Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water – Review

by Jon Turner

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In the mid 1970’s, prior to obtaining his well-deserved status as Japan’s greatest animator ever, a young Hayao Miyazaki was hired by Japanese movie giant Toho to develop ideas for TV series. One of these concepts was “Around the World Under the Sea’, based on Jules Verne’s literary classic “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” Although it was never produced, Toho nonetheless kept the rights to the story outline. Miyazaki would reuse elements from his original concept in later projects of his, notably the Sci-Fi series Future Boy Conan and the action-adventure feature Castle in the Sky (this explains why Anime fans often find similarities between the show I’m about to review and the latter film). Ten years later, Japanese animation studio GAINAX was commissioned to produce this very scenario. Under the direction of brilliant but angst-ridden Hideaki Anno, the animation studio took the central story and setup Miyazaki had developed and touched it up with their creativity. The result was Nadia—The Secret of Blue Water, which has since become a longtime fan favorite with many followers of Anime. The show was a tremendous success in its initial 1990 Japanese broadcast; the title character, Nadia, showed up on the Japanese Animage polls as favorite Anime heroine, dethroning Miyazaki’s own Nausicaä, the previous champion. (Incidentally, Anno had previously worked for Miyazaki; his most notable credit for animating the climax from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.)

The story begins in 1889 France at a Paris World Exposition Fair where contestants show off their flying machines. One such contestant is Jean, a bespectacled boy of fourteen who also happens to be a scientific genius. He and his uncle are prepared to launch their newest aeroplane when the boy spots a pretty, dark-skinned girl passing by on a bicycle. Instantly smitten, Jean follows her to the Eiffel Tower and tries to make friends. The girl, who goes by the name of Nadia, however, is another story. She is an unhappy circus acrobat who has become bitter, strong-willed, and suspicious as a result of thirteen years of mistreatment by her cruel ringmaster. Apparently she has no clue about her past other than a jeweled necklace known as the Blue Water. Her only companion is a little lion cub, King (who incidentally shows his testicles at multiple points in the show); consequently, she does not trust anyone else and acts aloof and uninterested to Jean’s exuberant overtures.

Just then, though, the girl is kidnapped by a trio of comic bandits who want her necklace. These include Grandis Granva, a bodacious woman with scarlet hair and a fiery temper to match and her two male accomplices– vain, arrogant Sanson, and mechanic, unkempt Hanson: all three threaten to steal the show with their pricelessly funny interactions and in their doings. The persistent Jean pursues and finally manages to rescue Nadia from the trio by crashing his new aircraft into the trio’s vehicle, a beetle-shaped tank called the Gratan. Consequently, he earns her trust. Furthermore, Jean learns that Nadia has no parents and does not wish to return to the circus. Graciously, he takes her to his home in LeHarve, despite the objections of his cantankerous aunt. Through her newfound relationship with Jean, Nadia finds herself learning to trust another person her own age for the first time in her life.

The pair are soon thrust into an even bigger adventure when they set off to find Nadia’s birthplace, supposedly located in Africa. They set off in another aircraft prepped by Jean, only to land in the ocean; later, they are rescued by a US battleship hunting down sea monsters, and then taken aboard a spectacular submarine called, yes, the Nautilus (commanded by the charismatic but quietly reserved Nemo and his pretty First Officer Electra). Already fast friends, Jean and Nadia will have a lot to deal with during the course of their surprising adventure. These comprise the first four episodes of Nadia, which provide a very engaging and fresh beginning to a long, turbulent (no pun intended) series.

It’s the characters that really sell Nadia as a whole, but it’s mainly the relationship between Jean and Nadia that gets the focus of the show. The two youngsters are opposites, but are nonetheless bounded by loss and alienation. Jean is an incredibly intelligent youngster who is sweet-natured, kind, and extremely patient, if at times naive about the world; in other words, he is probably the most lovable character in the show. (One could almost mistake him as a protagonist that Hayao Miyazaki could have developed, notably Pazu from Castle in the Sky, only a bit nerdier—which I mean in a good way.) Nadia, by contrast, is a much more complicated person. Having grown up unloved in a circus for more than thirteen years, she has a very pessimistic nature about the world, detests grown-ups, cannot tell the difference between killing out of defense or cold blood, and has unbendingly strict views about eating meat that she often imposes on others. This is one troubled character who really has a lot of growing up to do, and at times, her rages can be alienating to the audience (thank goodness Jean always forgives her)… but at least these episodes show her as a conflicted, moody individual, not the cartoonishly annoying caricature she is reduced to in the abysmal filler arc in the second half (more on that later).  Aside from discovering her past, the focal point in Nadia’s character is her transformation into a genuinely trusting, caring young woman, primarily due to her growing love for Jean.

