Every now and then, the often niche realm of Japanese animation gets the attention of a mainstream audience. Usually, this happens any time a Studio Ghibli film pops up for a theater release - think Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle or Princess Mononoke - upon which it receives a by-now familiar swathe of critical acclamations, then only moderate box office success. Put the lack of blockbusting cinema profits down to cultural differences between Japanese and Western viewing audiences if you like, but there’s still a good reason for Ghibli’s continued favour from film buffs - their ability to weave heartwarming, affecting tales of grand adventures involving young protagonists (usually of the female variety) overcoming trials beyond their age is second to none. It might not exactly be a unique form of storytelling. After all, Disney has been doing the same thing for years. But there is often something within the struggles of Ghibli’s heroes and heroines that strikes on a more contemplative, personal level - which might explain why the studio’s movies are so well-loved by adults and children alike.
Occasionally though, the odd Japanese animated movie or serial has popped up with the same enchanting sense of wonder, but without the presence of a Ghibli production crew behind it. Although it technically is a product of the mind behind that very studio - Hayao Miyazaki himself - 1990’s Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water is one show that has such atmosphere in spades. It’s a tale told on an epic scale with a complicated female lead, beautiful artwork and generous helpings of Jules Verne-inspired sci-fi to boot. In fact, it also goes as far as to lift a lot of its narrative and visual ideas from a certain book named 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea - but its thrilling nautical escapades, tremendous characters and unbounded imagination enable it to transcend any accusations of unoriginality, and make it an enthralling coming-of-age adventure for any fan of classic anime - and perhaps curious newcomers as well.
Continuing with the Verne thematics, The Secret of Blue Water situates itself in France of 1889 - Paris, to be exact (where else?). It’s a time of thrilling scientific advancement brought on by the steam age, and with the much-vaunted World Expo about to get underway in the City of Lights, it’s also a time for every kind of inventor - both gifted or otherwise - to descend upon it, and achieve fame in its highly-prized flying contest. One of these hopeful innovators is Jean Raltique, a 14 year-old prodigal genius whose knack for engineering has already enabled him to build a fully-working plane, years before the Wright Brothers had even thought of such a notion. His victory in the flying contest shouldn’t be trouble for him at all - but a chance encounter with a mysterious girl, also his age, instead puts him on course for an incredible journey not even his own understandings of science could prepare him for.
The girl - her name Nadia - drifts by Jean on a bicycle while he’s hard at work getting his plane into shape for the big competition. And with this also being the City of Love and all, it only takes a brief glimpse of her to pique his interest. Finding her later at the Eiffel Tower, Jean hopes to at least make an acquaintance of her. Nadia however, accompanied by her pet lion cub, King, seems particularly disinterested in conversation - preoccupied instead with pressing matters of her own. It seems Nadia is undergoing an identity crisis of sorts. Bearing no recollection of her own past, she’s not even sure of her own place of origin - be it Europe, Africa or somewhere else entirely. Jean is thus unable to get much information out of her initially, but he is able to eventually figure out that she’s a performer at a travelling circus which just happened to hit town the same time he did - and she’s also attracted a few other interested parties that she’s just as keen to shake off.
The very reason for her high demand is the large gemstone pendant she wears around her neck. Known to her as the Blue Water, it gives off an ominous glow any time she appears to be in danger - and that’s just what happens when notorious jewel thief Grandis Granva and her henchmen, Sanson and Hanson, ambush her at the Tower to spirit away both her and her coveted heirloom. Though Nadia and her acrobatic skills are enough to evade the gang’s clutches the first time round, eventually it does take Jean - and his fantastic flying machine - to rescue her from peril, and bring her to safety in his hometown of Le Havre. But escaping jewel thieves is one thing - evading the far more powerful, larger entities who equally desire Nadia’s curious stone is another.
