Wandering through Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water

When I was in college, a professor once showed us a set of visual representations of writing styles unique to different peoples.

One was Persian storytelling, which starts with one central point-

-Then expands ever outwards until the text ends- a mesmerizing approach.

Another characterized Jewish storytelling, which would state, progress, and restate- very similar to the pattern of essay writing you learned in grade-school.

Although in America, he added, most people just end up doing this:

Then there was this curious pattern, which he attributed to French storytelling. A sort of wandering thread that funnels into a conclusion.

Revisiting Nadia, I was reminded of this last graphic in particular, as this fantastic SF drama’s sense of progression is quite odd. In the beginning, the characters are thrust by apparent chance from one situation to another, hopping around different locations before settling to follow along with the crew of the Nautilus. This builds to a dramatic climax, after which the story then loses all sense of pacing and momentum. The last few episodes reclaim the main thread and tie it all together to its conclusion.

One might be able to track it like this:

Nadia had something of a wandering production history as well. It began as a concept by Hayao Miyazaki, based loosely on Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A few years passed and it was handed to Hideaki Anno to direct. As production pressures were mounting and Anno was overworked, he asked his friend Shinji Higuchi to take over the direction for episodes 23-34 (infamously known as “The Island Episodes” *) while Anno focused on the final 5 episodes. The result is a series that is full of great moments and unique ideas, but comes off as a bit of a mess. Yet this messiness is one of the aspects that is most intriguing to me.

Nadia, as its subtitle suggests, is about secrets. There is a mystery that its characters are pressing into, and the path to discovery is by no means a straight line. Jean and Nadia’s adventures are plagued with seemingly random encounters with groups of people who are already in motion, each with strong motivations. Yet these motivations are not given away- their hearts are not worn on their sleeves, as would be typical of a Miyazaki character. These are Anno’s characters, and Anno’s characters have layers of protection around their innermost drives. Heroes and villains alike wear masks, and every person is an ocean of secrets.

For fans of Anno’s later work Evangelion, this should carry a ring of familiarity. For all of the high-concept, gargantuan battle sequences which Anno handles so masterfully, there is something to be said for his perceptive depiction of the psychology behind human relationships. Everyone is a stranger at first, hidden beneath many barriers, and it takes a balance of suspicion and good faith to navigate the world without being lonely or at risk to evil. Familiarity and intimacy takes time- it cannot be forced. 

This is where I think Nadia‘s story structure succeeds. There are episodes that do not seem to advance the plot in any significant way- but rather, they reveal new layers of its varied cast. The world may be under threat by secret armies in possession of ancient doomsday technology- but even the vengeful crew of the Nautilus need to cook meals, exercise, woo the nurse, and spend a day on the beach every once in a while. It gives the characters time to interact with each other while their guard is down, which supplement the revelations done under more dire circumstances. Perhaps one of the most lovable aspects of the show is that characters like Hanson and Sanson, who are first introduced as cartoonish goons, gradually become mentors for young Jean, nurturing both his inventive and scientific side as well as toughening him up for the responsibilities of being a man. Sometimes their advice is terrible- but sometimes it is not. This too, is all part of the messy, wandering process of getting to know one another in a meaningful way.

Episode 13 (“Run Marie, Run!”) perhaps illustrates Nadia‘s wandering structure to a T. It’s a strange little episode that has almost nothing to do with the main plot, and could easily be removed from the story and still maintain continuity. Its first half begins simply with the little girl Marie, bored that none of the adults will play with her. She and King, the baby lion, run to explore the island in a musical montage accompanied by the opening theme. Halfway through the episode, Marie and King come across some mine tracks and decide to play “train”. They get bored of this, and try to run back, only to find that they’ve forgotten the turns they took to get where they are.

There’s only a few minutes left in the episode, and the audience could ask “where on earth is this going?” But this is how life is- we rarely know where things are going. The innocent duo run into trouble, which results in a chase scene that literally and figuratively gets the plot back on track, even incorporating (seemingly) superficial details from the beginning, like a game of rock-paper-scissors– to outrageous effect. This episode alone could be a microcosmic parody of the show’s troubled production.

But perhaps this is reading too much into it. One could argue other narrative structures are in play, and the show certainly features episodes that play with narrative structure. Perhaps it may be more accurate to see the story as an inverted version of that first diagram: a spiral that begins at its extremity and winds inward to its conclusion, as the characters draw nearer to the truth beneath it all. Almost like…hmm…I wonder.

In the end, the build-up is worth it. When the show finds its stride, it is as riveting as any of Anno’s greatest sequences in Evangelion, and the last 5 episodes constitute one of his finest achievements in the medium. There is much, much more that could be said about the show’s themes and manifold surprises, but that is best left for you to discover on your own, intrepid cartoon explorer.

(* As for the “Island Episodes”, there may be some fun moments, but I do not recommend them- not so much because they wander, as many of Anno’s earlier episodes do, not even because they are so apparently done on a shoestring budget, but because they reduce each character into a clownish stereotype of his or her earlier self, poorly restating what we already knew and often contradicting their past developments. When you come to episode 22, I would take the director’s own advice to jump to 30-31, which have relevance to the final arc, and later to Anno’s episodes beginning at 35.)

Phil Stankus has been drawing and animating for over 15 years. He’s inspired by all kinds of mediums and tries with his art and his words to understand and bring attention to truly beautiful stories. To see what he’s been drawing lately, follow him @PhillipStankus on Twitter or YouTube.

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