This show works on so many levels it can whizz right past viewers heads because of its frenetic pace and glorious slapstick behaviour, but make no mistake there was plenty of thought put into the script of this 90's classic.
Nadesico is a love letter to the space/mecha genre, both laughing at it and along with it with the same level of panache as Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann.
It parodies the genre with clichés, and honours it by keeping to them itself. For example, Nadesico lampoons over the top sacrifices via its in-show 70’s/80's inspired mecha anime ‘Gekigangar 3’ then does the same thing itself anyway, revelling in the genre trope. It has a young adult unwillingly thrust into a mecha on an almost daily basis, yet his mecha is pink for crying out loud.
It’s actually a smart comedy because beyond the love for the mecha genre they're playing with, the writers are self-aware enough to acknowledge the details that a serious story would tackle, such as the (contractual) consequences of a corporation funding a military ship, funerals for the deceased, the effects of anime on viewers, and the different cultures of Earth, but never stopping the laughs along the way. They even justify the sillier stuff in the show such as having such an airhead for a captain, by again satirising corporate tendencies. (the concept of tailor-made captains because of technology handling the rest of the ship)
The backbone of this show, the factor that keeps it from descending into meaningless skit show histrionics is the attention to detail, on both a narrative level and thematic level. It has the enthusiasm for sci-fi so much that it goes to lengths to explain many of its technologies using nano-machines, cyber-networking and boson particle manipulation and any number of concepts that any avid reader of hard sci-fi will automatically recognise. Bear in mind this was released in the mid-90s before nano technology had hit the mainstream media as it has today, in the way it’s overridden nearly every mainstream sci-fi story as an explanation for fantastical stuff occurring on screen.
On top of that, the show for the most part avoids one of my own little pet peeves, that of ships in space taking hits from lasers and not blowing up instantly, as if they were back on Earth and only got hit by a few stray bullets. This little annoyance is avoided by the usage of actual force fields bouncing lasers off of the hulls. The animators even show waves in the ocean peeling backwards as the Nadesico hovers above.
It's this trivial, yet much welcomed, attention to detail that helps elevate the anime above mere comedy. It's not just about making you laugh, but immersing you in its world with consistency and delivering a genuinely engaging story. Rather than be a gimmick, the Gekigangar anime actually becomes more and more relevant to the main story in interesting ways that are better left unsaid in a review.
The story flows between cliché and creativity every five minutes constantly surprising you. Individuals who in no way belong on a ship are brought together anyway, characters who look like they'll be in main roles are dispatched speedily, enemy ships get progressively stronger, generic alien bad guys are revealed to be not so faceless or generic after all, a brilliant time-jumping Memento-esque episode that riffs on Evangelion's psychoanalytical finale in a humorous (yet always honourable) fashion also pops up, it’s just a complete mix.
And every single character on the Nadesico gets some level of development, which is no mean feat considering the comedic nature of the show. Even Nadesico's successor, TTGL, didn’t develop every character to any kind of level (Leeron for example), so when Nadesico goes out of its way to give a little detail to the past of a random pilot who you figure is only there to give bad puns, well you really appreciate it.
The actual plot of Nadesico when you strip everything else away is actually pretty interesting, which is why the anime works, it’s built on a good foundation. What starts as a generic ‘faceless aliens invading Earth’ story ends with the characters and viewer not wanting a victory for either side at all. The Nadesico ship itself belongs to a corporation, hence justifying the motley crew of misfits and the airhead of a captain. Because their superior technology is mostly automatic the captain was chosen for her looks, tailor-made for the crew's emotional wellbeing. It’s crazy, it’s cynical, but you just know corporations could be that stupid to do such a thing one day, obsessed as they are with end results and not the methodology to get there.
The mega corporation responsible for the Nadesico ship is also a brilliant way to force conflict and danger upon it, from both Earth's self-defence forces who don’t like the idea of corporations messing with military matters, and of course the invading aliens who don’t like the Nadesico for its pesky meddling. This is much more interesting than having a generic plotline where a military ship goes 'rogue' for the billionth time in a sci-fi tale. (ok, that happens later as well) As the threats to Earth get larger, and more time passes, uneasy alliances are formed, love triangles are formed then imploded, revelations are uncovered, suppressed memories are, well, unsuppressed.
The first three episodes are perfection, throwing you headfirst into its pitch-perfect comedic tones with hilarious stuff involving humour on both a physical and meta level. The voice acting is oldschool 90's assured goodness. Nadesico has some of the best and funniest ‘Engrish’ I've ever heard in anime. The soundtrack is also very decent; nothing too memorable except for the OP music, but the soundtrack isn’t too generic either.
So as stated earlier, Nadesico shares much in common with TTGL for its skill in blending irreverent humour with its homage to a very popular genre of anime, but a key difference between the two is that TTGL is not afraid of leaping outside the box and tossing physics to the side to bring almost-abstract comedic imagery, whereas Nadesico is always weighed down by consistent logic whether in physics or narrative.
This is to say, no matter what crazy stuff happens in Nadesico, unlike in TTGL, there's always a reason behind it. In TTGL Kamina's sword can stretch to infinity for no reason other than to make you laugh. In Nadesico, for example, there’s a reason why only certain people can boson jump, it’s not used for convenience’s sake. Nadesico is actually a better homage in that it uses meta-humour with the Gekigangar TV show, not for a gimmick but as part of the actual plot. Nadesico is actually a decent analysis and commentary on anime. The latter half of the show ups the drama and emotion, and pretty much blatantly celebrates the very medium itself with bold proclamations that are infectious.
Nadesico is an essential anime for sci-fi/comedy fans. Observe a young guy with suppressed memories get pushed around the solar system by a blue-haired witless captain of a White Base-ish ship blowing up insect-looking baddies while watching mecha anime in his spare time. The ending is far from cliché, however much it will leave some viewers disgruntled for its unresolved story, the fact is that everything of importance in the narrative actually IS resolved; it’s a cliché-avoiding ending that doesn’t resort to what Gekigangar, the mirror of most mecha anime, does.
It doesn’t force an ending on you with cheap happy shortcuts, Nadesico is better than this, going at its own assured pace always treating story and characters with respect. If you’re the type that just has to have every single plot point wrapped up and a more ‘complete’ ending, then there is the subsequent Animage Grand Prix Award-winning movie Nadesico The Movie awaiting you, though the movie is a separate beast entirely, different in tone from the series.
So there is only one Nadesico folks, one specific combination of humour, drama and space hijinks that hits the right spot each time. “Gekiga In!”