Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water (Fushigi no Umi no Nadia) – The NHK Arc, Episodes 1-4

Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water (Fushigi no Umi no Nadia) 1990

Following on from this introduction post I thought I’d start things today – and let’s see if I can post more about this classic adventure show over the next seven or eight days straight!

(The brushwork on the title card is ace)

The NHK Arc Episodes 1-4

Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water starts out very firmly in ‘children’s cartoon’ territory in some ways. NHK* was reportedly still sending scripts to Anno Hideaki during this time and so there’s definitely a family friendly vibe, with slapstick and a bit of fast and loose stuff when it comes to physics (though nothing like the infamous ‘Island Arc’).

More importantly, many of the characters are established in these episodes, and the MacGuffin too – or so it seems. Of course, the Blue Water itself is actually far more than a MacGuffin, but for now no-one in the story really knows why, not Nadia herself nor those pursuing her.

Firstly, we meet the super-curious Jean, a young scientist who wants to fly and more, to find his missing father. When he arrives at the 1889 Paris World Exposition he encounters a mysterious girl who works as an acrobat in a circus… and is quickly pulled in to her flight from the city, when a trio of comical villains try to steal her glowing blue pendant.

It’s Team Rocket! (Well, the Grandis Gang probably owes something to older shows itself :D).

What follows for the first few episodes is a cycle of close calls as the Grandis Gang close in on Jean and Nadia during their escape, an escape which is usually aided by Jean’s wonderful (if at times unreliable) machinery. (It’s generally these aspects that, for now, carry the steampunk feel.)

Now, if you’re getting some vague Laputa: Castle in the Sky-era Miyazaki vibes from my description then you’ll be gratified to know that ‘Nadia’ was pitched to Toho by Miyazaki as “Around the World in 80 Days in Captain Nemo’s Submarine” during the mid-1970s. Apologies of course if this is old news, as I suspect it will be to Nadia fans who stumble across these posts.

Of course, Miyazaki didn’t end up in the director’s chair but eventually, a fair few years later, Anno Hideaki did and while I’m not sure how much exactly he inserted into these early episodes (compared to what NHK expected him to shoot), it wasn’t all the thrill of setting out on an adventure, though that is still definitely the main focus of the first few episodes.

Also appearing in this arc, usually only briefly, are perhaps a few things more uncommon to the idea of a fun, kids adventure story: namely vegetarianism, racism and maybe even some push-back against the idea of American Imperialism. I haven’t been able to research all of that well but I do think Nadia is at least one of the first anime characters to be firmly vegetarian, which is interesting in and of itself, but also remains an important character trait during the show.

Elsewhere we see the racism of Jean’s aunt, who refuses to take in Nadia based on her skin colour. While racial harmony (or the lack of) is not a theme that the show refers to often, it is present and Jean of course, being not only infatuated with Nadia, but also a young chap of principles, chooses to protect her without help from his family.

During these episodes Jean and Nadia get the chance to share their fears and dreams and find common ground. Nadia’s extreme (but understandable) distrust of adults clearly helps her come to trust Jean quickly, even with her tsundere personality making his life a little harder – but Jean takes it all good-naturedly, bringing a real optimism to the episodes and the whole series.

This expression will pop up every now and then, when Jean is especially excited about technology 😀

Eventually, the kids are chased into the very ocean where they end up being saved by and taken aboard the magnificent Nautilus, courtesy of the taciturn Captain Nemo and Electra, his mysterious First Officer.

Impenetrable disguise there, Electra
Meet Nemo Kanchō – but just his right eye for now.

Here, Jean freaks out with excitement about all the wonderful new technology and though they are attacked by a ‘sea monster’ while aboard, the kids are soon sent on their way once more – toward what is commonly known as Marie’s Island where the tone of Nadia takes a fairly sharp turn away from ‘kids show’.


*I believe that NHK, as Japan’s public broadcaster, was generally considered ‘all ages’ for at least some of its programming?

Getting some foreshadowing in nice and early!

* Another note – re: the Laputa/Nadia aspects, there’s one episode of Nadia here that will clearly evoke the earlier film, both in palette and sometimes composition, but tonally they’re different takes on a similar moment and I only pulled a few shots here.

And I’d say it’s clearly a direct homage too.

The Gainax team were obviously well-aware that Miyazaki pitched the idea and their love of fan-service is kinda legendary, so if Captain Nemo can bring both Superdimension Fortress Macross/Space Battleship Yamato to mind, the why not a nod to Laputa Castle in the Sky with the morning after Jean rescues Nadia/Pazu rescues Sheeta?

