By Andrew Osmond.
Speaking at 2014’s Tokyo Film Festival, Hideaki Anno mentioned that he once watched a rerun of his series Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water, 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 specky 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 who want 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!”
Fundamentally, Nadia’s 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, knock out the heavies with a somersault kick, and then escape down an elevator shaft!
All this amazes the boy Jean, a young inventor. 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! Then a deadlier foe appears, the impassive harlequin-masked “Gargoyle,” who’s 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 by Jules Verne. Nadia’sNemo 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 nineteenth-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. 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, as Anno plumbs the murky depths he’d later mine for Evangelion.
Nadia has plenty of goofy comedy, but even 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 angry eyebrows; even their very eyes arch.
Nadia is a true odyssey, reinventing itself on the fly as you watch it. Episodes veer madly between the laughable, as heroes and villains pull out superweapons like a mecha Bugs Bunny toon, and the darkly sublime. Nadia and Captain Nemo are fascinating figures, burning with anger and longing.
It’s soon obvious that this show (or most of it) was directed by Eva’s future helmsman. For all the missiles and explosion, some of Nadia’s most effective images are still frames, composing figures moodily against their shadows. Some faux-naïve flashbacks with childish drawings anticipate the very weird stuff Anno would do in the last TV episodes of Evangelion. As Nadia herself grows troubled and unstable, it’s up to Jean, upbeat and go-getting, to save the series from becoming Eva five years early.
In his own words, Anno “threw too hard” making Nadia; he had to stop from exhaustion at part 22 of the 39-part series. The episode in question has several shock revelations and sets the main characters adrift. The next dozen episodes, sometimes called the “island episodes” (though they involve two islands and a side-trip to Africa) are comedic and often very silly. There’s an infamous dream sequence involving a Gerry Anderson Thunderbird, and a clips show set to ear-bleeding karaoke. Just to keep you watching, there are also more huge revelations about Nadia in the middle.
The Nadia episodes from 23 onwards were directed by Shinji Higuchi, who’d go on to make the live-action Japanese movies of Attack on Titan and team with Anno on Shin Godzilla. However, Anno recuperated enough to come back for Nadia’s end, presiding over its spectacular five-part finale (parts 35 to 39). They’re a pyrotechnic circus, full of final conflicts and sacrifices and mad mechas slamming into the Eiffel Tower. If you wondered where the Paris battle in the final Eva film came from…
These final episodes cement Nadia’s status as the mother of Eva. Beyond its shared themes and imagery, the series share character designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto and composer Shiro Sagisu – Sagisu’s presence is obvious if you compare the signature music for Nadia’s Nautilus and Eva’s vessel the Wunder. But Nadia stands in other traditions. For example, it’s an excellent example of steampunk – that is, science-fiction with retro-styled, overbuilt technology in the tradition of Verne.
It wasn’t the first steampunk anime. One of its precursors was Hayao Miyazaki’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky in 1986. Readers may have noticed that Nadia starts quite a lot like Laputa. Both have a boy finding a strange girl who carries a mysterious crystal, who’s chased both by funny bad guys and really bad guys.
There’s a reason for that… Nadia was kind-of adapted from a story outline which Miyazaki had created in the 1970s, about two kids and Captain Nemo. The story wasn’t made at that time, and Miyazaki moved on, recycling bits of the idea in Laputa. Miyazaki’s “Nemo” idea, though, was kept by the film studio Toho.
More than a decade later, Toho brought the concept to the young Studio Gainax, which had recently made the girls-in-space video series Gunbuster. It was directed by Anno, who ended up taking on Nadia as well. At 2014’s Tokyo Film Festival, Anno recalled how Nadia was presented to Anno and Gainax by the public broadcaster NHK as a ‘decided’ production, and not an appealing one. Anno described the original script as terrible; he could see it would be drudgework to make it. He felt he had to make changes, even at the risk of annoying his clients. “I needed to go out on a limb.” He also wanted to distinguish the series from Miyazaki’s Laputa.
Anno and his fellow staff began rewriting Nadia’s script and characters. Luckily one of the show’s backers, Toho, opted to side with Gainax, believing the changes would make Nadia more commercial. Anno hated having to show his storyboards to the NHK producer, but found a strategy. He delayed showing them to the last possible moment, exploiting the tightness of TV schedules, so that NHK had no time to demand revisions. Anno stayed close to NHK’s basic outline for the first few episodes, but once the Nautilus turned up (in part 4), Gainax used less and less of NHK’s story.
By the end, Anno claims, he didn’t even look at what NHK sent. As well as Toho, Gainax had an ally in the Japanese media, which liked Nadia because it was different from the NHK norm. Eventually, Anno said, NHK came round to letting the Gainax youngsters do their own thing.