As for the rest of the cast, Grandis, Sanson, and Hanson make for a howlingly funny trio, and it is intriguing to see them become into likeable characters who aid the young protagonists. Captain Nemo and Electra are every bit as well-defined. Unlike the Jules Verne original, Nemo is not portrayed as a vengeful, cold-blooded killer, but a noble, honorable man who hides behind a mask of guilt for a set of past mistakes that we don’t find out about but are hinted at in this collection. Electra is mostly overprotective of Nemo and competes fiercely with Grandis for his love.

While it seems that most of the show is about the social interactions between these characters, Nadia is, at heart, an action-adventure story… or at least that it mainly intends to be.  With a cast as interesting as this and a plot containing similar depth (more into that later), it would be a shame for Nadia to suffer from even one glaring problem… and yet, for all the acclaim it receives from fans, the show falls disappointingly short of “classic status” for one fatal reason—it is inconsistent as a work, and sometimes, horribly flawed.

As a matter of fact, Nadia is at its best in the opening half of the show.  Despite a somewhat slow start on episodes 1-4, Nadia  really gains its ground for the subsequent four, in which our pals are thrust into an island survival action adventure while protecting an orphaned girl, Marie (a character who I neglected to mention, an adorable cutie who comes to see Jean and Nadia as her new parents—to the point where she senses that the two are destined for each other), from the sinister Neo Atlantis cult, a group of brutal soldiers wearing masks. (Think the Nazis and the Ku Klux Clan, and there you go.) The ringleader of this organization is Gargoyle, a cruel, calculating, misanthropic fiend who wants Nadia’s Blue Water at any cost. The ringleader of this organization is Gargoyle, a cruel, calculating, misanthropic fiend who wants Nadia’s Blue Water at any cost.  (This masked villain, who sort of resembles Darth Vader, is a spectacularly brutal and sinister one, particularly in his techniques of using threats and psychological twisting to order his captives to obey his will.  He’s also very arrogant—seeing himself as a superior to others and looking down on humans as a “defective”, untrustworthy race that deserves to be enslaved.)  Anyway, Nadia gets captured, and the Grandis gang unexpectedly turn into allies, helping Jean rescue Nadia, Marie, and little lion cub King from the treacherous overlord; a twist that again brings Castle in the Sky to mind. One could easily watch these first eight episodes on their own and easily stop watching afterward, as they do build to an exciting climax.

But this is only the beginning; the four-part “Gargoyle’s Island” arc is followed by episodes 9-22, in which the three youngsters as well as their former enemies turned allies are taken on board the Nautilus where they travel around the world via underwater. These adventures are alternatingly comical, thrilling, and sometimes tragic.  Compared to the excitement of the previous episodes, these fourteen half-hours proceed at a much more languid pace.  That said, they are far from dull, as they are loaded with more than a few surprises and engrossing characterizations to keep one intrigued. Particularly exciting are a thrilling chase involving, Marie, Sanson, and a mechanical walker, dangerous run-ins with Gargoyle, territorial eels, as well as a giant squid (an obvious nod to the Jules Verne story). Yet the best episodes are the ones that involve exploration into imaginative settings such as the underwater graveyard of Atlantis, and a visit to the North Pole where frozen dinosaurs, breathtaking auroras, and even a giant talking whale serve among its highlights. Probably the most upsetting but still powerful episode on the whole collection is episode 15, in which a sailor must sacrifice himself to save the submarine–this is portrayed in a manner that is both terrifying and realistic; young children may very well be disturbed by this scene.

In short, these episodes are rich with interesting concepts about the possibilities of technology, as well as a curious mystery about the connection between Nadia, the Blue Water, the Neo-Atlanteans, and Nemo. Each episode subtly builds on these concepts, and increase interest in the viewers as a result.  It helps that this part of the show is aptly executed, too. Director Hideaki Anno and his team manage to pack a balance of action, comedy, young romance, and an ever-present sense of danger within 22 episodes. Although there are definite moments when the action verges a bit on the cartoonish side, particularly in the doings of Grandis’s boys or even one comical chase of King the lion cub, it mostly maintains an adventurous tone of innocence and exploration.

