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Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water

Andrew Osmond on an anime classic, available at last in the UK

Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water

A rush of white clouds gives way to a vault of clear blue sky; a dove swoops in to the angelic first notes of Nadia’s title song, performed by Miho Morikawa. Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water, released by Animatsu in Britain for the very first time, was a gateway in many ways. For one thing, it was among the first anime seen by many neophyte Western fans who’d been hooked by Akira in the 1990s. The 39-part series offered plenty for foreigners to grab…

Nadia’s story opens in a simple, Miyazaki-esque fashion. A young boy called Jean, bursting with inventions, sees a mysterious stranger in 1889 Paris. She’s the titular Nadia, a beautiful black girl, who’s always accompanied by a loyal lion cub, King. She’s an acrobat at a travelling circus, though her true background is a mystery to her. Jean catches up with Nadia atop the Eiffel Tower, to see her hassled by a trio of goons; the aristocratic “lady” Grandis, plus her henchmen Hanson and Sanson. They’re after a jewel Nadia carries, the Blue Water, which seems to conceal great depths and flashes when its mistress is in danger. Jean also sees Nadia dispatch the crooks, with a good stamp and a somersault!

Although Nadia seems dismissive of Jean, the lad is hopelessly hooked, and follows her straight into adventure. The Grandis Gang turns up again in a crazy giant tank, like something from Thunderbirds, and scoops up Nadia with its extendable arms. Luckily, Jean rescuers her and a grateful Nadia consents to travel with the boy. The Grandis goons are still on their trail… but something much bigger is going on in the series, involving ship-sinking sea monsters, and a blank-masked villain called Gargoyle building Death Star weaponry. Not to mention the appearance of Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo, plus his submarine the Nautilus.

Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water

Nemo and the Nautilus, of course, are a handy hook for foreign viewers, along with a burgeoning adventure serial that starts changing very fast. This isn’t just a thrilling yarn. Nemo, the Nautilus and Gargoyle are involved in a war, and the kids and the Grandis gang slowly realise what that means. The whole show’s a journey, starting as kids’ TV fare (Nadia was shown on primetime by Japan’s public broadcaster, NHK) and ending up a far more hard-core kind of anime. As many readers will know, Nadia is a precursor to Evangelion, sharing many of its future star talents including director Hideaki Anno. The two shows have numerous story overlaps: emotional themes, troubled characters, Biblically-tinged secret histories (Nadia part 37 just screams Evangelion). They even share precocious penguins!

But let’s look at where Nadia came from. Most obviously, it raids the writings of Jules Verne, especially his 1870 novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, which introduced the world to the mysterious Captain Nemo. “Nemo,” as the Nadia script notes helpfully, is Latin for “no-one,” meaning “Captain Nemo” has a similar resonance to “Doctor Who.” Both the novel and Nadia bring their viewpoint characters aboard the Nautilus, where they have exciting adventures, including a fight with a tentacled monster (octopi in Verne’s novel, a squid in the 1954 Disney film, and an ancient shellfish in the anime). Both Verne’s and Anno’s Nautilus also travel to the ruins of Atlantis, though Nadia gives this a darkly Japanese twist; it mixes the fantasy setting with memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Some other differences are notable. In both the novel and anime, Nemo has a vengeful agenda, but in the book he fights with human nations, while in Nadia he’s battling the supervillain Gargoyle (whose true nature is only revealed at the end). In Nadia, the Nautilus is blamed for sinking ships and killing sailors, whereas these crimes are actually being committed by Gargoyle. In Verne’s novel, Nemo himself is sinking the ships of the unnamed nation he hates. A vigilante, he declares, “I’m the law, I’m the tribunal! I’m the oppressed, and there are my oppressors!” His violence is shown with a startling gusto in the live-action Disney film, as shown in the first minute of this extended trailer.

Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water

Disney’s version starred James Mason and Kirk Douglas. The trailer also shows Nemo’s home base, a hollow volcano crater, which blows up at the film’s end. A similar, though less explosive, setting is mined by Nemo in Verne’s book. Both versions may have inspired Gargoyle’s evil island in Nadia, the setting for several early episodes. Nadia also relocates Nemo’s own home base to beneath Antarctica, where there are wonders like sapient dinosaurs and a gigantic ‘world tree’ frozen in the ice.

Beyond Twenty Thousand Leagues, Nadia seems influenced by other books Verne wrote before and after, and by a cluster of Verne-ish film in the 1950s and 1960s. For instance, Nadia seems to draw on a book Verne wrote long after Twenty Thousand Leagues, called Facing the Flag (1896). Its villain – like Gargoyle is constructing a fearsome superweapon on a hollowed-out island. Facing the Flag was adapted as an exceptional Czechoslovakian live-action/animated film, called The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (trailer).

Nadia certainly lifts elements from Verne’s Mysterious Island (1874), where Nemo makes an appearance. The island is named ‘Lincoln Island,’ while the book also has a castaway character called Tom Ayrton (who’d been introduced in yet another Verne novel, In Search of the Castaways). Both are duly referenced in Nadia. Mysterious Island was filmed in 1961, in a version which added stop-motion monsters animated by Ray Harryhausen. Among them is a gigantic crab, which seems to be the basis for the giant robot crab that plays a memorable, cartoony part in Nadia part 13.

