Studio Gainax Month: Nadia, Secret of Blue Water

Jean Raltique is a 14 year old inventor living in 1890’s France. He and his uncle are participating in the Birdman Rally, an event that wouldn’t actually be established until 1970’s England, but we’ll be gracious and ignore that fact. He falls in love at first sight with an exotic looking circus performer named Nadia, who wants to return to the place of her birth, which… Due to her dark skin… she believes to be Africa. They’re attacked by a trio of jewel thieves, and are chased all the way back to Jean’s house, where he smoothly offers to fly her all the way to her home. Another encounter with their aggravators leaves them stranded out at sea in a floating plane wreck, until they(and their pursuers) are picked up by a futuristic submarine named The Nautilus. Grand adventure and intriguing mystery await the five of them as they begin their journey to find Nadia’s birthplace and unlock the secrets of the strange blue jewel that she possesses, in a story that was inspired by two of Jules Vernes’ most famous works, and the imagination of Hayao Miyazaki himself!Well, I say that, but this series wasn’t actually made by Miyazaki… It was his idea, but after some initial financial controversy, the project was picked up by Studio Gainax, a rising animation studio who recently changed their name from Daikon in order to pursue more high profile titles. After already having a successful movie and OVA series under their belt, Gainax decided to take Nadia as their first televised series, and it was highly successful… to a fault, even, but we’ll get to that later.

Right from the first few minutes of episode 1, Nadia shows you exactly what it’s animation style is going to be. We’re shown a few frozen panning shots of people enjoying themselves at a science fair, immediately followed up by the impressive CG effect of an electricity machine. This is indicative of a well allocated budget, where the bulk of the production money will be spent giving motion to scenes that need it the most, while leaving other shots… Not all of which will be as unimportant as these opening ones… High and dry. Thankfully, the budget is managed well enough that those opening shots are the exception rather than the rule, and for the most part, this show does look very good. It’s the rare example of Gainax looking inconsistent in a GOOD way.

While it may look cheap and dated, in terms of it’s visual style, keep in mind that Nadia came out back in 1991, when an anime couldn’t look expensive without actually being expensive, due to the limits of the technology of the time… High frame rate, Miyazaki quality productions were a rare treat, and the lesser spectacles were given a lot more leeway than they are today. Having said that, as cheap as Nadia can occasionally look, there are a ton of moments in the series that look like they could have come straight out of Ghibli itself… The visual of Nadia daringly leaping down from the Eiffel Tower to protect her sacred jewel is only a small taste of this, and it will in no way be the last.

While most of the character designs may seem generic at first, they grow on you more and more as the characters in question develop throughout the story, and their backstories begin to become unraveled. There are only two designs that really stand out right from the start… One of them is Gargoyle and his sinister cult of Neo Atlanteans, the true villains of the series whose actions are unfortunately wrapped in spoilers too heavy to discuss. The second one is Nadia’s, as she’s wearing what has to be one of the most iconic outfits in Studio Gainax’s history. It works very will with the backstory of her being an acrobat and a utility performer at a circus, but if we’re being honest with ourselves, the reason this design has endured for over twenty years in peoples’ memories is because of how revealing it is. I’m not going to say this is necessarily a bad thing, as I know that women should wear whatever they want to without feeling ashamed, but it does feel kind of strange when you consider that Nadia was wearing a normal looking European dress when we were first introduced to her, implying that that’s how she likes to dress when she’s off the clock… But for the rest of the series, she seems to prefer skin baring clothing so much that she’ll tear entire pieces off of any other outfit that’s handed to her. Again, this wouldn’t bother me if it felt like her decision, and not just that of a horny animator. And if you think I’m just seeing things, go ahead and count her fan-service scenes.