Nadia is obviously a show from 1990, so the animation does show its limits in a few places. Frankly, however, compared to many other series of its time it looks quite impressive and consistent. The settings are realized in imaginative detail, and the animation itself is above average. Its use of color is also surprising, although it doesn’t exactly approach Ghibli level.  Slightly less successful is the musical score by Shiro Sagisu. Although fitting for the show, there are a few tunes which come across as bland and forgettable, although the themes for Nadia and especially Gargoyle are very well composed. The opening and ending songs, meanwhile, are beautifully written and sung by Miho Morikawa, and remain in one’s head long after the show.

The saddest drawback with Nadia is that it became a victim of its own success. Initially scheduled to run for approximately 30 episodes, the show did better than expected in Japan, and so it was decided to expand the episode count to be considerably longer than its initial count. But director Hideaki Anno was already working overtime and Gainax was running short on funds, so it was decided to outsource the animation to other studios in Japan and Korea, and turn direction over to Shinji Higuchi.  Unfortunately, this only succeeded in spelling a major disaster.  Following an explosive climax to the “Nautilus” arc which comprises of episodes 21 and 22, one would think that that the show will continue on its adventurous, compelling course for its remaining seventeen episodes. But that’s just it–from episodes 23 to 34 (where all traces of Nemo, the Nautilus, Gargoyle, and the Atlantean storyline completely disappear), Nadia doesn’t even feel like the same show anymore.  Subtitled by many fans as the “infamous island episodes”, these dozen half-hours are rather nasty, haphazardly animated and abysmally written “fillers” in which absolutely nothing valuable is provided to the central storyline. Contrary to the richly detailed backdrops of the first 22 episodes, the cheaply drawn, stilted, slapdash quality of the artwork resembles a cut-rate Saturday morning cartoon. Most distressing of all is the attempt to work in slapsticky “cartoonish” visual gags (in one scene, Jean steps off a cliff, yet stands suspended in mid-air; about ten seconds later his eyes bug out and he falls!), which clash with the “normal” tone of the series.

Worse still, the characters are all spectacularly derailed, to the point where they are not acting anything at all like their usual selves. Case in point: in the early episodes Nadia was a somewhat troubled but nonetheless interesting heroine with personality flaws and redeeming values. Here, however, all traces of her character development from the first episodes are all but completely discarded, and her personality devolves into a totally annoying and downright unlikeable bitch. And herein lies the second biggest problem I have with Nadia.  Seriously, for nearly every episode in this sequence, this change of character is both alienating and only succeeds in draining any ounce of sympathy one would have for her; by the time Nadia reforms, one no longer cares about her. Even Jean, Marie, King, and the Grandis gang all lose their appealing qualities and become caricatures of their former selves. (Defenders of these episodes declare that these serve as character development, but when the characters act nothing like their original selves, then what is the good in that?) That the plots for these episodes are just about as intelligent and compelling as an awful Looney Tunes short further exacerbates the problem.

Bad as these episodes are, the episodes which truly disgrace the show include a totally pointless and downright despicable adventure in an African tribal village which make up 32 and 33 (with boring, uninspired new characters and a plot that all but totally destroys the personalities of the protagonists) and episode 26, half of which is a mindnumbingly repetitive dream sequence (it’s the same one where Jean does that aforementioned Wyle E Coyote stunt). And then there’s Episode 34, which basically recycles clips from various episodes while the characters break into song. Although meant to be a transition, this is, again, a skippable episode. And don’t even get me started about that “King VS. King” race; where they got the materials to build two mechanical robots is never explained, just like much of whatever happens in most of the island sequence.

The only episode that comes clean out of this mess is episode 31, “Farewell Red Noah”, in which the characters learn a vital clue about the protagonist’s past. It still suffers from uncharacteristically goofy gags and a torturously padding pace, but otherwise this is the only episode I’d ever recommend sitting through of this Island/Africa filler, as it is the sole half-hour that has any actual value to the central plot. (It should also be known that even director Hideaki Anno admits that he would have saved this very episode if given the choice of deleting the filler arc.)

It isn’t until episodes 35-39, however, that Nadia finally recovers. It becomes very obvious that Hideaki Anno returned to the director’s chair for this portion, as the animation returns to its former brilliance, the characters all retain their true personalities, and basically everything that happens in episodes 23-30 and 32-34 are all but completely discarded. The show builds to a climax that screams “sci-fi epic” and emotionally charged.  On the flipside, however, it is hard to compensate for the damage that has already done by the bitter aftertaste of these filler episodes.

