By Bob Clark
There’s a special pleasure in finding an early work by a director so strongly identified by another, later effort, even when such labors are almost universally recognized as masterpieces and definitive entries for their genres and mediums, the kinds that influence countless imitators and homages for decades to come. As a fan of Star Wars, there’s no bigger surprise than to discover the avant-garde brilliance of THX 1138, and observe George Lucas tackling science-fiction in a far more adult and abstract manner than his legendary space-opera ever could. As a devotee of Fritz Lang, it’s always a shock to find fans who never bother to look any further than the likes of Metropolis or M, and thereby deny themselves the arguably greater experiences of multi-part silent epics like Die Nibelungen or the notorious Dr. Mabuse series. In the realm of anime, one can look to any number of creators whose watershed efforts obscure their earlier triumphs– Oshii’s Patlabor movies and OVA’s have mostly been forgotten in favor of his Ghost in the Shell features; Miyazaki’s numerous animated television series have gone overlooked by all but the most dedicated of his fans following the formation of his Studio Ghibli legacy; Otomo’s efforts as a mangaka have been more or less forgotten, if for no other reason than how frequently gems like Domu and the six-volume Akira go out of print. Perhaps most deserving of a rediscovery by the cinephile community at large is the oeuvre of Hideaki Anno– though his 1995 series Neon Genesis Evangelion and its subsequent feature-film variations have dominated the work of anime creators and fans alike for the past fifteen years, perhaps coming the closest any medium has seen to the equivalent of a Star Wars level event of pop-cultural significance, his work has more or less gone ignored by the majority of film critics and mainstream audiences, never quite enjoying the same kind of appreciation that other anime creators have been given.
A combination of animated kaiju battles against giant mechas and surreal monsters from beyond and increasingly strained psychological portraits of adolescent anxiety under epic emotional duress, it’s somewhat understandable why the series is such a hard sell for those who don’t already count themselves as otaku, or at least stand among those who are already potential recruits by virtue of the target audience. Unlike works by writer Chiaki J. Kanaka like Serial Experiments Lain or The Big O, Anno doesn’t provide very gentle ways in for the non-animeholic to appreciate his work– you either get it, or you don’t. Though its visual mastery of action set-pieces and imaginative design is marvelous and its depiction of generational conflict at times poignant and touching, there’s plenty of aesthetic and thematic elements throughout that are sure to alienate anime-skeptics– the narrative steadily becomes way too complicated for its own good, the focus on so many giant alien battles can seem juvenile in comparison to so many more “mature” pieces of sci-fi, and there’s so many gratuitous moments of ecchi fanservice throughout to all but qualify itself as low-grade hentai. That’s why it’s all the more surprising to discover the creator’s own well of previous creations, where one can find all of the same seemingly divisive elements put to screen in an assembly far more palatable to mainstream tastes than even his masterpiece ever manages. Arriving at Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water after pouring through the sum total of Evangelion, one is bound to notice all kinds of similarities between the series– the same scope of jaw-droppingly designed characters, settings and set-pieces; the same emphasis on evermore convoluted sci-fi/Biblical mythologies; even the same prevalence of teenage girls prone to standing around butt naked while surrounded by what an interior-decorator might come up with if tasked to design a room after the star-gate sequence of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Yet somehow, it all condenses into a flavor that’s not only palatable to a dedicated fan like myself, but is easily reccomendable to any philistine out there looking for a work that might convert them to the cause of Anno or anime in general. For one thing, it has just the same kind of avenues leading into it that plenty of other modern series have enjoyed as of late– just as Kanaka’s The Big O or Shinichiro Watanabe’s Cowboy Bebop could be appreciated by fans of film-noir and upbeat tempo jazz, Nadia begins with frequent nods to the classics of Western sci-fi literature by incorporating the settings and characters of Jules Verne’s novels into its fold. As a sci-fi period piece, it manages an entertaining mix of Victorian steam-punk and ancient-astronaut speculation for a narrative that’s as thrilling dramatically as it is visually. Early on, though, it can be a little hard to see Anno’s fingerprint on the material as indelibly as that of Miyazaki, who Anno had previously worked under as an animator on Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and had originally conceived the basic idea for the series years earlier as Around the World Under the Sea, before eventually re-using many of the same concepts for celebrated efforts like Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Indeed, both in terms of thematic and visual execution, many of the early episodes have a very familiar Ghibli-esque ring to them, though in time Anno’s style quickly comes to assert itself with increasingly more dynamic and expressively exaggerated postures and compositions, not to mention the beginnings of a positively abstract brand of psychologically impressionistic animation that would blossom in full during Evangelion. Part of what makes Nadia so fascinating is witnessing the creator’s trademark mannerisms develop, inching itself out from the sphere of influence from his old mentor and finding a clear, strong voice of its own. Just as Lucas’ apprenticeship under the wing of Francis Ford Coppola influences much of his own science-fiction efforts by way of their dedication to the arts of documentary and the avant-garde, Anno’s relationship with Miyazaki helps inform the shape of his own evolving talent.
