Gainax was in no position to handle something like Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water.
The studio’s first major success, Nadia is credited with propelling Gainax from a company whose audience consisted of mainly hardcore otakus into one recognized by the Japanese mainstream. It also provided the industry with one of its first icons of the 1990s: the mysterious and emotionally complex title character who was, a rarity in anime, a young woman of color. For any other studio, a series like Nadia would have been the beginning of an upward trajectory, but instead Nadia would mark the beginning of what would become the most disastrous years in the early history of Gainax. A time plagued by corporate power struggles, tremendous debt, the psychological breakdown of its director, and even the idea that Gainax should leave the anime industry altogether.
Over two decades since it premiered on April 13, 1990, and with a new 4K restoration out this week, its importance in the history of Gainax and to anime has only grown. If it wasn’t for the chaos and turmoil that Gainax had undergone while making Nadia, we perhaps would have never gotten the series that would catapult them and the man behind it to iconic status: Neon Genesis Evangelion.
A Hayao Miyazaki Pitch
The series takes place in 1899 and follows a pair of young orphans, Jean Roque Raltique, an intelligent, optimistic inventor, and Nadia, an emotional, pessimistic, fiery yet reserved circus performer. First meeting at the Eiffel Tower, Jean and Nadia are soon being chased throughout Paris by a trio of jewel thieves who are after The Blue Water, the pendant that Nadia carries with her that glows whenever she is in danger. Soon afterwards, the pair of young adventurers and the thieves find themselves in the middle of a dangerous and violent conflict between Captain Nemo and the crew of his iconic submarine, The Nautilus, and an organization called the Neo-Atlanteans, a sinister group run by a ruthless and vindictive man named Gargoyle. These villains plan to enslave humanity by using a weapon powerful enough to level entire cities with a single shot. Joining forces with Nemo and his crew, the two teenagers work to save humanity from the Neo-Atlanteans, while also discovering the mystery surrounding Nadia and the unique jewel that gives the series its title.
Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water’s origins date back to the mid-1970s when Toho Animation hired a pre-Castle of Caligostro Hayao Miyazaki, who would eventually become a legend of the genre. One of Miyazaki’s initial pitches was a series heavily inspired by the science-fiction adventure novels of Jules Verne titled, Around the World in 80 Days By Sea. The idea was dropped as Toho was unable to find a broadcaster interested in the program; Miyazaki later using elements of his original concept for 1977’s Future Boy Conan and his last pre-Studio Ghibli film, 1986’s Castle in the Sky. Toho would retain the story rights for a decade before handing them over to Gainax, a young company with promise but a lack of control when it came to the ins-and-outs of anime production.
In a 1995 interview with AniAmerica, founding member and former president Toshio Okada described working on Nadia as “a very hard experience,” “true chaos,” and “like hell.” While Gainax had already produced two mesmerizing anime titles before Naida – the 1987 feature Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise and the 1988 OVA Gunbuster (Aim for the Top!) – it was never what you would call a stable company. Unlike traditional anime studios like Toho, Sunrise, or Mushi Productions, things like labor structure, planning and scheduling, and adequate management of finances were not the Gainax way. If it wasn’t for financial backing from General Products, a specialty store that produced and licensed sci-fi products owned by Okada, contract work for other studios, and founding member and animator Takashi Akai’s decision to have Gainax venture into video games, it isn’t hard to believe that the studio would probably have folded before they even had the opportunity to work on their first TV anime.
A Power Struggle
Right before the studio set to work on Nadia, the higher-ups at Gainax were entangled in a power struggle which would have major ramifications for the studio’s hierarchy and their ever-precarious finances.
Hiroshi Inoue, a producer and founding member of Gainax who had the most experience working in the anime industry (he had held a similar position at Tezuka Productions before joining the company) was making a power grab. In a joint meeting with anime studio Group TAC and the Japanese broadcaster NHK, Inoue pitched what would become The Secret of Blue Water without Okada’s involvement or even knowledge. In The Notenki Memoirs: Studio Gainax and the Men Who Created Evangelion, founding member, director, and former general manager of General Products, Yasuhiro Takeda, writes that the move was Inoue’s chance, “to strike off on his own. He decided to bypass Okada, whom he no longer considered trustworthy.”