Is Nadia—The Secret of Blue Water a complete waste of time?  Not at all; as mentioned, the characters are fully-realized, and for twenty-two episodes and the final five, the show does indeed deliver an entertaining, consistently engaging adventure story with just the right amount of heart, humor, and drama. It’s just too bad that it goes downhill in the second half (despite delivering a phenomenal conclusion). Otherwise, this series would truly be worthy of the praise it receives as one of the greats. Arguably the recommended way to view Nadia, should you decide to delve into it, is to watch episodes 1-22, then 31, and finally 35-39.  It will provide for a much better experience, and the impact of its ending will be a whole lot stronger.

(It should also be noted that there are many places in the show that will remind Gainax fans of their more famous Neon Genesis Evangelion, but that is for another topic altogether.  Furthermore, Hideaki Anno has created a “streamlined” version of Nadia called “The Nautilus Story.  This version clocks in at approximately six hours and deletes all the unnecessary filler episodes.  The show also has an incredibly underrated dub—check out my article for it in The Dub Reviewer!)

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Author: Jon Turner

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  • Miguel Douglas

    Fantastic review. I have yet to see the remainder of this series (only seen up to episode 11) but it was enjoyable to say the least. It’s somewhat disheartening to hear that some episodes were not up to par as the rest of the series, but I’m glad you mentioned that it returns to form before its conclusion.

  • Jon Turner

    Yeah, well, I was pretty disappointed with those episodes myself. But trust me, it gets better at episode 35; problem is, if you’re so soured by those episodes, it may be difficult to care anymore. Which is why I gave the suggestion to view it in that way. On that level, I’m hopeful that my review for the dub convinces people to give it a second chance; as I mentioned, it is grossly underrated. Besides, it’s not often you have a dub where the lead characters all sound appropriately like children. I have trouble watching this show in Japanese, to tell you the truth.

  • Cynthia

    The island episodes you mentioned did indeed bother me too. They made Nadia into a real bitch, even though sadly, I found it believable for her. Nadia is not a very likable protagonist on the whole, in my opinion. Granted, this show is not targeted at my age group anymore, but it is still the kind of show I normally enjoy, and yet I found myself watching every episode purely out of determination to finish the series. Nadia’s only redeeming quality seems to be that she’s cute, with her strict beliefs barely justified in the entire series. I think it says a lot that only the bad guys and the secondary main characters are truly interesting, a lot more so than Nadia in fact. I don’t even really understand the ending and exactly why the captain died either. So it was a “happy” ending, but for all that, it still felt like a cheap cop-out. In the end, I was rather disappointed by the series as a whole. It was somehow less fascinating than what I’d heard about it. Compared to a similar show like Taiyou no Ko Esteban, of which I saw the french dub, and which also has an english dub named Mysterious Cities of Gold, I do not believe that it lived up to its potential, and while I would recommend the former to everyone, I would not really recommend Nadia to anyone but perhaps a child.

  • Jon Turner

    The problem that I have with Nadia’s character in the island arc is that her unbearable bitchiness isn’t just irritating; it comes across as very exaggerated, as if whoever was in charge of those episodes suddenly decided to discard the character development she was displaying up to that point and make the character even more unlikeable. I personally felt that dragging the whole show to an additional 12 episodes instead of the intended 27 was a mistake; those episodes were absolutely devoid of ANY substance that connected to the central plot and were nowhere nearly as engaging as the Nautilus arc. It was a crushing disappointment that still grates on me even to this day. NADIA would have been so much better if it were shorter.

  • Julz M

    Even though I really enjoyed Nadia the first time I watched it, I do agree with you that it would’ve been better if it were shorter. Saying that, I’ve just picked up the complete collection on blu-ray and I’m hoping to enjoy that middle section more on a second watch!

  • Jon Turner

    Good luck to you if you can; I personally found the middle section more grating than anything else. Even Hideaki Anno admitted that he would have all but discarded those island episodes as well as the similarly pointless Africa arc if he had the chance to do the show. He even did an edit of the show called “The Nautilus Story”, as mentioned. Oh, I should also mention that the dub of “Nadia’ is quite good. Reviews on the dub are mixed, but I found it to be a sincere and well acted dub for a 2001 production. That it uses kids for their roles is also a plus.