But that’s not the only thing about her that’s made her such a fixture of Gainax’s history… She’s also, in general, a very likeable and dynamic character. She’s cautious around new people… Who wouldn’t be, after working in the circus for so long… But she’s willing to give them the benefit of the doubt after she becomes more comfortable with them. Her convictions and principals are also a very strong part of her character. She’s a pacifist who’s adamantly against the idea of people killing each other for any reason, and while this belief isn’t portrayed as strongly as it was in Trigun and Fullmetal Alchemist, she also takes it a step further by being a strict vegetarian… Yes, she believes that animals and people should both be spared from the wrath of greedy humans, and she’s not afraid to act on those beliefs, even when it may cost her the good graces of her peers. She can be difficult because of this, but she never seems to cross into the territory of becoming unreasonable, at least not until… We’ll get to that later.

Oh, and her baby albino lion has giant balls. Because… Yeah, courage, and stuff. He’s awesome.

Jean isn’t really as complex as his nimble crush, but that’s not to say he’s some bland self-insert character, either… The darker tone of the series takes its toll on his happy-go-lucky outlook, maturing him just like the rest of the cast. He also has a very distinct personality, even if other personalities sometimes overshadow his in the story. He’s very open about his feelings for Nadia, that visibly develop from infatuation to actual interpersonal romantic interest throughout the course of the series. He’s very passionate about technology, and not just about his own inventions, but about the technology of the anachronistic Nautilus submarine, as well. He’s fascinated by Nadia and the Nautilus, and will take any given opportunity to learn as much as possible about both, as they respectively become the inspiration and the basis for his future inventions, since only a flying machine can take Nadia to the faraway land she yearns for. But just because he’s an inventor doesn’t mean he can just whip up deus ex machina devices whenever he needs them… Unlike that Mary-Sue technology-bender from Big Hero Six, Jean’s inventions are consistent with his familiarity of technology and the materials available at the time, at least until… Once again, we’ll get to that later.

Surprisingly, those two aren’t always the most likeable characters in the cast. I mentioned before that the three villains who attacked Nadia for her jewel go through a heavy amount of development and reveals, and I wasn’t kidding about that… They have a backstory that will redeem their actions almost immediately after you hear it. The motivation that led them to the Nautilus changes soon after they take up residence in it, which is a refreshing development compared to the Team Rocket baddies that they almost certainly inspired. They become more and more relatable as time goes on, and there are points when their roles in the story become even more interesting than that of our two main heroes… In fact, after one of them pulls off the daring rescue of a young orphan girl named Marie from a Giant Enemy Crab, I could see him instantly becoming a fan favorite.

And the English dub, well… It’s not the worst I’ve ever heard, by far, but it’s also not really up to par with the time period in which it was released. It was initially dubbed by Streamline Pictures, and if you’re familiar with their work on films like Vampire Hunter D and Wicked city, then you’d probably guess that Nadia is one of their better dubs… But you’d be wrong, and sounding worse than those two titles is saying a lot. The dub was picked up by ADV films after Streamline put out the first eight episodes, and ADV completely redubbed them, producing much better results… Mediocre results, yes, but they’re still much better than the awful Streamline dub. While the ADV version isn’t bad by any means, the only actor that really merits any praise is Meg Bauman in the role of Nadia, who puts forth a much more sincere performance than voice acting heavyweight Wendee Lee. Actually, that seems to be a common theme of this dub… A cast full of unknowns who would mostly go on to have very brief careers in the industry did a much better job than a dub full of respected talents and recognized mainstays.

It is worth mentioning, though, that Nathan Parsons has gone on to have a moderately successful live action career. Most recently, he played the role of James in True Blood, which I guess is an interesting bit of trivia.

Aside from Nadia this is a dub that has to grow on you in order to be enjoyed… There are several characters sporting foreign accents that are fake-sounding, inconsistent and half-committal, with the worst offender being Parsons in the lead role of Jean. His attempt at a french accent replaces all of the ‘th’ sounds with ‘s’ and ‘z’ sounds, but aside from that, he barely inflects when he should. Sanson’s upper-crust accent sounds irritatingly like James from Pokemon(Which makes sense because Grandis sounds like Jessie and Hanson sounds like Meowth, and I don’t think any of this was accidental), and in the role of Elektra, Jennifer Stuart focuses so hard on perfecting her British accent that she barely emotes in the process. As I said before, it’s not a bad dub, and all the performances do grow on you after a while, but unless you’re a hard core dub fan like I am, there’s really no reason to switch the Japanese version off.

