Thursday, May 14, 2015

Anime Review: Nadia the Secret of Blue Water

Back in 1990, the landscape of anime and its Western fandom was quite different than it was now. Although shows such as Astro Boy had a following in the United States as far back as the 60s, it wasn't until this decade that the terms entered into a gradual awareness in the common knowledge; before this, such shows were dubbed "Japanimation."  Without the modern conveniences of online file-sharing and the like, shows were held to higher standards in order to make it to Western shores due to the risks of cost.  Even then, the popularization of home videos enacted a sort of revolution in the access of anime to fans.  In both Japan and America, Nadia: the Secret of Blue Water proved to be a very popular series.

Directed by the same man behind Neon Genesis Evangelion, Secret of Blue Water is heavily inspired by Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  Set in the year 1889, the story opens up at the Paris World's Fair, where the young inventor Jean Rocque Raltique meets the wandering circus performer Nadia.  Bearing a mysterious blue jewel coveted by the villainous Grandis gang, Jean utilizes his prototype airplane meant to be entered into the Fair's contest, helping her escape and and beginning their journey beyond the comfy confines of France.

Captain Nemo with First Mate Electra in the Nautilus' command room

It's not long in their travels that there's more to Nadia's jewel, the Blue Water, and Jean and Nadia run into Captain Nemo of the Nautilus submarine.  It turns out that the supposed sea monsters sinking ships across the Atlantic are other submersibles.  A masked figure with access to technology beyond the confines of the era, these "Neo Atlanteans" enslaved a population of native islanders to build factories, and their leader Gargoyle is building a weapon of great destruction for unknown yet undoubtedly nefarious ends.  After escaping from his island fortress, Jean and Nadia find out that Captain Nemo's on a mission to take down Gargoyle's Neo Atlanteans.

Like most of Hideaki Anno's other works, Secret of Blue Water is strongly character-focused.  While there's plenty of room for action and adventure, the little slice-of-life moments develop the personalities of even minor characters and crew members of the Nautilus.  In spite of there being 8+ regular recurring characters on the ship, they all have developed personalities and rarely fade into the background for too long, which speaks to the writers' accomplishment in story-telling to manage such a large group.  I especially loved the transition of the Grandis Gang, who began as early Team Rocket-like antagonists, but eventually became friendly rivals and genuine friends of Jean and Nadia.  The places the Nautilus' crew visits, from an ancient series of caves under the South Pole to the ruins of Atlantis, are not just pretty places to "ooh" and "ah" at but often contain elements which further shape the narrative.

Nadia, upon seeing a "pile of dead bodies" (or fish ready for dinner)

Another aspect of the show I liked was Nadia's vegetarian status, and this is most likely a bias on my part due to being on a meat-free diet myself.  Many folk found her to be rather zealous in this regard; although during the Island Arc I have to agree that it's taken to an unreasonable extreme, I overall found her reasoning to be understandable and sympathetic.  As one raised in a traveling circus and possessing a self-professed ability to speak to animals, Nadia has a keener insight into their minds.  She can intuitively understand what her pet baby lion King wants or says at any given moment.  As many a dog or cat-owner can attest, it's normal for us humans to develop a bond with creatures we care for and raise; imagine what new dimension communication would add to the relationship.  Can you really blame Nadia, then, when she can only views meat as carcasses and angrily refuses to partake in such meals at the repeated behest of other characters?

The musical soundtrack is superb and full of memorable melodies, and in keeping with the spirit of adventure the show focuses on the crews' exploration of wondrous maritime islands and fantastic locales in between dealing with Gargoyles' machinations.  Sadly the show takes a dive around the infamous "Island" and "Africa" arcs, where Anno temporarily lost control of his own show and the writing and animation team was given over to other hands.  The majority of the intervening material can be safely skipped without losing much in the plot (although I recommend you at least see Episodes 30 and 31 which have genuinely heart-touching moments), although in spite of this the bright moments of the show outweigh this dip in quality.

I highly recommend watching Nadia if you're a fan of anime in general, steampunk science fantasy elements, and enjoy shows with nice evocative music and characters you can grow to love.