Later in the anime, the Nadia characters take a flight above Africa, nodding to an older Verne book, Five Weeks in a Balloon (1869). The evil Gargoyle also goes airborne, travelling in a hi-tech ship bristling (inevitably) with super-technology. While the image is a fantasy standby now, it may be rooted in two more Verne novels, Robur the Conqueror (1886) and Master of the World (1904). Both feature an increasingly menacing genius inventor, Robur, with a penchant for stupendous flying machines. Robur was also popularised in a 1961 film, Master of the World (trailer); it starred Vincent Price.

Many anime fans know that Nadia was also partly derived from a Miyazaki story outline from the 1970s, called “Around the World in 80 Days by Sea.” In our report on Anno’s talks at last year’s Tokyo Film Festival, he played down this particular link. Indeed, Anno changed Nadia’s story to make it less like Miyazaki’s Laputa, which starts in a similar way. However, there do seem to be Miyazaki homages in Nadia. For example, part six has the kids ducking and dodging around Gargoyle’s island of slaves; it feels very like the Industria portions of Miyazaki’s TV show, Future Boy Conan (1978). Part 35 of Nadia openly uses a Miyazaki plot device to save a character from disaster; we’ll leave it for you to discover!

Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water

Naturally, Anno draws on past anime, most obviously in the last four episodes where everything goes Space Battleship Yamato. The appearance of the handsomely moustached, middle-aged Captain Nemo is often compared to Captain Global in the original Macross, on which Anno animated; there may also be some Harlock in there. Nadia’s tech includes several echoes of Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds, including the Grandis gang’s all-purpose tank and the way Jean’s house turns into a launchpad in Nadia part 2. Most famously, there’s an outrageous extended Thunderbirds gag in part 26, though this is part of the so-called “Island” episodes sequence, directed not by Anno but by Shinji Higuchi.

Nadia’s Nautilus submarine lies in a Japanese tradition of super-subs, including the 1963 movie Atragon (American trailer) which travels on land, sea and air; it was remade as a 1995 video anime, Super Atragon. Nadia may also draw on one of Anno’s childhood favourites, the 1968 Japanese TV series Mighty Jack, which had another super-sub (sample episode here). One point to note is that while Nadia is a superb piece of steampunk, Anno portrays the Nautilus as a working craft. It has little unnecessary luxury, barring a Japanese-style shared bath in part 20. Apart from a church-style organ, there’s little hint of the nineteenth-century luxury played up in Verne’s novel and Disney’s film.

The Science-Fiction Encyclopedia notes in its Verne entry that the original book’s “characters (are) amply and comfortingly coddled in chambers exuding Second Empire plushness; this presentation of ornate luxury enabled by advanced technology is one of the central iconic images of the romance of nineteenth-century SF, and prefigures steampunk.” But not for Anno. As suggested in our interview with him last year, he seems keener on functionality than luxury. More than that; in Nadia, luxury is associated with evil! Think of Gargoyle’s decadent garden in the sky (part 7), equal parts Laputa and James Bond.

Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water

But while Anno certainly brings his own sensibility to the series, Nadia also – like many genre pieces – borrows elements that were already shared currency in fantasy or SF. We could extend the list of precedents. For example, Nadia shares plot points with a 1978 British fantasy film, Warlords of Atlantis (trailer) featuring Doug McClure. All this helps give the lie to the foolish fan myth – still occasionally resurrected – that Disney plagiarised Nadia for its 2001 cartoon Atlantis the Lost Empire (trailer). Simply put, Atlantis and Nadia swim in the same ocean, which makes everything look alike.

Yasuhiro Takeda notes in his book, The Notenki Memoirs: Studio Gainax and the Men Who Created Evangelion, that Nadia “gave Gainax its name recognition in mainstream Japan. Up until then, only hard-core fans knew the company.” Gainax’s previous works were the film Wings of Honneamise and Anno’s video series, Gunbuster, both niche titles in Japan. “(Nadia) marked a serious turning point… It was introducing the Gainax ‘brand’ to audiences all across Japan. It wouldn’t be until Evangelion that we would receive nationwide recognition, but I think Nadia was the first of our projects to have a major impact on anime fans. Nadia took those who had liked our work on Gunbuster and turned them into outright Gainax fanatics.”

Evangelion brought back Anno as director, and reunited many of Nadia’s other top players. Perhaps the most obvious is the musician Shiro Sagisu. His Nadia and Evangelion scores are extremely close, to the point that Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo simply reuses some of Nadia’s music in places. In particular, the movie introduces a new dramatic flying mecha, the Wunder, with the stirring score previously linked with the Nautilus. In effect, it’s Nadia part 36 on a cinema-sized screen!

AAA Wunder - Neon Genesis Evangelion

Many other artists carried straight over from Nadia to Eva. They included now-famous names such as Yoshiyuki Sadamato (character designer on both shows) and Mahiro Maeda, who directed Nadia’s standout episode 35 and also Evangelion 3.0. On the other hand, you can also draw drastic contrasts between the anime. For example, in Nadia the boy Jean comes to want to be part of the Nautilus’s fight. The fatherly Nemo, however, seeks to keep him and Nadia as innocent children. Yes, it’s the exact opposite of what happens in Evangelion!

Another contrast: Nadia is over, ended. The final episode is a definite, satisfying conclusion – okay, there was a cheap sequel film, not included in the Animatsu set, but it’s widely loathed by fans. Unlike the endlessly remade Eva, Nadia is safely done and dusted, and even Anno – who was worn to a frazzle making it – now views it with affection. At last year’s Tokyo Film Festival, he remembers catching an episode repeat on TV by accident… and finding himself enjoying it. “I was really impressed. The young me was really enjoyable!”

Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water – Complete Series Collection Trailer

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