Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water (Fushigi no Umi no Nadia) 1990 / Atlantis: The Lost Empire 2001
I wanted this post to be far more comprehensive than I ended up being able to manage, but hopefully it still covers a bit of ground.
Partly that’s because I’ve ran out of time, partly because there’s a lot I could cover, and thirdly, I came across a lot of dead/partially functioning links that I expected to be able to draw from but couldn’t get much use out of – like this comparison. It’s missing the images but is still useful in terms of text, though it too, features broken links now. The internet is getting old, folks!
This debate has gone on since previews of Atlantis were released probably twenty years ago now, and since then I haven’t totally been able to come down on one side over the other… but more on that at the end – here’s a clue however; I think we’re all aware of Disney’s The Lion King and how they treated Kimba the White Lion.
So, basically, we have Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water (1990) and Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) where the latter shares many similarities in plot, setting and design but does differ in some ways. I think it’s also clear that both Nadia and Atlantis owe a lot to the works of Jules Verne.
On that note, here’s part of a handy table I found within a great article over at Anime News Network:
It’s longer in the article and I think it’s worth a visit, certainly for the full comparison table if nothing else.
The table clearly shows that both texts owe a serious debt to the books. However, a lot of the concerns aimed at Atlantis do rest on the visuals rather than just the storyline. I was unable to personally make the images that are scattered throughout this article, but the ones you see came from some of the things I’ve linked to or sometimes Pinterest, actually.
Now, some articles on this topic seem to come down to something like “Atlantis was clearly influenced by Nadia but not enough to say outright plagiarism” or simply say that “well yeah, but they’re both using Verne”.
Related to the idea that this controversy should probably include three texts and not two, I want to quickly bring up the notion of Idea vs Execution, because we know that intellectual property laws can only protect one and not the other. Of course, whether something is legally permissible and whether something ought to have been done is probably a different question.
There’s a position put forth by an academic* Marc Hairston that suggests certain extremely general mythological tropes would have influenced both film teams separately, which I found interesting. In his piece (scroll a bit) he addresses and refutes (perhaps) similarities between plot and ship and character design.
Here’s a quote from the article focusing on Jean for one:
Both Gainax and Disney put glasses on Jean and Milo as visual shorthand to make sure you knew from the start that this is a “smart” character. But it’s hardly original. Here’s a short list of other “smart” characters with glasses in animation: Mr. Peabody from Rocky and Bullwinkle, Busby Birdwell from the 1970s tv animated series Fantastic Voyage, Mac the Scottish engineer chicken in Chicken Run, Tombo from Kiki’s Delivery Service, Doc in Snow White (see how far back this is going?). So both Jean and Milo are the same character type, but that is hardly proof that Disney borrowed the idea from Nadia. They could just as easily have borrowed the idea from Mr. Peabody.
Sounds more than reasonable, right? Haiston also talks about the ‘midriff’ outfits of both Nadia and Kida both being ways to get some skin onscreen under PG restrictions, and further notes:
In any case if the Disney animators wanted to differentiate Princess Kida from the other characters who are all anglo or European, then the quickest visual shorthand is to make her dark-skinned (just as the Gainax did with Nadia).
Sounds like a similar move used with the ‘one character with red hair’ in an anime – obviously, the colour is code for ‘fiery’ or at the very least, lets the character stand out amongst the cast and any background visuals. It’s efficient shorthand.
He also mentions the magic gems – considering them to be basically “stock motif” which I think is pretty spot on. Still on the magical gemstones for a moment:
“Good energy” from a magic object is almost always portrayed as blue-white; “evil energy” from a magic object is almost always shown as reddish in color.
Something I believe we could all see across the history of pretty much all film and literature. This makes it harder to say Disney saw Nadia using a blue gem with blazing light and copied that moment for their film Atlantis, right?
Now, I want to note that Marc Hairston’s piece was written before the film Atlantis was actually released (as he freely admits), and I believe his thoughts were based on the preview only. So far, I haven’t found him writing on the film after having seen it.
When trying to demonstrate that one team has copied another team’s execution of an idea I think things become murky around information pertaining to motive and opportunity (that makes this sound like a crime show). On one hand, it’s all on the screen. On the other, when what’s on the screen can be argued to be close but not exactly the same… how do we discount the possibility of coincidence? Especially considering both texts ultimately share the same source, in Verne’s work.
One way to seek clarity on the issue seems to be attempting an interrogation of whether creators of Atlantis were in a certain place at a certain time and could be reasonably expected to have been exposed to the source text (Nadia here) or were fans of anime etc etc (I know that in the case of The Lion King there are accounts of Disney’s team that leave little doubt as to exactly what happened there).
So, first-hand accounts of the production or responses from the creators then? I wasn’t able to hunt down dozens of them:
Don Hahn, and Gary Trousdale, producer and co-director of the Disney movie, both expressed surprise when asked about the similarities during a recent interview. But during the same interview, Trousdale also identified himself as a fan of anime, as is fellow director Kirk Wise. For both of them, the works of Hayao Miyazaki (Kiki’s Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke) are a major influence in their own work.https://www.animenewsnetwork.com/feature/2001-05-15
Co-director Kirk Wise said:
“Never heard of NADIA till it was mentioned in [the rec.arts.disney.animation] newsgroup. Long after we’d finished production, I might add.”Disney animation newsgroup
So, if we accept the not unreasonable idea that both texts use common tropes and motifs along with both being based on works of Jules Verne, then maybe there’s less of a case here…
But let’s now hear from Gainax – long quote, sorry:
Mr. Akai:When [Disney’s] Atlantis got released, NHK actually asked [Gainax] what exactly they thought…They were kind of puzzled because they are kind of a subsidiary and it was not like [Gainax] had any kind of decision making power. So they were mystified as to why NHK bothers asking them.
On the internet, there was a lot of talk about how Atlantis was so similar to Nadia. Of course, Disney says that they have never seen or heard of a series called Nadia. NHK came to Gainax because of this and asked them how they felt about this implication that Disney was plagiarizing the series. [Gainax] didn’t really have anything to say because they weren’t the parent corporation. It was not like they had any rights anyways.
Mr. Yamaga:We actually tried to get NHK to pick a fight with Disney, [Laughter] but even the National Television Network of Japan didn’t dare to mess with Disney and their lawyers. What we said to [NHK] was, this really had nothing to do with us but if it did we would definitely take them to court. Of course, it is all a lie. We actually did say that but we wouldn’t actually take [Disney] to court. We would be so terrified about what they would do to [NHK] in return that we wouldn’t dare.”
Seems pretty clear to me what Nadia’s team felt about the Disney film and again, visually, the similarities are many. Verne wasn’t always describing some of the things that occur in both film texts and so the question lingers in the minds of folks all over, I suspect.
Could Disney, well-aware of how they’d been caught out with The Lion King, have made sure that Atlantis was ‘different enough’ to Nadia to keep things ambiguous? Or at the least, not easy to litigate? That sounds like a conspiracy theory, I guess.
But then, as Gainax mentioned:
Even if individual creators on the project may not have set out to copy anything directly, for me, it really comes down to the fact that after The Lion King I don’t believe Disney are trustworthy.
And done! Nine posts on Nadia complete!
Thanks for reading them and I hope it made you curious about the show or at least, included some interesting stuff you may or may not have stumbled across before 🙂
*Marc Hairston is actually a space physicist, which is fascinating 🙂