A shot of both boys sleeping, having given up their beds.
Here a POV shot as Jean checks on Nadia (who is far less predictable than Sheeta) and the over the shoulder shot from ‘Laputa’.
Both boys head outside to meet a sunny day, though again, tonally the scenes are pretty different. Later, both series and film head back inside and we see more of their inventions.

Okay! Thanks for reading and check back tomorrow for the Growing Darkness Arc – where I’ll do my best to tackle episodes 5-8!

Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water (Fushigi no Umi no Nadia)

Pretty sure this is from an Art Book/Special Edition

Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water (Fushigi no Umi no Nadia) 1990

There’s valid debate as to whether Nadia of the Mysterious Seas should actually be considered a classic or not and I understand the trepidation. There are some serious flaws resulting from a troubled production that I think would prevent the majority of folks from giving this anime that honorific.

However, I do think of the series as a classic, but then I’m a fan. (Having said that, I’m pretty aware of the problems too.)

This time around I’ve decided to split my review/discussion into seven posts (of varying lengths) that represent some of the show’s ‘arcs’ as I see them. I’ve named each arc but in a non-consistent way, partly to tie in with how fans tend to discuss certain parts of the series, but also to signal some tonal shifts, production changes or storytelling movements – and finally, ever my dream, I’m breaking it all up to make my posts shorter 😀

Here’s the lay of the land for the Nadia-themed posts:

There will be spoilers in these posts – though not many big ones like ‘specific details on exactly how the series wraps up’. I’ll try to put a little warning in at times, but there will be spots where I have to discuss certain events (again, not the ending).

Not sure when I’ll start posting – have just got to deal with the tiny detail of going through 39 episodes for images 😀

Porco Rosso (Kurenai no Buta)

Porco Rosso (Kurenai no Buta) 1992

Ah, the Crimson Pig – another classic Ghibli film, and another chance for Miyazaki to explore romance and the thrill of flight, along with the planes themselves too.

Having opened with that statement I’ll quickly add that Porco Rosso is still most definitely an action film but there’s a real sense of a sweeping, even war-time Hollywood romance to a lot of the story and setting, which is no surprise given the historical aspects.

Doubtless everyone is aware that this movie was based on a Miyazaki manga and commissioned (at first) as a shorter film for flights upon Japan Airlines. But it quickly grew into a full-length feature and I reckon it’s one of his best, though Porco doesn’t get the same attention as say, Spirited Away, Howls or Totoro.

In brief, Porco Rosso is the story of an Italian ace fighter pilot who has turned his back on humanity and even cursed himself into having a pig’s head. He now works the Adriatic sea as a bounty hunter and struggles to deal with his old life – perhaps chief amongst his worries is former love Gina (voiced in the dub by Susan Egan who you might recognise as Lin from Spirited Aaway).

Again, I’ll skip away from too many details of the plot but there’s a lot of comedy in the movie too, mostly provided by Porco’s rival, the ego maniac (yet somewhat honorable) Curtis.

But there’s plenty of room for slapstick too and some good one-liners, and perhaps most amusingly, Miyazaki gets to expand upon the comical (even silly) fist fight routine he also used in Laputa: Castle in the Sky years earlier.

But I think most of what really enthrals me each time I see the film is the stunning scenery – it’s an idealised but still enchanting version of Europe – even with the fascists. And having Porco’s plane painted red really makes it pop against the sunny blues and greens; I guess it’s an obvious but still effective choice.

Of course, being a visual medium I’m gonna mention the actual plane designs and attention to detail there too, which seems stunning, and the dogfights are always fantastic. I wish I knew more about aviation to really appreciate the work I think Miyazaki and Ghibli put in to those aspects, actually.

But another aspect that stands out to me was the dub – it felt like, post the success of Spirited Away, Disney decided to put a fair bit of money behind the voice acting.

I always feel a little sad when I don’t give the original actors enough credit, since they deserve to be heard, but I’ve grown really accustomed to Michael Keaton as Porco and Cary Elwes as Curtis (in fact, all of Cary’s work for Ghibli feels perfect to me :D). There’s even a gruff Brad Garrett right around the peak of Everybody Loves Raymond in a smaller role.

Aside from the adventure, romance and aerial battles, this might be Miyazaki’s most intertexual film for Ghibli, since it comes jam-packed full of references – I’m sure I’ve missed some but it feels like there are so many: Hollywood-style movie posters, Gina’s lounge-singing scene, the Disney and Betty Boop homages in the cinema, the historical context of course and the haunting Roald Dahl scene to name a few.

