It's the first TV series from Gainax and Anno Hideaki, with their second being Neon Genesis Evangelion. I'm not saying that this series was similarly industry-redefining, because it wasn't, but you can see the similarities. Both are taking childish anime genres in darker directions. The difference is how overt that is. Evangelion focused on the darkness, whereas Nadia is a family show. It was broadcast by NHK (Japan's BBC) in an all-ages slot. Tomoko watched it as a child, which is why we bought the DVDs. It was a nostalgia rush for her.
At its darkest, though, it traumatised a generation, while I'm going to guess that the show as a whole probably wouldn't be broadcastable in that slot today.
The show had a complicated production history, incidentally, and owes some DNA to Hayao Miyazaki. In the mid-1970s, Toho had hired him to make a TV series. One of his ideas was "Around the World in 80 Days by Sea", adapted from Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. The collaboration came to nothing at the time and Miyazaki ended up reusing these ideas in Future Boy Conan and Laputa: Castle in the Sky, but Toho still owned the story outline and so they eventually turned it into this 1990 TV series. They hired Gainax, who'd never made a TV show before. It would be a bumpy ride. Anno Hideaki massively overspent on the early episodes and ended up losing 80 million yen on the project, not helped by the TV station unexpectedly demanding 39 episodes instead of 26. The extra episodes were thus sent abroad to a Korean studio and looked like garbage. The whole fiasco sent Anno into a four-year depression that he eventually put on-screen as Neon Genesis Evangelion.
It worked out okay for Gainax in the end, though. They didn't own the rights to the TV show itself, but they made record earnings for the company with a spin-off game.
Let's discuss the story! It's the year 1889 and theoretically we're in for lots of steampunk, but after a while it'll turn into straight SF with submarines, nuclear reactors and giant robots. Jean is a fourteen-year-old French inventor who's trying to make a flying machine with his uncle. They've entered one of those turn-of-the-20th-century aviation competitions that are mostly about riding a comedy bicycle off a pier. (All this love of flying feels very Miyazaki-like.) Jean's lovely. He's great with machines, naive with people and always sees the good side of everyone.
Nadia, on the other hand, is a fourteen-year-old girl who's cynical, pessimistic and a strident vegetarian in a narrative without much sympathy for this. She's quite a negative person. At one point in the show, she'll attempt suicide. However she's also cute, perky, even more kind-hearted than Jean and capable of jumping a ten-foot backflip to land on a trapeze. (She works in a circus.) She also owns a gem called Blue Water that attracts bad guys. At first glance, those villains look kiddified. Grandis is a shrieking, curvaceous idiot with comedy sidekicks. Gargoyle is an Ernst Stavro Blofeld substitute in a cartoon version of a Klu Klux Klan outfit, with lots of stormtroopers. They look like Saturday morning BWAHAHA-mongers. Oh, and Nadia goes around with a lion cub called King who looks more like a big mouse and seems to have human-level intelligence. You wouldn't be too surprised if he started talking.
If you go into this show unprepared (as did Tomoko in 1990), you'll be in for some surprises.
Firstly, there's Captain Nemo and the Nautilus. He and his crew are on a mission to wipe out Gargoyle and the Neo-Atlanteans. That's "wipe out" as in "kill them all". He'll shoot a stormtrooper through the head on-screen.
Then there's Gargoyle and his men. They'll machine-gun a little girl's parents in front of her, then try to kill her too. This leaves Jean and Nadia trying to explain the meaning of death to a four-year-old. That was a heavy episode. Despite their silly costumes, these are villains worth fighting.
This show's key note is inconsistency. It's fun and family-friendly on the surface, but then every so often they'll take the gloves off. Those episodes can get intense. The most notorious is ep.15, which has heard of the horrific things that might happen on submarines in wartime. It's not as bad as it could have been, actually, but it's pretty hard-hitting even for an adult audience. Children who watched that episode in 1990 still remember it today.