So, when I started watching this series, I didn’t know whether or not I’d be able to review it, and I had Mahoromatic on standby just in case. The problem was, of course, that there wasn’t really anything to talk about. It just felt like a really, really well made action adventure/title. It wasn’t terribly deep, but it was well written, wonderfully paced, and it was able to handle a large, diverse cast while showing respect to all of their differences in background. There were clashes between the beliefs and ideals of our main characters, especially where Nadia was involved, and there was an admirable level of ambiguity in regards to who was right and who was wrong. All in all, I didn’t really have anything interesting to say about it, and I was fully ready to review something else… Until IT happened. It, which I’ve been putting off until this point in the review. It, which if you’ve seen the series, you know exactly what It is.

See, as the series was airing, it was earning very high ratings… And deservedly so, all things considered. Because of this, the network got greedy and hired an entirely new director to extend Nadia’s 26 episode run into a 39 episode run, adding in 13 episodes of filler material just to pad their precious success’s run time. If you ask any Nadia fans to talk about the series, this story arc will inevitably be one of the first things they bring up, as it’s believed to be the single worst thing about the series. And having seen it for myself, I can say that this assessment is… Completely accurate.

After some spoiler events occur, Nadia, Jean, Marie and Nadia’s lion cub King wind up stranded on a mysterious island, with no clue where they are, and no hope of summoning any of the ships that they keep seeing out in the distance. And I’ll say right off the bat that this idea, in and of itself, wasn’t a bad one. There are a ton of ways this development could have been a great opportunity to further the depth of the series… But it wasn’t that at all. It’s boring, it drags the pace of the series down to a dead crawl, and it does everything in it’s power to kill, dismember and display the remains of everything that was good about the show up until that point. The animation quality also tanks, looking uglier and cheaper than it ever did before. No joke… This show has worse filler material than Naruto and Bleach combined.

To be fair, I’m not actually bothered by the fact that this filler arc screws up the original material. Representing somebody elses work can be an extremely tough thing to do, and I don’t think anybody should ever be vilified for failing to do so. What bothers me is the outright contempt that the new director, Shinji Higuchi, had for the original material. You see warning signs right from his first episode, which I believe was 23, when the four children of the series are riding a jettisoned mini-sub to reach the mysterious island. The sub starts to flood, and Jean drinks all the leaking water, blowing up balloon-like as though he were a freaking Looney Toon, despite the entire series up until that point featuring no such cartoon physics whatsoever. He then spews the water back up, which in retrospect is pretty good metaphor for the way Higuchi barfed up the rest of Blue Water.

Higuchi had no respect for the themes and characters that had been unfortunately entrusted to him. It also becomes clear all too quickly through his treatment of Nadia that he doesn’t possess a very high level of respect or understanding for women or vegetarians, either. Immediately after setting foot on land, Nadia turns her back on the very idea that her companions may have to eat meat to survive for an extended period of time, as the canned food they brought over with the mini-sub won’t last them very long. Instead of working this out with him rationally, she dashes off into the jungle like a monkey and goes feral, which ultimately culminates with her stealing his food cans and crushing them under rocks, despite the fact that the island is clearly shown to be covered with fruit bearing trees. I’m not a vegetarian myself… Far from it.. But when I hear Nadia saying things like “I’ll go a week without food and water to prove that I’m a better survivor than you!” it even offends ME.