I guess there’s also a few in-jokes, and maybe Fio hearkens back to Nausicaa somewhat, in the way that the fist fight looks back to Miyazaki’s earlier work too. In fact, there’s one of his quotes that I found when I went digging:

“When a man becomes middle-aged, he becomes a pig”

And I wonder if middle age (I guess he was around 50 at the time) influenced a lot of the nostalgia found in the movie? (As opposed to Miyazaki claiming that he himself was a pig).

The richness of the allusions continue to Joe Hisashi’s soundtrack too – which is perhaps not as lush as that of Howl’s Moving Castle, but when I listen to it now I wonder if it isn’t more romantic? So much is beautiful:

But there’s also the moments like this, to circle back to the allusions, where it seems Hisaishi is channeling Flight of the Bumblebee:

And I’m sure there are other aspects I missed there, but since this review ended up being far longer than I first imagined, I think I’ll wrap it up now and just say that I love this movie 😀

5 Stars

Laputa: Castle in the Sky (Tenkū no Shiro Rapyuta)

Laputa: Castle in the Sky (Tenkū no Shiro Rapyuta) 1986

The first official Ghibli film, Laputa: Castle in the Sky is a steampunk adventure that will feel similar in some ways to Miyazaki’s previous epic, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, though Castle in the Sky is overall, a lighter story due to the inclusion of more comedy.

It’s one of the first things I noticed when I originally saw the film actually – the slapstick and wacky characterisation even feels cartoonish this time, as if those aspects were pitched at a younger audience perhaps, but the themes and trials the characters go through are just as serious as in other Miyazaki works.

There’s more than a few echoes of Future Boy Conan too (which shouldn’t be a surprise of course) but the steampunk elements are more grounded, if you can permit me a pun, featuring one key setting of a mining town and the underground.

Of course, the classic Miyazaki delight with the power and nature of flight still features heavily in Castle in the Sky too and the ‘older civilisation with greater tech’ trope is in full force, one I suspect I will never tire of!

There’s plenty of action like chases and fights, along with top notch animation as to be expected, and I still get a bit of a chill when the Robot first comes to life and goes on its rampage.

In fact, I think the most memorable aspect might just be the Robots and the ruins of the flying city – I reckon I was almost transformed into a kid when I first saw those scenes; the sense of wonder is so strong and I suspect, even if people don’t know the film they know what the robots look like.

It was also pretty cool to see what I still think of as the clear inspiration for both Pikachu and Eevee, in the form of the Fox Squirrels from Nausicaa making a cameo in the garden scene.

Actually, I shouldn’t forget Dola and her pirate gang, she’s one of the best Miyazaki characters around – she tends to steal pretty much all the scenes she’s in 🙂

Anyway, on the off chance that you’ve never seen this adventure there’s lots of other aspects to enjoy – for instance, if you’re watching the dub, Mark Hammil is a great villain and whichever audio track you choose you can enjoy more stirring music from Joe Hisaishi – my favourite is the theme:

(It’s actually the second song here – sorry :D)

5 Stars

From Up on Poppy Hill (Kokuriko-zaka Kara)

From Up on Poppy Hill (Kokuriko-zaka Kara) 2011

I came quite late to Studio Ghibli – my first experience being Spirited Away, and only then on DVD a couple of years after the dub was released – and so when From Up on Poppy Hill was screened at a festival back in 2013, I jumped at the chance to see a Ghibli release in a cinema. (Previously, the only Ghibli film I’d only seen at a movie theatre was Ponyo, which remains my least favourite Miyazaki film.)

And so I remember being keen to enjoy From Up on Poppy Hill and maybe even a bit nervous, due to the mixed reception Goro Miyazaki’s last film received.

But for me, those fears proved to be unfounded because I definitely enjoyed the experience.

https://ashleycapes.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/fromupon.jpeg?w=300&h=162

From Up on Poppy Hill is a coming of age story set in post war Japan (in the Port of Yokohama). The animation is top notch as to be expected, with the colouring beautiful as ever and as is fairly often the case with Ghibli releases, the film is an adaptation of an existing manga. It’s probably quite faithful, but I can’t tell of course – though if it’s of the quality that Howl’s Moving Castle was, then it’s probably a great adaptation.

In any event, I don’t think you’d need to have read the original to enjoy this if you like the genre. It features an almost typical romantic plot and a good deal of humour, along with what is perhaps its strongest feature: a keen sense of nostalgia (which is aesthetic for me of course).

Being a period piece, From Up on Poppy Hill has a focus on the cultural details and day to day living, revealed via the wonderful attention to detail that I love about Ghibli films.