Inoue went so far as to have animators Mahiro Maeda and Yoshiyuki Sadamoto produce character designs, outlines, and other aspects of the anime while leaving the company’s president and staff completely in the dark. By the time Okada, Takeshi Sawamura – who Okada hired to co-run Gainax in a move to build a unified front against Inoue – and the rest of the studio became aware of Inoue’s plotting, it was too late. NHK had approved Inoue’s proposal, leaving Gainax (who didn’t have anything on their docket) with, as Takeda writes, “an impossibly large budget,” one that would certainly, “drive GAINAX well into the red.”
Unhappy with Inoue’s transgressions, Okada, Sawamura, and Takeda approached NHK and offered the Japanese equivalent of the BBC an ultimatum: Either Inoue be removed from the project entirely or Gainax would back out. The broadcaster, along with Toho and the rest of Gainax, sided with Okada. Inoue, defeated in his attempt to take control of the company, would not only not participate in Nadia’s production, he would leave Gainax to join Studio AIC. “The whole thing was just handled so recklessly,” Takeda writes, “I think the entire mess could have been avoided had there been more communication between Okada and Inoue.”
The first person attached to direct (which may have been Miyazaki) dropped out; Sadamoto was then given the job, but he quit after two episodes, heading back to character design and animation direction. With their most experienced member ousted from the company and two directors stepping away from the project, Hideaki Anno was assigned to direct his first TV series.
For the first 22 episodes, Nadia is a delightful, energetic, and surprisingly mature childrens fantasy anime. The characters are equally likable and loathsome depending on which side they’re on. Great care is taken in the world building, lore, and relationships between all of the main and side characters. The animation is crisp and colorful, the action is equally tense and exciting, and each episode benefits from the stunning soundtrack by composer and first-time collaborator Shiro Sagaisu. By the end of episode 22, “Electra’s Revenge,” The Nautilus has been destroyed, the Neo-Atlanteans have seemingly conquered their final obstacle in their plans for global domination, and Nadia discovers an important key to her past, only to have it snatched away. The series to this point had built up so much momentum that it seemed poised to become an instant classic whose legacy would endure years after its finale. It would, that is, if it wasn’t for the Island and African arcs.
There is no amount of remastering that can be done to make the Island and African arcs of Nadia watchable. While there are moments that propel the story and relationships forward – Nadia and Jean sharing their first kiss, some backstory for members of the supporting cast, and the explanation behind Nadia’s complete opposition to the killing and consumption of animals – the majority of the episodes (23-34) are boring, abominably animated, and momentum- and development-halting low points.
Part of the reason for these episodes being produced at all is that NHK, happy with Nadia’s performance in the ratings, requested that Gaianx produce more episodes. Anno, exhausted due to dealing with the demands of producing a TV anime, and unable to think of a proper ending (something that would happen with later projects), handed over directorial duties to animator Shinji Higuchi, with some episodes being outsourced to South Korea. Higuchi decided that in the middle of production on an expensive TV series to have a little fun by completely changing the screenplay of certain episodes without Anno’s approval. “Screenplays and storyboards got changed when people went home, and the next morning, if no one could find the original, I authorized them to go ahead with the changes,” Okada said in the 1995 interview.
The episodes where the animation quality borders on the insufferable were made in South Korea. Gainax had worked with South Korean animators before, but with Nadia, they were left complete unaware of who was directing certain episodes or who was in charge of animation direction. Okada said it plainly: “No one can be a real director or a real scriptwriter in such a chaotic situation.”
Chaos, or “controlled chaos” as Okada would put it, was part of Gainax’s identity. It was seen as an essential element of what made them stand out. Storyboards for Gunbuster were done with no screenplay as Anno would toss away writer Hiroyuki Yamaga’s original script and inform Higuchi to draw whatever he wanted, with Anno filling in the blanks later. Okada told AniAmerica that it was perfectly normal for Gainax to include anyone it could find – staff, himself, his wife, even fans who happened to pass by the studio – to be put to work painting cells when it came time to finish up a project. This kind of “controlled chaos,” where everyone is in the same room and bouncing off each other's ideas and energy, could work when producing a feature or a two-to-six episode OVA. However, it isn’t feasible when trying to put together a long-running TV anime. Gainax’s chaotic work environment, along with NHK’s demand for more content almost ruined the series.
The End of Nadia
Thankfully, Anno would return with an ending to cap off Nadia’s story, basically disregarding most of what came after his departure. He would later re-cut the series into a leaner six-hour version called The Nautilus Story, which was only released in Japan (Hey GKIDS! Get on that). By the end of Nadia’s production, Gainax had found itself 80 million yen in the hole, and by having no rights to the property, they weren’t entitled to any profits that came from royalties or merchandise sales. Gainax had completed their biggest and most successful project to date, and they had almost nothing to show for it.
