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 the terrific action-adventure 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. Shiro Sagisu's music is sometimes bland, although some of the later tracks, notably the Neo-Atlantis themes, are memorable. The opening and ending theme songs as sung by Miho Morikawa are also enjoyable.
For all its assets, however, Nadia suffers from one fatal flaw that prevents it from being the classic it aims to be--it doesn't always stay afloat throughout its 39-episode count. 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. The production values in these episodes show their age at times, but frankly, they still exude detail and clarity for an early '90s series. In episodes 23-34, however, it devolves into a painfully dull, unengaging, haphazard, incoherent Saturday morning cartoon, with warped characterizations, and even worse scenarios totally devoid of imagination or credibility. Simultaneously, the animation takes a hit in these dozen episodes, with some episodes looking downright sloppy or dreadfully cartoonish. (In all fairness, these dreadful half-hours weren't supposed to have existed; distributor NHK requested that they be made after the show became a smash hit in Japan.) In the final five episodes Nadia does recover in terms of artistry and storytelling, delivering a satisfying finale, but it's hard to compensate for the damage that has been done. Simply put, the show would have been far better if it were eleven episodes shorter.
For their part, however, ADV 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, provided by 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 a similarly entertaining cast of adults, particularly Sarah Richardson, Corey Gagne, Martin Blacker (as the Grandis Gang) as well as Jennifer Stuart (Electra). Ev Lunning Jr. (Nemo) and David Jones (Gargoyle)'s performances do take a bit longer to find their groove, but when they do, they really shine. This dub has taken a lot of undeserved flak from critics who have made the mistake of writing it off on account of the sometimes uneven accents (Jean's admittingly shaky French dialect in particular takes some getting used to; although Parsons does improve on it as the show goes on). Despite that and the occasional trepidatious moment in the opening episodes, the end result is still a spirited, energetic, emotionally charged dub that really brings its characters to life. It is most certainly a very commendable effort that deserved better recognition than what it was accorded for back in 2001 and even today.
The ADV dub is not the only English track of Nadia to exist. In the 1990's Streamline Pictures attempted a release of the show. Interestingly, the head of Streamline, Carl Macek, did express interest in paring down the much maligned filler arc. As his version only got about as far as eight episodes, we probably never may know how it would have turned out. Having said that, though, I don't think the Streamline dub compares favorably to the ADV version. Wendee Lee and Ardwright Chamberlain are both very credible actors, but both are miscast as Nadia and Jean and unfortunately underwhelm. Jeff Winkless is a bit less stiff than Ev as Nemo, but even then his turn isn't anything amazing. I did like Edie Mirman as Electra (she ties with Stuart) and the Grandis gang doesn't sound too bad, but on the whole I prefer the ADV dub. It strikes me as the better of the two by far.
Out of curiosity, I did sample a few episodes of the Japanese version. Although some voices are solid (Nemo, Gargoyle, and Sanson), I felt rather indifferent about the others. Marie's voice is the weakest of the bunch; no offense to the late Yuko Mizutani, but I feel Margaret Cassidy does a far better job of bringing out this little girl's innocence as opposed to Yuko's high-pitched shrieking. Likewise, despite Yoshino Takamori and Noriko Hidaka's solid turns as Jean and Nadia I found myself preferring Bauman and Parsons, if mainly because both characters are supposed to be children. It just feels more natural to hear them voiced by actors of the appropriate age. Despite insistence from some long-in-the-tooth fans that this show should only be appreciated in its native language track, I don't consider either version better or worse, only different. Whichever one you prefer is a matter of personal preference.
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 will provide for a much more pleasing experience.