Unbeknownst to the world’s major powers, an imperialistic, hyper-advanced techno-cult known as the Neo-Atlanteans - led by their sinister leader, Gargoyle - is just as intent on capturing Nadia for her precious treasure. The only man in Gargoyle’s way is the elusive Captain Nemo - a taciturn captain of an equally high-tech submarine known as the Nautilus, who pledges no allegiance to any naval power except his own. Both opposing sides are destined to meet on a battlefield with Nadia and Jean caught in the center, and it’s obvious that her gemstone has far greater powers than acting as a glorified proximity alarm. But with Nadia herself on her own mission to discover her past, both her secrets and the Blue Water’s may unleash revelations capable of destroying the entire world - that is, unless she and Jean can find the answers to such mysteries before their enemies do.
Certainly, it’s a plotline not completely removed from the kind seen in classic children’s literature - kids with unknown destinies suddenly being put on a great quest to vanquish evil, all the while discovering weird, magical new worlds and most importantly, themselves. How The Secret of Blue Water unravels in its early stages is particularly reminiscent of this. While Jean and Nadia continue to flee Grandis’ clutches, they run into additional characters who also join them along the way - one such being Marie, a very young girl recently orphaned as a result of a Neo-Atlantean force invading her island and murdering her parents. Together the three of them eventually end up under the care of the enigmatic Nemo and his crew, and only then - about five episodes in - does the plot begin to gain some momentum. It’s a quiet start, initially indulging in perhaps a little too much introspection and dialogue, but it does capture the kind of pacing present in vintage young fiction - some parts fluid and gripping, other parts meandering off tangent, but always remaining part of a cohesive larger whole. In any case, before long - and especially once Nemo’s deep sea submarine has come into the frame - Blue Water’s marriage of steampunk sci-fi with more traditional myth-fantasy elements become an irrepressible mix, and it’s practically impossible to resist the scale of the story, and the warmth of its cast, once it hits full speed.
Indeed it is often its characters, rather than the ultimately straightforward plot, that’ll keep you invested. Jean is a thoroughly entertaining joint-main protagonist - both a genius and a goofball, his passion for science is matched only by his failure to build anything that works 100% of the time - but none of his traits compare to his devotion to keeping Nadia safe when the chips are down.
Nadia meanwhile, is perhaps the most complex character of the entire show. While early episodes may involve her being rescued by Jean on numerous occasions, she is far from being a damsel in distress, quickly showing her true colours as a fierce, strong-minded, adolescently petulant but staunchly compassionate heroine - one whose occasionally irritating stubbornness is typical of many a teenager. Nemo meanwhile is a great rendition of the anti-hero stereotype - aloof, distant and full of intrigue, but not without a benevolent side. But the comedy element of Grandis and her minions is also an essential ingredient. Eventually, as Gargoyle becomes the focal villain of the show, the faux-noble Grandis and her henchmen - the macho, smooth-talking Sanson and the bulky, nerdy inventor Hanson - end up as allies to Jean and Nadia, and with their own pasts to also muse on, become much more than just punchlines as the series wears on. And these individuals are just the tip of the iceberg - the numerous minor characters who make up Captain Nemo’s crew, plus Electra, the Captain’s second-in-command above the Nautilus, are just as engaging a group as anyone else in this series. Collectively, they all really come into their own in the English-dubbed version as well (more on that further down), and all in all, make up a substantial list of quirky but incredibly charming characters who will reel you in, turning the viewing of the show’s early going from compelling to downright compulsive.
If the cast wasn’t enough though, there is also the pedigree behind its production. As previously mentioned, Nadia actually began life as a concept drawn up by Studio Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki, as a potential project in the 70s for production company Toho to commission an animated series revolving around an “80 Days Around The World At Sea” theme.
While the project never saw the light of day (and Miyazaki would go on to use ideas from that original concept in later Ghibli classics such as Castle In The Sky), the idea of Nadia as a series would eventually land in the lap of a company with similarly high aspirations: Gainax, who after producing Nadia for TV channel NHK, would go on to create the landmark mech / psychological drama series, Neon Genesis Evangelion. Sitting chronologically between that particular classic and Gainax’s first success, 1988's classic OVA series Gunbuster, Nadia also serves as a critical point in Gainax’s - and company head Hideaki Anno’s - own creative evolution. As the later episodes kick in, it’s also noticeable just how many of the themes that Evangelion hinged itself upon are present in Nadia as well: characters facing dark revelations about their own existence, philosophical pathos tinged with religious undertones, etc. Thankfully, these themes aren’t laid on anywhere near as heavily as Evangelion subjected viewers to - but they do give Nadia a necessary, mature edge to its plot, and also highlights the show as an essential, and unlikely, stepping stone to Gainax’s more recognizable follow-up.
