Deciphering Nadesico: Prince of Darkness 20 Years Later

by Matthew Roe,

More than once, Neon Genesis Evangelion has been cited as the game-changing series of late 1990s anime that made way for a veritable rush of exploratory properties expanding the medium to seemingly new horizons. This sentiment has echoed through the decades and has resulted in numerous imitators and disciples spanning the qualitative spectrum. That's where Martian Successor Nadesico comes into play.

Released almost exactly one year after Evangelion, this comedy science-fiction series was the sophomore production of the (then) fledgling studio Xebec, and the very first of its productions not based on previously published source material (their first project being an adaptation of the light novel and manga Sorcerer Hunters). Their freshman outings are defined by their quirky visual and narrative styles, of which heavily parody their respective genres and associated tropes. While Sorcerer Hunters satirizes the oft-seen cliches of pop fantasy, it also is highly self-aware in its execution, even going as far in a singular episode as to magically transform some of its characters into other notable heroes of existing anime. Though the production team handling Nadesico would be dramatically different in several key positions, this creative attitude would become emblematic of Xebec's productions throughout the following decade.

While Kōichi Mashimo had been the series director for Sorcerer Hunters, and would actually contribute to several episodes of Nadesico, this wacky sci-fi romp through the solar system was helmed by Tatsuo Sato, fresh off directing the whimsical Soar High! Isami. General planning for the series (as well as writing most of the episodes) was handled by Sho Aikawa; already an industry giant, who had just come off writing the unholy disturbing sci-fi adaptation of Genocyber (which remains pure nightmare fuel). Though Aikawa was no stranger to cutesy anime, eventually even penning all of the Love Hina adaptations, this weird mesh of governing talents would make for one of the more interesting exercises in genre subversion for the era.

Martian Successor Nadesico begins in the year 2196, with Earth violently forced off their colonies on Mars by an attacking alien force known only as the Jovian Lizards. In an effort to turn the tide of the war, the company Nergal designs and builds an advanced interstellar battleship, the ND-001 Nadesico, and populates it with an expert civilian crew. However, it soon becomes painfully apparent that each individual all have demonstratively idiosyncratic personalities, and most of the conflicts in the series are results of these vivid personalities clashing against one another. Though there are numerous colorful characters manning this spaceship, the protagonist of the series is arguably Akito Tenkawa, a young man fixated on avoiding any form of violence so he can focus on becoming a chef. However, almost every episode drives him out of his comfort zone to pilot the Nadesico's humanoid combat robots - the Aestivalis, which only further showcase his improving (sometimes impressive) combat piloting skills. These instances are often against Akito's will, with him constantly sulking and refusing to fight.

Akito's mysterious history as one of the survivors of the Jovian attack on Mars, resulting in his near-amnesia of how he came to be on Earth, is inexplicably made all the more complex when he's revealed to be the childhood friend of the Nadesico's ditsy-genius captain Yurika Misumaru, and is subsequently made part of the crew. While hounded by Yurika's fatuous attempts at romance (along with most of the female crew), his past traumas and the loss of his dear friend Gai Daigoji, leaves him with a horrendous fear of the alien forces, eventually morphing into full-blown xenophobic scorn. This is eventually put to the test as the Jovians are revealed to be descendants of exiled humans who were part of the initial colonization of Mars who had attempted a rebellion.

Overly, the series focuses on spoofing and extenuating the mecha and space exploration elements and cliches of works like Space Battleship Yamato (which is openly alluded to in the series' title, and directly referenced in several episodes), Macross, Harlock, Gundam, and most notably the 1970s series Getter Robo. The latter of which is played up heavily in Nadesico's constant revolution around the giant robot “anime within the anime” Gekigangar III, of which waves of characters and the whole Jovian race actively base their moral frameworks and entire lives around.

However, that is only the start, as the series also takes a very direct look at anime in general, often lampooning anime elements - harem tropes (oh my god, the harem tropes…), otaku culture, character archetypes, the cliches of beach and talent show episodes, the list goes on. The series would become a massive success upon release, eventually receiving multiple video game and manga tie-ins and adaptations. However, though I've burdened y'all with a sizable preamble, it's absolutely necessary, in order to discuss the theatrical film, Nadesico: Prince of Darkness.

The film is not only a direct sequel of the Nadesico serial, but of the Sega Saturn game Martian Successor Nadesico: The Blank of Three Years. Though I have a limited knowledge in these particular matters, I have rarely ever seen a film or show whose absolutely required prerequisite material crosses entertainment platforms (besides maybe .hack). However, if you do not watch through the show, and play through the game (or at least watch a detailed walkthrough), numerous essential details and nuances in the movie will quickly leave you in a whirlwind of confusion. Therein lies the film's biggest problem.