It might be easiest to see the hand of the Ghibli-creator in the shape of protagonists Nadia and Jean, a mysterious dark-skinned circus acrobat and young French inventor, respectively, who find their paths intertwined on a whirlwind adventure that pits them between thieves, submarines and a reborn Atlantis bent on world domination. Early on, both of their characters are established on grounds that are sure to be familiar to fans of Miyazaki as incarnations of humanistic ideals achieved through dedicated deed– Nadia seeks to discover the truths of her origins and has an easier time with her pet lion-cub King than she does with other people, while Jean seeks nothing more than to win her heart with high-flying inventions which only ever work long enough for the two of them to make a quick escape from one cliffhanger after another. For a while, it can seem as though Anno is simply recycling many of the same positive role-models and values found throughout his predecessor’s work, with echoes of the heroes and especially the heroines of Laputa and Nausicaa popping up as frequently as the pings of the Nautilus’ sonar. As time goes on, however, the Evangelion-creator’s famous blend of existentialist angst comes to dominate the psyches of his characters, peeling them back in layers until they’re revealed to be as damaged as any of the NERV pilots. Nadia especially becomes a touching portrait of a girl unable to connect with the people around her at the most delicate time in her life– even small details like her steadfast vegetarianism and stubbornly absolute morals help to express her social isolation in ways that earn and emphasize the director’s habit of expressing her alienation by showing her in various states of undress. Even Nadia’s frequent disrobing or scant coverings help set her apart from Miyazaki’s tamer, more protectively drawn heroines, and represent an evolution on the part of Anno that might best be described as “growing up” into the much more vulnerable period of adolescence– yes, there’s occasionally a few too many bald-faced moments of peeping-tom lyricism, but they fit the awkward teenage figures well, and thanks to the well-honed characterizations at times feel more rewarding than the sometimes two-dimensional antics of more famous counterparts like Shinji, Asuka or Rei.
Of course, with all that rounding out of well-developed personalities, there’s also something of a softening that occurs to the overall mood throughout the series– Nadia may gain a great deal in terms of its more gentle and tranquil characters and pace, but it also loses something in terms of its potential sharpness. At times, you can feel Anno held back from going as far as he’d really like to with this interesting blend of scientific fantasy and Wonder Years growing-up storytelling, and perhaps can even sense the growing sense of unease between him and the animation studio Gainax that would come to a head through the production problems that beset Evangelion. Though he would be given more-or-less unrestricted creative freedom on that later program and would experience limitations based mostly on the dwindling animation-budget towards the end, on Nadia he was reigned in more to produce a more mainstream effort, even as he pushed whatever boundaries he could get his hands on. Overworked by 18-hour a day schedules and tasked to produce even more content than anticipated after the show became popular in Japan, Anno eventually was forced to cede control of a long stretch of middle episodes to assistant-director Shinji Higuchi, allowing him to focus primarily on the series’ main plot-points and especially its climax. Many commentators have pointed to the stress resultant from his lack of complete creative freedom and the hectic work on this program as a primary source for the four-year period of depression which fueled his later series, yet at the same time it’s easy to see so many of the same psychological and social concerns in this show, though expressed in thoroughly more down-to-earth terms. At times, the combination of teenage turmoil and bigger-than-life sci-fi histrionics can make the series feel not just like a precursor to Evangelion in terms of themes and execution (which one might expect, considering a crew including character designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, composer Shiro Sagisu and future-director Mahiro Maeda) but at times even some kind of prequel (I wouldn’t be too surprised if one of the remaining new Rebuild movies manage to feature references to Atlantean tech).
All in all, it would be easy to simply tout or dismiss the series as a softened, more audience-friendly version of the director’s idiosyncratic style or mere warm-up to his magnum opus, but though it cannot quite hold itself in quite the same esteem as its successor, it is by far one of the most entertaining and entrancing pieces of animation I’ve had the pleasure to watch. Combining spectacular period-perfect adventure with a cavalierly anachronistic sci-fi imagination throughout, it stands as a perfect introduction for audiences young and old to Hideaki Anno’s one-of-a-kind approach to anime, and every bit the vital addition to any fan’s vocabulary of the creator’s more famous work as the prior efforts of any filmmaker. Just as THX 1138 helps to reveal the more sophisticated side of Star Wars, the more positive dynamics of Nadia provides a great counterpoint to the adolescent turmoil of Evangelion, and shows a side of their creator that all too often goes under the radar to followers of his more famous work. Because what truly sets apart the two series is not the difference of Victorian steam-punk and post-apocalyptic futurism, or even their competing up-and-downbeat atmospheres, but instead are the ways in which they build their own kinds of family dynamics between the central casts. Evangelion was famous for its depiction of children and adults unable to come to terms with one another, with one generation exploiting another to fix a problem that they themselves had created– the more that Shinji, Asuka and Rei kept trying to run away from confronting the world they were given the almost impossible job of saving, the more it underlined just how badly the adults in their lives had treated them all along.
By contrast, though many of the grown-ups of Nadia come across as distant, Anno allows them all to show off a great deal more caring and devotion to their juvenile charges, even having them do their best to gently guide our young protagonists to about as sweet a conclusion as we’re ever likely to see from him. Unlike its follow-up, there’s a genuine family that comes together here full of support both on and off the battlefield, letting us see a side of the director that’s almost impossible to imagine given the anguished twists and turns he tends to force his worlds, characters and audiences through. But of course, that more generous and compassionate spirit has always been lying under the surface of Anno’s work, and indeed has become easier to see with You Can [Not] Advance, in the ways that he broadened and deepened the emotional range of infamously introverted figures like Asuka and Rei. As in that film, Nadia frequently involves his characters attempting to better bond with their friends by cooking meals for one another, with the same visual motif of fingers cut from kitchen knives serving as a cute expression of the Hedgehog’s Dilemma. It makes sense to see food constantly used as a metaphor for social behavior, as all too often it’s the hunger for that human connection which comes to define us all, especially when we’re unable to satisfy it. For once, at least, it does the heart good to see Anno feeding that most primal of appetites in full, providing us with as rich, bright and colorful an emotional adventure as has ever been produced. Nadia is an anime that warms the heart instead of breaking it, and a reminder that you can’t do one without the other.