In a 2002 fan Q&A, Yamaga expressed remorse for how the production ended up. “Nadia: The Secret of the Blue Water is the series that we feel regret for. We feel that they didn't do the best job possible,” he said. Years later, when the DVDs were selling well, NHK wanted to have a reunion party to celebrate the series success; Gainax decided it was not the best idea.
Things at Gainax wouldn’t improve now that Nadia was completed. While their games division kept the company afloat, other anime projects the studio worked on to cover Nadia’s production costs, including the cult classic Otaku no Video, came at a loss. After Okada and Atsumi Tashiro, president of TAC, convinced Anno – who had become listless and deeply depressed due to the pressures of working on the series – to direct the Nadia feature film, Gainax ended up dropping out of the production and owning TAC the 50 million yen advance given to them to work on it. Shortly after a failed expansion to the U.S, General Products merged with Gainax and was then shut down. Okada would leave the company, but not before his salary was cut and he suggested to Takeda that perhaps it was best that Gainax leave anime behind.
Takeda and others convinced him otherwise, saying that Gainax was in the anime business and that the staff wanted Anno to have at least one more opportunity to direct a TV anime. Yamaga (now co-president) attempted to get a sequel to Royal Space Force made, titled Uru in Blue, with Anno directing. It was dropped after a year spent on pre-production because Gaianx ran extremely low on funds and the staff were working on the project without a sponsor.
The studio was bleeding staff – some of whom would go on to form Studio Gonzo – and many that stayed behind during production of Uru in Blue quit after Sawamura announced that the studio could no longer afford to pay them. A year after the finale of their first major hit, Gainax couldn’t even produce their own anime or pay its animators, it truly seemed that Gainax was nearing its end. They were in desperate need of a miracle to stay in business, it would come with the release of Evangelion.
The Birth of Evangelion
In its early stages, Evangelion was not a completely original story but rather a spiritual sequel to Nadia. Toward the end of the series, Nadia, held captive onboard a Neo-Atlantean ship called the Red Noah, is escorted into a dark room where Gargoyle shows her a giant being in suspended animation. Gargoyle tells Nadia that this giant figure is one of the first human beings the Atlanteans created, referring to it as “Adam” (the same name as the first Angel). When Gargoyle is defeated and the Red Noah is sent hurtling toward Earth, Nemo sacrifices himself to destroy the giant vessel before it can land on the planet; as it explodes, 16 balls of light scatter across Earth.
In Anno’s early version of Eva, this event would have been known as “The Dead Sea Evaporation Incident.” As NHK, which had the rights to the series, refused to go along with the project, Anno had to make extensive revisions so that it could become an all-original story (it would air on TV Tokyo). The “Incident” would be known as “The Second Impact,” and the 16 “Davids,” as they were first called, would be changed to “Angels,” with the first one retaining the name of David. Connections between the two series appear in the 1993 audio drama Good Luck Nadia and the second Evangelion video game.
Even with its well-documented production troubles and divided feelings among fans on its initial ending, Neon Genesis Evangelion would become one of the most acclaimed, successful, and influential anime series of all time. Anno’s deconstruction of the mecha genre, which also served as an examination of the burnt-out, depressive years he lived after Nadia, propelled the anime industry to produce more creator-driven anime. And, unlike with Nadia, Gainax controlled the merchandise rights to the property, so when Eva’s popularity led to hundreds of millions in sales, Gainax was able to finally reap the rewards for producing a smash hit. Eva not only saved Gainax from financial ruin, but helped in paying back the 50 million yen they owed TAC for the Nadia film.
After undergoing its most turbulent, chaotic, and unproductive years, Gainax had reset itself and solidified its place in animation history. The 20-somethings who considered themselves outsiders of the industry were now veterans who found themselves at the pinnacle of it. Gainax had become more of a “normal” anime studio. Today, Gainax basically doesn’t exist, as all of its major players have moved on to other studios or left the industry behind. And Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water is not the first thing anyone will think of when discussing the studio and its impact on anime. It was a mismanaged, chaotic, and almost disastrous mess that a studio with no experience in TV animation probably should have avoided. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case, because if Gainax didn’t go through the hell that was producing that sometimes wonderful, sometimes infuriating series, we may have never gotten their first masterpiece, leaving a major hole in the history of animation.