In the mid 1970's, prior to obtaining his well-deserved status as Japan's greatest animator ever, a young Hayao Miyazaki was hired by Japanese movie giant Toho to develop ideas for TV series. One of these concepts was "Around the World Under the Sea", based on Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," in which two orphan children pursued by villains team up with Captain Nemo and his mighty submarine, the Nautilus. Although it was never produced, Toho nonetheless kept the rights to the story outline. Miyazaki would reuse elements from his original concept in later projects of his, most notably a terrific 1986 action-adventure feature called "Castle in the Sky." Ten years later, in the mid-1980's, animation studio Gainax was commissioned to produce an original Anime series to be broadcast on television network NHK. Under the direction of a brilliant but angst-ridden artist known as Hideaki Anno, the studio selected Miyazaki's concept, and crafted an engaging story set in a steampunk 1889 France, with interesting characters, amazing animation (for its time), and a mixture of comedy, romance, mystery, and drama. The result was "Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water", which has since become a worldwide fan favorite.
The story begins at a Paris World Exposition Fair where Jean, a nerdy but charming and instantly lovable inventor boy of fourteen, becomes smitten with a pretty, dark-skinned girl his own age. The girl, known as Nadia, is an unhappy circus acrobat with no clue about her past other than a jeweled necklace she wears. After rescuing her from a trio of comic bandits (the Grandis Gang) Jean earns Nadia's trust. The two set off on an even bigger adventure to find Nadia's birthplace, which supposedly lies in Africa. Along the way, they have run-ins with a supercharged submarine commanded by the mysterious Captain Nemo and his pretty but overprotective first officer Electra as well as a shadowy cult of Nazi-like masked soldiers known as Neo-Atlanteans led by the misanthropic, sinister Gargoyle, who wants Nadia's pendant at any cost. In the course of their around-the-world adventure, Jean and Nadia adopt an orphaned little girl, Marie, who senses that her new guardians will become more than just close friends. Although Nadia's explosive temper poses problems, Jean's patience and loyalty keeps their relationship afloat, and her growing love for the boy gradually transforms her as a person.
"Nadia" has all the makings of a classic series: a well-rounded cast of characters, unforgettable sequences, and a long, involving action adventure. There is a distinctive "Miyazaki-esque" style to the visual designs of the leads, yet only Jean seems to emerge as a Miyazaki creation. Which is arguably what makes him the most lovable character in the whole show. It's easy to see why Nadia finds herself falling for him--who wouldn't want to be with a boy as intelligent, genuinely compassionate, and impossibly generous as Jean? While he does display clumsiness in terms of social graces around the opposite sex, it only makes him all the more appealing as a character. Nadia herself, by contrast, is not always lovable. In addition to having serious anger management issues, she also has unbending and irrational principles about killing, eating meat, or trusting grown-ups. She does, however, display courage and, as mentioned, finds herself growing to care for Jean. Actually, Anno has said that he created Jean and Nadia based on his "light" and "dark" sides.
For all its assets, however, "Nadia" suffers from one fatal flaw that prevents it from being the classic it aims to be--it does not always stay afloat. The first twenty-two episodes are old-fashioned adventure at its best, with humor, young love, traumatic situations which involve death, and compelling, engrossing mysteries as we learn about Nadia, the Nautilus, and the Atlanteans. Midway through, it devolves into a painfully dull, unengaging, haphazard, incoherent Saturday morning cartoon, with warped characterizations, sloppy animation, and even worse concepts for episodes totally devoid of imagination or credibility. (In all fairness, these dreadful episodes weren't supposed to have existed; distributor N.H.K. requested that they be made after the show became a smash hit in Japan.) The final five episodes return the show to its roots of appeal and deliver a satisfying finale, but it's hard to compensate for the damage that has been done.
For their part, however, A.D.V. Films deserves a shout-out for their work on bringing this series to American audiences. The visual and aural transfers are competently done, but it's their translation that really shines. The English dub, a wonderful achievement for the now defunct Austin-based Monster Island studios, is notable for casting three actual children in the roles of Jean, Nadia, and Marie--Nathan Parsons (12), Meg Bauman (14), and Margaret Cassidy (11), respectively. For inexperienced youngsters, all three do exceptional jobs, and are amply supported by an excellent cast of adults, particularly Sarah Richardson, Corey Gagne, Martin Blacker (as the Grandis Gang) as well as Jennifer Stuart (Electra), and Ev Lunning Jr. (Nemo). All show liveliness and enthusiasm for the characters and give the performances of their careers. Ditto for the use of genuinely believable accents--it adds a national flavor to the characters (although Jean's sometimes shaky French dialect takes some getting used to).
Is "Nadia" a complete waste of time? Not at all; as mentioned, the characters are fully-realized, and for twenty-two episodes and the final five, the show does indeed deliver an entertaining, consistently engaging adventure story with just the right amount of heart, humor, and drama. It's just too bad that it goes downhill in the second half (despite delivering a phenomenal conclusion). Otherwise, this series would truly be worthy of the praise it receives as one of the greats. The best way to appreciate "Nadia" is to view episodes 1-22, then 31 (the only "filler" episode to have any genuine plot development), and finally 35-39. It'll surely provide a more pleasing experience.