Reviewby Zac Bertschy,
Martian Successor Nadesico
Blu-Ray - Complete Collection
War has raged between the Jovian Lizards and Earth for years. A massive corporation known as NERGAL has created an experimental spaceship, the Nadesico, that's headed straight for Mars on a mission that isn't quite what it seems, crewed by a team of misfits. Akito Tenkawa only ever wanted to be the cook - but not only is the captain in love with him, he keeps getting called upon to pilot the Aestevalis, the Nadesico's giant robot. Oh, and he's got a mysterious Martian past that keeps calling to him - what else can go wrong?
I'm just about old enough to remember when Martian Successor Nadesico became a thing; someone carried the first fansub VHS into an anime club screening back in the late 90s (the first tape featured only the first two episodes, from the original laserdisc release) and it seemed like most of the guys in the room instantly fell in love with what they saw. It had just about everything fans were looking for in 1997 – cool mecha designs, an eye-catching neon palette, fun characters built on sturdy romantic tropes that were incredibly popular then, and even just a hint of self-reflexive comedy, which was still very fresh at the time. The idea that this show was riffing on mecha anime of all stripes – up to and including the then-new Evangelion – really landed with late 90s otaku, who still marveled at the novelty of shows that winked at them directly. Nadesico dominated the character popularity charts in Japan and, for a time anyway, was on top of the world.
If you don't peek too far beneath the hood, the first three episodes of this show have the same kind of frantic, expertly-paced forward momentum all the greatest serials of the day had (Escaflowne and Outlaw Star's propulsive opening chapters come to mind). We're rapidly introduced to a hapless cook and a lovable team of ragtag experts who have been tasked with piloting an experimental spaceship all the way to Mars – but first they have to escape Earth's orbit, which won't be easy given the military intends to stop them! It's a gripping setup for a sci-fi action show, and you're drawn in immediately, especially when the series caps all that ratcheting story tension with a left-field character death that seemed to really rattle the audience at the time. I remember walking out of our anime club screening in shock that the show would kill off its most unique and instantly lovable character, Daigoji Gai, passionate super robot otaku and newbie mecha pilot who meets a stunningly non-heroic death at the end of the third episode.
Written by Shou Aikawa, veteran anime screenwriter and the man credited with making the 2003 Fullmetal Alchemist work so well, the first three episodes of Nadesico might be chiefly responsible for the impression most people have of the show as a whole. It even feels like Aikawa is building toward something thematically important – here is the crew of a spaceship obsessed with mecha anime, and they're learning first-hand that war isn't exactly like it is on TV. Sounds like potent stuff for a TV anime from 1998, right? In conversation with some other fans who were around at the time (and had any memory of the show at all) it turns out those episodes (and Gai's death) were pretty much all they remembered about Nadesico. I think this is for two reasons: one, those first three episodes really are dynamite, memorable TV anime, and two, everything after that kinda sucks.
Okay, not everything - Aikawa wrote about half of Martian Successor Nadesico, with a handful of other screenwriters filling in the gaps (director Tatsuo Sato, who wrote and directed the Nadesico movie, only wrote two episodes of the series himself). This approach worked out pretty well in Fullmetal Alchemist – Aikawa's complex ideas had space to breathe there, and while the writing was still a little uneven, the whole thing comes together into a cohesive whole. With Martian Successor Nadesico, it's not only painfully obvious which episodes Aikawa wrote (they're the ones with 400 complicated story beats, festooned with half-written jokes, crammed inside 23 minutes) but the ones he didn't write range from mediocre to nigh-on unwatchable, all the worst impulses of every crappy 90s romantic comedy anime stuffed inside one show. You get tonal whiplash jumping from an Aikawa episode where the overarching story and themes are inched forward by an ocean of confusingly-edited expository technobabble, followed by a cringe-inducing beach/Christmas/holodeck episode where the only joke is “women are dumb, jealous and conniving, and literally all of them find our brooding otaku hero totally irresistible”. There are still some good jokes in Nadesico but it can be pretty tough to find them among all the tired 90s slapstick and lame chauvinism.
