Rewatching another GAiNAX classic, Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water (1990-1991).
I'd seriously forgotten just how much I love this series. It's kind of the Ur-Vernesque adventure anime, a classic in its own right; perhaps it's the same kind of nostalgia that makes me love GunBuster so much.
It should be a story familiar to anyone even loosely familiar with the Verne-inspired canon: a young, bright, optimistic and kindhearted budding young inventor, scientist and orphan named Jean-Luc L'Artique is in Paris for the World Fair of 1889. He is attempting to help his uncle win the Fair's aviation competition, when he meets an athletic, dark-skinned girl named Nadia (and her pet lion King) who is fleeing from a gang of jewel thieves led by Señorita Grandis Granva. Jean uses his wits, pluck and inventiveness to get her out of a sticky situation, and thereafter agrees, as one fellow orphan to another, to help her find her lost homeland. This quest, after several false starts, leads them to join up with Captain Nemo and his crew of the Nautilus, in their battle against the sinister organisation Neo Atlantis. Nadia's only clue to her identity is the Blue Water, a jewel that she inherited from parents she cannot remember (and the same jewel that Señorita Grandis keeps trying to steal!), which also connects her fate to Captain Nemo, the Nautilus, his enemies, and the mystery of the lost continent of Atlantis.
I should say that this series isn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Though it retains a childlike sense of wonder and adventure throughout, thus still showing the fingerprints of Hayao Miyazaki (who had worked on the concept throughout the 1970's before going on to do his own work, and passing the project to the likewise-talented Hideaki Anno), it also has a markedly schizophrenic feel. It can literally go, within the space of minutes, from wacky slapstick antics (usually involving Grandis and her henchmen Samson and Hanson), to swashbuckling high adventure and action, to philosophical-psychological musings on human nature, violence, war and peace, and the relationships between grownups and children. This tendency lends a remarkable breadth to the show's universe, of course, but it can be a bit jarring at times. Hideaki Anno is already showing some of his postmodernist dissatisfaction with his medium in this. The cold, aloof, goal-oriented, seemingly strict and unfeeling father figure (see Coach Ohta in Gunbuster, and Gendo Ikari in Eva) is present in Captain Nemo. And Nadia - not exactly the most likeable of characters at the best of times - can angst with the best of them. There are episodes (particularly episode 35) which reach Eva-like levels of existential / Freudian psychological crisis on Nadia's part.
All the same, the cast features characters with depth and personality - and even the Grandis Gang are saved from becoming a premonition of Team Rocket. Grandis and Samson in particular have compelling backstories, and Hanson bonds strongly with Jean over their shared interest in science, technology and discovery. It's also fun to see the mentor-pupil rapport between Grandis and Nadia, and Hanson (and Samson) and Jean, when it comes to life lessons and learning to grow up. Samson's brotherly
affection for Marie is also given plenty of opportunity to shine, with both funny and genuinely heartwarming moments.
And then there are the Island arc, the Africa arc and the execrable musical clip show episode, which even Hideaki Anno himself hated (with the exception of the Red Noah episodes at the end of the Island arc).
Honestly, I've said this before and I'll say it again. The best way to view these episodes is that they all take place in Jean's head, and are the result of the bad shrooms trip Jean goes on in episode 25. Jean totally loses his sense of time and proportion in episodes 26-29, becomes lucid enough to function in episodes 30 and 31, and then relapses into a really bad trip in episodes 32 and 33 before going on a full-blown psychedelic musical freakout in episode 34, while all the time Nadia, Marie and the Grandis gang are trying to keep him from hurting himself. That's the best possible explanation for the Island episodes that I can come up with.
In all seriousness, though, the show seriously picks up from episode 35 on, and the showdown in Earth orbit between Nemo's Nautilus crew and Gargoyle at the end is nothing short of epic, and that's not a word I use lightly. Speaking of Gargoyle, by the way, even his character was three-dimensional enough that he was a love-to-hate-him villain - he has real motivations, he is utterly ruthless in his pursuit of power, and he recapitulates a lot of the show's themes of the dark side of scientific progress.
Topically, the show covers a surprising amount of ground. I was quite surprised on re-viewing it how it touched upon the topics of the upsides and downsides of the Industrial Revolution and technological progress, European colonialism (ironically using Neo Atlantis and its covert war against the European powers to explore the imperialist mentality), militarism, scientific positivism and the crises of modernity more generally. Again, this is probably reflective of the attitudes exhibited in Hayao Miyazaki's other work, but it's still interesting to see these things explored in another way.
I'm glad I got to watch it again; for all its inconsistencies and flaws (particularly in pacing and characterisation), it is a brilliant work!