Part of this is the use of pop songs from the era, one from 1963 (which I hadn’t realised was also a number single in the US at the time) is used to great effect in the movie. It’s by Japanese crooner Kyu Sakamoto, and it’s known as ‘Sukiyaki’ – you can read about it here and hear it below:

For me, it’s hard to remove some of the production context – I think there was one part of me that enjoyed the film in part because it felt stronger than Goro’s Tales of Earthsea adaptation but also because Hayao’s involvement suggests that maybe the father and son relationship was in a better place back then? Maybe I just want it to be so, but I hope it was and still is.

Definitely recommended if you’ve never seen this Ghibli film or if you like the time period and the Romance genre.

4 Stars

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (Kaze no Tani no Naushika)

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (Kaze no Tani no Naushika)
1984

I suppose you could argue that Nausicaa is not precisely a Ghibli title, since the success of the film was part of what actually enabled Studio Ghibli to be formed in the first place, but it’s always sold and labelled as such and of course, Nausicaa features the ‘power trio’ of Miyazaki, Takahata and Suzuki, who would go on to have such a big impact on the landscape of cinema in Japan.

Folks were making Nausicaa’s glider a few years ago but I’m not sure where they’re at now: http://www.petworks.co.jp/~hachiya/works/OpenSky.html

Generally, I consider this my favourite Ghibli film despite tough competition from a few other movies, in part due to the scale but also the small moments that humanise the characters throughout.

Looking back, it’s easy to see the roots of what might now be called a ‘classic’ mix of Miyazaki themes: environmentalism, fantasy settings, war, the joy of flight, and the use of a female lead whose ability to solve conflict with kindness (as opposed to endless violence) is both a key part of plot and charactarisation.

On the off chance that you’re unfamilair with Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, here’s a tiny blurb:

Threatened by spreading toxic jungles, Nausicaa’s people rely on their own vigilance and the wind to protect their homes and people. When a ship carrying an ominous secret crashes in their valley, warring nations converge on the Valley of the Wind and it’s up to Nausicaa to save her people.

Part of why the film is so enthralling for me is due to the world-building; it’s so detailed – you can feel that there’s so much more beneath the surface, the world in Nausicaa is so interconnected, from its environment and its tensions to the prejudice of its peoples, it’s just as realistic as it is fantastical.

(This is no doubt in part due to the film basis in a multi-volume manga written by Miyazaki himself). The insects especially, are impressive and varied but also complex creatures – not in the least being the almost majestic Ohmu.

Ohm-nausicaa-of-the-valley-of-the-wind-32776892-800-449

Fans of Hideaki Anno will of course be aware that he was hired to work on the film’s climax with the great warrior – this gif offers a glimpse but not the whole sequence, though it’s still impressive enough (and I won’t say ‘for the 1980s’ because that’d be needlessly reductive).

Like many Miyazaki films, there’s another beautiful soundtrack composed by Joe Hisaishi too, this time with an electronic feel typical of the 80s, though the opening piece to the movie is still sweeping and orchestral. Below is a live performance for the 25th Anniversary where you can see Joe leap from the role of conductor to pianist 😀

Ideally, I’d write a lot more about this movie but I will only ‘oversell’ one of my favs, and I probably shouldn’t do that 😀

5 Stars

Howl’s Moving Castle (Hauru no ugoku shiro)

Howl’s Moving Castle (Hauru no ugoku shiro)
2004

Miyazaki and the Ghibli team are almost always stellar at the art of adaptation.

Back in the 1980s the title Howl’s Moving Castle referred to a fantastic, semi-satirical and wonderfully imaginative book by English writer Diana Wynne Jones – and if any anime fan out there isn’t aware of it, go grab a copy as it’s heaps of fun.

For the film adaptation of Howl’s Miyazaki created what some reviewers have argued was another visually stunning film but one that suffers from a dense plot.

Personally, I’d argue that Howl’s Moving Castle the film actually uses a simplified plot, where characters in the book might be combined into one for the film (Sophie has two sisters in the book for instance), or where subplots are either left out or melded.

(And I personally have no problem with this approach (by any filmmaker.) A film is not a book. They are meaningfully different and attempts to attack one for failing to reflect the conventions of the other is tedious :D)

But back to Howl’s Moving Castle!

Because it’s the castle itself that will probably enchant you as much as the characters or story, I thought a couple of images would be in order (just in case you’ve never come across the film) because it’s an amazing piece of work, blending CGI and cel animation in a very fluid manner.

Living in the castle is the mysterious Howl, a wizard who enchants (not literally – someone else does that) the main character, Sophie, early on in the film, establishing the strong romantic aspect of the plot. Woven between their developing relationship, is magic, war and domesticity all offset by a curse placed on young Sophie, trapping her in the body of a 90 year old woman.