Tone? Forget it. This show does whatever it likes, even before we hit the Korean-made episodes. Despite everything I've been saying, it's still a family-friendly cartoon with batshit ideas. Those villains never stopped looking goofy to me. It has King the clever lion... and then we have the Island/Africa arc. These look so bad that Anno refused to show their ep.34 and instead paid from his own pocket to edit together a fill-in recap music video episode. That's the episode where some of the production staff took their names off. Personally I quite liked it. The songs are fun (and taken from a CD that had already been released). However most people loathe it and it's become the other infamous Nadia episode. Both ep.15 and ep.34 caused trauma, but the latter particularly to Anno.
It's worth discussing the Korean episodes, though. They come in three phases. The first and worst (for me) is just Jean, Nadia, Marie and King on a desert island, in a series of stupid filler stories. Nadia's characterisation gets rewritten into whatever's convenient for the current episode, with even the narrator calling her an idiot in ep.25. Meanwhile Jean and the others try to think of ways to trick her into eating meat or fish, which might admittedly be a survival tactic on a desert island but still isn't nice of them. Jean makes impossible inventions, having presumably found a metalworks and an infinite supply of machine parts washed up on the beach. We learn that King can write, albeit in Lion rather than Japanese. "I forgot King was an animal!" At its worst, this is show-killingly bad. There's no justification for the scripts. I can understand the bargain-basement animation, but it doesn't save money for the writer to be taking the piss too.
It improves in Phase Two, though. More people arrive and we return to sane storytelling. The animation improves a bit too.
Phase Three, though, is often called even worse than the Island Arc. Nadia falls in love at first sight with some boy, despite already being more or less an item with Jean. The generous interpretation is "she's a teenager". There are less generous ones. Frankly, Nadia's characterisation gets yanked all over the shop, although you could play an intellectual game with yourself by taking it all at face value and arguing that it expresses the contradictions and complexity in her character. As it happens, though, I thought that these Africa episodes had some interesting deconstruction of 19th century chauvinism, colonialism and attitudes to Western/African civilisation. Unfortunately this is in the context of a load of tripe that's undermining the show's title character, with art that's making Grandis look like a vampire and Hanson a youkai.
The show gets back on track for the last five episodes, though. Crucially, it doesn't have a Gainax Ending. It makes sense. It's comprehensible. However I also don't think it's quite as good as it should have been, with slightly fuzzy ideas of how to build a finale about character drama. It's fine, though. It does the job. All the ingredients are there, including some excellent moments. However I'm starting to wonder if Gainax Endings are partly a cover for not being very good at endings.
I should mention sex. This is a family-friendly show. There's nothing to embarrass NHK... and yet, when you watch the ep.34 music videos, you'll realise how much nudity and fanservice Gainax slipped in. Most of it's underaged too (Nadia), if you think that's meaningful in a cartoon. There's even a nipple in ep.12. Nadia's bedsheet outfit on the island never shows the camera anything, but if you wore that in real life, you'd get arrested. Furthermore, if you actually watch what Gainax are putting on the screen, I think it's clear that they're making it look like a story that's, um, more mature. I'm sure what canonically happened is the innocent interpretation, but even so Nadia descending out of camera shot on Jean could potentially be read as more than just a kiss. (If you're feeling mischievous.) Then, a few episodes later, they're both surprisingly relaxed about a stark naked Nadia running to and embracing Jean.
There's a little-known sequel movie. It's little-known because it was made without Anno or Gainax and because everyone says it's bad.
This isn't top-flight work. It's messy and I don't think it makes best use of its villains. However it's still a famous and award-winning show (including Best Work at the 1991 Animage Anime Grand Prix), by one of anime's most famous directors and studios. Obviously the Korean episodes send the quality off a cliff, but I'd argue that they also make the show more memorable. (Not in a way anyone would want, but they do.) They're also important for Nadia's character, in a "pushing her to extremes" way. However the most important thing is that the show finds its feet again afterwards. It's a bold show, although some of that apparent boldness is actually the mistakes of a first-time director and studio. I enjoyed it.