Nadia - the Secret of Blue Water

Rating: 4

There are some works of art that force you to take notice. You may not have the knowledge, or the context, to fully appreciate the craft or the importance or the references or whatever, but you are still caught and gripped and you think «this is something special». And I'm not only talking about “proper art”, paintings and sculpture and “classical” music: comics and pop music and films can and do shine of significance even to the clueless observer.

I grew up with science fiction and anime. The first books I remember reading on my own were abridged editions of Verne, and stories for children written by Asimov and Bradbury. I know that I was watching Yatterman and Polymar when I was four, and I remember watching Tetsujin #28 and Arale when I was six. But the first time that something made me stop and take notice was when I was fourteen, and I caught a fragment of an early episode of Nadia on TV. When I was younger, I used to watch TV most afternoons, and Italian TV at the time broadcast plenty of Japanese animation; then, over the years, my computer attracted more of my attention (no Internet! this was the eighties!), and I sort of lost track of what was on TV: the fact that anime was re-scheduled to coincide with mealtimes (as opposed to mid-afternoon) didn't help, as my parents controlled the TV while we ate. So it was a surprise, one evening just before dinner, while channel-surfing, to stumble upon an animated scene that screamed «this is good, pay attention». But my mother called, I went to dinner, and that was it.

I actually didn't know what it was I had seen until about five years later, during my first year at University, where I finally met other manga and anime fans. I was finally able to watch the whole series, and the experience only confirmed my first impression: Nadia is special, it's an important cultural artefact.

Of course, by that point, I also was better positioned to recognise the various sources of inspiration and references in the work: Jules Verne, of course, but also Ghibli's Laputa, Tatsunoko's Time Bokan series, and to a lesser degree the ship design of Macross and Yamato.

The references to Verne are obvious and explicit: the opening narration in the first episode is essentially the same as the one that opens Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas, there's a Captain Nemo on a submarine called Nautilus, to say nothing of balloon travel around the world, and mysterious islands.

The Grandis / Sanson / Hanson trio is of course modelled after Doronjo / Tonzura / Boyacky and their other incarnations from Yatterman and the other Time Bokan series. In Nadia, though, the characters are not written as bumbling idiots, but as smart and resourceful thieves and fraudsters, with hearts of gold.

That a very similar group of enemies-but-not-quite is found in Laputa (the sky pirates Dora / Charles / Henry / Luis) is almost certainly a consequence of the original concept on which both works are based: in the seventies, the production company Toho commissioned a young Hayao Miyazaki to propose a few ideas for television series; the series were never made, but on the one hand, Miyazaki used some of those concepts in Future Boy Conan and Laputa, and on the other hand, Toho gave the same concepts to Gainax (already famous for Honneamise and Gunbuster) to make Nadia. So the two works are not directly inspired one from the other, they're more two different developments of the same premise. I always suggest watching both, to see how different people can tell what is essentially the same story, and send very different messages. Then you may also want to watch Disney's Atlantis, for another different take on very similar premises.

So, is this important cultural artefact without faults? Oh, of course it has faults!

For starters, it's way too long. 39 episodes are too many for almost any story: at the time, 26 was the norm, and these days I look askance at anything longer than 13. The probability of there being filler episodes and useless story lines grows sharply beyond about four hours of animation. Nadia is no exception: episodes 32-33 can be seamlessly removed, the whole Lincoln Island sequence could be seriously shortened, and after a while the chase / fights with the Evil Guy feel repetitive.

Then, the Evil Guy, Gargoyle, is not much of a character as a caricature: very thin back-story, minimal motivation, apparently unlimited resources, petty vengeance… mind you, Laputa's Muska and Conan's Lepka are not much better written, but being a wide-spread problem does not make “cardboard bad guy” less of a problem.

There's many other issues with this series, but I feel they do not detract much from its best feature: the characters.

Jean is, in all aspects, a 14 year old techno-nerd. Naïf, socially awkward, innately positivist, looking for technological solutions to all problems… how many of us have been there? And, just like Jean, how many have grown out of the destructive and isolating aspects of such youth, helped by friends and loved ones?

Nadia, orphan, adrift, a young black woman surrounded by white people, exploited, sold, afraid of loving others. But with a strong moral sense, a clear feeling for what's wrong and what's right, which helps her navigate the upheaval of her world when she realises that not everybody is out to get her, and that she can be loved. Nadia is as close to a self-insert as you can get (Anno has stated on the record that many aspects of her personality are based on himself), but I can't think of any other who came out this well. Also, she's one of the very few non-white characters in anime.

I have already spoken of Grandis's trio, but they also work as adult guidance and examples for Nadia and Jean, being much better at it than the crew of the Nautilus are.

And, finally, Marie, the little girl, who literally gets the last word.

DatesCreated: 2015-12-11 12:38:51 Last modification: 2023-02-10 12:45:24