As with many other Miyazaki films, there is a familiar anti-war theme, but he’s not heavy handed – even if some of Howl’s dialogue might been seen as such. More value for the viewer will probably come, once again, from characters’ relationships  –  take fire-demon Calcifer for one, whose relationship with Howl is not only complex and amusing, but vital to the plot in more ways than one.

Once again, Joe Hisaishi is on board to work on the soundtrack, with lush waltzes and sombre moments to offset the drama of the action sequences.

Two pieces really stay with me whenever I watch the film, the first is one of the most haunting pieces in the OST, with that classic Hisaishi sparseness that builds:

And the other is the signature theme – but as I really like it as performed on acoustic guitar too, I thought I’d share this by Sungha Jung:

So far of course this review has just been me blathering about how good the fulm is – well, maybe the second half isn’t quite as fun, as everything is getting more serious and that’s not actually a criticism, so much as a necessity, really so basically – I have no real complaints as a viewer.

Still, on the off chance you haven’t seen this yet – do so 😀

5 Stars

Tales from Earthsea (Gedo Senki)

As much as I enjoyed many things about Tales From Earthsea when I first saw it back in 2007, it took me six years or so to watch it again.

I put it off a few times (though I’m curious to watch it again now, which oddly enough – is about six years later once more!) Even though I remember enjoying the usual beautiful Ghibli colours, especially in Hort Town, which is wonderful, I didn’t rush back.

tales-from-earthsea1

Tales from Earthsea (Gedo Senki)
2006

However, I also loved Cob, both the way he was animated (in each stage of his character development) and the fantastic performance by Willem Dafoe.

Almost as much as this, I enjoyed Sparrowhawk’s calm manner and the scenes at the farm, but in the end, this was a film that never quite came together for me. I guess that’s clear by the way I’m once again highlighting disparate, enjoyable elements rather than rhapsodising over the whole, right?

And that reason was one of the protagonists, Arren.

Unfortunately, the film introduces him in a manner which ensures he is a completely unsympathetic character. From that point on (and this is very early in the film) I didn’t care about him as I should have – mostly because any motivation for his actions were not addressed until late in the film, and by then it was almost a moot point. I’d already made up my mind about him.

Which is a shame, because I understand that the direction of the film was fraught with tension, which doubtless contributed in some way to the issues as I see them. And it’s heartbreaking that Goro’s first film directing for Ghibli, wasn’t as strong as his follow up From Up on Poppy Hill (which I loved), and because it was sad to see a son strive and perhaps fail to meet his father’s expectations.

And for those curious about how the author of the Earthsea books, Ursula K. Le Guin, felt upon seeing the film – here is an interesting read. I feel like an author responding to criticism/adaptation of their own work is often risky, but she is of course both eloquent and respectful.

So, to sum up I guess – for me, an almost tragically flawed film with some wonderful elements.

3 Stars

(Still hoping to watch this again and then update this review)

My Neighbour Totoro (Tonari no Totoro)

Reviewing Totoro is tough for me because with a film that’s loved by millions and which has enthralled audiences for decades – what’s left to say, right? 🙂

My Neighbour Totoro (Tonari no Totoro)
1988

But I love it and so here we go anyway!

While Nausicaa is actually my favourite Miyazaki film, My Neighbour Totoro has a few similarities such as its environmentalism and female leads, but what seems most satisfying to me as a viewer is that the drama is located around a (seemingly) small event.

(Small compared to the world-changing or boldly magical aspects of many other Miyazaki films at least.)

But for sisters Satsuki and Mei, moving to a rural landscape and coming to deal with the illness of their mother is clearly an example of incredibly high stakes. (Even more so when young Mei sets out with her corn and we get those dusk-search scenes that are so powerful.)

Obviously, Totoro and his friends really provide a sweet side to the magic, along with adding a lot of humour, but I think it’s probably the bright-eyed nature of the kids themselves as they roam the beautiful, pastoral settings and explore, that really makes the film endearing for me.

Internet theories about a darker undertone to this one aside (even with a sad story as possible inspiration for one plot point) I always see Tororo as warm and entirely uplifting. It’s the kind of film that makes me think of a child’s memory of a place – idealised and comforting, everything safe to explore.

So, on the off chance that you haven’t seen Totoro – definitely watch it!

And again, if you’re not familiar with its history – Ghibli released this and the gut-wrenching Grave of the Fireflies at the same time in 1988 and the ‘double a-side’ really helped cement the studio.

It’s since become an absolutely mammoth industry – my favourite example of Totoro‘s reach isn’t just the merch or the global adulation, but when the house was built for an expo back in 2005 I think.  

5 Stars