If the show eventually pulled itself together and delivered on all the thematic promises it makes throughout, it might be a little easier to swallow, but Nadesico undermines most of its main themes to the point where only a few of them manage to survive the series intact. The show makes a big deal about like “Look at how ridiculous and unrealistic Gekiganger-3 is! You wouldn't be a hero in a real war, people die in unglamorous ways!” and then it tries to drill that into you by having the super otaku character who believes deeply in the Power of Burning Heroism get unceremoniously shot by a scheming bureaucrat, left to die on the hangar floor, no fanfare, no great sacrifice.
“Hey man,” and I'm gonna say this while blowing cigarette smoke in your face, “real life isn't like your giant robot cartoons, you pampered nerd.”
This all happens moments after Gai executes a daring special combo move in his giant robot with his teammates in a thrilling space battle, which results in an unlikely victory for the Nadesico. Like, seconds afterward. And then the show's main character, Akito, goes on to not only save the day single-handedly week after week, he does it while having nearly the entire female population of the ship inexplicably lusting after his jock and also being the Chosen One, the guy whose special power dictates the fate of all. What was that you were saying - unrealistic power fantasies lead to a life of Pollyannaish naiveté about the grim reality of war?
It turns out that doesn't really matter – most of those ideas are abandoned about two-thirds of the way through to focus instead on how “actually, real war is all shades of grey, there are no good guys or bad guys”. They stick with that right up until the very end, when just about every plot thread (and there are plenty of them) gets thrown out, save for a couple. The final episode wraps up a few questions about Akito's past and what's really happening inside those ruins on Mars, and then Ruri explains “well, most of the big questions weren't answered and the war rages on but I guess you'll have to wait and hear about that later”. That's how the show ends.
Of course, as we now know, “later” for most people would be Martian Successor Nadesico The Movie: The Prince of Darkness, the lavishly-animated feature film followup directed by Tetsuo Sato. Chiefly remembered for being a thundering disappointment, inexplicably planned as a sequel to a Sega Saturn game rather than the TV series proper, the movie is fixated on weird, dark political intrigue and doesn't really even resemble Nadesico for the first 40 minutes or so. Once they finally get to the part of the story where the band is gettin’ back together, you're so removed from this weird, alienating movie that you don't care. It's like the movie realizes halfway through its runtime “Oh shit, this is supposed to be a Nadesico movie” and so then you get that movie for about 20 minutes before it reverts back to weird darkness and intrigue, none of which really tracks thanks to the bizarre script structure. It's just a bunch of bad decisions; it's good they included it here, along with the original Gekiganger-3 OVA (which is still fun, even if it is too long), but at this point the movie is just another piece of forensic evidence in the case of “what the hell went wrong with the end of this show”.
Nozomi's bluray release is top-notch and until there's a format change, this is the only release of this show anyone needs to own. You get just about every piece of animation associated with the franchise – the TV series, the OVA and the film, the original ADV Films English dub and a small mountain of special features. The TV show and the movie looked great to me. The image is a little soft – this is an old HD remaster from back when the technology was still relatively new, so it isn't quite at Cowboy Bebop levels of incredible restoration, but it's definitely been given a spit-shine. The show has pretty solid animation for 1997, and I liked how much of the original grain was retained. The movie looks spectacular in the very specific way big-budget theatrical anime from the late 90s looked. The Gekiganger-3 OVA is only included on DVD, though – one tiny little downer in an otherwise stellar package. The nostalgia goggles may have fallen off pretty hard for me, but this is an ideal presentation for a classic series. Just give me all the relevant animation and special features you can reasonably dig up, in one box, on bluray and I'm happy. Now do this for Neon Genesis Evangelion and Revolutionary Girl Utena.
It's a little tough to recommend Martian Successor Nadesico to new fans; this is a museum piece at this point, fascinating to read about and consider given its enormous popularity at the time but a chore to actually sit through. There are still plenty of things to appreciate about it – the show still has one of the greatest opening themes of all time, and there are still a handful of great jokes scattered throughout. The show looks as good as it's ever gonna look in Nozomi's bluray package, and if you want to own this show, get this version of it. But if you're sitting on a bunch of golden-hued, nostalgia-dipped memories of what a crazy sci-fi riot Martian Successor Nadesico was, you may want to leave them intact – the reality of the show doesn't quite match up.
Overall (dub) : C
Overall (sub) : C
Story : D+
Animation : B+
Art : B
Music : A
+ Great opening theme, first three episodes are still pretty stellar
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