Nadia: The secret of the Blue Waters
An important piece of anime history, possibly even a true-blue anime classic, and I finally got the chance to see all of it. This piece being best known as the first TV production from the young, talented and innovative production house known as Gainax. A piece that some claim revitalised the anime industry itself.
The story begins some time in the 19th century. A time when science and invention are rapidly pushing the human race into new and uncertain possibilities. A time when the power of man seems ascendant, and the mysteries of the world ready to fall before these new powers. A position somewhat summarised by Jean, a young boy and genius inventor in Paris to compete in a competition to build a flying machine. Innocent in many ways but inspired by the potential of science to create a better world.
However he is rather readily distracted by a striking young girl. Dark skinned and seemingly mature beyond her years he none the less approaches her. This girl, called Nadia, indeed proves every bit as intriguing as he imagined. A pet lion, impressive physical abilities, mysterious past, noble bearing and even a strange artifact called the blue water that is her only connection to the past. She's a strong character, full of secrets and mysteries, and Jean is easily entranced by her. Why else would he risk his life, and start on an epic journey, when a gang of thieves seek to steal this heirloom from her. But not even the thieves could imagine the twists, turns, revelations and threats their seemingly simple action will cause.
There is no danger of the synopsis being much of a spoiler. The plot goes in some extremely weird directions that would sound quite insane if I simply tried to recount them. Sure there's elements of classic mythology mixed in, and some `epic adventure' standard elements, but it is so much bigger and stranger than one would expect from the rather innocent opening. It looks like it's going to be an endless game of cat and mouse with the somewhat villainous, somewhat humorous, bad guys but this is only the trigger for the real story. And the scope of that story, how it changes what seemed to be `our' world into something quite different, could only be created by a group with supreme confidence in their ability to mess with our minds.
Indeed that is the thing that struck me most about the show. This is such a Gainax creation it's almost scary. I'll go into some ways in which I saw this later, but one of the most important is that it's effectively an act of deception. What seems like a light hearted, good natured, adventure turns into something much darker and deeper. I have a strong suspicion that both the people funding the show, and the audience, had no idea of how strong some section of the story would be. This anime represents some fairly shocking scenes with the real villains of the story being competent and deadly serious. The show depicts violence, death, loss, torment and extreme psychological pressures. And it does this well enough that certain scenes strike you with just how intense they are.
And, at the same time, the show is really silly. There are two possibilities here. One is that the creators lacked the discipline to script and maintain the power of the core story. Another is that they intentionally broke the core story into chunks and placed `character' and humor driven stories in between them as a sort of emotional relief valve. At times these are intermixed in what is, to me, a rather distressing manner. Picture this, Nadia and Jean are in an enclosed room that is filling with water. There seems to be no way to escape and that both will drown. The situation seems serious, and comes at the tail of a rather heavy sequence of events. Jeans answer is to do a weird physical comedy stunt as he attempts to `drink' the water that is drowning them. Swelling up like a weird human balloon until he bursts. It's either a really clever balancing act or the creators just couldn't think of anything better to do. This act also marking the end of the `serious' stuff and the beginning of a `castaways' sequence that is almost entirely character and humor driven.
The character elements work in this manner as well. There is an attraction and interaction between Jean and Nadia that is the focus of many episodes. And both characters, as well as many others in the sizable cast, are not without depth and interest. And some of the character work, and dialogue is very strong. Nadia herself, and how she connects to the secret behind the story, being perhaps one of the most interesting character elements. Yet at the same time the characters have `lunatic' phases where comedy is the focus. Jean becomes simple minded, Nadia seems to go a bit psychotic and many of the other characters adopt a more comical attitude. It's odd, and somewhat unsettling, to watch the characters alternate between these two elements.
It ultimately comes down to how much faith you have in Gainax themselves. And, ultimately, cast me amongst the doubters. There's lots of gaps in the story, with amazingly unlikely co-incidences required to make it work. A lot of the humorous episodes are just really silly and pointless. And some of them actually degrade the characters. There are times when you really begin to wonder whether Jean isn't really an idiot, Nadia a hysterical nutcase and the story just a mishmash of borrowed legend and poorly connected ideas. In true Gainax fashion it's aggressive and strong story-telling, and when it works it can be very potent, but it often seems to run off the rails and get carried away with how clever they can be.
Even so I think I would have to say it is worth watching. The anal, like me, will see many elements of Gainax style (matured in Wings of Honneamaise) reflected here that would carry on into later production such as Evangelion. Including some subtle, but undeniable, fan service (perhaps even the first example of Gainax bounce). The historical minded might wonder how this show, with its moments of power and epic, innovative, sense of scale and weight, might have compared to other TV anime of the period. While the rest of anime fandom might find a show that has some very good scenes, moments and story elements. Even if we disagree on which ones are good and which feel a bit too much like filler. And, ultimately, you have to respect it as an impressive act of creation.
Certainly the animation has aged surprisingly well. The characters look good and are extremely expressive. Some of the ways in which they move, and emote, are really good for TV anime, even by todays standards. Nadia is extremely cute and even Jean's innocent intensity comes through clearly. The ability to do physical comedy, unusual movement sequences and dramatic special effects shots are notable. And the good design, and ability to suggest massive spaces and huge exotic constructions, is excellent. It does, at times, feel like they are experimenting but most of the results work out well. Sure there are some constraints on what can be done, but this is eminently watchable from a technical point of view. The voices are good for almost all of the quite large cast. The music and sound is likewise good, containing a lot of good music that well fits the scene.
This web page is a good example of why the web is worth having. The article in question, containing a lot of excellent information on Nadia, was `lost in the cracks' on its way to being published. But thanks to the web you can still visit and glean the results of some excellent writing and research. The web page is The Failed (and Reborn!) "Animerica" Nadia Article