That’s not to say Jean is a whole lot better, though… With Nadia reaching levels of likeability that make Asuka Langly Soryu look like Belldandy, Jean is left to fill out the role of ‘smug white male,’ a role that would be more subtly played by Seth McFarlane. It’s Jean’s job in this story arc to be right about everything, sigh and shake his head whenever that angry woman-thing yells at him for no reason, and whip up inventions from the giant piles of ABSOLUTELY NOTHING that the island has to offer him in terms of material.

And the relationship building that happens between the two is the absolute worst of it. I don’t consider this much of a spoiler, because it has nothing to do with the plot or ending, so I’m going to describe the moments that begin their relationship in detail… This is going to be a rough patch, so brace yourself.

Nadia finds an old, moldy can of spinach. She eats it… Because it looks so much more appealing than any of the plants on the island… And it gives her a fever. Not a stomach-ache, but a fever. She winds up sick in bed with Jean going out to fetch herbal medicine for her… for the second time in the series, I might add. But he winds up finding a patch of drug mushrooms, which knock him out, so Marie has to drag him back to the tent. Later, Nadia wakes up, completely fine, despite receiving no medical care of any kind, and is told by Marie that Jean tried to help her. She kisses his unconscious lips, and all of a sudden, her attitude completely changes towards him… All because he tried to nurse her back to health. Like a fucking pet.

Oh, and later, after they finally share a consensual kiss under the stars, she blows up at him for not remembering the kiss she gave him WHILE HE WAS UNCONSCIOUS.

In other words, this director has boiled women down to petulant pet dogs… They bark at you for everything, can’t understand or care about your feelings, and they’ll love you forever if you help them while they’re sick or otherwise vulnerable. Puke. Well, at least the relationship development doesn’t wind up mattering, because after they escape the island on a popped balloon that never runs out of air and wind up in Africa, she falls head over heels in love with some sexy African guy, which gives her a new reason to hate Jean. Like a dog finding a new crotch to smell. Oh, and then there’s an episode of music videos.

I wish I could just look past this story arc and consider it non-canon, like so many other people do, but I just can’t. The show does eventually get better, with the animation and writing returning to their former glory around episode 35, but that 12 episode stretch is just unbelievably awful. I’ve heard people say you should skip most of those episodes, taking the entire viewing experience down to episodes 1-22, 30-31, and 35-39, and while that would successfully cut out all the awful, it doesn’t really improve the experience, it just makes it more confusing. If you follow this list while watching the series for the first time, you’ll wonder about the things happening in those episodes, like ‘when did this character come back,’ ‘how did these characters come to this point,’ and ‘was that material really as bad as I was told?” Sorry, but those episodes aren’t self contained, and the only way to know how much of an improvement the abridging of the series would be, you’d have to have watched it all the way through at least once… And by that time, the damage is already done, to both the viewer and the series. That island arc, sadly, does NOT suck as an island.

Nadia: Secret of Blue Water has been available on VHS in the past, but is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray from Sentai Filmworks. Both sets are available online for quite a bit of money,you can occasionally find sales. The collection 1 and 2 DVD sets that were put out a few years ago are available for fairly cheap on Ebay, and you could say the same about the individually released DVDs that ADV put out in the early 2000s. There’s also a series of video games that have never been released stateside, and a movie that I haven’t actually watched yet… Although I’ve heard some not-too-flattering things about it. At least I know that it’s a sequel, and not just one of those BS cash grab retellings.

I really wanted to give Nadia a high score. I really, truly did. If it wasn’t for that filler arc, I’d be calling it one of my favorites of all time with no problem at all. Without them, Nadia is an exciting adventure title that never slows down, offering romance, wonder, and new surprises at every turn. There’s some sexism at play, but it’s largely innocent, and hits both genders about equally, never turning into straight up misogyny until the dreaded filler arc. If my initial introduction to this series had been to the episode list that many fans… And even the original director himself… considers superior, I may have been nicer to it, but that sadly wasn’t the case. I can watch it without those episodes, but I can’t review it without those episodes, which is why I’m going to give Nadia: Secret of Blue Water a 5/10.

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