I liked and which parts I occasionally skipped through.
Add to this some troubling gender imagery and an irritating female lead and the result is several episodes (hello, entirety of Disc Three) that are completely disposable. Nadia says something cringe-inducing at least once per episode as she randomly goes off on a militant vegan tear, accuses someone of cold-blooded murder after a battle of self-defense, or decides for whatever reason to be angry at Jean. I’m uncertain why they keep her around, though I suppose the secrets of her past (Nemo’s child perhaps?) give a plot-related excuse. I would prefer that she stay quiet and let the cool people (Nemo, Gargoyle) take the stage, but it’s a pain to mute the TV every time Nadia starts talking. (Apparently this all gets worse in the bad episodes, which frightens me.) Finally, despite this being on NHK (generally harmless and dowdy) and directed at 10 year olds, anime never fails to deliver chillingly awkward fan service. That may be a redundant phrase.
The most important question for me is: will I brave the remaining 8-10 non-crappy episodes? I don’t know. I’m curious to know what happens to Nemo and Gargoyle, why the Atlantean Empire is still around and blowing things up, and whether or not Anno and Gainax deliver any more nifty scenes. On the other hand, I can do without any more comedic hijinks and would like to keel-haul a major character. If I can get my hands on a movie compression, I may watch that instead, or just read some episode summaries on Wikipedia. Three plus hours is a lot to ask of a viewer when half of it is pointless. Part Two may eventually follow this review, but I have some other, higher priority stuff to get through first. Stay tuned, but I caution readers not to hold any breaths.
Rating: Freddy Adu. He started with much fanfare and promise, tailed off terribly in the middle, but may yet accomplish something great.