Nadia’s moments of action, once the few sleepy opening episodes are out of the way, are also still among the best that anime has to offer. Whether they involve the show’s heroes making daring escapes from Neo-Atlantean bases, tense submarine duels with Gargoyle’s main fleet or sensational airship battles in the sky (and even beyond), Nadia knows exactly when to deliver blistering, edge-of-your-seat exclamation points throughout its dialogue-heavy narrative.
It is during these flashpoints that certain characters really do get a chance to shine - the Grandis gang raising hell with their own steampunk monstrosities in bonkers fashion, Captain Nemo barking out orders to out-manoeuvre Neo-Atlantean warships, and Jean’s own daring forays into ocean and sky alike are just three of the highlights. But most critical of all is that these particular episodes are where the show’s artwork really shines - be it via character emotions or the enduringly impressive detail taken to designing the many vessels and vehicles that make up Nadia’s menagerie of combat machinery.
When Nadia goes big, it hits the target every time - and so good are these bursts of drama that it is in fact worth persevering through a deeply suspect middle arc - a ten-episode slog of filler in which quality of storyline and artwork both drop considerably - to get to the show’s exceptionally enjoyable climax.
If you do manage it, you will be rewarded with a truly classic conclusion to one of anime’s truly classic series’. It’s a show that comes with a brilliant soundtrack too. Starting out with the belter of an intro above, it then diverts into the kind of score worthy of a story on this scale: sweeping, emotive orchestral tracks, cheesy but enjoyable crescendos of the rock variety and other effective arrangements - including a satisfyingly chilling piece for any time Gargoyle and his army of Ku Klux Klan enthusiasts show up on screen. Voice-wise too, the original Japanese acting is great, but the criminally underrated English dub really puts the series into a league of its own. It’s great that ADV Films, who developed the dub, chose to go with actual child voice actors for the younger characters - so many other dubs have suffered from refusing to do so. It might have the side-effect of making the early episodes inherently shaky - which is perhaps the main reason ADV’s dub got such an unwarranted reputation - but after a few episodes, the confidence and ability of the entire cast is obvious to hear.
It’s most noticeable in 12 year-old Nathan Parsons’ performance as Jean, whose French accent clearly gets better as the show wears on. But special credit should also go to Sarah Richardson, Martin Blacker and Corey Gagne - Grandis, Sanson and Hanson respectively, who definitely give the eccentric criminal trio the comedic gravitas they’re owed. The standout, though, is perhaps one of the younger talents. Meg Bauman, whose later voice work seemingly only includes a handful of further anime titles, is just spot-on as Nadia - capturing her entire range of teenage emotions and vulnerability in equal, affecting fashion. Surprisingly, Nadia actually ended up being one of those few shows that I found preferable to watch in English (even when the Japanese itself is still excellent), possessing a localization far better than what other online opinions suggest. Whether you do end up liking it or not, it deserves patience in its early episodes at the very least.
It should also be noted that nudity does spring up in Nadia in the odd episode, though this is far more in line with being just a Japanese quirk - they’re way more liberal on such content over there - than a titillating one. The level of violence meanwhile is remarkably tame, even during the final action sequences. What’s most important though is that Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water remains a captivating, heartwarming, occasionally stunning adventure epic that still deserves to be discovered by any modern anime fan. Or any fan of animation in general for that matter - as long as they’re not offended by a mid-series slump, or certain characters taking a bath out of nowhere (see first sentence of this paragraph). And if I have rambled on too long with this particular review, at least it’s because I know a damn good series when I see it. Nadia, flawed as it is, is still a damn good series - and the unearthing of its secrets will still be a delight whatever your age.
Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water is currently widely available on Bluray, courtesy of Sentai Filmworks.
Media utilized in article is property of: Gainax / Sentai Filmworks