The Blank of Three Years was released one month after Prince of Darkness began playing in theaters, its events beginning immediately following the conclusion of the series and directly preceding the start of the film. How anyone thought this release schedule was a good idea is simply beyond me. Nadesico is already a series (for all its goofiness and parody) that throws technical details, intensive world-building plot mechanics, and a flood of variant character dynamics at you so quickly, that often episodes need to be rewatched once or twice more for basic clarity. Though, honestly, anyone could skip to the highly entertaining recap episode (I didn't think such a phrase was possible) “Let's Go with Hot Blooded Anime” where the cast of Gekigangar III are watching and commenting tongue-in-cheek on Nadesico as they plow through a clip show of the previous thirteen episodes. This gathers all the necessary information on the cast and their exploits without wading through the endless repetition of earlier episodes, and it then dives headlong into the themes for which Nadesico is actually known (such as exploring what constitutes a hero, if a highly destructive war is worth fighting for, and what exactly is justice when everyone is in the wrong).

At the start of Prince of Darkness, the crew of the Nadesico have scattered. Some have returned to their previous careers, others have continued on with the reorganized space fleet, and Akito has married Yurika, opened a ramen shop, adopted the cybernetically enhanced child savant Ruri, and seemingly died after their shuttle exploded on their way to their honeymoon on Mars. However, you'd be hard-pressed to fully grasp this in the film's opening minutes, as small flashes alluding to what happened is all we are given as context. As a matter of fact, the world of Nadesico has undergone massive universe-altering changes throughout the course of The Blank of Three Years, to a point where Earth and the Jovians have now joined together into a shaky union hallmarked by its constant governmental and cultural strife. In addition to this, a new enemy has emerged in the form of the Martian Successors, a terrorist splinter group of Jovians and Earthlings bent on destroying this truce and dominating the secrets to Boson Jumping, a form of interstellar teleportation.

This approach is intensified throughout the film, as characters reveal revelations and reference events, materials, and individuals that were solely explored in The Blank of Three Years, and very little is re-exposited in any considerable detail in the film, so I'd imagine there were considerable droves of audiences that were confused, frustrated, and underwhelmed due to the amount of crucial information seemingly missing. If I did not have the full background of the franchise as an aid, it would have been impossible to look at Prince of Darkness with a fair critical lens.

Immediately what is most striking about the film, besides its inability to segue a narrative properly, is the stunning animation, character designs, and background art. Though animating for a series and a film are extraordinarily different, the consideration and complexity of the film surpasses its serial counterpart by leaps and bounds - which should surprise no one, as this film was co-produced by Production I.G. The thorough understanding of perspective, parallax, and surprisingly well-executed 3D animation for the era, enables immersion into the spacey adventures to not only be far more enjoyable this time around, but we witness an overflow of sublime eye candy for our trouble.

However, while the film may be down-damn-right beautiful, Prince of Darkness has since been referred to as the killer of the Nadesico franchise. This is mainly due to the overwhelming response of critics and fans that the tones, focuses, and themes were so drastically different than its insanely popular predecessor - essentially missing every reason for why the property became famous. This is also considered the case due to the film's writer and director being solely Sato, with Aikawa nowhere in sight. While the film is beset by a thoroughly disappointing ending, and an exasperatingly rudimentary final fight sequence, the filmmakers' grasp on the themes and tropes of the existing franchise is actually more finely attuned and refined than any of its counterparts.

Sato manages to add a deepened maturity and thematic complexity to the subject matter that is buttressed by the beloved trademark fourth wall breaking, anime references, and wacky antics of the titular cast. The film's dramatic differences actually aid in the comedy being that much more hilarious and effective. Honestly, the series banks so heavily on the comedic elements that the dramatic aspects are often tossed to the wayside, even at crucially emotional moments. I rarely ever felt connected to the lives and challenges of the characters in the series, often believing that the desire for parody unfairly swallowed up every other positive aspect. The film understands its source material, and then expands on its successful themes to where I was genuinely invested in the events unfolding, even if the details were sometimes murky.

However, as aforementioned, the ending to the film is mediocre at best, and doesn't feel like an honest ending - considering the highly evident care and deliberate pacing of the first two thirds of the movie. In addition to this non-ending, there are many obvious inclinations that the filmmakers believed that the franchise would continue forward in some form. Though there had been a single episode OVA released a few months before Prince of Darkness, solely comprised of the Gekiganger III clips from the series, recut with some new material to take the form of a movie that some of the Nadesico crew have gone to see, it does little to actually expand on the universe or its themes in any way. Though often open to a continuation of the narrative, in 2005 Sato announced on his personal blog that any existing plans for a Nadesico sequel have been canned, so the possibilities for any new material to make up for the starkly disappointing conclusion to the franchise has since been dashed.

While the Nadesico series is a sugar-filled comedic prance through the stars, seemingly aimless till the last couple arcs of the show, the film manages to focus more intently on a overall plot, allowing for more complex stylistic and thematic experimentation. These changes often work quite well despite the ridiculous amount of information you need before sitting down with it, and the film honestly holds up better than the series when seeing it in the context of contemporary anime. I cannot dismiss the series, as the impact it's had on other properties has been truly significant (I see many similarities in works like Gurren Lagann and the Mass Effect franchise), but overall the film is a mostly solid work of science-fiction that deserves another serious look as one of the more ambitious and creative theatrical projects released in the post-Evangelion era.

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