Of course, the way Nadia starts like Laputa and develops into something nearer Evangelion is one of the things that makes the series interesting. You might also link Nadia to Gunbuster, not for their sophisticated SF themes, but rather for their sexy girls! Gunbuster had been a shamelessly fanservice-y series – google “Gainax bounce” – and Gainax wanted to bring that attitude to primetime.
In the first episode of Nadia, we see the heroine wearing a skimpy circus costume. On Anno’s account, Nadia’s broadcaster NHK thought she would only be wearing it for that episode. Any more would be too sexy for the channel! But post-Gunbuster, Gainax knew the commercial value of showing skin, and Nadia wore her breezier garb through the series, especially in the publicity images. Gainax particularly wanted Nadia to bare her belly-button, as she does prominently in the title sequence.
Nadia’s costuming wouldn’t win many feminist awards, but her character is something else. Nadia has dark and troubled thoughts, even self-hating thoughts, while she complains and criticises like a believable teenager. But she’s strong, immensely brave, and a lionlike defender of the vulnerable. As the Anime Encyclopedia notes, she’s an animal rights activist ahead of her time. She’s also, very notably, a heroine of colour. While race in anime is often ambiguous, there aren’t many anime characters who are clearly non-white and non-Japanese, and fewer still who are the series lead. Nadia was voted most popular female anime character by the readers of the magazine Animage in 1991, when she toppled Miyazaki’s Nausicaa.
Of course, it’s more complex. You could argue that Nadia’s blackness makes her “exotic” sexiness as a circus acrobat racially rum, even flat-out offensive. In fairness, it should be said that we see Nadia in circus garb after we’ve already seen her in normal clothes riding a bicycle, where she’s the picture of female elegance. Another issue is that Nadia thinks she’s from Africa, but doesn’t really look remotely African (though other supporting characters do). Some early Nadia character drawings show a far more African-looking Nadia, complete with wavy, kinky hair. They also show a black Captain Nemo, who in the actual series is brown-skinned at most.
Reportedly, it was Nadia’s hair that led to her being redesigned into a less ‘African’ character, on the grounds that frizzier hair would be hard to animate consistently through a TV series. Whether that’s truly the case, or if there were other reasons why Nadia was changed – such as a belief that an African-looking heroine wouldn’t play to anime audiences – it’s a dubious compromise. Nonetheless, Nadia is still black, and a wholly sympathetic, heroic character who carries the story.
When Nadia appeared in the early 1990s, it was sold to many countries, from Italy to Taiwan. However, the anime markets in America and Britain were in their early days, and had trouble handling it. First, Nadia was snapped up in America by Carl Maceck (Robotech) who hoped to put it on TV. His strategy was to dub the first eight-part arc on video as a taster for the networks. It’s this dub that some British fans saw in the 1990s on import, with Nadia voiced by the prolific actress Wendee Lee.
However, Maceck’s bid failed; no network picked up the show. The 39-episode count may have been a problem, as networks wanted bigger cartoon packages. Another issue might have been the darkness and violence of some episodes, some easier to cut than others. Typically for Gainax, the ‘dark’ episodes were often the weightiest in story terms.
It wasn’t just an issue in America. In France, for example, the series was first shown on TV dubbed and censored. Later it turned up on a cable channel in what seems to have been a hybrid form – mostly it was the French dub, but the previously cut scenes were inserted in Japanese with subtitles! In Japan, Gainax got away with the violence, but they wouldn’t always be so lucky. A few years later, the TV Evangelion got the studio in hot water with broadcasters, for both sex and violence.
In America, ADV Films acquired the series after Streamline lost the licence, and created its own, complete, dub. In this version, which has been used ever since, Nadia and Jean are both played by child actors, 14 year-old Meg Bauman and 12 year-old Nathan Parsons. This contrasts not only with Streamline’s dub but also the Japanese original, where both characters are voiced by adult women! The Japanese Jean was voiced by Noriko Hidaka, who’d previously voiced the heroine in Anno’s Gunbuster.
For readers watching Nadia for the first time, it’ll be a fascinating piece of anime history, and a missing link between seminal titles of yesteryear – Evangelion, Laputa, and even Gunbuster and its “Gainax Bounce.” It’s an ingenious reinvention of Verne, and one of the best steampunk fantasies ever to grace the screen (so Fullmetal Alchemist, you owe it too). But most of all, it’s a wild, rip-roaring, cliffhanging adventure. Enjoy!
Andrew Osmond is the author of 100 Animated Feature Films. Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water is released in the UK by Anime Limited.